Find a UCD student on Erasmus, wait for Ryanair to announce a seat sale and pounce on the chance to visit this European wonder, writes Elaine Lavery

Mid-March to early April is the perfect time to visit Madrid. While Ireland is still fairly chilly, the Spanish capital sits under blue skies, a glaring sun and temperatures high enough to warm the bones, but not too hot to keep you inside. Staying in the city centre is always a plus, however Madrid’s metro system is streets ahead of anything Dublin has to offer, and is more on a par with the major cities of the world. Wherever you are staying – even if it is for a short stay – it is in the city centre that you will want to be.

Like any old world city, Madrid is steeped in history. This can be appreciated by simply strolling its streets and marveling at arcane architectural feats such as the Palacio Real de Madrid – the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family in the city, or the Palacio de las Comunicaciones, Madrid’s main post office. Continuing on the cultural trail, why not venture into one of Madrid’s museums? Do pay a visit, even if you are not a culture vulture, because they are gratuito (free!) for all students with a student card.

The most famous museum, Museo Nacional del Prado, houses one of the world’s finest collections of European art, from the twelfth century to the early nineteenth century. Even if you do not know your Van Gogh from your da Vinci, the vivacity of the many old portraits, never mind the colours and textures of the paintings, are spectacular (Francisco Goya is the artist most extensively represented in the collection). The Reina Sofia and Caxia Forum also come very highly recommended.

While Otwo would not normally advocate spending time shopping whilst abroad, fans of Inditex clothing – Zara, Bershka, Massimo Dutti – must pay a visit to one of these stores, even if only to gasp at the price tags (significantly cheaper than Dublin) and much wider offering of ‘fast fashion’ than we get from their branches here. If shopping is what you seek, the Spanish chain Mango has several stores in the city, but if you have deep pockets, the up-market street Calle Serrano in the Salamanca area is for you.
When it is time to eat, Spanish sustenance is the only way to go. If on a tight budget, consider doing as the Spanish do, and have your main meal in the middle of the day. Most restaurants in the city offer traditional three course lunches into the late afternoon, for little more than ten euro. Then, by the time it comes to half ten or eleven at night, you will be ready to eat again – this time tapas. You may have to take a punt on the first tapas bar you visit, unless you are with someone who is in the know. In general, a bit of grunge and plenty of locals are good signs. Otwo happened upon a gem, Tapas-Matador, just off the famous plaza, Puerta del Sol (Spanish for ‘Gate of the Sun’). For fifteen euro a head, you will be well fed – with tapas including plates of tortilla española, Jamón ibérico, chorizo and anchovies – and watered, with jugs of sangria. It is usual to move from bar to bar when enjoying tapas, but if you find a place you love and get a good seat, you may as well stay until one in the morning or so, when you will be just in time to head to a nightclub – or for the locals and hardcore tourists, a salsa club.
The best Sunday morning hangover cure in a word: churros. Chocolatería San Gines (not far from the Puerta del Sol), is the oldest churrerias in Madrid, having opened in 1894. For little more than three euro, you will get a generous portion of these deep fried batter/pastry revelations and a cup of rich, velvety chocolate sauce in which to dip them. After that, you will need a walk, and the Parque del Retiro is on your doorstep. If you were no Shakira on the dance floor the night before, you might have the energy to hire out a rowing boat in which you can row around the park’s artificial boating lake. Otherwise, there is nothing better to do than stroll around or lay on the grass until the warm sun sets.