8 Things No One Tells You About... Madrid
Madrid will immediately charm you with its regal monuments, tree-lined boulevards and energetic, happy ambience. With an up-and-coming food scene, new hotels and bars popping up everywhere and some of the best art in the world, Madrid is perfect for any type of traveler — it's even the site of World Pride this summer, so head on over! Here are eight things you may not know about this fascinating European capital that can help you have an incredible trip.
1. The Burning Question: To Siesta or Not to Siesta?
I've lived in Madrid for nine years and visitors still ask me, "Are you taking the siesta? Do Spanish people nap every day? Should I nap in the middle of the day? Why do businesses close from 2:00pm to 5:00pm?"
The truth is, most people don't come home in the middle of the day for naps. While many office workers have a two-hour afternoon break before heading back to work until 7:00pm or 8:00pm, most people use this time not to sleep but to have a leisurely lunch, head to the gym or run errands. While many smaller shops, pharmacies and businesses do close midday for a lunch break and reopen from 5:00pm to 9:00pm, most grocery stores, malls, tourist attractions and larger shops stay open all day. It's important to keep in mind that siestas become dramatically more frequent and longer in July and August, when temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Many homes, small shops and restaurants don't have air conditioning, so the only respite for the people who live and work there is to close the shutters and lay down for a bit. If you're visiting, don't feel bad about taking a siesta. It's the perfect time for a rest while many shops close and your jet lag kicks in. Plus, you'll be nice and refreshed for a big night out on the town.
2. Night Owls, Rejoice!
It's no secret that Madrileños live according to a different kind of schedule. Spaniards usually take a 20-minute break around 11:00am for a coffee and tosta. This late-morning breakfast helps people stay full until lunch time, which is usually around 2:00pm to 3:00pm, but can be as late as 4:00pm to 5:00pm on weekends. Dinner is typically 9:30 to 10:00pm and it's not unusual to have a weekend dinner with friends end at 1:00am or even 2:00am. Many restaurants in Madrid won't even open until 1:30pm for lunch or 8:30pm for dinner. If you head out for a meal that early, expect to be the only customers in the restaurant — the good news is getting reservations at trendy or popular restaurants is easier if you request that early 8:30pm slot. Most restaurants that stay open nonstop all day are geared to tourists, so if you want to dine where the Spanish do, plan to shift your meal times. A siesta after lunch will ensure you can stay up late enough for a Spanish dinnertime.
3. Here Comes the Sun
Madrid wins when it comes to weather — it's one of the sunniest European capitals, with more than 300 days of sunshine per year. Although it may be cold during the winter, it's almost always clear and bright. Thanks to great weather year-round, locals and tourists can be out and about in this Spanish capital at any time of year.
4. You'll See the World's Best Flamenco Dancers
While visions of Romani women stomping and twirling down the cobblestone streets of Andalusia come to mind when someone says "Flamenco" — the hilltop caves of Granada are famous for this traditional dance, as are other southern cities, like Seville — if you want to see the best shows in Spain, the capital city is where you'll find them. The most talented and well-known flamenco dancers, singers and guitarists come to Madrid to train and perform, meaning the shows you'll see in Madrid top even those in the places it calls home. One of the most famous flamenco spots in town is Corral de la Morería, which also has incredible gourmet cuisine if you want to combine a show with dinner. For something a little more local, Las Tablas is the place to be — it may seem understated, with its small collection of tables and a tiny stage, but you're up so close to the dancers, you'll really feel the passion of the dance. Clapping and singing alongside the locals in a more spontaneous flamenco environment happens Saturday nights after 11:00pm at La Taranta, a bar in the La Latina neighborhood.
5. There's Always a Feast at Madrid's Markets
Food markets are the ticket to Madrid's culinary scene. Although more touristy markets like the beautiful Mercado de San Miguel or the trendy three-story Mercado de San Antón are must-sees for first-time visitors, your taste buds will thank you for hitting up some of the more local markets. Try the Mercado de Antón Martín for more multicultural bites, or the unpretentious Mercado de San Fernando for wine, tapas and chatter. Pop-up shopping markets happen year-round in funky, hipster areas like Malasaña, while the food-truck market, MadrEat, happens for one weekend each month. Platea's fancy entertainment and theater-style surroundings will keep you sipping vino all night long.
6. Get Your Party on at Some of Spain's Wackiest Festivals
Madrid, and Spain in general, have pretty crazy holiday traditions. The Christmas lottery, El Gordo ("The Fat One"), is celebrated by almost every person in the country. Tickets cost about 20 euros (~$21), and you buy into a number that's shared in groups, whether it's your workplace, your local hangout pub or your family, so if you win, all of your friends or family win, too. On Dec. 22, children sing out the winning numbers on television as the whole country watches. Fresh off that fun, Spain's version of April Fool's Day, Día De Los Inocentes, is on Dec. 28, and Madrid's holiday markets often feature gag gifts, crazy wigs and masks — all to be used in jest on this popular day for jokes and tricks. New Year's Eve is celebrated by eating 12 grapes as 12 bells clang in the city square, Puerto del Sol, at midnight. Hilarity ensues as you watch your peers attempting to stuff a handful of giant grapes in their mouths every five seconds for a full minute, all while trying to do so yourself. And you'd better eat all 12 before the bells are up, or you'll miss out on good luck all year. One of Madrid's most beloved celebrations occurs in May for its patron saint, San Isidro, when weeklong festivities include a giant street fair, parades, delicious donuts (rosquillas) and concerts from world-famous artists in plazas and parks all around the city, as well as daily fireworks in El Retiro Park.
7. Madrid Has Its Own Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge and Trevi Fountain
You can tour all of Europe in Madrid at Parque Europa, which features 18 giant replicas of European monuments like Michelangelo's David, the Berlin Wall, Tower Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, Trevi Fountain and a Greek amphitheater. Most of the monuments allow visitors to walk around them, through them or even climb them in some cases. The park also has plenty of fun activities for kids and families. Many visitors, especially from outside Spain don't know about this special space because it's about 15 miles outside the city center, but getting there isn't complicated — it's accessible by taxi, car or by taking bus line 224-A from Avenida America. Best of all, entry is free.
8. There Are Hidden Treasures in Buen Retiro Park
Many will recognize the beautiful lake in the middle of Madrid's most well-known park, Buen Retiro (more commonly referred to as "El Retiro"). The Palacio de Cristal, a building entirely made of glass, is also a wonderful tourist attraction that houses art exhibits as an extension of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. But slipping into the lesser-known areas of the park, like the labyrinth rose garden, the old petting zoo (now closed, though the old structures and cages still stand) and the peacock garden (officially named Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez), is immensely rewarding, not least because they aren't nearly as crowded as the most popular sites. Stroll through the greenery as peacocks strut their stuff around small ponds, trees and impeccably trimmed bushes.
Have you ever been to Madrid? What are your favorite things to do there?