An (almost) local’s guide to Madrid
One of our readers contacted us last week to ask about my take on the ‘must sees’ in Madrid. I wait around most of my days waiting for someone to ask me to tell them what I think, so, naturally, I’m delighted. It’s with no small amount of chest puffing and grinning then, that I bring you my personal guide to Madrid.
Madrid is a wonderful city to be a tourist. Everything you would want to see is in a fairly compact area. The central area of Madrid is full of truly stunning buildings, plazas and fountains that you must see. The underground and bus systems are a dream, even for non-Spanish speakers. Walking the streets is an absolute pleasure on almost every day of the year. Even in the cold of winter Madrid is characterised by impossibly blue, sunny skies.
I started writing this post with a great deal of detail only to find I was not even one fifth of the way through my recommendations and already at a 1000 words. So I give you bullet points, for both our benefits. Certainly there’s room for greater brevity, but it was never my strong point, as you may have noticed from previous posts.
My top list of things to do on a visit to Madrid:
1. The Tourist Bus
The very first thing you should do to kick off your sightseeing is take the Tourist Bus. I can’t tell you how many people, thinking this is too cheesy and touristy for them, consequently haven’t taken my advice and have regretted it later. It is absolutely the best way to get orientated, see all the beautiful buildings and monuments you could possibly want to, to get around to all the key places without wasting time changing transport lines and getting lost, and to select the places you want to get off and explore immediately or come back to later. Madrid is so beautifully compact in fact that you could happily take the buses (there are two routes) all the way around completely and then do it again to go back to the places you’d like to visit on foot, especially if you have a sunny day and a seat on the rooftop.
2. Tapas in Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is at the heart of the city and old town. It’s the starting point for some lovely wandering walks (The Luxe City Guides have an excellent pocket guide of walks with a detailed itinerary of sights and stores for all of the key neighbourhoods) and it’s nearby to the plethora of places to eat in neighbouring La Latina. So head there around lunchtime. If you’re feeling brave, instead of taking a seat on a terrace (or before), pop in to one of the tapas bars on the edge of the plaza filled to the rafters with smoking locals and shouting waiters. Order cañas (glasses of draught beer), vino tinto (red wine) or vino blanco (white wine) – don’t worry, the house selections are almost always good – and one of the many tapas on display at the counter. You’ll have to assert yourself a bit but the waiters have a good eye for who’s next and then you can just point and indicate quantities with your hands. It’s exciting! It’s fast. And the tapas is good.
3. San Miguel Market
From Plaza Mayor you should visit the newly restored San Miguel Market (there’s a full post on it here). A beautifully restored building and great place to snack gourmet style and reward yourself with a glass of champagne or wine for your impressive map reading skills.
4. La Latina
Not far from Plaza Mayor and San Miguel Market, is La Latina. If you’re not already stuffed stupid, follow your map to find Calle de Toleda, a street lined with restaurants that will take you all the way to La Latina. A lively neighbourhood with lots of bars and restaurants, it’s fun to go to at night or a Sunday afternoon. If you’re unlucky enough to be in Madrid in August (not ideal, it’s hot and all the locals clear out), one of the few exciting things happening is the excellent La Latina street festival, which pretty much consists of drinking and dancing in the street. So, naturally, fun.
5. El Rastro
A market held on Sundays that many a Madrileño, who undoubtedly has not been there for 30 years, will tell you is far too dangerous to go to. It’s true that if you wear your wallet in your back pocket it will most certainly be stolen. That applies to anywhere in Central Madrid. Or any tourist area of Madrid really.
Push past the main area of typical market stores to the streets of antique stores with their wares out on the road and marvel at the vast quantity of early 20th century lighting, furniture and ornaments. Probably unlikely to find anything you can take home in your suitcase but a delightful window-shopping experience nonetheless.
6. Plaza Santa Ana and the Penthouse Rooftop Bar at Hotel Me
The other plaza you must go to for at least one meal is Plaza Santa Ana. A beautiful small plaza near Plaza Sol, and a pleasant stroll up from El Prado via Calle Huertas, it’s lined with touristy but charming bars. At night, head there to go to the stunning and super cool Penthouse Rooftop Bar at Hotel Me. Go at sunset or early evening to enjoy a mojito while looking over amazing views of Madrid on lovely balmy evening. If you want to be there when the party crowd arrive, you’ll have to hang out until at least midnight and you should really keep going until 5am. It would be rude not to.
