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Vibrant gateway to Spanish culture

Created date

March 1st, 2016

One could spend weeks traversing Spain and only get a small glimpse of the country’s myriad landscapes—from the green north coast to the arid, Moor-influenced south. But 72 hours in the centrally placed capital, Madrid, is a revealing gateway to the country’s rich culinary, societal, artistic, and historical treasures.   

In Madrid to see my dear friend Ana Maria, the 81-year-old woman who hosted me more than a decade ago while I studied abroad, this visit is a homecoming—nearly seven years since our last. Time has stood still inside Ana Maria’s apartment, the same family photo collages and paintings on the walls, the twin Murphy beds in my former bedroom, where I reside again.    

For travelers without such accommodations, hotels abound along Gran Via, one of the city’s majestic thoroughfares. Step outside for a post-flight café con leche (strong coffee with hot milk) and pastry at one of many outdoor terraces. Sunshine and caffeine, coupled with the energy of street life, is the perfect antidote to jetlag.

Puerta del Sol

A quick ride on Madrid’s efficient subway or walk from Gran Via is Puerta del Sol, the picturesque city center, buzzing day and night with foot traffic from shoppers, tourists, street performers, and families. 

The nearby Plaza Mayor offers still more people-watching and often a holiday market or festival. Perhaps no other Madrid location more fittingly exemplifies the social nature of the Madrileños. Look up from the crowds to the architecture above, including the frescoed exterior of La Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House), now occupied by the tourism office.


Reserve tickets for a performance at Casa Patas, an intimate flamenco theater. Performers share a family-like camaraderie and passion for song and dance that reverberates through fast-moving feet, deep vocals, and lyrical arm movements. Ana Maria and I sat at the front corner of the stage, impassioned performers a few feet from us.

Before the show, we stopped at Restaurante O´Pulpo next door for a glass of wine and plate of pulpo gallego—Galician-style octopus. Ana Maria appreciated my trying her home province’s traditional dish, made with potatoes and seasoned with paprika, olive oil, and salt for a unique, smoky flavor.

Art treasures 

The next day, begin with a coffee and pincho de tortilla Española, a piece of hearty potato omelet. Once fed, head to the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain’s national museum housing painting collections from the country’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century monarchs, including the largest holdings of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya. For a more manageably sized museum, choose the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza, which showcases major periods of Western art from the thirteenth century to the late twenteith century. 

Pass through the nearby Real Jardin Botanico Madrid and the Parque del Buen Retiro, across the street, for fresh air and space to reflect. The park is a lovely and expansive green space, with cafes and plentiful spots for picnicking.    

On your final day, stroll along Gran Via back toward Puerta del Sol for final souvenir purchases. Stop into the Mercado San Miguel, a historical site offering the best of Spanish gastronomy in specialty food and drink stalls. It is a foodie's—and photographer’s—delight. 

Walk off your edible purchases by visiting Madrid’s Royal Palace, the opulent official residence of the Spanish monarchy since 1561. Ogle over furnishings and frescoes indoors and the palace gardens outside. 

If schedules and budgets align, an evening Real Madrid soccer game is another emblematic Madrileño experience. At the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, join the spirited chants of olé while admiring the fancy footwork below. 

As you leave, remember this has been but a taste of Madrid’s many inspiring treasures, aging gracefully like Ana Maria.