I'm not saying that Madrid Spain is as uninspiring and mundane as someplace like, say, Cleveland, Ohio. I'm just saying that Madrid seems disappointingly normal after visiting some of Spain's more fascinating cities. Anywhere in North America, Madrid would be a stand-out city, but in the country of Spain, it's just an also-ran.
Still, Madrid is Spain's biggest city (Suck it, Barcelona).
With 3+ million inhabitants and a metropolitan area of almost 7 million, Madrid is the most populous city in Spain. It's also the second-largest city in the whole European Union (EU). Only the city of Berlin is bigger, with its 3.5 million bratwurst-biters.
Spain's main metropolis is especially impressive when you consider that the place is thoroughly landlocked. That's right, the most popular area within Europe's southernmost peninsula is nowhere near the “sun-sational” Mediterranean Sea.
Are the citizens of Madrid Spain freakin' idiots?
The country of Spain has over 3,000 miles of warm, sunny coastline with 8,000 beaches and eleven cities along it. Yet most Spaniards still choose to live in Madrid, a three and a half hour drive from the nearest coast. (What are they afraid of, this disturbingly long list of native sharks?) That's like if the most Californians lived in Bakersfield or Fresno—hell, even Cleveland is on the water.
Meanwhile, Barcelona, the country's second-largest city—and a damn near tropical paradise—has only 5+ million people in total. Sure, ocean rise is going to turn the city into Atlantis in a few years, but in the meantime, you can live by the beach, brah!
Honestly, I struggle to understand the appeal of living in Madrid Spain. Not that there's anything wrong with the place, there's just not a lot that seems all that right. To me, anyway.
Maybe it has to do with Madrid's troubled and turbulent past.
The making of Madrid Spain—a quick primer.
Spain has a long history of invading other countries, beginning as far back as the 1400s. Their “Naked Lust for Conquest World Tour” (more recently rebranded as the “Age Of Discovery” to make colonialism seem family-friendly), gave the Spanish an empire upon which “the sun never set.”
Yet their imperialistic tendencies may have stemmed from Spain's even longer history of being constantly invaded itself. Throughout history, control of Madrid has been passed around more than a fruitcake at White Elephant holiday party gift-exchanges.
As a quick recap, the Celts (UKers) initially founded Madrid in prehistoric times, the Romans (Italians) later kicked them out, some Visigoths (Germans) then moved in, followed by the Muslims (North Africans), the Christians (Italians again), and even the French set up shop for a bit. Even back then, the city of Madrid was very popular with foreign tourists.
The monarchy finally moves out of Madrid.
By the 1930s, Spain had finally kicked its last royal family to the curb and formed the Second Spanish Republic (ugh, don't even ask about the first one).
This newly formed, progressive government ushered in important modern reforms, including a democratic constitution and women's right to vote.
These advances in self-government, human rights, and female empowerment, almost predictably, led to a three-year Spanish Civil War.
In 1939, peace was finally “restored” at gunpoint by General Francisco Franco. Franco was a fascist dictator-for-life who sided with the Axis powers during WWII and ruled Spain for decades. In 1975, General Franco finally lost his life during the Betamax/VHS video cassette format war.
After Franco's death—an event covered extensively on Saturday Night Live —democracy was once again pulled from the shelf, dusted off, re-inserted, and fast-forwarded past the previous 36 years.
Since that time, it's been smooth sailing for the city of Madrid except for an attempted coup d'état, heroin crisis, immigration issues, financial meltdown, unaffordable housing, unfettered gentrification, and a gambling epidemic. But, to be fair, Cleveland has had most of those same problems.
Madrid's monument to a lot of terrible people.
In 1940, General Franco ordered the construction of Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”) in memory of all the right-wing, fascist nut-jobs who died supporting his heroic and unselfish attack on the scourge of representative democracy.
The monument's most prominent feature—rooted in the design school of Fascist Wet-Dreamism—is its 500-foot tall
phallus I mean, cross—the tallest of its kind in the world. You can see this over-compensating symbol of hate and oppression from over 20 miles away.
Members of the previous, democratically elected government—looking to shorten their prison sentences—helped other convicts build the monument, which took over eighteen years. Against his own wishes, Franco was buried in Valle de los Caídos after his death in 1975.
In October 2019, it finally dawned on someone that Franco was the only person interred at the site who didn't actually die in the Spanish Civil War (because he caused it). So they told his family that it was “closing time” for Franco. He didn't have to go home, but he couldn't stay there. His remains were then moved to his wife's mausoleum.
What Madrid Spain is kinda like nowadays.
