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.
Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.
When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?
Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.
Camps Bay Beach
Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.
View from the top of Table Mountain
#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain
This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!
Penguins at Boulder Beach
#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach
Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.
#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head
One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.
#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia
South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.
Chapman's Peak Drive
#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive
One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!
#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens
The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.
V & A Waterfront
#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.
#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa
If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.
#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island
Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.
-Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
-Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
-Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.
Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.
Planning a Caribbean vacation around hurricane season isn't necessary if you head to Dutch-affiliated Curaçao. The southernmost of all Caribbean islands — just off Venezuela's coast — is rarely even grazed by hurricanes. It also has an ideal tropical climate with average winter highs in the 80s (and water temperatures to match) and only about one inch of rain a month.
Curaçao will be more accessible beginning December 7, 2019, when weekly nonstops begin from New York/Newark on United Airlines. The new seasonal service on 737-700 aircraft makes Curaçao the 21st Caribbean island destination for United, which already flies to the other two nearby "ABC islands" — Aruba and Bonaire. Why choose Curaçao? Because like the island's famous blue liqueur, it's colorful, exotic and appealing.
Jet lag won't be an issue for Americans flying to Curaçao because it's in the same time zone as New York. Nor is it a long flight — about five hours nonstop from New York/Newark. Upon arrival you can take a taxi, rental car or hotel shuttle from Curaçao International Airport to your accommodations — a resort (reserve early), boutique inn, vacation house or B&B. Most are in Willemstad, a coastal city only five miles from the airport.
Forts above the port
Straat Curaçao Getty Images/iStockphoto
The historic city center and harbor areas of Curaçao's only city of Willemstad are designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, mostly for the 17th to 19th century Dutch colonial architecture of the houses and forts. The houses are painted a rainbow of bright colors in the Caribbean tradition, and the city is packed with forts — Fort Amsterdam (built in 1636), Fort Beekenburg (1703), Fort Nassau (1797) and Fort Waakzaamheid (1803). All four offer stellar views and are free to visitors.
On the waterfront
Curacao colorful houses Getty Images/iStockphoto
Along with forts, the harbor area is home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue (and museum) in the Western Hemisphere, an African art museum that tells the story of the slave trade through West African art and artifacts, and a maritime museum. These visits can be followed by a tour and tasting at the Curaçao Distillery, where you'll see how the peels of the native Laraha bitter oranges are turned into curaçao liqueur.
Snorkel from the sand
Two people snorkeling off coast of tropical island Getty Images
The chief allure of this 38-mile-long island is, of course, the ocean. Besides sunbathing at any of the dozens of powder-sand cove beaches, you can wade right in and snorkel in the turquoise, bathlike sea, usually around 80 degrees. Visibility is up to 100 feet, a snorkeler's dream. More adventurous types can snorkel or dive from day boats that head to prime diving sites like the Mushroom Forest (mushroom-shaped coral), Blue Cave and several shipwreck spots. There's also a nice aquarium on the shoreline where marine life is seen up close in their natural habitat —from land or aboard a minisub that dives 1,000 feet.
Curaçao is a convenient tropical destination for Americans because U.S. dollars and credit cards are commonly accepted, English is widely spoken and no visa is required. But the local culture and cuisine are still exotic enough to be intriguing with local specialties like stewed iguana and cactus soup served in restaurants and from food carts in Willemstad.
If you go
One of our most treasured events of the year is here – Fantasy Flights! Our Fantasy Flights bring holiday cheer to children in need by taking them on a special trip to the "North Pole." Each station creates a North Pole with care, in preparation for all the children who will soon be there…
Our participating stations this year are HNL (Honolulu), FRA (Frankfurt), CLE (Cleveland), DEN (Denver), IAD (Washington Dulles), LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), MCO (Orlando), ORD (Chicago O'Hare), GUM (Guam), EWR (New York/New Jersey), NRT (Tokyo-Narita), PHX (Phoenix), IAH (Houston), MCI (Kansas City) and SAT (San Antonio).
Please stay tuned for stories, photos and more from these magical events. #UAFantasyFlights