Madrid added so much aliveness to my life for two years, and it will always hold a huge place in my heart. I can assure you that this city has something for everyone (though I admit it is not the most vegan-friendly place, and you might want to bring some protein bars with you!). Make my suggestions your own! Don’t necessarily do the things you “have to” do here. Do the things you want to do. Even if you miss out on the Royal Palace tour, or the famous Prado museum, you can get so much more out of this city by going along with your inspiration. Even if you find yourself on a tight budget, Madrid will astonish you and entertain you at any time of day or night! Here are my 5 favorite free places to visit in the heart of Spain:
1. Plaza de España
The weather is usually sunny in Madrid, and if the fountain is on, Plaza de España will make the perfect gateway to your vacation. From it, you can eye the iconic Gran Vía, with all the musical theater and European brand stores. Gran Vía turns into Calle Princesa, which leads to more shopping and a variety of restaurants. This is my Madrid’s “here I am!” moment.
2. Calle del Espíritu Santo
Malasaña neighborhood is just as fun and lively during daylight as during nighttime! My favorite street in all of Madrid is Calle del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Street. It is packed with hipster, innovative, chic cafés, restaurants, bars, stores, and bakeries. Even the way locals dress is interesting here. I will let you make your choice of where you spend your money here, but let me leave the info for some of my places to grab an espresso or drink (sometimes alcohol is cheaper than buying water in Madrid! So wine not?!)
Lolina – chic, vintage decor café. Address: Calle del Espíritu Santo, 9
Ojalá – eat downstairs and pretend you are at the beach! No, really, there is a beach downstairs. Address: Calle de San Andés, 1
Lolo Polos – cool off with artisan popsicles. They have milk free options, too. Address: Calle del Espíritu Santo, 16
J&J’s Books – have a glass of wine and browse through their used books library downstairs. Address: Calle del Espíritu Santo, 47
3. Templo de Debod
This temple was donated by the Egyptian government, and it is from the II century. It is a great hangout spot for both locals and tourists! Don’t miss out on the sunset, the view, and the chance to have a picnic with your favorite people. Madrid has such an amazing lifestyle, and places like this will be packed on weekdays after a day’s work. Something I learned from Spaniards was to spend every day with the same enthusiasm I have for weekends!
This is one of my favorite, non-touristy sites in the city. The name, Matadero, means “slaughterhouse”, and that is because it used to be! It was in use for most of the XX century, but in the past decade it has become a wonderful cultural space with changing art exhibits, food and drinks, a small movie theater for hipster documentaries, and a Sunday market. It is often lively with locals – families, couples, and young people. The river is close by, where many children love to ride their bikes and skate. It is particularly romantic at dusk.
Check out their website for dates and times of free exhibits, but don’t be afraid to just show up! The building itself is worth walking around! Their bar next to the CINETECA has a great backyard area to enjoy a tinto de verano, Madrid’s most popular summer drink made with red wine, lemon soda, and the most important thing: ICE! It is over 100°F here!
Here is their website for more details: http://www.mataderomadrid.org/
5. Parque del Buen Retiro
Perhaps this park is the most touristy place I will highly recommend to you. I prefer Retiro Park on weekday mornings when the crowd is small. Not only is it walking distance from big museums like El Prado, Thyssen, and Reina Sofia, but it is also near the Puerta de Alcalá and the beautiful government building called Palacio de Cibeles. Considering all this, you can spend a whole day in this general area avoiding the chaotic city center.
In Retiro Park, you can find visually pleasing pathways, but my favorite thing has to be the Palacio de Cristal – literally, a crystal palace. It was built in 1887 to house exotic flora and fauna. It is now used for modern art exhibits that are organized through the Reina Sofia museum.
This park also houses a beautiful rose garden that will make you feel like Alice in Wonderland (if the roses are in full bloom). Near the rose garden you can also find one of the most beautiful statues I have seen: The Fallen Angel.
I am so grateful to Madrid for the years I spent living there. I landed there on a solo adventure, and with the people I met and the places I frequented, I left it feeling part of a team. If you ever visit, I hope Madrid breaks you and builds you up in ways you never imagined a city could. I hope you fall in love here, and wish to never leave! I hope the music excites you and the colors stun you. I hope you come to feel the most alive you’ve ever felt. Until then, where are you traveling next?
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Photo: Vanessa Lynn Uzcategui, Christina Macintosh