Is Madrid Boring? My Thoughts on the Spanish Capital

Madrid Spain

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.

Madrid Spain

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.

Madrid Spain

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.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

12 thoughts on “Is Madrid Boring? My Thoughts on the Spanish Capital”

  1. So funny as I felt this way about Barcelona! After the 5th Gaudi, I struggled to find anything else that captured my heart.

  2. I love Madrid and find Barcelona low class, boring and provincian. Madrid is the capital of the Spanish Empire and you can tell. Vibrant like no other in Europe. You really had no friends.

  3. I really felt like you. I found Madrid bland and “provincial”, with pompous architecture like hey I’m the capital! but it doesn’t work out. Each of the buildings on Gran Via are beautiful… but more viennese than Spanish and all together they create quite of a dystopian sight. When I visited I didn’t do any research beforehand but after a short hour strolling the tree-less heat-oppressed streets and barren plazas, I was like, something is wrong about the whole place and something feels missing. I couldn’t tell what until I did some research: a Madrid is pretty much an artificial city from 1560 onwards, when the king moved his throne there from Toledo, when Madrid was but a village. This means: no extensive medieval core, no vibrant narrow streets, no Cathedral, no castle, no courtyards, less history. The neighborhood Southwest of Plaza Mayor is the oldest part of Madrid within the first city walls, but inexplicably so, it is void of all attraction / restaurant / life.
    Also, as a whole, Madrid l felt less cosmopolitan and sophisticated than Barcelona, and I didnt have that “capital” effect that Barcelona seamless shines out.

  4. I found Madrid a true dream Capital, cosmopolitan, elegant, but Mediterranean or… Spanish full of life not made by tourists only but by locals. Madrilenians are full of energy and the city extends this frenetic feeling. The Barrio de las letras, literary quarter, la latina, Malasana many old areas much more beautiful and well preserved than Barri gothic in Barcelona. Majestic Cibeles, Gran vía, The Royal Palace, the Paseo del Prado, the Prado Museum… Just wonderful. Retiro Park, a leisure pleasure. Shopping is great, food is… Art, people is warm, nightlife is infinite… The atmosphere the energy is something I’ve never experienced in any other place in Europe. And it’s authentic, it’s not a plastic touristic scene like Barcelona. You said is a great place to live in, I agree, that’s why is so great and authentic and it’s people is happy and you can feel it. Maybe you have been there alone, but Madrid is easy to make friends.
    I also love the green areas, the lined trees streets, the narrow ones, the wider ones, it’s grand avenues, it’s elegant architecture, it’s cosmopolitan people, it’s vibrant life, it’s long days and nights, its people, it’s way of life. Madrid doesn’t want to beat a record of tourists, doesn’t want to outstand, Madrid it’s what it is and that’s fantastic.
    I have some unique views from Cibeles, bank of Spain, Gran Vía that makes me come back on and on… OMG such an elegant and harmonic architecture. The first time I saw those places I couldn’t believe they where real.

  5. I disagree, Madrid is truly the most lively place I’ve been to, your problem, you’ve not brought friends or family along so it was boring. Sorry

  6. Yes, it’s pretty boring!

    All people seem to do is drink beer and smoke cigarettes… nothing else happens in Madrid. It is very provincial and everything closes for lunch…!

    I have to disagree with the author though, it’s not a livable city either… Barcelona is more vibrant in every way. Madrid is not my kind of town at all.

    Despite el retiro park, the museums, the city center… for me, Madrid has no uniqueness…
    However, as seen in the comments (and in real life) some people seem to like it… !! As some like Toronto…

  7. Shops close 9 pm department stores and shopping centres 10 pm 7 nights a week.
    Bars and Clubs close early morning 6 am or later.
    I mean the paseo after 9 pm is a sight to behold. There are people like sardines on the streets at that hour.
    Madrid is the liveliest city in the world.

  8. Madrid is a social city so without a group of friends, it can be lonely or “boring”. Also, if you stay in the touristy areas, it can get boring quick. There are lots of pockets of life beyond museums and drinking in the park. I think there’s lots to do for tourists but depends on what you like (e.g. if museums aren’t your thing, that will take a lot of things off the list) Not every city is for every person though so I understand.

  9. Comparing Madrid to Barcelona is like comparing the elegant and cosmopolitan capital of the Empire with a tourist tacky beach.

  10. Sign me up for visiting a city with charm and real people any day. When I travel (not enough anymore) I want to be places with a high ratio of locals to tourists. At the good restaurants and bars in Madrid you will be surrounded mostly by people who live there. It is a living, functioning city that does not rely on tourism as a high percentage of its income.

    When I traveled to Madrid, I was living in NYC and my impression of Madrid was that visiting Madrid would be what it would be like to visit NYC if I didn’t live there. You would have a few sights to see but the best parts of the trip would be wondering around Greenwich Village or feeling the crowds at rush hour in Wall Street. Even the museums in Madrid and NYC feel different because they have lots of hometown artists wondering them instead of tourists lined up with timed tickets like in Florence. I would most enjoy eating in restaurants or grabbing a drink in places where the other people just out for dinner on Tuesday, not on their vacation.

    You referenced Venice which is one of my least favorite places to visit because it is basically a living Disney park–all there only for tourists (day trip it from Rome or Milan). Florence too is a day trip to me because with the exception of a few places “over the bridge” most of the city seems to be populated by American art students and those who cater to them. I would put Barcelona halfway into this category because the Gaudi stuff and the beaches are mostly populated by Brits and Americans not locals–but you can find a vibrant local dining/bar scene away from the beach.

  11. I agree with you at some point… As a Spaniard born in Madrid, but with roots in another city, I can get your point. There are hundreds of Spanish cities and towns more beautiful and interesting from a touristic point of view, with a larger history and with their own essence. Madrid is, as you said, a capital city. The poblem with capitals and main cities, at least in Europe, is that, no matter how different and beautiful they are, or how many interesting and unique monuments they have, they are all pretty similar when it comes to lifestyle. I mean, of course there are plenty of different and unique particularities betwen, for example, Madrid, Vienna and Brussels, these cities are completely different and have beautiful and interesting places to visit, but on an daily basis, they are now planned to serve as centers for politics and business for both nationals and foreigners, so that you can see there the same kind of people doing the same kind of things. The main aim of those cities is to make life easier to people who live there or who stay there for bussines, so, at the end, Madrid, Brussels or Vienna lost their uniqueness and, even if they still worth a visit, there are nothing “WOW” at them. There are always things to do there, from Monday to Sunday, 24/7, 365 days per year, and, of course, lifestyle is not exactly the same, but it´s pretty much similar.
    I can get your point and I felt the same in other capital cities (even in Madrid) lot of times. I like and enjoy visiting new countries, so I don´t mind to visit and spend some days discovering these capital or big European cities, but it´s true that many times i had that feeling of “Ok, this is not very different from that other city” and, after two or three days there, I didn´t feel like if was really visiting something different.
    Don´t get me wrong, those aren´t bad cities, but they are just similar. They have lost somehow what made them once special and unique. Other small or middle-size small cities in Spain, Belgium or Austria, or other capital cities in other European countries not as “westernized” or not belonging to important financial and business European hotspots. The real essence of Spain, Austria or Belgium lays on their small cities, towns and villages, where you can see how traditional lifestyle is developed, where not many people speaks english, where not many tourists can be seen, where life is not planned for business.
    So, I don´t know if you were referring to this, but I can understand your feelings and impressions about Madrid. Is not about being “boring”, is about being “similar” or not as unique as you expect.

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