The Madrileño calendar is a colorful kaleidoscope of saint's days, fiestas, and bullfights. Art exhibitions are perennial features during the hot summers, and you can enjoy concerts in Parque del Retiro as well as other open areas. Check with the city tourism office for details (tel. 91-366-54-77; www.esmadrid.com).
The dates given below may not be precise. Sometimes the exact days may not be announced until 6 weeks before the actual festival. Check with the National Tourist Office of Spain if you're planning to attend a specific event.
For an exhaustive list of events beyond those listed here, check http://events.frommers.com, where you'll find a searchable, up-to-the-minute roster of what's happening in cities all over the world.
The Three Big Fiestas
Fiesta de San Isidro -- Held in honor of Madrid's patron saint, fiesta activities cover ceramic, crockery, and secondhand book fairs. Local couples, known as chulos and chulapas, parade in Castizo (traditional) dress and enjoy feasts, romerías, and music acts in key spots like the 16th-century Plaza Mayor and leafy Pradera de San Isidro (the setting for those idyllic celebratory images of yesteryear immortalized on canvas by Goya). During this 4-week period, the most consecutive daily bullfights are held. May 15.
Virgen de la Paloma -- This lively festival belies the midsummer image of Madrid as a temporarily lethargic ghost city, with practically everyone out of town basking on the Levante and Cantabrian coasts. On August 15, the La Latina quarter becomes a crowded riot of street bunting, drinking stalls, live music, and kiddies' events. A float decorated with bright carnations and bearing an 18th-century gold framed portrait of Madrid's patron saint (the Virgin of La Paloma) is carried through streets on August 15 by the city bomberos (firemen).
The Autumn Festival -- Held in October and November, the Feria del Otoño (tel. 91-580-25-75) is the best music festival in Spain, with a lineup that attracts the crème de la crème of the European and South American musical communities. The usual roster of chamber music, symphonic pieces, and orchestral works is supplemented by a program of zarzuela (musical comedy), as well as Arabic and Sephardic pieces composed during the Middle Ages.
Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes). Parades are staged throughout the main arteries of the city in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6). Parades usually take place on January 5 or 6.
ARCO (Madrid's International Contemporary Art Fair). One of the biggest draws on Spain's cultural calendar, this exhibit showcases the best in contemporary art from Europe and America. At the Crystal Pavilion of the Casa de Campo, the exhibition draws galleries from throughout Europe, the Americas, Australia, and Asia, who bring with them the works of regional and internationally known artists. To buy tickets, you can contact El Corte Inglés (tel. 91-418-88-00) or Madrid Rock (tel. 91-547-24-23). The cost is between 22€ and 30€. You can get schedules from the tourist office closer to the event. Dates vary, but usually mid-February.
Madrid Carnaval. The carnival kicks off with a big parade along the Paseo de la Castellana, culminating in a masked ball at the Círculo de Bellas Artes on the following night. Fancy-dress competitions last until February 28, when the festivities end with a tear-jerking "burial of a sardine" at the Fuente de los Pajaritos in the Casa de Campo, followed that evening by a concert in the Plaza Mayor. Call tel. 91-429-31-77 for more information. Dates vary; 5 days before Ash Wednesday.
Semana Santa (Holy Week). Although many of the country's smaller towns stage similar celebrations (especially notable in Zamora, Valladolid, and Seville), the festivities in Madrid are among the most elaborate. From Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday, a series of processions with hooded penitents moves to the piercing wail of the saeta, a love song to the Virgin or Christ. Pasos (heavy floats) bear images of the Virgin or Christ. Make hotel reservations way in advance. Call the Madrid Office of Tourism (Oficina Municipal de Información y Turismo) for details (tel. 91-588-16-36). Usually last week of March.
Bullfights. Holy week traditionally kicks off the season in Madrid. This national pastime affords the visitor an unparalleled insight into the Spanish temperament. (See also "Animal-rights Issues" section later in this chapter.)
Dos de Mayo. May 2 sees the commemoration of the valiant, but unsuccessful, uprising against occupying French forces during the Peninsula War in 1808, which was brutally repressed and stirringly immortalized in Goya's famous El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid painting of firing-squad victims. Rock concerts and flamenco shows take place in the Dos de Mayo square in Malasaña, where the rebellion began, as well as in other parts of the city.
Fiesta de San Isidro. Madrileños run wild with a 10-day celebration honoring their city's patron saint. Food fairs, Castilian folkloric events, street parades, parties, music, dances, bullfights, and other festivities mark the occasion. Make hotel reservations early. Expect crowds and traffic (and beware of pickpockets). For information, write to Oficina Municipal de Información y Turismo, Plaza Mayor 3, 28014, or call tel. 91-588-16-36. www.munimadrid.es. See also "The Big Three Fiestas," above. Second week of May.
Feria del Libro. This annual book fair is located in Parque del Retiro. Leading international novelists and historians come to promote their latest works and the number of stands increases annually. The feria covers 2 weeks from late May to early June.
Corpus Christi. A major holiday on the Spanish calendar, this event is marked by big processions in Madrid, as well as in nearby cathedral cities such as Toledo. Dates vary in June.
Veranos de la Villa. Called "the summer binge" of Madrid, this program presents folkloric dancing, pop music, classical music, zarzuelas, and flamenco at various venues throughout the city. Open-air cinema is a feature in the Parque del Retiro. Ask at the various tourist offices for complete details (the program changes every summer). Sometimes admission is charged, but often these events are free. Mid-July until the end of August.
Fiestas of Lavapiés and La Paloma. These two fiestas begin with the Lavapiés on August 1 and continue through the hectic La Paloma celebration on August 15, the day of the Virgen de la Paloma. Thousands of people race through the narrow streets. Apartment dwellers hurl buckets of cold water onto the crowds below to cool them off. Children's games, floats, music, flamenco, and zarzuelas, along with street fairs, mark the occasion. For more information, call tel. 91-429-31-77. See also "The Big Three Fiestas," above.
Autumn Festival. Spanish and international artists alike participate in this cultural program, with a series of operatic, ballet, dance, music, and theatrical performances. From Strasbourg to Tokyo, this event is a premier attraction, yet ticket prices are reasonable. Make hotel reservations early, and for tickets write to Feria del Otoño, Plaza de España 8, 28008 Madrid (tel. 91-580-25-75). See also "The Big Three Fiestas," above. Late October to late November.
Día de los Santos Inocentes. Another countrywide holiday. On this day, the Spanish play many practical jokes and, in general, do loco things to one another -- it's the Spanish equivalent of April Fools' Day. December 28.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.