The insider’s travel guide to Madrid
Combining grand historic elegance with the color and excitement of a modern European metropolis, the city of Madrid has something special to offer each and every traveler. In terms of art, food, music and culture, few destinations in the world are more wonderfully eclectic than this Mediterranean jewel. And it's that vibrant mixture of elements that makes Spain's capitol a superb spot for a restorative vacation or a romantic getaway — or perhaps a bit of both. Best of all, it's a surprisingly easy city to navigate once you're familiar with its unique layout and vibe. To give you a head start, here's a practical guide that will help make your first visit to Madrid truly unforgettable.
Best time to visit
Opinions vary on the best time of year to visit Madrid, but the good news is that you've got several excellent seasons to choose from. Like most places, it all comes down to what type of vacation you're looking for. Spring and fall offer beautiful weather, with average temperatures hovering in the mid-60s to low-80s depending on the month. However, if you want to feel like you have the city all to yourself, winter is a great choice since there are noticeably fewer tourists and great deals on accommodations. Admittedly, the intense summer heat isn't for everyone, but a refreshing dip in a luxurious rooftop hotel pool, or a shady picnic in one of the city's many outdoor parks, might help cool you off a bit.
Where to stay
The question of where to unpack your suitcase is pretty important since the city has so many amazing options. Hotels range from wildly opulent to retro and funky to comfortably utilitarian and everything in between. Similarly, each neighborhood has a distinct personality, and picking the right one can make a huge difference. If you prefer someplace noticeably upscale but without too much pretension, the affluent Salamanca neighborhood needs to be on your radar. If you're someone who doesn't find the terms "hip" or “trendy" to be dirty words when it comes to travel, then the lively Chueca and Malasaña districts are the perfect places to hang your hat.
Travelers to Madrid typically arrive at the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, which is located less than 8 miles from the historic center of town. In terms of physical size, it's the largest airport in Europe and serves as a major travel hub for much of the surrounding region. Trains and shuttles are a convenient way to get from the airport to your hotel, but the city also supports the Uber app, so feel free to order a ride on your smartphone. Madrid's downtown center is small enough to explore on foot. To experience life like a Madrileño, get yourself a Metro pass and take one of the local buses that run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Sights to see
Madrid contains a huge assortment of fascinating cultural sights and landmarks that are well worth visiting. First, be sure to spend some quality time in the spectacular Plaza Mayor located in the heart of the city. Built in the 15th century, this beautiful open-air plaza is a great place to go for a stroll, grab a drink, do some people-watching or go shopping. For visual art lovers, the collection of historic masterpieces at the Prado Museum is second to none. However, the avant-garde work that you'll find on display at the Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía museum is far more cutting-edge. If grand architecture is more to your liking, then the ornate Royal Monastery needs to be on your sight-seeing agenda. Finally, if you're traveling with any soccer fans, make sure to schedule a tour of Madrid's world-famous Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium, or better yet, get tickets to a game during soccer season.
The big meal
Lunch is by far the biggest and most important meal of the day in Madrid, so make reservations at one of the city's acclaimed restaurants and discover the true flavor of Spain. For a lunch that's filled with authentic Spanish charm, try the adorably quaint Taberna San Mamés, which offers freshly caught seafood and a cozy atmosphere. It's the kind of place that will make you feel like a regular on your very first visit. In fact, it's so good that Anthony Bourdain dined there during the Madrid episode of his travel show. When you need a break from the restaurants, try exploring one of Madrid's massive produce markets — like the popular San Miguel Market, which has been serving hungry locals since 1916 — or spend the day indulging in the city's fabulous street food scene.
Many of Madrid's smaller boutiques and private galleries close briefly during the afternoon while the city takes a proverbial nap known as the siesta. Though largely ignored by most of Madrid's working population, the custom is still prevalent enough to surprise visitors who might be overly accustomed to the 24-hour lifestyle back in the U.S. If that describes you, try thinking of it this way: the daily siesta is actually a rather helpful way to acclimate yourself to the Spanish time zone in case you're still feeling a bit of jetlag from the flight. It's also a good way to beat the blazing heat during the summer months, and it should allow you time to recharge your batteries for the fun you'll be having later in the evening.
Time for tapas
To tide your stomach over until dinnertime — which doesn't really take place in Madrid until around 9 or 10 p.m. — you'll want to order an assortment of delicious tapas sometime in the early evening. These tasty small plates are perfect to snack on while you're socializing with a group of new friends that you've met on your journey, or you can enjoy them alone while sitting in a historic outdoor plaza. What's especially nice is that many bars will offer them free of charge while you're ordering drinks. Classic local tapas include patatas bravas (small roast potatoes drizzled with spicy red pepper sauce), exquisitely marinated anchovies in vinegar and oil, and bite-size crunchy toasts called pintxos that come topped with a variety of cured meats and smoky cheeses.