7. More Tapas ‘ Taberna de La Dolores’
My other favourite place for tapas is the delightful Taberna La Dolores on Plaza de Jesús, on the corner with Calle de Lope de Vega, just near Plaza Santa Ana. So if you’re on your way to Plaza Santa Ana, coming from one of the nearby galleries or sites, try to find this little gem. Again, if you go at a busy time, you’ll have to be assertive, but in the summer months you’ll be at least rewarded with some elbowroom as you can take your beer and tapas out on to the street outside. If you’re lucky you’ll get a seat at one of the gorgeous wooden paned floor to ceiling open windows, giving you an excellent vantage point to observe both the in and the out crowd.
8. Chueca, Malasaña and Surrounds
Chueca is a well-known gay area, which, together with neighbouring Malasaña is a neighbourhood of pebbled streets and 19th century apartments in various stages of gentrification. It includes the well-known shopping street – Calle Fuencarral – and lots of restaurants and bars. If you’re getting tired of Spanish cuisine or touristy destinations, this is the place to find a greater range of international and upscale restaurants — just wander off the plazas and off the main shopping streets.
In the hotter months, The Room Mate Hotel Oscar has a spectacular rooftop pool and bar, where you can pay 40 euro to lie in luxury by a pool, be waited on hand and foot and enjoy 360 views of Madrid. If that’s a bit steep for you, just head up for a sunset drink after 7:30.
In Malasaña , Plaza 2 de Mayo is a beautiful leafy plaza lined with restaurants and packed with outdoor seating. The perfect place to enjoy a beer and pizza and soak up some atmosphere.
9. Calle Almirante, Calle Piamonte and around
Between Plaza Chueca and Paseo de Castellano to the east is a small selection of upmarket streets including Calle Piamonte, Calle de Almirante, Calle de Fernando VI and a few adjoining ones in between that are lined with local designer stores. It has has a few hidden away restaurants, including one of my favourites, Café Olivier (Calle Almirante). It’s a lovely area to just wander around.
10. Central Café Jazz Bar
Madrid has an unexpected tradition of jazz. There’s an annual jazz festival and well known acts come to the city. Cafe Central is a great place to get a taste of the good stuff. Line up early for the 8 o’clock dinner and a show (you can buy a ticket just for the show if you like). Just off Plaza Santa Ana. Dinner starts at 9, show starts at 8.
There are four or so well established ‘flamenco bars’ in the centre, as well as the decent Al Andalus just North of the centre, not far from the Santiago Bernabeu, should you happen to be staying in that area. Casa Patas (Calle Cañizares 10, Lavapies) is perhaps the most famous and has an ambient bar with lovely tall ceilings to meet your friends in and have a pre-show cocktail before you go in to the theatre for the night’s show. You’ll get tapas and drinks throughout the show at your table. If you’re a serious flamenco aficionado you might find these shows a bit clichéd. Everyone else with love them. Plenty of foot stopping and flying sweat. If you’re after some really good, current Flamenco you could ask at the tourist office for information about any shows showing in theatres.
If you’re feeling particularly game you could go along to a beginners class at the famous school, “Amor de Dios” near metro Anton Martin.
12. Triangulo del Arte: Reina Sofia, Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums
There are no less than three world-class art museums in Madrid. Do not attempt to see all three in two days. You will end up rocking back and forth in a corner. There is a 3 museum pass you should consider if you think you’ll get to at least two. The Reina Sofia specializes in modern art, The Prado in Spanish Masters (though don’t assume it’s all 14th century dark religious images, it’s a fantastic collection and it has something for everyone), and the Thyssen has a collection spanning from the 14th century to present day. I love the Thyssen for being like a walk through art lesson as you go through all the ages and see influences emerging and then developing into whole movements. Similarly, the Reina Sofia is an education, especially for those of you, who, like me, know next to nothing about art. With extensive works from famous Spanish artists like Picasso, Miro and Dali, you’ll see not just some of their most famous pieces, but pieces showing their mastery of a full range of styles you never would have guessed they also mastered.
13. El Retiro
A beautiful park scattered with monuments and the perfect place to cool down and sprawl out on the grass. The area behind the lake beats to bongo drums of various levels of expertise and ranges of repertoire from if-they-don’t-change-the beat-soon-I-may-well-go-mad to someone-stop-me-I’m-about-to-get-up-and-dance, while all the hip young foreign students and tourists look on and bond over beers and, a lot of the time, a little ganja.
Running from El Retiro, this beautiful upmarket street (and in fact also the name of the area) will keep you busy shopping for more than a few hours. Step off Calle Serrano and explore the lovely, leafy streets of Legasca and Claudio Coello that run parallel. In Claudio Coello at number 27 is one of my favourite places for pinxtos (little bits of loveliness on bread), Bar Biotza. Drop in to the local food market on Calle de Ayala, which runs perpendicular to Lagasca and Claudio Coello), to check out some fresh produce you will only ever see in Spain and sample some uniquely Spanish cheeses.
