The bustling modern capital of Spain somehow manages to defy and define the nation at the same time. The Madrileños are quintessential Spanish, in everything from their love of fútbol and traditional food to their mannerisms and accents. The streets of Madrid hold treasures like centuries-old tapas bars and bookstores featuring original copies of tomes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and even before. You can catch a bullfight at the largest ring in Spain, spend all day chatting at a sidewalk cafe, and see traditional flamenco dancers. At night, the pubs fill with brightly dressed university students toting guitars: they are tunas, wandering singers, who will sing for beer and wine. Tunas trace their origins to the troubadours of the middle ages.
For all that, if you visit Madrid at the end of your trip to Spain, it is not the similarities with the rest of the country but the differences that you will find striking. Most of Spain prides itself on being the same sleepy, conservative slightly backward nation that it has been in the centuries since its great Empire decayed out from under them. The rolling hills of central Spain and the golden, swaying fields of Andalusia would be recognizable to Washington Irving, Don Quixote and even Hannibal and his legions of soldiers. As much as any country in the world, Spain lovingly embraces its history, culture and traditions. Any guest in this rich land can breathe it in with every step.
Except, it seems, in Madrid. The tapas bars are there, but you have to know where to find them. The bullring wasn’t built until the 1920’s (the one in Seville is literally centuries older) and it’s located a bit outside of the center of town. You won’t see any horses or pigs or donkeys like you will in the small towns of Andalucía. People tend to shop in large supermarkets as opposed to corner delis and bakeries. The buildings are tall, the people walk past you with cel phones in their ears, the cars drive on wide paved highways.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily. Madrid makes up in modern hustle-and-bustle and cosmopolitan swagger what it has given up in tradition. It is the modern capitol of one of the most important countries in the world, and boasts everything that this status implies, such as a lively arts scene, efficient transportation, and world-class tourist attractions. As a bonus, if you know where to find the hidden tapas bars, bookstores, delis and bakeries that keep traditional Spain alive in this metropolis you don’t have to sacrifice the old for the new. You can have your cake and eat it, too.
There’s so much to see and do in Madrid that you’ll never manage it all. Really. Unless you’re planning on spending a month, you’ll never get to see all of the attractions. Better to budget your time and figure out what you really want to see and do.