Despite their history of conquest and cruelty, today's Spanish are a far more relaxed and hospitable people. The Spanish are now so relaxed, in fact, that they can't make it through an entire day without taking a nap. (Calling it a “siesta” isn't fooling anyone, amigos.) In fact, the city is a veritable ghost town between the hours of 1pm and 3pm.
While the locals sleep off the Mimosas they had at brunch, the streets of Madrid are vacant, save for confused and starving tourists searching for an open café or restaurant. Sadly, even if the locals woke up, they wouldn't be much help because hardly anyone who lives in Madrid speaks English.
The denizens of Madrid aren't exactly morning people either, so stow that “early bird gets the worm” bullshit in your hotel safe. You won't need it in Madrid Spain. Madridians have more of a “slacker” ethos thanks to the 300 days of energy-sapping sunshine that this town gets every year.
The people here enjoy brunch, lazy afternoons, and 10pm dinner reservations. They “work to live,” unlike Americans who “work to afford healthcare.” Madridians live longer as a result—Spain ranks 5th in life expectancy while the United States ranks slightly lower at 40th mostly because of our corporatocracy.
Reasons why some people might like Madrid Spain.
There's actually a lot to like about Madrid Spain. There's the fascinating Spanish culture, with its world-famous jamón, paella, and flamenco music. As well as its people's penchant for day-sleeping.
But the people of Madrid like being different and unique, so they embrace more non-traditional Spanish stuff, too. Things that you might not expect to find in such a religious country, especially in the area of attire.
Madrid's focus on fashion shouldn't have surprised me, though, because public nudity is legal here. But no one who just ate a bunch of jamón, paella, and tapas, should be allowed to walk around naked. Yeah, it's hot in Spain—I get it—but put some pants on, Padre.
Start seeing Spain from the middle of Madrid.
Madrid is the center of Spain, and “Centro” is the center of Madrid. Dating back to the 9th Century, these two square miles mark Madrid's original city limits, back when the Muslims were “discovering” the region.
As the city's oldest real estate, Madrid's Central District is popular with tourists and pigeons alike. It encompasses some of the city's most impressive architecture and poopable monuments.
Plaza Mayor is a huge waste of Madrid's prime real estate.
A few blocks to the southwest, you'll find Plaza Mayor (aka, “Main Square), an enormous public plaza built in the late 1500s. The three-story residential buildings that surround Plaza Mayor have 237 balconies overlooking the 130,000+ square feet of sun-bleached cobblestone.
It's a great place to stroll around, go shopping, or grab a bite at one of the plaza's outdoor cafés. Historically, however, it was a great place to hold soccer games, bullfights, and human executions, too. Fortunately, they power-washed the blood stains out long ago.
Don Quixote's adventures ended at Plaza de España.
We took Madrid's metro to Plaza de España, a large public square located near the busy center of Madrid. It's a popular destination for literary nerds who want to take a selfie with the sculpture of Miguel de Cervantes.
In front of the statues of Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza, there's an algae-ridden pond and a park with pleasant shade. In the background, visitors can also see the city's two tallest skyscrapers, which is not what anyone who comes to Madrid wants to see.
We happened upon Plaza de España during the largest women's sporting event in Europe—a charity marathon for breast cancer awareness.
Around 32,000 women flooded into the streets of Madrid wearing bright pink t-shirts, shorts, and running shoes. Incredibly, none of the ladies seemed the least bit concerned that they all showed up to a public event wearing the exact same outfit.
Madrid's Royal Palace disproves the old saying that size isn't everything.
At some point in our visit, we stumbled down to gawk at Madrid's ginormous Royal Palace. The place was eerily reminiscent of the mammoth structures we saw in Vienna, Austria, in terms of its classical design, blinding whiteness, and phallic over-compensation.
As the former residence of the Spanish royal family, Palacio Real de Madrid flouted every convention of the modern tiny house movement.
This beast of a building occupies 1.4M square feet and includes almost 3,500 rooms, making it the largest functioning palace in all of Europe and a bitch to heat in the winter.
Today, Madrid's royal palace is used mostly for state ceremonies and overflow parking for Real Madrid games at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Madrid's Almudena Cathedral is big enough to get the job done.
Directly across from the monarchy's tiny-penis palace, the insecure Roman Catholic Church built their own cock-compensation creation. I bet Sigmund Freud would've had a field day with these two.
The Church wanted the Catedral de la Almudena to be the biggest one in the world (hmmm). Yet when construction started in 1879, the contractors kept ghosting them because of Franco's military coup d'état. As a result, the cathedral wasn't completed for another 100 years. The pope finally consecrated the finished church in 1993, making it safe for Jehovah to stop by.