Fun after dark
Madrid city center, Gran Vis Spain
Madrid is the very definition of a late-night city, and its clubs don't really open until after midnight. To make up for the late schedule, most of them remain open until at least 4 a.m. So, if you plan on partying — and let's face it, you owe it to yourself to try it at least one night while you're there — make sure you pace yourself during the day. When you're ready to dive in, head on over to Teatro Kapital for an experience you'll never forget. One of the biggest nightclubs of its kind in Spain, Teatro Kapital is like a circus spread out across multiple floors, each with a different musical identity. Sporting several massive dance floors that would put any Grammy party in Hollywood to shame, this is a must-visit attraction for energetic travelers. If you can't decide whether you're in the mood for a dance club, a concert hall or just a killer cocktail bar, then drop in to La Riviera and try them all. Home to some of the hottest DJ sets in Europe, La Riviera has everything you're looking for under one shimmering roof.
Carole Cary-Hopson, Newark Liberty International Airport Boeing 737 First Officer, remembers how it felt piloting her first United flight.
"Shivers" she recalled. "I felt as if this is what dreams are made of. Every single time I come to work, I feel that way."
"That way" was 14 years in the making for Carole. "What dreams are made of" dates back to her childhood in Pennsylvania and frequently visiting her grandma's home in south Jersey that was right by the Philadelphia airport.
"We would go and lie in the grass by the airport and note the colors of the planes coming in and leaving, how many would come through at a time; we made graphs," said Carole. "I was fascinated by it."
As Carole grew up, she held on to that fascination, but an undergrad and master's degree later, she found herself successfully climbing her way up the corporate ladder, from the NFL to Footlocker. As her duties and roles continued to evolve and grow, Carole observed that she was always on an airplane. In fact, it was on a work trip where that observation and her life-long fascination came full circle.
"I was on a KLM flight and the pilot noticed me looking around and observing everything," she said. "So, he offered me the jumpseat and proceeded to teach me everything across the North Atlantic trip. It was then and there I realized, 'I can do this.' It all came together in my head."
Not long after that flight, Carole went on a date with a man who she now proudly calls her husband.
"I told him on that date, 'I have something to tell you and if you laugh at me about it, I'll never see you again,'" said Carole. Carole proceeded to tell him about her dream of becoming a pilot. A few weeks after that date, he handed her gift certificates to attend a flight school right outside of Manhattan.
From there, Carole moved roles in her corporate career once more, taking a job with L'Oreal where she socked away her paychecks to save up for flight school. In the meantime, she began to network in the aviation world, attending events through Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). It was there she met her mentors, one being American Airlines Captain Jenny Beatty who handed her a mug of Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American and Native-American descent to hold a pilot's license.
"I stood on that crowded convention floor with Jenny and Bessie at that time and just bawled," said Carole. "I kept asking myself how I could be an Ivy League graduate and had never heard of her. At that moment, I wanted to do something with her story."
Thus, along with training, becoming a pilot and raising a family, Carole began writing a historical fiction book on Bessie, a woman who had to go to France to learn how to fly because no one would teach her in the U.S. Today, the book is near completion and once finished, 25% of the proceeds will go toward the Lt. Colonel Luke Weathers Flight Academy, an organization within OBAP that aims to grow and diversify the future pilot pipeline.
"I hope Bessie is smiling down and has forgiven me for taking so long on writing this book," said Carole. "She continues to provide me with guidance and being an example of determination. I know she would tell me to keep going and to not even dare to stop."
Well, as if Bessie already doesn't know, stopping doesn't seem to be in Carole's vocabulary.
"When you have a goal, there are a series of definitive steps," said Carole. "Each one is important and sometimes, they take many years to reach. But each one of those goals I had in the past were steps that got me to flying."
And Carole's next step?
"Continue to fly and finish Bessie's book," said Carole. "And once the book is finished, the goal is a movie and then sending 100 black women to flight school. With the numbers being only 1-2% African-American's flying, we need to fix that, and I intend to!"
Sisters and United MileagePlus® Premier® 1k members, Kelsey and Courtney Montague, are constantly traveling to create street art pieces for communities around the world. This year they teamed up with us to travel to Peru to explore the beautiful country, and to create a custom mural for a very special group of young women participating in the Peruvian Hearts program. Peruvian Hearts, now part of our Miles on a Mission program, works to support female leaders with access to education, counseling and peer support
Finding tranquility at Machu Picchu
As we hiked up the ancient steps of Machu Picchu, we were surrounded by Incan merchants, servants and townsfolk climbing the stairs to start their day. As foreigners not used to hiking at 7,9000 feet, the locals sprinted by us as we struggled up the steep steps, with the lush rainforest behind us and ancient city just beyond. But even with burning legs and straining lungs, it's likely anyone's breath would be taken away (as ours was) once they reached the clearing above this sprawling city in the clouds. All thoughts of the slightly tortuous route we took to this dazzling ancient city were forgotten the second we laid eyes on this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Along with my sister Kelsey, our Dad and our friend Clay felt the power and mystery when we all arrived at the vantage point over the city of Machu Picchu. The day before we had traveled all day from Denver flying in United's stunning United Polaris®. We slept fully flat on two excellent flights, curled up on down pillows and wrapped in Saks Fifth Avenue comforters. We slept soundly after feasting on steak and chocolate sundaes and spent a layover chatting with bartender, Steven, as he made us cosmos at the United Polaris lounge in Houston. It was wonderful, but the best part? Arriving in Peru so rested and relaxed we were able to completely savor this moment at Machu Picchu. A moment only made sweeter when our Dad turned to us and thanked us for taking him on the trip of a lifetime and giving him the opportunity to see a place he never thought he'd get to visit.
