Tag Archives: Dali

Top 10 Things to do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Originally published on OffTrackPlanet.com

Whether you’re just making a pit-stop on a EuroRail marathon tour or spending a year at one of Madrid’s universities, OTP will help you cut past the crowds and get straight into the heart of Spain’s vibrant capital, without busting a hole in your wallet. Ready to start? Here’s a list of 10 things you can’t miss while in Madrid.

Historical Madrid on the Cheap

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Lucky for you, the most historical sights in Madrid are free. The Spanish are a social people, so it makes sense that Madrid’s most important public monuments are the large plazas where Madrileno’s (the people of Madrid) congregate to chat and people-watch. Each of Madrid’s neighborhoods have their own plazas, but the largest and most central are: Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa and the marvelous Plaza de Oriente. The latter opens up to the former royal palace, El Palacio Real. You have to pay to enter the palace, but it is enjoyable to simply wander around its gardens for free.

Hang with Dali and Picasso

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Anyone who leaves Madrid without visiting at least one of its world-famous museums deserves a smackdown. The most famous three, Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, collectively hold more masterpieces than you could possibly absorb in a weekend. Even the most philistine among us can appreciate Picasso’s Guernica or anything by Dali. The first two museums are free on Sundays. Bring your student card for a discount! But there are many other smaller gems, including our personal favorite: Museo Sorolla (free for students).

Salir de Tapas

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Hopping from bar to bar sampling tapas (bite-sized bar snacks) is one of the most enjoyable Spanish traditions. Going out for tapas typically involves having a drink and a nibble at a half dozen bars, all of which are, loud, standing-room-only, and loads of fun. Though tapas traditionally come free with your drinks, Spain is drifting towards pay-per-tapa system. OTP has scraped up some places that defy the trend. Try El Tigre in Chueca for the best free tapas in Madrid. The most concentrated areas of tapas bars are in La Latina (especially Calle de Cava Baja and C. de Huertas).


When Spaniards eat tapas, they throw their trash on the floor, so check the ground of wherever you go: the dirtier the floor, the better the tapas.

Jam to Flamenco Guitar

Music is a vital element of Spanish culture. No visit to the birthplace of flamenco would be complete without seeing a live show. Most flamenco bars charge 30 euros to enter ($45) and that’s no bueno. Our suggestion? Go to La Solea in La Latina where you’ll get free admission when you order a copa of wine, settle down in the smoky bar and let the gypsy-influenced rhythms carry you away.

Get Lost in the Barrios

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Most tourists will hang around central Madrid, near Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol. Give it the obligatory gander, and then check out one of the city’s offbeat barrios, (neighborhoods). All are within walking distance and each offers something different: the funky old-skool vibes of Malasana, the live music and nightlife in Huertas, or the stylish restaurants of Madrid’s gay barrio, Chueca. Forget your guidebook and wander through each of them until you discover your own special corner of Madrid.

Pick Up Some Spanish Style

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No, the Spanish don’t have sexier DNA; it’s the way they dress. Madrid is the home of Spanish style, and it’s not hard to find something to bring back home. If the ritzy boutiques of Salamanca are not for you, head over to Malasaña, Gran Viaor Calle de Fuencarralto find what you need. If you’re counting your last Euros, hold out till Sunday to bargain in El Rastro flea market.

Eat Like a Local

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A fun introduction to Madrid’s food is El Mercado de San Miguel. The glass and metal building contains dozens of kiosks showcasing a wide variety of Spanish cuisine. You can easily spend a few hours here stuffing your cheeks with a bit of everything. For a cheap, authentic meal, go to Casa Mingo next to the Principe Pio metro stop. Also, Cien Montaditos(the menu consists of 100 little mini-sandwiches) is a chain of cheap restaurants. It’s hard to argue with a montadito and a beer for 1.20 Euros.

OTP Tips:

Eating Out Formula for the “so broke it ain’t no joke” (about 5 Euros per day) : tortilla (potato omelet) for breakfast 1 euro‚ bocadillos (sandwiches) for lunch from the Museo de Jamon (locations everywhere), and El Tigre for a dinner of tapas (see #3).

