1. THE LIGHTS
During the Christmas season, which starts in mid-November, Madrid is decked out in Christmas lights almost everywhere you go. Gran Vía has these really cool skype-scraper lights which serve as a reminder that you are in the city center.
The lights in Chueca, basically the “Chelsea” of Madrid (the gay neighborhood), are glittering and shimmering bands of different colors that hang in the sky. You can also see circular multi-color ornaments on the side streets.
Gran Vía, from El Corte Inglés, Callao
The best time to see the Christmas lights is between sunset (around 5:30pm) and 9pm. A lot of the lights are turned off at 10pm or 11pm.
2. THE NAVIBUS
For the mere price of 2,00 €, the Navibus takes passengers along a set route in Madrid to see the Christmas lights. Visitors can pick up the bus in the Plaza de Colón at the Colón metro station. Make sure you arrive early and go on a day when it is not raining so you can sit on top of the double-decker bus and enjoy the colorful festive Christmas lights throughout the city.
3. CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor
Although I’m sure Madrid’s Christmas markets have nothing on those in Germany, the markets here are still pretty fun to explore. There are many throughout the city, but the largest one is in the Plaza Mayor. They sell all different kinds of Christmas decorations, souvenirs and even some small gifts (like scarves and jewelry). It is especially fun to go to the market in the Plaza Mayor at night to see the lovely lights that hang from the sky.
La Plaza de España
If you are looking for unique handcrafted gifts, the Feria Mercado de Artesanía de la Comunidad de Madrid (The Comunidad de Madrid’s Artisan Market) located at Plaza de España is a good choice. It takes place from mid-December to the beginning of January.
4. THE CHRISTMAS TREES
Now I’ve seen the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., as well as the Tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, but I’m much more impressed with the Christmas trees I’ve seen in Madrid. The one in Callao looks like a large-scale version of a potted tree, complete with a bow and shimmering lights. It’s very charming and festive.
La Puerta del Sol
Naturally, La Puerta del Sol, the important central plaza in Madrid, would have the most impressive Christmas tree. Standing 35 meters (about 114 feet!) high, this golden Christmas Tree is sponsored by the national lottery.
A big symbol of Christmas time in Madrid, Cortylandia is a 15-minute show with animated dolls and puppets that sing Christmas carols and the Cortylandia song. The show goes on during the day and night and is a big hit with young children. Parents allow their children to sit on their shoulders as they watch the show and sing along. Cortylandia is honestly quite cheesy and reminiscent of Disney World shows, but it is worth seeing if you are in Madrid for Christmas.
Ice-skating rink in la Plaza de Oriente, seen from the Teatro Real
Around Christmas time, Madrid puts up outdoor ice-skating rinks throughout the city to boost the holiday cheer.
Ice-skating with some of my salsa friends-D, Me, V and J-at the Callao rink
Ice-skating is a fun and inexpensive activity to enjoy with friends. At most of the rinks, the cost for renting skates and skating for one hour is only around 5,00 €. Make sure you bring gloves with you because most rinks will not let you on without a pair. But, don’t worry. You can still buy a pair for about 2,00 € when you get there.
7. CASTAÑAS ASADAS (ROASTED CHESTNUTS)
Roasted chestnuts are a common winter snack throughout Western Europe. In Madrid, you can find street vendors who sell roasted chestnuts-as well as roasted corn and sweet potatoes-in almost every neighborhood. A small bag of half a dozen usually costs between 1,50 € – 2,00 €. It’s a great warm and toasty snack that heightens the Christmas cheer. If you’re feeling especially festive, you can even listen to The Christmas Song while you eat. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” It might make up for the lack of White Christmas in Madrid.
8. Churros con chocolate
Churros at Chocolatería San Ginés
Is there really a better way to enjoy a cold winter day than with delicious fried dough and sweet thick hot chocolate? Nope, I don’t think so. A Madrid favorite, churros con chocolate are available all year long. During the winter, though, there tend to be more churros vendors in the streets.
Chocolate, Chocolatería San Ginés
Dipped in a cup of thick and creamy hot chocolate, churros are a great way to warm up on a cold day.
9. THE PRACTICE RUN of the NEW YEAR’S CELEBRATIONS in LA PUERTA DEL SOL
La Puerta del Sol, 30/12/2013
In Madrid, the biggest New Year’s Eve celebration takes place in the Puerta del Sol. Everyone crams into Sol and anxiously awaits midnight when the famous clock tower strikes twelve times. At this time, people hurriedly cram 12 grapes down their throat for good luck.
The night before New Year’s Eve, there is a practice run. However, the clock tower does not strike. Also, instead of eating 12 grapes, people eat sweets, chips, gummies-12 of anything that is not a grape. It is considered bad luck to eat the 12 grapes before midnight on New Year’s Day.
Me, E, S, V and C in Sol, 30/12/2013
Many people take the night before New Year’s Eve just as seriously as the actual New Year’s Eve. Some people come in costumes and many enjoy a few drinks before they arrive. It’s a lot of fun and definitely better than going on New Year’s Eve because the crowds aren’t as huge.
10. THE TWELVE GRAPES OF GOOD LUCK
A New Year’s Eve celebration of champagne and 12 unseeded canned grapes
If you are brave enough to go to the Puerta del Sol on New Year’s Eve, you can count down at the clock tower in person and eat the twelve grapes with thousands of other people. If you, like me, would rather not spend the last night of the year with thousands of drunk strangers, then you can watch the countdown from the comfort of your own home with friends and family.
Although I’m sure actually being there is a wonderful experience, watching the New Year’s countdown on TV is plenty of fun.
Just make sure you pay close attention and don’t eat the grapes too early. You might have a year full of bad luck.
BONUS: REYES (THREE KINGS’ DAY)
If you have an extra-long holiday vacation, you can stay for Three Kings’ Day on January 6th. The night before, or sometimes the day of, there is a big parade that is supposed to be a lot of fun. Sadly, I wasn’t able to make it this year due to travel plans.
Three Kings’ Day is much bigger than Christmas in Spain because it is a Spanish traditional holiday. According to Christian tradition, this is the day when the three wise men, also known as the “magi,” came to the baby Jesus with three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. To celebrate, some people will leave a polished shoe at the door for the kings to leave gifts. Unlike Santa Claus, the three kings come in through the window, not the chimney, to deliver gifts. Most kids receive gifts on Three Kings’ Day instead of Christmas. However, the tradition is changing a bit and now many children receive gifts on both days.