Having been to Barcelona three times already, Madrid had never quite convinced me to book a trip there. Gaudi and the beach in Barcelona had me going back to discover more. Until Mad Cool Festival. And the grand plan between my partner and housemates to fly to Madrid in July 2017 for the festival and of course to see Madrid. Oh go on then.
Here are some tips on things to do and see, places to eat and drink, where to stay, general tips and our travel itinerary and story about five days in Madrid.
- Things to do: Sandeman’s walking tour
- Things to see: Plaza Mayor, Royal Palace and Old Town
- Where to eat and drink: Muniz for a REAL tapas experience, Pum Pum Cafe and Federal Cafe for breakfast
- What to eat: Spanish omelette at La Buh, real tapas (aka free) at Muniz and a calamari sandwich (recommended on our walking tour) which you can get near Plaza Mayor
- What to drink: kalimotxo, tinto de verano or a local beer like San Miguel
- Where to stay: Old Town because who needs to see another TopShop
- How long to stay for: minimum two nights
- What to pack: check the weather in case you need to pack ponchos and an umbrella… it rains in Spain!
- General tips: be aware of pickpockets and learn Spanish language basics before you go
How to get there
Flying at around 1pm is a much nicer experience than having to make your way to the airport before the sun comes up. We even had time for breakfast, chill time in front of the TV and packing!
We flew with EasyJet from Luton airport in London which is generally stress-free too but today they’d overbooked by six people. Thankfully we weren’t the chosen ones asked to take the next flight! The flight time to Madrid is around two hours. Adding on our delay, turbulence thanks to thunderstorms and the one hour ahead in Spain, we touched down around 5pm.
With four of us travelling together and the first act at Mad Cool Festival that we wanted to see starting around 6:45pm, we chose Uber to get to our accommodation instead of public transport. To get to the Old Town it takes about 20 to 25 minutes and costs around €30. Definitely the better option for a group in a hurry as we would have only saved around €1.50 each on public transport and doubled the travel time. First impressions of Madrid? Rain, flash flooding and what felt like a ride in a race car as we swerved around the traffic. And we STILL missed George Ezra.
Where to stay
Alberto was waiting for us on the street outside our AirBnB accommodation in the Old Town. He greeted us with a smile and confession of lack of English as he led us to our room on the fourth floor. It’s amazing how much body language can help in communicating with each other. By the time he left, we knew how to use the keys, avoid locking ourselves in the bathroom, connect to wifi and where to find the closest Metro stations.
There were two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, lounge and balcony. One bedroom was slightly bigger and had a window looking out to the beautiful Spanish architecture across the street so we flipped a coin. Fair and square, we unpacked what we needed in the bigger room for our first day at the festival. Ponchos and umbrellas necessary.
If you would prefer to stay somewhere central, try AirBnB options in Plaza Mayor according to our walking tour guide.
How we got around
Staying on Calle de Embajadores in the Old Town meant that the Metro we caught daily to the festival was from Embajadores station to San Fermin – Orcasur station. We still couldn’t believe the weather as we walked a long five minutes to the protection of the underground. Tickets are €1.50 each for a single trip or €12.20 for 10 trips. Tickets work on buses too. The Metro is quite easy to navigate with line numbers and colours, especially if you’re used to the Underground in London.
Mad Cool Festival
If you like the sound of five stages (four of them outdoors), fake grass so you don’t need to pack your gumboots, headline acts like Foo Fighters, Green Day and Kings of Leon, local drinks in re-usable cups as big as 1 litre (no plastic cups), food that doesn’t cost the earth and things to play on like trampolines, Mad Cool Festival is for you. It was their second year and while there were lots of people, if you timed it right you could get to the front of the queue for bars, toilets and food vans quickly enough. And there is no camping so you have the comfort of your hostel, hotel or AirBnB to go back to later on.
The standard of music was good and I’d compare it to British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park, London. Particularly as you can buy a daily ticket to see your headline act of choice or a three day ticket like us. Whilst I recommend Green Day as I’d seen them a week earlier, the standouts for me were Catfish and the Bottlemen and Kodaline.
Drinks are around €4 for a half litre and €9 for a litre depending on your choice. You’ll also pay €1 the first time for your re-usable cup. Great initiative to reduce plastic! Don’t ask for sangria though, that’s for tourists! And they just plain old don’t sell it. You can get kalimotxo or tinto de verano though, which is red wine and Coke or red wine with lemon. Food starts at €5 and there was enough variety to choose from for a three day festival. Just don’t wait until 9pm to eat because that’s when everyone else wants to.
