I like Spain. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Spain and Madrid was the first city in the country I visited. And yet, reading through my archives, I have almost nothing on the blog about Spain’s capital and I started to wonder why. I have Barcelona and even the Costa Brava well represented, almost in excruciating detail from the gorgeous countryside to the delicious food. Then, the more I thought about it the more I realized the reason why poor Madrid has been no neglected here. It’s just not that interesting. Sure, it’s pleasant to be in and I love wandering its streets and eating some churros. But on my last trip there a few months ago, I struggled to find something to do, to see, to experience. Today I want to dissect Madrid a little bit. I want to share what I like and what I don’t like and why, ultimately, I think it is a somewhat boring city worth a visit, albeit a brief one.
Reasons Why I Like Madrid
There’s something special about a great European city that just clicks with me on a very primal level. The problem is, I can’t even identify what that “IT” is, I just know it when I feel it and Madrid has it in spades. During my last visit to Madrid, I stayed next to the leafy heart of Plaza de Santa Ana, an easy walk to the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. Those afternoon walks passing by an improbable number of pedestrians, doing some window shopping and snacking along the way, those were my favorite moments in Madrid. More than its museums and tourist sites, getting a feel for the city was much more important to me. However, I did use my time to investigate the city’s famous attractions, starting at the center of activity in Madrid, the Plaza Mayor.
A popular meeting spot, the 17th century plaza is near the top of most tourist’s to-do lists, and with good reason. Normally packed with people, the plaza is a great spot to people watch, grab a drink or just admire the architecture. It’s also close to another popular plaza, and one I personally like more, the immense Puerta del Sol. Translated to mean “Gate of the Sun,” this incredible plaza is where New Year’s Eve is ushered in and from where all official distances are measured – the literal heart of the nation.
While not normally an art lover, an afternoon spent wandering the incredible Prado was one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. Ultimately, my enjoyment came not from the masterpieces, but how I experienced the Prado. I was traveling around Spain with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, and on our visit to the Prado a guide joined us for the experience. A true expert, she shared with us her favorite pieces throughout the museum, adding information and context that enabled me to truly enjoy the artwork instead of just casually admiring it. I learned a lot that afternoon and now look at art museum experiences in a completely different way.
There are several other standard tourist stops around the city, including the Royal Palace and the Egyptian Temple of Debod, but honestly they aren’t sites that excited me in any way. Although I loved those walks around the city’s neighborhoods, visiting Madrid’s most important tourist sights, for the most part, left me feeling underwhelmed.
Is Madrid Boring?
Madrid is nice, don’t get me wrong. And I even like it, but not for normal touristy reasons. If I never see another royal palace again, I’ll be fine. The same goes with churches and other major features of the European travel experience. So it’s not really the main sights in town that fascinated me, it’s the city itself. Completely unlike the many other Spanish cities I’ve visited, it exists in its own category, which is the ultimate for any city really. Just like there is no other Venice or Paris, there is no other Madrid. While unique though, Madrid suffers in comparison to the country’s many other vibrant cities. It doesn’t have the spirit or heart of Barcelona, and lacks the colorful pizazz of Seville. It’s a capital city, and at times it suffers from that. No, Madrid actually suffers from an issue that afflicts many large cities around the world – it’s nicer to live in than to visit. I got into some hot water a few years ago when I wrote that Toronto isn’t a great city to visit as a tourist, and it’s not. What people still don’t understand about that post is that I never said it was a bad city, far from it. It’s a great city, but it’s a great city for residents and not visitors. There’s a difference between being livable and being touristy. Just because Madrid and Toronto have a high quality of life and are great places to call home, does not mean that they’re worthwhile from a tourist perspective. I don’t travel around the world to have lunch at a quirky Vietnamese restaurant or to marvel at a slightly interesting side street. I want to see new sights and to experience amazing things. I don’t want to see a new Whole Foods. So, ultimately, while not as extreme as Toronto, Madrid falls into the same category – a city that is livable but not very interesting.
You Should Still Visit
This post is schizophrenic, and I realize that. It’s partly because my opinion of Madrid is just as split. Writing this has helped me though better refine my thoughts. It has provided me an opportunity to really think about my experiences in the city and to reflect on multiple visits and what they have meant to me. I enjoy Madrid, I like to visit and I am sure that I will again. In spite of my previous points, I also think it’s an important place for tourists to visit, but only as part of a more robust trip around Spain. Whether independently or as part of a tour, Madrid should be one of several Spanish cities you see, for the chance to compare and contrast if nothing else. Like many other capitals, Madrid has some impressive institutions that are indeed important to visit. The Royal Palace, the many plazas and museums like the Prado are key aspects of any trip to Spain. But also be sure to experience more of the country, from north to south and to see how very different each region is from one another. That is the most appropriate way to experience Madrid and, I think, is what ultimately makes it a fun, if not slightly boring, city to visit.