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Finding things to do in Madrid after 5:00 pm is not a challenge. Spaniards and their cities come alive in the evening. In Madrid the museums are open until 8:00 pm, stores are often open until 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm, the restaurants don’t even open until 9:00 pm, and don’t really get animated until closer to 11:00 pm. Your challenge is going to be how to cram everything you want to do into just a few hours!
Walk through the buzzing city centre from Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor
Start by getting a feel for this vibrant city. The Puerta del Sol is the physical centre of not just Madrid, but all of Spain. You can actually visit the “kilometre zero” on a brick in the ground at the former city hall building on the edge of this bustling plaza.
From the Puerta del Sol, walk along the pedestrian streets to the Plaza Mayor which is literally the heart of the city. Along the way you can browse some of the oldest shops in Madrid with unique wares such as thimbles, capes, fans, swords and antiques. Next to the traditional shops you will find some of the most modern brand name stores. This eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary makes for a fascinating stroll.
The Plaza Mayor itself is impressive with 9 arched entrances and 237 balconies overlooking the square. The later you go in the evening the more animated this Plaza gets. There are street performers, outdoor cafes (that charge tourist prices, so you might want to grab your beer and tapa elsewhere—with the exception of your bocadillo de calamares which is a sandwich that you find almost exclusively in Madrid. Even in the plaze you will find them between 2.5 and 3.5 €) touristy shops that selling everything from Manila shawls to Toledo swords to fans, flamenco dresses and everything Spanish.
San Miguel Market (Mercado de San Miguel)
Directly behind the Plaza Mayor is the trendy San Miguel market.
You will find gourmet tapas, wines and national products in the 33 stalls of this historic market. This is a great place to try some original tapas, or buy some cheese to take home for a midnight snack.
Built in 1916, this site originally was a parish church—where none other than Lope de Vega was baptized. When the church was destroyed by fire it was never rebuilt and instead the land started being used a large outdoor fish market. The market that you found in 1809 was not as upscale nor a hygienic as what you will find today.
The actual building that house San Miguel’s market was finished in 1916. It is worth going just to see the beauty of the structure — it has a granite floor, iron frame with large glass panels giving it an airy open feeling. The market is open until midnight during the week, and until 1:00 am on Friday and Saturday.
Although the Palacio Real is the official residence of the royal family in Spain, the king and queen don’t currently live there. They have chosen a more private palace on the outskirts of Madrid. The palace can be visited when there is no official ceremony taking place.
This is one of the largest palaces in all of Europe with 3,418 rooms and 135,000 square meters of space. But not to worry, you only get to see a small portion of all of that grandeur.
I would recommend taking a guided tour as you always get so many more details than when you wander through on your own.
If you are in Madrid in the winter season—from September to April—you will want to buy your tickets online in advance to give you time to get the last tour of the day. Tickets to the Palacio Real cost 10€, with an additional 4€ for either a guide or audio guide. Visiting hours are until 8:00 pm during April through September, or until 6:00 pm during the winter October through March.
Cibeles Fountain and City Hall
At the end of Gran Via, you will see an impressive sight—the Cibeles fountain perched in front of the City Hall Palace.
The emblematic Cibeles fountain was built in 1782 and has become a representation of the city of Madrid. The fountain represents a Roman Goddess of mythology of the earth, agriculture and fertility. She is sitting in a chariot pulled by two lions. The fountain originally served not only as decoration but as a source of water for the city both directly—through drinking fountains (including a horse trough)—but also as a system that piped water to homes.
Nowadays you won’t see many horses dipping in for a drink, but if you are in the city when the football team, Real Madrid, wins a game you will find them splashing around in Cibeles as a victory tradition.
The City Hall is a much newer construction than the fountain. It was built in 1919, originally as a communication centre and post office. In 2007 it became the home to Madrid’s City Hall and in 2011 the City Hall opened its doors so the public could also enjoy this stunning palace. Visitors can access numerous areas in the palace including ever changing exhibition and galleries. These exhibitions are free of charge for the public. The public can also enjoy the library, a gift shop, and an area of couches where you can relax with wifi access. There is a terrace restaurant on the 8th floor with brilliant views of the city-scape.
Dinner and a show at la Platea
La Platea is a place that has everything under one roof—gourmet market, tapas bars, restaurants, a Michelin restaurant and all topped off with almost nightly live music.
La Platea was originally a theatre, but now has been converted into the largest gastronomic and leisure centre in Europe. Each of the floors overlooks the large stage area—which is still used for live music events and at the very least a DJ selecting music.
The top floor is the Michelin restaurant, the main floor is full of gourmet tapa bars where you can select from any and then take your drinks and tapas to a table to enjoy the show. The lower floor is a combination of ethnic restaurants—Argentinian, Japanese, Italian and of course Spanish. You are given a menú with all the items from the combination of restaurants. If you are with a group of people who all want to eat a different style of food, this is the perfect place to keep everyone happy.
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