So I mentioned trampolines earlier. Clever marketing really. In the line up they asked us to fill in our details before a quick photo jumping for joy with the bright Mad Cool sign in the background. Other fun stuff to do between acts were the smart car karaoke and mechanical bull ride for a cause. Warning: karaoke in Madrid means word prompts in Spanish.
Festival headline act for today were the Foo Fighters but our favourite was Catfish and the Bottlemen. Performing at 2am! Getting home was a delight with an extremely long taxi queue so we started the one hour walk home until a taxi was willing to stop for us.
Be aware of pickpockets! The last time I remember having my phone which also had my bank card, Australian driving licence and oyster card in the phone cover, was at the ATM. Learning – always keep your bag zipped up. Let’s just say it was hard to enjoy my breakfast at Pum Pum Cafe once I realised my phone was gone. In saying that, it WAS good food and I can recommend it. Reasonable prices too.
Today we had High Hopes (Kodaline song title) of learning more about Madrid by doing the Sandeman’s free walking tour. Unfortunately our umbrellas were useless as the wind and rain lashed at our legs and it even hailed. For at least 10 minutes we huddled under the awning of the OLDEST restaurant in the world. It’s called Botin restaurant and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, opened in 1725 and has been open ever since. The signature dish is roast suckling pig which Madrid is known for. Apparently the prices are reasonable too though we didn’t go back to try it out. What we did do though was a runner from the tour. Yes we felt bad, but not for long as we sipped our beers and ate our snacks (purchased from the local Carrefour Express) from the comfort and warmth of our AirBnB accommodation.
Festival headline act for today was Green Day. Sadly Pedro, an acrobat performing before Green Day had an accident on stage and passed away. At the time we were still watching Kodaline on another stage.
Walking tour take two after breakfast snacks (bananas and pastries) from the shop downstairs. It was so sunny and hot that we packed sunscreen instead of umbrellas. Of course it then rained but thankfully not too heavily so we did the right thing and stayed on the tour for the two and a half hours until the end.
Walking tour highlights included starting in the brightly coloured Plaza Mayor, seeing Madrid’s first cathedral that opened in 1993 and the Royal Palace, learning about the history of tapas and why real tapas are free and the story of Catherine of Aragon who as a Spanish Ambassador became Queen of England and if she had had a baby boy, would have united Spain and England and potentially changed the history of my home country Australia.
Festival headline act for today was Kings of Leon.
Sunday – Police report, Royal Palace and free tapas at Muniz
With the festival out of the way, it was time to really explore Madrid. We checked out of our AirBnB, met Alberto to hand over the keys and split up temporarily from our housemates to do some exploring on our own. We also needed to file the police report so headed to the local police station.
Not one person at the police station spoke English so they gave me a number to call for a translator. In the end they actually invited me into their office and dialled the number from their phone. I had to call my partner in a few times to help me with the details I was asked for like approximate street location where the theft occurred. I was given a reference number and asked to wait for the police report to come through. All in all it took over one hour. During this time we ate a few things from their vending machine and smiled politely at an older Spanish lady that kept trying to speak to us. She was very cross when I got called in before her to another office to check the report (in Spanish) and sign it.
More than ready for breakfast, we made our way to Cafe Federal. It was busy. A good sign. The food was delicious and I can recommend the baked eggs with bacon, potato and creme fraiche (sour cream). I had major food envy so had a few mouthfuls of it even though my poached eggs on sourdough with bacon was tasty too.
After our walking tour yesterday we spotted a bright, colourful dome and made a mental note to go back there. Each time we walked in its direction today, we lost it! In the meantime we discovered the Egyptian temple, the Temple of Debod, which was dismantled in Egypt and rebuilt in Madrid. After spending 9 days in Egypt last year, we find Egyptian artefacts more interesting than ever. And if you’re looking for a picnic spot, the park there located at the top of the hill is relaxing and cool among the trees.
But back to the dome! We eventually found it but it’s quite hard to physically get close to. The dome is actually part of the Parish Church of Santa Teresa y San Jose. You can see it better from higher vantage points and on a sunny day, the multicoloured mosaic tiles really stand out.
Next was the Royal Palace of Madrid. Our housemates did a tour inside and said it was worth doing to learn about the history of the palace and see inside some of the 3000 plus rooms. We only saw it from the outside and even from there it is quite large and impressive.
Making our way back towards our accommodation, we caught the bus to the San Francisco el Grande Basilica in the La Latina neighbourhood. Our Sandeman’s walking tour guide had recommended we check it out. Too bad it was closed when we arrived. The pictures of the inside of the 13th century basilica make it seem like it would be interesting to see.
