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Best Things To Do in Madrid

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The best things to do in Madrid are centered on art. A “golden triangle” of three museums offers up centuries worth of talent. The Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza will overwhelm anyone who’s not completely immune to beauty. These museums are the cornerstone of any visit and are often the only reason people come. Madrid has more to offer than art, however—a historic downtown perfect for walking, a classic open-air market, spacious parks, and easy access to day hikes round out a visit to the city. Spare some time for these other activities in order to see what madrileños like to do with their free time. While we do enjoy a good exhibition, mostly we spend our weekends lounging around El Retiro or heading to the mountains for some fresh air—when we’re not sitting at a café or dancing the night away, that is.

Caixa Forum

Neighborhood: Barrio de los Cortes

Spanish banks vie with one another to offer the best exhibitions in their private galleries. If you’re going to see just one, check out the Caixa Forum, owned by La Caixa bank and offering more than 2,500 square meters of exhibition space. Exhibitions range from cutting-edge contemporary art to traditional retrospectives, plus there are films, a cool cafeteria and an excellent gift shop for those arty friends back home. Avoid the first days of any new exhibition as they’re insufferably crowded. The staircase is too narrow for the crowds and gets bottlenecked on a regular basis. The wall of the building next to the entrance is covered in a multistory vertical garden that blooms into a riot of color every spring.

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Museo Nacional del Prado

Neighborhood: Barrio de los Cortes

"El Prado" is one of the main reasons most people come to Madrid. It has one of the largest collections of art in Europe, and a 2007 expansion increased the exhibition space by 50 percent. The strongest areas are Renaissance religious painting, Spanish art of all periods and Dutch Masters, but there are many works from other European nations, plus a large gallery of Greek and Roman sculpture. The collection is so vast as to be daunting, so they’ve put up a handy “What to See” section on their website giving itineraries for one-, two- and three-hour visits. Favorites include the trippy "Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch and the sobering "Triumph of Death" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. They face each other across a room and are so full of little details that you can stare at them for an hour. Some people do! There are a cramped but decent café in the basement and several gift shops spread throughout. Book ahead through the website or come early, because the lines often go around the block and can suck an hour or more out of your vacation.

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Museo de América

Neighborhood: Moncloa

In its glory days Spain ruled over most of Latin America, so it’s not surprising Madrid has one of the largest collections of Native American and pre-Columbian art anywhere, with 25,000 objects. Most travelers miss this museum, so it’s rarely crowded, and you’ll never have to wait in line. You’ll have to study the displays over the heads of crowds of kids, however, as this is a popular destination for local schools. Check out the gold of Aztec rulers, the feathered headdresses of Amazonian tribes, and the animal-shaped pottery of the Andes. One room has an interesting series of caste portraits, showing various combinations of ethnicities with their children. These portraits were hugely popular back in the day and reflect a colonial obsession with racial hierarchy.

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Parque del Buen Retiro

Neighborhood: El Retiro

Get out of the galleries and soak up some sun in this giant green park in the center of the city. More than 350 acres of fields invite you to kick a football or toss a Frisbee, and shady groves provide a break from the heat. A large artificial pond offers rowboats for rent, and scattered here and there are relaxing, if slightly overpriced, cafes where you can sit and people-watch. Statues, topiary, ice cream vendors, jugglers, puppet shows and musicians fill out the scene. Weekends are crowded but never overly so (except at the cafes), while weekdays you’ll have plenty of room.

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Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Neighborhood: Barrio de los Cortes

The result of two generations of collecting by the wealthy Thyssen-Bornemisza family and now owned by the nation, this museum has strong collections from many periods. The best way to visit is to begin at the second floor and work your way down. This gives you a chronological introduction to European art, starting with the Italian Primitives and passing through the 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century art of Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. The first floor takes you through the rest of the 17th century and impressionism and expressionism. The ground floor is dedicated to avant-garde experiments and surrealism, as well as temporary exhibitions. The building is a late-18th century palace and a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture.