In Calle de Jorge Juan, a few blocks across, there is a little cobbled mall with Scooter, one of my favourite stores and just generally a lovely streetscape.
You can continue wandering through these parallel streets all the way up to Calle Velazquez where Lateral (at number 57) is a great place to grab a meal, or for something quicker, a little bit further up, the awesome ‘Mallorca’ store (one of several in Madrid) and my personal favourite, that offers lovely little savoury croissants, sandwiches and finger food, which you can wash down with a champagne.
14. Terraza, Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
Here’s a secret that I haven’t seen in any tourist guides. Just north of the centre but still very central and in fact on the tour bus route is Santiago Bernabeu Football Stadium. Something only locals seem to know is that in summer, when the stadium isn’t being used, they build a terrace out over the edge of the field. It’s quite incredible to be looking over the vast football field and up to the stadium’s rafters, over thousands of empty seats. The bar makes excellent cocktails, lovely to sip on in the afternoon sun or to consume in larger volume in the evening, when the bar by the way, is almost always heaving. I don’t think there is any bar in the centre where you’d meet quite as many genuine locals.
15. Day trips, Bull Fights and Town Festivals
Toledo, Segovia, El Escorial and Chinchon and Aranjuez are some of the better-known day trips you can take from Madrid, all highly recommended and worthwhile. I personally love Escorial and think the castle there is fascinating. Chinchon has a delightful, unique and recently restored plaza and Aranjuez, which you would do in the same trip, a beautiful castle with lush gardens. Toledo is also a favourite with rambling, ancient streets a pleasure to explore.
Throughout July and August these and several other small towns surrounding Madrid throw annual parties for their town. Everyone goes home to party. The town band plays on the street and the entire population gets out to drink and be merry. Ask at the Tourist Office which towns are having their party on the particular weekend you’re there. Nothing is more fun than drinking with the locals and getting just a bit more attention than you’re accustomed to because you’re the only or at least one of very few foreigners there. Several of these town festivals will include bull fighting, a bull run, or some other variation on the theme of chasing around the hapless animals.
If you specifically want to see a bullfight the main stadium in Madrid is Plaza de Toros, or, again, you can ask at the Tourist Office where you might see a fight in one of the smaller stadiums around Madrid (many of which are in places that were towns but are now actually a part of Madrid and no more than half an hour from the centre).
So there you go, my top tips. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. There’s plenty more to see that you’ll cover simply by getting on to the tourist bus or following some of the walks from your travel guides, but hopefully I’ve highlighted some things that might not otherwise have caught your eye. If you’d like more detail on anything specifically, feel free to get in touch or leave a question in the comments section.
Oh, I almost forgot, you MUST try some Jamon Serrano during your stay. While some countries are looking at changing their policies now, it generally can’t be exported out of the country. If you don’t try it here, you’re not going to try it anywhere. Order at a decent restaurant or visit one of the ‘Museo de Jamon’ stores dotted around Madrid.
A note on service: service staff are generally pretty grumpy upfront but tend to warm up after a bit. Friendly greetings just aren’t part of the job description, or more accurately, the culture. I’m not sure but I’m guessing they find it a little insincere. Try not to take an unsmiling greeting personally.
Some other stuff you might find hard to deal with: you’ll be hard pressed to find any breakfast other than coffee and toast. Accept that you’re not going to get any fibre in the mornings for a while. The coffee is generally awful and UHT milk (as opposed to fresh) is ubiquitous. You can smoke anywhere, anytime. This means there is a very good chance you will have someone smoking next to you while you’re eating and if you visit Madrid in winter it most certainly means your winter jacket, and you, will almost always smell of cigarettes. Think of it as an historical journey, a step back in time – pretend you’re in Mad Men and marvel at your memories of when you objected to the changes in smoking laws way back in the 90s. And finally, watch your wallet at all times, especially around the old town in the centre – Plaza Mayor, Sol, La Latina etc.
Questionable service and pick-pocketing aside, you’re bound to enjoy Madrid. It’s almost impossible not to like. The Spanish are super friendly and helpful and it’s a city easy to navigate and get around. Alcohol is generally cheap, except in big clubs and rooftop bars, and even then the free pour approach usually guarantees you still get pretty good value for money.
If you’re lucky enough to make it here to this fine part of the world, I hope you have a great stay. Venga!