As one of the world’s most famous capitol cities, and with a formidable reputation for its hard-partying, life-loving residents, Madrid sits vulnerable to cynical travellers worried that Spain’s capital couldn’t possibly live up to the praise regularly heaped upon it.And to a certain degree these concerns are justified- it’s tough for any renowned city to live up to the idealized image surrounding it. That’s doubly true with a city like Madrid, a city that’s been accused of excess hype since the day the Lost Generation decided they couldn’t spend all of their time in Paris.
I experienced love at first sight when I visited Madrid and even I had moments where the city let me down. However, thinking back to those moments when Madrid didn’t quite amaze me, I quickly realized their common thread- I felt let down whenever I tried to explore the city alone.
Sure, I had some good times visiting Madrid’s incredible art museums and took some great photos posing with an obese Spiderman impersonator who was working the crowds in Plaza Mayor, but Madrid isn’t the sort of city you can fully appreciate on your own. Madrid is by nature a intensely social city. If you want to get the most out of its storied streets, you’ll need to explore them with friends.
And thankfully, Madrid is a great place to make friends.
I knew exactly one person in Madrid when I visited, a friend from high school who was a couple months into a year-long stint teaching English in Spain. I met up with her on a Friday afternoon and our long lunch hinted at the transformative effect travelling in a small crowd will have on your experiences in Madrid.
Here’s the thing- I had a good-enough time sitting by myself eating a traditional dish of roast suckling pig at Botin, Madrid’s oldest and most famous restaurant; but I had a much better time having lunch with a small group of English teachers and locals at an all-you-can-eat sushi joint located in an obscure corner of the city. The raw fish and seaweed salad chugged along on a conveyor belt to my left as to my right our party expanded exponentially, adding more and more chairs and side tables to accommodate the seemingly endless stream of new friends joining us as the hours of sucking down brined razor clams stretched on. Our initially small group ended up totaling over a dozen and by the end of our meal the table we started out with reached out and eventually shifted into a pronounced “L” shape in order to keep the aisles clear while providing seating for all of us.
This social pattern repeated itself over and over again during the next couple of days- a few of us met up and soon enough found ourselves joined by another small group and then another and another until we formed our own miniature mob of well-meaning hedonists, and with each new addition to our group my appreciation of Madrid grew greater and greater.
Madrid isn’t a city you can truly appreciate on your own, a point that drove itself home for me again and again during my time there.
To the outsider travelling alone, Madrid may seem like a very glitzy place filled with glamorous revelers on their way to one swank party or another. There are a couple reasons for this impression:
While each of these impressions is true, ultimately the assumption that Madrid is a manic party-center doesn’t hold up to even a single night hanging out as the locals do. Yes, everyone is beautiful. Yes, the city itself is gorgeous. But the beauty of Madrid and its population is much more casual and relaxed than you’d ever imagine.
Consider this: Madrid has more than its share of bars and clubs but those venues tend to close earlier than you’d expect from a city with an “always-on” reputation. The streets and plazas of Madrid are choked with the young and beautiful who will never step foot in a club, friends who are simply engaging in the city’s most popular nighttime activity of drinking while walking the streets and hanging out in plazas.
My last night in Madrid lasted well into sunrise (naturally), yet my friends and I only went to one bar and we left that watering hole before midnight. We spent the rest of the night wandering Madrid’s yellow-lit avenues, sitting in expansive and crowded plazas, blatantly peeing behind tiny Spanish cars (males and females alike) and connecting with others participating in these same activities.
The good life in Madrid is the shared life, a life spent doing little more than spending time enjoying the sensual pleasures of pretty people, good food, and cheap alcohol- all of which the locals feel were designed to be indulged in as often as possible. Madrid may not have an “Off” switch but the city’s ceaseless pursuit of pleasure has more to do with spending Sundays sitting in a crowded plaza drinking cheap beers out of paper bags with your friends rather than hitting up clubs that never close.
All of which begs the question- can you enjoy Madrid on your own, or do you need a built-in social sphere to actually appreciate the city?
On the one hand, Madrid has a lot to offer the solo traveller. The city is beautiful on its own, it features some of the world’s best museums and I’m sure you can have a pretty good time walking around and taking pictures on your own.
That being said, the relentless social force of Madrid is palpable even when you’re not part of it and it’s difficult to explore Madrid on your own without feeling out of place… a problem the locals will be more than happy to correct if you reach out to them.