When to go to Madrid

Retiro park

By Annie Bennett, your Madrid expert

I write for Conde Nast Traveller, .... Read more

The best time to visit Madrid

Madrid buzzes all year round, but the vibe changes with the seasons.

Colder than you might expect in winter and hotter than you’d think possible in summer, just forget your normal timetable and follow the natural rhythm of the city and you’ll get the best out of it whenever you visit.

Spring - long days and party nights
Summer - hot but lots to do
Autumn - still warm until October
Winter - blue skies and cold days

Spring - long days and party nights

Visit Madrid between late March and early June and you can’t fail to have fun. The pavement cafés are in full swing, the days are getting longer and evenings are getting warmer.

The processions during Easter week are not as lavish as in other cities, but still worth seeing – and you don’t have to fight your way through the crowds either. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are public holidays, but not Easter Monday. A lot of people go away at Easter, so the city is pretty quiet during that week.

May is virtually one long fiesta. The Dos de Mayo festival in the first fortnight commemorates Madrid’s battle against French troops in 1808 with a lively programme of arts events, pop concerts and street festivals. The last two weeks are spent celebrating the city’s patron saint, San Isidro, with processions, lots of music and dancing and the most prestigious bullfights of the season.

Madrid's prestigious arts festival, which has taken place in the autumn since 1983, has this year been shifted to spring and renamed the Autumn Festival in Spring (www.madrid.org/fo). Sounds ridiculous I know, but there's a great programme of theatre, music and dance events at venues around the city. In 2011 it runs from May 11 until June 5.

Another major event on the the city's cultural calendar, the Feria del Libro book fair (www.ferialibromadrid.com), runs from May 27 to June 12 in 2011. More than 200 bookshops have stalls in the Retiro Park, with signings and talks by dozens of leading Spanish and international writers. It's as much a social as a literary event, with plenty of bars inbetween the stalls and a great buzz, particularly in the evenings. 

So what with one thing and another, the whole of May is one big party!

Summer - hot but lots to do

Phew what a scorcher! You want long, balmy summer nights? Well it’s certainly steamy in summer in Madrid. Let’s get this straight: Madrid is seriosly hot in July and August. I mean somewhere been 35C and 45C. Got it? Ok, this is the deal: take it slow, do a bit of sightseeing and cultural stuff in the morning, but don’t try to pack too much in. Of course, most places have air-conditioning, so you’re ok indoors.

It’s a really good idea to book a hotel with a swimming pool so you can relax all afternoon when it’s hottest, then enjoy the city at night, when it really comes alive (see Madrid hotels).

PhotoEspana (www.phedigital.com) is a major photography event with exhibitions and activities at venues all over the city. In 2011 it runs from June 1 to July 24.

At the beginning of July, it's party time in the Chueca neighbourhood for Gay Pride.

I love Madrid at this time of year actually. It’s quieter, there’s less pollution, no traffic jams…and there’s a lot going on culturally, most of it late at night and outdoors.

Look out for the programme for Los Veranos de La Villa, which involves outdoor concerts and performances off all kinds. These events are often free or reasonably priced and take place in historic settings. All in all, it’s a great package and makes for some truly memorable nights out under the stars.

In the second week of August, there are great festivals in the La Latina and Lavapies areas, with much dancing in the streets and dressing up in traditional costume.

Most Madrilenians are on holiday for at least two weeks of August, and many go away for the whole month. The city does not shut down however, far from it. Although quite a few restaurants close for two or three weeks, there are plenty that stay open to take advantage of the many tourists in the city and all the major museums stay open.

Autumn - still warm until October

The city springs back to normality in September after the long, languid days of summer. But the weather is usually pretty warm until mid-October, so there is still a lot of sitting around in pavement cafés.

Like other cities, Madrid has a night when museums open late into the night, here called La Noche en Blanco (www.esmadrid.com/lanocheenblanco). It takes place in September, with concerts and special events going on all over town.

The cultural scene is pretty hectic at this time of this year, even though the autumn festival has moved to spring.

Winter - blue skies and cold days

Madrid is the highest capital in Europe and gets pretty cold in winter. Skies are usually bright blue though, so just bring a warm coat, hat and gloves, and you’re ready to enjoy the city.

The build-up to Christmas is a lot of fun, with lavish street decorations and huge nativity scenes set up in key locations. Although museums, most shops and a lot of restaurants are closed on the 25th, there is enough open to keep you going and a lot of people on the streets. Public transport is running too, so there’s no problem getting around.

Spaniards have their big family meal on the evening of the 24th, so the city is pretty quiet from the afternoon onwards. The 26th is a normal day, not a holiday.

New Year’s Eve is a great time to be there, with crowds massing in the Puerta del Sol to eat 12 grapes and drink cava in time with the chimes of the clock.

January 6th, Epiphany, is when most kids get their presents, which are brought by the Three Kings, who come to town in a great procession, tossing sweets to the children lining the streets.

After that, the holidays are at end and people get back to work. Sort of.

Next up, towards the end of January, you’ve got the gourmetfest that is Madrid Fusion (www.madridfusion.net), with events all over town as well as the main food fair, where Spain’s top chefs give talks and demonstrations.

In the second half of February, the art world descends on Madrid for the prestigious Arco fair (www.ifema.es/ferias/arco/in.html), which overlaps with Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week (www.ifema.es/ferias/cibeles/default_i.html). Don’t even try to get a table at a trendy restaurant with all those fashionistas and arty types in town.

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