Have a Fridge at Your Disposal? Go to Supersol, Dia or any other local supermarket. Stock up on sliced meat, cheese and bread (label the packages with your name and date so people at the hostel feel guiltier stealing them) and make your own damn bocadillos!

Drink Like a Local

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Memorize this word: Botellon. Every weekend, thousands of young people gather in plazas to drink wine under the stars before going out. This practice, called the botellon, is widespread across all of Spain, especially in the summer. Do as the locals and mix yourself a calimocho: 2 parts red wine and 1 part coca-cola. Don’t shy away from wine in boxes. Don Simon boxes run you about a euro and the contents are of better quality than the crap you’re paying 6 bucks for in the states.

Best places to botellon: Plaza de Espana and Plaza de Santa Ana between 10-2 AM.

By the way…Drinking in public is technically illegal in Madrid and although the law is rarely enforced. You don’t need to brown bag and look over your shoulder, but just don’t piss on anybody – follow the locals.

Dance Like a Local

665144 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s BudgetAvoid the pijo (posh) discos and go where the students are. Tupperware (bar) or Palma III (disco) in Malasana will bring out the booty shaker in you. A safe bet is to head to Plaza de Santa Ana, talk to the club promoters passing out flyers, pick a place and dance till the metro opens up at 6 AM.

Lazy Sunday

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After you’ve done all the above, wrap up with a lazy Sunday, Madrid-style. Here’s the plan:

  • Wake up at the crack of noon and make your way to the La Latina neighborhood to catch El Rastroflea market before it closes at 3. It’s the largest outdoor market in Europe and the whole city comes out for it every week. You can buy anything from a scarf to a chicken at this place. Buying nothing at all is fine; the bustling vibe is the most exciting part anyway.
  • Then migrate with the Madrilenos to El Retiro park to while away the afternoon. Thousands of people lounge on the grass and a massive drum circle starts up next to the lake.

Not active enough for you? Rent a rowboat for 4 euros and row around the lake till your arms fall off.

If you are able to squeeze half of these activities between your siestas, you’ll walk away from Madrid having experienced a side of the city most visitors never see. So what are you waiting for? Flamenco, tapas, and fiestas beckon.

Dilly Dallying in Dali (Dali, Yunnan, China)

I came to Dali for two reasons: to wander through its ancient cobbled streets and to relax in one of the fabled backpacker hangouts of Asia.  I was disappointed on both counts.

My train arrived early in the morning and I caught a bus from the New Town to the Old Town, approximately ten kilometers away.  The bus passed through the New Town’s endless sprawl of identical buildings and swung up the west side of the 25-mile-long Lake Erhai.  The Old Town of Dali lay at the foot of the Cang Shan Mountains next to the lake and surrounded on all sides by stone walls.  Thick, white clouds hung motionless on the mountains behind the town like an avalanche suspended moments before impact.

The houses were built with earth bricks and topped with gray ceramic tiles, and the edges of the roofs curved skyward like Salvador Dali’s famous moustache…maybe that’s why the town is called Dali!  Anyways, it was beautiful, like the ancient Chinese towns you see in Kung Fu movies.  The streets were empty in the early morning, and I strolled past the beautifully painted pagodas and embraced the tranquility of solitude.

But that was eight in the morning.  By eight-fifteen all of Dali was crawling with Chinese tourists.  The shop doors opened and revealed an endless row of souvenir shops selling silver jewelry (silver-coated brass, in actuality), overpriced marble carvings, various trinkets, ethnic hilltribe handicrafts, opium pipes, and a local wind instrument, similar to a flute.  There were about twenty of these flute shops on the same street, selling the same flutes, and playing the same flute music by the same flute player. It was enough to drive a man insane.

Dali is home to the Bai people, one of China’s minority hill tribes.  Chinese tourists gawked at these locals, many of whom were selling souvenirs in their brightly colored traditional clothes.  I have never understood ethno-tourism.  Why do tourists travel to distant lands only to stare at other people?  It is like a human zoo.  I doubt the locals dress in these clothes on their days off.  I noticed the young hilltribe girls hiding their mobile phones beneath their ethnic dresses.  The old men of the village looked the most out of place; they watched from the sidelines in their baggy navy-blue suits with their mouths open in disbelief.  This was ethno-tourism, for sure.  I wonder if this is how Tibet will be in ten years now that they have built a railway connecting Lhasa and Beijing.