Instead, we checked into our accommodation. It was in a similar area to our AirBnB accommodation, though this time we booked via Booking.com. It was a modern apartment, one of many managed by Urban Vida Stays. Cost £85 or €97 per night. The kitchen was stocked and ready with utensils like a corkscrew and there was a lounge room and balcony. And the bed? After a brief test of how comfortable it was, my partner found me asleep on it. So joined me for a siesta.
On our walk between the check in address and property address, we passed a local tapas place with locals spilling out onto the street. So after our nap, decided to give it a try. What our walking tour guide had said about tapas was true! Real tapas are free. And after leaving meatballs on the counter for at least two minutes before deciding they must be for us, we only spent €6.80 for two small San Miguel beers, two small pieces of food we’d already selected out of the glass cabinet and our free meatballs. Yum.
We met up with our housemates at Mercado San Antonio. But not before going to Mercado San Miguel thinking that was the market they meant! Both were good. Mercado San Miguel was still well and truly open with lots of food and drinks options and even a souvenir store in one of the far corners. Mercado San Antonio had similar stalls though most were closed except the rooftop bar. Expect tourist prices and up to €10 per drink.
Instead of continuing to spend a lot per drink, we decided to go back to Muniz. Along the way we saw a ferret being walked. I know. Not what you’d expect. The harness even looked like it was specially made. No chance of escaping! Back at Muniz it was quieter but we did not regret our return. After spending a few hours there and enjoying three small San Miguel beers each, three complimentary lots of tapas plus a churros, piece of birthday cake and two paid tapas selections from the glass cabinet, the total came to €20.80. Cheap way to have dinner and a few drinks! Five euros each!
I feel like I need to explain the birthday cake. Imagine you’re in a tapas bar and the lights are dimmed. In walks a man holding a birthday cake lit with candles and obviously singing Happy Birthday in Spanish. Turns out it was the birthday of the young guy serving us. And the proud father wanted to share the cake with everyone in the bar. What a legend. We tipped the birthday boy an extra €10.
It was tempting to stay until 11pm for a potential lock in with the locals, but instead we ventured to a nearby street for a new tapas experience. El Tempranillo is a tapas bar recommended by a few different websites so we decided to try it. There were 95% tourists inside and while the wine and tapas were okay, it was not as warm and friendly as Muniz. Also it was already over €5 for one glass of wine, one beer and small plate of tapas.
Monday – Spanish omelette at La Buh
In the neighbourhood of La Latina there’s a great little bakery called Panishop. We enjoyed some coffee and croissants there to get us through the morning before a massive Spanish omelette with our housemates later.
We still had a few journeys left on our public transport tickets so we decided to get a bus to Plaza de Cibeles. The bus stop we chose was for a mini bus and we kept a look out for just how mini this bus would be. It was full of shall we say, seniors, and was quite the experience! It WAS small, perhaps half the size of a normal sized public bus.
At the Plaza de Cibeles there is a beautiful building called Cibele Palace. It no longer serves its original function which was a headquarters for postal and telecommunications services however is now used by the Madrid City Council. Unfortunately it is not open on Mondays so we couldn’t explore inside.
Instead, we walked around the nearby area including Gran Via which I would compare to Oxford Street in London because of the shops after shops. I’m not really a shopper but the buildings and architecture are genuinely stunning. I took the opportunity to pick up a few souvenirs. Think I just contradicted myself.
Our last stop before the biggest omelette of our lives was the bear and strawberry tree. It’s a sculpture that people line up to have their photo taken with and represents the coat of arms of Madrid. In 2017, it was the 50 year anniversary of the sculpture.
So, the omelette. Our housemates had been given the tip to try a Spanish omelette at La Buh. The cost was €10 and between all four of us, we could not finish it. We chose the omelette filled with goat’s cheese and caramelised onion and it was good but quite heavy. You could easily share it between six people. What seems like a strange pairing upon reflection, we also shared a bottle of white wine. It was a nice way to end our holiday. Particularly when a local guy and his schnauzer dog came in for what looked to be a regular treat from the kitchen.
It was time to pick up our bags from the Urban Vida Stays office and make our way to the airport. We tried to catch an Uber but the passport verification wouldn’t pop up on my partner’s phone (and my phone was sadly in the hands of a stranger) so we waved over a taxi. It was a flat rate of €30 anyway, the same amount we paid for the journey in reverse.
Back to London where tapas are full price. At least you get to choose?