Brian, our merry Madrid local, recommends eight festive things to do in the Spanish capital to get you into the holiday spirit.
1. Join the fun at Plaza Mayor
The historic, cobblestoned Plaza Mayor is the perfect backdrop for Madrid’s oldest Christmas market, which has been held here for more than 100 years. As the sun sets, the hanging decorations light up in the dark and cast an atmospheric glow over the iconic square.
You’ll find many stalls selling sweet treats, toys, and collectibles for the ever-so-popular nativity scenes. Look out for the amusing Caganer figure, which literally translates to ‘The Shitter’ – a traditional piece in many nativitiy scenes that, ironically, is meant to bring good luck.
2. Sing along to Cortylandia
The popular department store El Corte Inglés has found an excellent way to attract the local kids and their nostalgic parents. Each year they create a cartoonish façade called Cortylandia, which features giant singing figures – a tradition kept alive since 1979.
Today people of all ages can sing along to the catchy Cortylandia tune during the 15-minute show that takes place several times a day.
Find a spot beneath the big façade in good time and watch how the local kids’ eyes light up for a bit of Christmas magic.
3. Chase the lights on the Christmas bus
The magnificent boulevards of Madrid are beautifully lit up during the holiday season, and a great way to take in all their glory is to jump aboard the Navibús – a double-decker tour bus that passes all of the city’s best Christmas decorations.
If you dare to brave the cold, you can sit in the open-air upper deck and enjoy the lights just above your head as you head down the grand Gran Vía.
4. Head downtown to shop for gifts
Bring your holiday shopping list and get ready to check everything off. Madrid offers excellent shopping opportunities, although you should be prepared to push your way through the busier streets. The area between Puerta del Sol and Plaza del Callao is especially busy; you can watch this ants’ nest from above at the Gourmet Experience.
Other great shopping areas include Malasaña’s shop-lined Calle Fuencarral, and the posh Salamanca neighbourhood. The latter is for those with a heavy wallet.
5. Check out the nativity scenes in the town hall
Nativity scenes are a big part of Christmas in Spain, and there are plenty of beautiful ones on display around town.
Inside Madrid’s stunning town hall, Palacio de Cibeles, there’s a unique nativity scene that’s set up as a free exhibition, and locals happily queue to check it out.
The town hall is free to enter and worth the visit alone. Here you’ll also find a restaurant and a cool rooftop bar – from the tower you can get a Santa’s view of the capital’s skyline.
6. Celebrate New Year’s Eve at Puerta del Sol
There are many New Year’s Eve traditions in Madrid. Locals gather on the iconic Puerta del Sol square to welcome the new year. They do so by eating 12 grapes – one for each strike of the clock – which is said to bring good luck for the next 12 months.
This tradition began in the early 1900s, and is one that often leads to funny situations as people start stealing grapes from each other. Wearing red underwear on this big night is also said to bring good luck, so pack your bag wisely!
Finish your night off like the locals at the historical Chocolatería San Ginés, where they serve the popular chocolate con churros to fight eventual hangovers.
7. Cheer on the kings in January
The three holy kings are more popular than Santa himself around here, and when they arrive in town on January 5 – the night before Three Kings’ Day – they draw thousands of Madrileños out onto the streets around Palacio de Cibeles.
The kings’ parade is an extremely popular tradition, so find your spot near the palace in good time for a glimpse of the colourful floats and cartoon characters.
8. Eat cake…or coal
As you’d expect, Spanish Christmas traditions are rather food-centric, but let’s keep our focus on the sweet treats for now. Drop by a local bakery to try the cream-filled Roscón de Reyes, which also contains a little surprise. Tradition says that the person who gets the small figure hidden inside has to pay for the cake.
If, however, you haven’t been a good boy or girl this year, you might not deserve any cake. Another tradition says that naughty kids get coal – yes, coal! Fine-looking coal imitations can be found in many bakeries. So, it’s up to your conscience to decide your fate.
Whether you’ve been good or bad, you shouldn’t miss out on the many variations of turrón – a traditional almond-based Christmas treat.
All photos by Brian Schæfer Dreyer