We explore the ruins with the wide eyes of children, enjoying every view and savoring every piece of information from our guide. Llamas 'own' the ruins and gently nudge tourists aside as they scamper between buildings to their favorite pasture. The terraces on the outskirts of the town were used to prevent soil erosion and to farm maize and beans. Condors soar above our heads, their keen eyes hunting for chinchillas tucked into the terrace rock walls.
Incan community members that lived or worked in Machu Picchu must have felt the same way we felt the first time they came across this thriving metropolis, situated on top of a mountain. Incan urban planners neatly organized centers for astrological studies, religious ceremonies, sports, commerce and farming. The buildings were built from granite and limestone, likely from a quarry located on the same mountaintop. Some buildings were so finely constructed scientists still don't quite know how the Incans did it.
At the end of the tour we come to the sacred rock — a perfect, flat replica of the Yanantin mountain behind it. Some mystical members of society believe that touching the rock transmits tremendous power. I won't lie that I quietly let my fingers graze the stone as a I walked by. Did I feel a sudden power rush? No. But did I leave Machu Picchu filled with a sense of wonder and a reaffirmed belief that anything is possible? Yes.
Partnering with Peruvian Hearts
The next morning, we awoke ready to tackle the most meaningful part of our trip to Peru — working with Peruvian Hearts.
Peruvian Hearts works to support women by giving them access to education, counseling and peer support. They are currently working with 32 talented, bright young women who they have hand-picked from secondary institutions across Cusco. They focus on supporting brilliant engineers, psychologists, teachers, scientists and doctors. These are the future female leaders that will change their communities, their country and the world for the better.
When we arrive to meet these scholars, they cheer, and each young woman gives Kelsey and me a hug. Overwhelmed, we both begin to cry. We are so grateful for our job as a traveling street art team, but we are on the road so much we are often very lonely. We can't remember the last time we received so many hugs or saw so many bright smiles.
When we arrive to the Peruvian Hearts headquarters a number of the young women tell us how they found Peruvian Hearts. Aldi, a brilliant engineer in training, was asked to join this special organization because she was first in her class in secondary school. She grew up in tough financial circumstances — her mother is ill and unable to work, and her father works in construction. As the only person in her family who has attended university, she is the primary hope of her family. Tears stream down her face as she describes how tough it has been for her family to survive. So many of these young women tell similar stories and carry the weight of their entire family's future squarely and proudly on their shoulders.
These stories reaffirm the reason Kelsey and I decided to join forces with United — we hope to make that weight on their shoulders a little lighter. As we worked on the mock-up for the mural to commemorate Peruvian Hearts, United decided to help in another way by including Peruvian Hearts in their new Miles on a Mission program. A first of its kind program, United MileagePlus members can now donate their miles to nonprofits they care about. Miles that will help young women like Aldi attend conferences in the United States or study abroad in Mexico.
Other women will be able to travel more freely between their studies in Lima and their families in Cusco. The young scholars were so excited to now be part of the United family and to have access to the connections a major airline can bring.
After an ideation period Kelsey decided to create a large-scale heart flock mural with 32 hearts on one side to represent the young women in the program and 32 hearts on the other side to represent those to come. Over two days we painted the piece and filled it with items that represent Peru (a llama, a condor, Peru's national flower and butterflies), Peruvian Hearts (pencils, books, and a shooting star) and a United airplane. As we worked on the piece the ladies sang, danced and told us their dreams. Dreams to travel, learn new languages, start meaningful careers and change their communities for the better.
When we finished the piece — two massive streams of hearts that appear to be coming from the person standing in the middle of the mural — the girls came to thank us. With cheers, hugs and kisses they explained how proud they were that this mural was for them and how it would continue to lift them up as they work hard to improve their circumstances.
At the end of this project Kelsey and I felt so blessed to be connected to such a wonderful group of women. At that moment we realized that is what art and travel should be about. Art and travel should connect us to each other as humans and to something deeper within ourselves — a desire to lift each other up.Visit United's Miles on a Mission program to support Peruvian Hearts .
February 12, 2020
As we continue to evaluate our operation between our U.S. airport hub locations and Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai as well as Hong Kong, we have decided to extend the suspension of those flights until April 24. We will continue to monitor the situation and will evaluate our schedule as we remain in close contact with the CDC and other public health experts around the globe.
We suspend travel to Hong Kong
February 4, 2020
In response to the continued drop in demand, we are suspending travel to Hong Kong beginning February 8 until February 20. Our last flights will depart San Francisco on February 5 (flight 877 and flight 869) and the last returning flight will depart Hong Kong on February 7 (flight 862).
Please check united.com for important travel information as well as current travel waivers.