5 free things urbanists (and photographers) should do in Madrid

5 free things urbanists (and photographers) should do in Madrid
Según creo, los lugares caóticos son más fotografiables que los enclaves ordenados del centro, plagados de minuciosos detalles que requieren distintos enfoques para captar todos sus ropajes. (I believe that the chaotic places are more photographable than the enclaves ordered from the center, full of minute details that require different approaches to capture all their clothes.)
-Spanish photographer Enrique Sáenz de San Pedro



Surprisingly, Spain was the most expensive country I've visited to date and I found myself frequently passing on museums with $20 admission prices or cathedrals charging entrance.  I have nothing against paying for things I want to see, I just have to be selective considering my current status as a full-time traveler/tourist.  That being said, I was fortunate in that Madrid has a load of free things to do, including tourist staples such as the Prado Museum, Reina Sofia, and Royal Palace.  Here are five lesser-known and equally enjoyable attractions for people like me with an insatiable curiosity for the built world, photography, and historic buildings.  Enjoy!




1.  Museo ICO

Within this unassumingly dull building housing la Fundación ICO is a large exhibition space dedicated to architecture, urbanism, and photography.  When I went, I saw an interesting exhibit titled "Entropía y espacio urbano" by Italian architect-turned-photographer Gabriele Basilico.




2.  CentroCentro Palacio de Cibeles

This beautiful Spanish interpretation of Gothic architecture opened in 1919 as the Palacio de Comunicaciones (for its role as the country's mail and telegraph headquarters) and now serves as the city's town hall, or ayuntamiento.  Inside, the building is spacious with airy foyers and cashier windows from its days as a post office.  CentroCentro is a cultural center run by the city government, and it's free for anyone to visit.

When I visited, there were many great photography exhibits on display (with a lot focusing on LGBT issues, for Pride).  One that I enjoyed in particular was a collection by Spanish photographer Enrique Sáenz de San Pedro titled "Donde la ciudad termina," or "where the city ends."  These photographs from 1975 show Spain's whiplash-inducing transition from rural to urban life.  Another I enjoyed was photographs from Cafe Lehmitz by Swedish photographer Anders Petersen.




3. Matadero

Madrid's City Council opened this cultural center in 2007 in a rehabilitated industrial slaughterhouse and livestock yard from the early 1900s, a gigantic site consisting of 48 buildings and 165,415 square meters.  During the Spanish Civil War, the compound served as an ammunition depot; afterwards, the Matadero was used for potato storage and as a greenhouse before being abandoned in the 1970s.  In the 1990s, the National Ballet of Spain and the City of Madrid invested in the Matadero and transformed it into the thriving cultural hub it is today.  When I visited the site, I enjoyed a quick tour of exhibits in the gritty industrial buildings before having a beer on the lively patio.  The Matadero is located on the bank of the Manzanares river and is part of Madrid Rio, a massive riverside urban planning project best explored by bike or foot.



4. Andén 0 - Chamberí Station

This curious attraction gives new meaning to the expression "ghost train."  The Chamberí station opened in 1919 as a stop on the city's inaugural metro line and was made obsolete in 1966.  (The story is that train lengths were increased in the 1960s and unfortunately for Chamberí, it was physically impossible to expand the station because of its curve-hugging location.)  Everything about this underground station is fascinating, from the fact it was designed to be lit naturally (white bevelled tiles reflected light) to the beautiful 1920s ceramic advertisements preserved under layers of poster glue (clearly the advertisers didn't think about updating their permanent advertisements) to the steady stream of trains whistling by (I kept waiting for a train to stop but it never did).  Free guided tours, likely in Spanish, are given on the hour and the museum's unusual hours are posted on their website.  I went right when the museum opened and capacity hadn't been reached (which apparently can be an issue in the afternoon).  Overall, a delightful urban and historic experience.

This tall building in the heart of Madrid is home to Espacio Fundación Telefónica, whose mission is "to increase the spread of knowledge and to promote exhibitions, meetings and activities that connect innovation, creativity and technology within society."  There is a permanent exhibit on the history of telecommunications and many changing exhibits, including the acclaimed "Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography" when I visited.