I felt pessimistic.  Sure, it was touristic, but so what?  The ancient buildings were amazing and a tiny river filled a system of canals that flowed through the town.  There were tons of tourists, but what character!  It was unlike anything I had ever seen!  I walked up to a beautiful ancient gazebo, surrounded by canals of fresh river water and painted all the colors of the rainbow.  I could not resist; I had to touch the thousand-year old wood to let Dali’s history flow through my fingers.

What the heck?  It wasn’t wood – it was concrete!  Painted concrete!  I looked closer at the building – it was fake!  I stepped back and examined the canals – too new to be authentic!  But…no…what about the city walls?  Surely they must be real, no?

Fake.  All fake.  This revelation turned my world upside down.  Then I heard a voice behind me say, “Everything in China is fake.”

I turned around and faced the voice.  He introduced himself as a 19-year old Chinese-American who lived in Shanghai.  He had lived in the US before, but now he was here in China, traveling around for the summer between his studies.  “What do you mean, ‘Everything in China is fake’?” I asked.

“Everything in China is fake,” he repeated.  “There’s almost nothing authentic left.  Millennia of warfare and natural disasters ruined most of it, and Mao destroyed everything else in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.”  These words hit me like a ton of bricks.  This was China, the most ancient continuous civilization on earth.  How could nothing ancient exist?  I asked him how this could be, how could a single person destroy such a glorious history?

“It wasn’t just Mao,” he explained, “It was Mao’s Red Guard.  In the 60s, Mao recruited thousands of young people to be his henchmen.  They studied Mao’s radical doctrine in his “Little Red Book”, they wore his red armbands and they tore through the countryside destroying anything related to the past.  Because the Communist Party was officially atheist, they destroyed monasteries and temples and sent monks to work in the field.  They destroyed so much culture.  Tibet got it really bad, too, because religion was one of the so-called ‘Four Olds’.”

I was unfamiliar with the term.  “What are the Four Olds?” I asked.

“Old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking.  Those four terms covered a lot of things – anything related to art, science, literature, learning…all of it was destroyed.  Intellectuals were hunted down, persecuted, imprisoned or killed.  It lasted for ten years, and millions of people died.”

We spoke a while longer on this subject.  I couldn’t believe it, but it explained so much.  I had noticed that everything in China was new, but I hadn’t realized it was because so many old things had been destroyed.  “Is there anything left?” I asked.  He faced me and broke into a smile, “The Forbidden City, in Beijing.”

There were a number of old pagodas outside of Dali, but the entrance fee was about $20.  Everything in China costs something – no free pagodas, no free parks, no free caves.  By comparison, it cost $20 to visit all of the enormous city of Angkor Wat, and $17 got you into the grand Taj Mahal in India.

How could a nation have such a change of heart?  Fifty years ago, they destroyed all of their temples in the name of progress.  Now they hold them in such high regard, high enough to charge $20 to see a temple that would be free in Thailand?  If temples are so glorious, why did they destroy them in the first place?

Backpacking in China was nowhere as cool as backpacking in SE Asia.  Supposedly everything was fake and seemed impossible to escape the Chinese Package Tour Mob that was following me through all of China.  It appeared that the Chinese never went anywhere alone – always on these big tour buses, to save money, so I’m told.  I was repulsed by many of their habits – they spit, they smoke all the time, they burp, they talk really loudly, and the men walk around with their shirts rolled up and their bellies hanging out.  But then I realized that I do many of these things too.  I pulled my shirt up and walked around with my tummy out and I blended rigghhhhhttt in…

But I came to China for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Instead I only found Hidden Charges and discovered that they killed all the Tigers and ate their penises for virility.  I was thoroughly disillusioned with tourism in China.  I needed something else.

I wandered out of this charlatanry and decided to seek out the ‘other’ Dali – the famous backpacker hangout and one of the easternmost outposts on the Hippy Trail.