On the culture trail in Madrid

by Sarah.Dawson

If you're looking for a cultural weekend break, look no further than Madrid. Boasting over 70 museums, 30 theatres and 50 music venues, the Spanish capital has plenty to offer the art enthusiast

Once you've touched down and settled into your hotel, start bright and early at the Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), on the Paseo del Prado. This beautiful tree-lined walkway is one of the city's most popular pedestrian pathways, and links the three internationally-acclaimed galleries, the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Queen Sofía National Art Centre.
But don't forget to look around you or you could miss one of the city's most emblematic monuments: the majestic fountain of Neptune and goddess Cibeles is nearby at Plaza de Cibeles, surrounded by the architecturally stunning buildings of the Palacio Telecomunicaciones, Palacio de Linares, Palacio de Bellavista and the Banco de España. 

Gallery guide

The three galleries are located within a short walking distance of one another. First on the Art Walk is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which occupies the neoclassical Palacio de Villahermosa. Inside, you'll find the family’s private collection of paintings gathered over two generations and an outstanding number of works dating from 14th-century Italian art to 20th-century pop art. 

Expect to see Dürer, Tintoretto, Degas, Goya, Cézanne, Matisse, Dalí, Picasso and Renoir, to name but a few. In 2004 the museum expanded and has 300 new paintings from the private collection of Baron Thyssen’s widow. Look out for Edward Hopper’s ‘Hotel Room’ and Picasso’s ‘Harlequin’.

Located in the building that Carlos III originally intended to be the Natural History Museum, the Prado is believed by many to be the best art gallery in the world. Expect to see work from artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Rubens, Botticelli, Rafael, Tintoretto, Zurbarán, Goya, Velázquez and El Greco. Don't miss ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez or Goya’s ‘Majas’.

Housed in the former city’s hospital, constructed by Sabatini in 1776 around a huge central garden, the Queen Sofía National Art Centre is dedicated to modern art, with examples of some of the most important art movements of the 20th century. As well as Picasso's ‘Guernika’, it also exhibits some of the artist's early work such as ‘La Mujer en Azul’ and surrealist canvases by Miró and Dalí. Don't miss Francis Bacon’s ‘Figura Tumbada’ and the iron sculptures by Julio Gonzalez, which represent cubism and avant-garde trends. 

Time for a break

If you're in need of some refreshment, the grandiose 1920s-décor cafe in the Circulo de Bellas Artes (just off Carrer Alcala in Carrer Marqués) is just the ticket for a sophisticated coffee break. Or why not nip along to one of the cafes in nearby Plaza Santa Ana to enjoy tapas where famous Golden Age writers such as Cervantes, Góngora and Lope de Vega penned their works? 

Plaza Mayor is an attractive medieval market place, which in historical times was used for state occasions, jousts, plays and bullfights, and is a very bustling and vibrant area today. Close by at Puerta del Sol (where the heart of Spain beats, and from where every distance in Spain is measured) shops, restaurants and cafes abound, so you're sure to find a restaurant to suit your taste here, with eating and drinking options to suit every budget.

Dining out in Madrid is a highlight and traditional Madrileño food includes mixed stews and seafood, and, of course, those tantalising dishes known as tapas. Historically, tapas were complimentary dishes served with drinks, and the small plates they came on were placed on top of glasses to stop flies dropping in! To avoid any confusion, tapas sizing goes as follows: pincho means mouthful, a tapa is a dish the size of a saucer, and a racion is a small plateful. Popular choices are chorizo (Spanish sausage), gambas (prawns) and tortilla (Spanish omelette, cooked with potatoes).

Shopping and strolling

If hunting down bargains is your thing, and you don't mind getting up early, don’t miss the famous flea market, El Rastro. It dates back to the days when the abattoir was located here and traders were drawn to the area, and you'll find anything from antiques to leather purses. It's on every Sunday, from 10am till around 3pm. Head to Cascorro Square to start.

For a further cultural fix, the part-baroque, part-neoclassical Royal Palace (Metro Opéra) should not be missed. Not only does it have a spectacular location on the site of the old Alcázar erected by the Arabs in the 9th century, but it also houses an amazing collection of armoury, tapestries and canvases by Italian, French and Spanish painters. After a major fire in the 18th century, Felipe V reconstructed the palace to its present glory. Take a stroll in the beautiful Sabatani Gardens afterwards. 

In the afternoon, if you're not too footsore, slip on your finest attire and some comfy shoes and join every self-respecting Madrileño in the city's most beautiful park - Parque Del Retiro (Metro Retiro/Atocha) - for the paseo, or afternoon stroll.

If you leave the park at the northwest section you’ll see one of the two remaining gates of the old city wall, the neoclassical Puerta de Alcalá. But if walking is out of the question, sit back, relax and see the rest of Madrid on the ‘Madrid Vision’, a 90-minute sightseeing tour bus covering old and modern Madrid with audio translations. You can catch it from Banco de España.


Where to stay

Madrid has plenty of accommodation options, including boutique hotels, apart-hotels (your own apartment in a hotel building), self-catering options, youth hostels and hostales (more like a guesthouse). 
Hostal Gonzalo (C/Cervantes 34, Madrid) is a clean, comfortable and friendly guesthouse that makes a great base to enjoy the city. It's located a few steps from the Art Walk in a quiet street; the nearest metro stop is Metro Anton Martin. Single room with private bathroom costs from €45.
Getting around
The Madrid Card gives you entry into all of Madrid’s top attractions; it also includes transport and other discounts around the city. From €42. 


Author profile Sarah Dawson is an experienced freelance journalist who writes travel, health and lifestyle features for national and international press. Over the past ten years she has contributed to a diversity of publications from the Guardian to Red magazine. As well as regularly reviewing yoga holidays, spa retreats/treatments and therapies Sarah writes general destination features, supplies web content to travel websites and has just finished her first book (Forward Press, Need2Know series). In 2007 Sarah travelled to Kerala, India where she undertook an intensive training programme to become a Sivananda Yoga Teacher and alongside her journalism now teaches yoga in Brighton and abroad. For more information and sample articles visit www.sarahdawsonjournalist.com.