While impressively large, the church wasn't nearly as big as the King's Royal Palace next door. Their decision to downscale “the world's largest church” really showed whom the Roman Catholics were more worried about pissing off (and it wasn't their god).
Or maybe they scaled it back because the pope knows you always want to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood. I guess, when your organization owns 177 million acres of land around the world, you learn a thing or two about real estate.
Madrid's museum of old art is surprisingly modern-looking.
The Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid's national art museum, is considered one of the world's finest, and it's easy to see why.
Inside, you'll find paintings and sculptures by Hispanic heavyweights like Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, as well as other European masters like Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
Many of the museum's works were so culturally important that, during Franco's fascist insurrection, they were sent to Geneva and other countries' embassies for safekeeping.
With so much incredible art under one roof, it was really tragic that we only made it through one floor before needing a nap siesta.
Unsurprisingly, Madrid's modern art museum is weird-looking.
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is Madrid's answer to New York City's MoMA. And just like MoMA, Spain's national art museum is one of the largest museums for modern and contemporary art in the world.
Formerly a hospital, the Reina Sofia museum now houses masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Salvador Dalí, and other clinically insane Spanish artists who probably should've been in a hospital most of their crazy lives.
There are freakin' parks everywhere in Madrid Spain.
On the eastern side of Madrid's city center, there's a large, 350-acre park named Parque del Buen Retiro (aka, “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”). It's dedicated to all the old, unproductive citizens who are well past their usefulness to society.
With museums, galleries, rose gardens, and a statue walk, the park is a great place to kill time while awaiting the inevitable embrace of la Parca.
Constructed in 1650, and previously owned by the Spanish monarchy, Parque del Buen Retiro is a vast property which is mercifully about 60% tree-shade, a welcome respite from the stabbing Spanish sun.
Another sunshine-mitigation feature in downtown Madrid is the Estanque del Retiro, a large, but shallow, artificial pond.
This glorified water hazard is bordered by a semicircular colonnade lofting a large monument to King Alfonso XII. Nearby, you can rent row boats around and splash polluted pond water on the nearby fortune-tellers, puppeteers, and street performers.
The paths and walkways around this area are popular with runners, bicyclists, rollerbladers, and black market jamón pushers.
The Palacio de Cristal is Madrid's monument to the Steam Age.
Walking around the Parque del Buen Retiro, you'll find the Palacio de Cristal (aka “Crystal Palace”) if you spend even five seconds looking for it—it's pretty obvious. This old school conservatory was built in 1887 as a greenhouse to cultivate rare and exotic plants. These plants would later be de-stemmed, dried, ground up, and finally hotboxed.
Constructed out of gleaming glass and intricate ironwork, this steampunk sweat-lodge is now most often used for displaying art exhibitions and perspiration stains.
Out back of the conservatory, there's a small pond for kids that's full of ducks, geese, and turtles. It attracts small children like a guy offering candy from an unmarked panel van.
Secretly, the kids' parents placed bets on whose would fall into the pond first. I won US$50 thanks to a 4-year-old who was clearly never taught Newton's Third Law of Motion.
If you were the King of Spain, you'd be home by now.
El Escorial was built in the late 1500s for King Philip II. It was intended to be a palace, monastery, basilica, library, museum, university, and even a hospital. Not surprisingly, it's the largest Spanish Renaissance building in the world, covering over 330,000 square feet.
This sprawling complex contains 16 courtyards, 4,000 rooms, 15 miles of passageways, and 86 staircases. Yet, oddly, only a single half-bath.
Madrid Spain is barely walkable, but worth it.
Many of Madrid's best sights appear to reside in the same general vicinity, often the Central District. They look pretty close to each other on your Google Maps mobile app. But, if you've ever been to Las Vegas, then you know distances can be deceiving.
In reality, Madrid's sights can be fairly far away from each other. So, walking there means you'll be too tired to spend much time seeing or doing anything.
Yet walking is necessary exercise if you're going to stuff your paella-hole with the quantities of Spanish cuisine that we did while we were there—it was a lot, and it wasn't pretty.
In any other country, Madrid would be a must-see city.
When my parents drove out to San Francisco, I recommended that they also visit Lake Tahoe, whose natural beauty had blown my mind the first time I saw it. They liked the idea, but also swung by Yosemite, a place we had yet to visit at the time.
Upon their return a few days later, I excitedly asked them if they'd loved Tahoe as much as I had. They shrugged and replied, “Meh.”
That's because Tahoe—the clearest, bluest lake I'd ever seen—paled in comparison to the rocky splendors of Yosemite National Park. And that's how I'd describe Madrid—it's incredibly impressive as long as you never visit any other city in Spain.