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Palacio Real (Royal Palace)

Neighborhood: Austrias

Spain’s royal family doesn’t live here anymore, having moved to the suburbs like many rich people, but this grandiose 18th-century neoclassical pile is still used for state occasions. If you’ve never seen a palace before, it’s worth visiting, but some Spanish palaces look the same and if you’ve seen one, there’s no pressing reason to see another. While the high-ceilinged rooms, crystal chandeliers and paintings by famous artists (including a selection of Goyas) are typical royal home décor, a couple of features make this palace stand out from the crowd. The Royal Pharmacy displays odd scientific instruments and a huge collection of painted ceramic jars that used to contain medicinal ingredients. The Armory is filled with weapons and armor, including armor for children and dogs. Most European armories have collections spanning several centuries. Once you’re done visiting, rest your feet in the formal palace garden, with its lush greenery and statues of kings.

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Walking Tours

Madrid’s historic center around Plaza Mayor is filled with the city’s best architecture. While Madrid isn’t as old as many European capitals, there are still some stately old buildings with ornate facades painted in bright whites or pale yellows. Many date to Charles III’s 18th-century redesign and are obvious imitations of French buildings. More mellow are the late-19th century brick facades with ironwork balconies. Some older convents and churches, with grandiose stone doorways, date to the 16th century. A good source for historic walks is the "City Guide Madrid" by Blue Guides. There are also itineraries here. If you want a guide, your hotel can arrange one for you from one of the innumerable tour companies. The Patronato Municipal de Turismo (city tourist board) runs walking tours in English for 3.90€. More expensive but highly entertaining and informative are the all-day tours run by the Wellington Society of Madrid, which offers tapas tours, Hemingway tours, Spanish Civil War tours and many others. Prices vary, but most are about 60€ per person, with refreshments included.

El Rastro

Neighborhood: Tirso de Molina

Every Sunday, madrileños like to saunter around one of Europe’s greatest open-air markets. The traditional route is to get off at Metro Tirso de Molina and head downhill through the various streets filled with stalls selling everything under the sun. Pass quickly through the cheap imported T-shirts and plastic housewares to get to the more interesting junk/antique market. Some streets have specialties; for example, the painters hang out on the Calle de San Cayetano, and the Plaza de General Vara del Rey has lots of old magazines and comics that provide a fun way to hone your Spanish reading skills, while getting a crash course in Spanish pop culture. Beware of pickpockets throughout the market.

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El Rastro  

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Neighborhood: Barrio de los Cortes

Madrid’s modern and contemporary art museum is famous for Picasso’s renowned antiwar masterpiece, "Guernica." While everyone understandably rushes to see this, spare some time for the extensive galleries of works by modern movements such as surrealism and minimalism. Two large spaces for special exhibitions bring in the top artists of today. Often these are odd, interactive installation pieces. One year we got to walk through a forest of fiber optic cables pulsing various shades of color; another year, a collection of mirrors made it look like we were crawling on the ceiling. Housed in an old hospital, the interior has broad stone staircases, lofty galleries and a little garden in the center. More recent additions include glass elevators up the side (very amusing for children), a sleek metal-and-glass addition for temporary exhibitions, a relaxing restaurant/bar and a large bookshop.

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Hiking in Madrid

If you’re in Madrid for more than a couple of days, it’s well worth getting out and seeing some of the countryside. Madrid’s only English-language hiking group offers hikes most weekends. Hikes generally last all day, leaving from one of the city bus stations and heading out to one of the small towns in the Community of Madrid. From there, bilingual American expats Beau and Cynthia take you through vineyards, fields or mountains. The group is usually about half a dozen people, a mixture of expats, out-of-towners and locals. Lunch and an information sheet are provided, and once you’re back in the village, they’ll even get you the first round of drinks at one of the local bodegas. This is a hassle-free way to see a small town, take in the Spanish countryside and meet locals. Tailor-made private hikes are available for groups and families on weekends or weekdays.

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