¡Hala Madrid! (Go Madrid!). The Spanish capital must be one of my favourite cities (if not my number 1 city) of all time! Having lived here for a couple of years, Madrid has a special place in my heart, but I guess it’s difficult for anyone to deny that there’s a certain magic about this place. It’s something intangible. Yes, Madrid’s architecture may not rival that of Barcelona, and it certainly lacks a beach (especially during those ridiculously hot summer months), but the city has an incredible sense of energy and a unique, authentic vibe that will enthrall almost any visitor.
Your tourist guide will likely tell you to visit the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Gran Vía or the Santiago Bernabeu football stadium. And it is right – these are all beautiful places full of history. But Madrid has so much more to offer. How about discovering some of the city’s many hidden squares surrounded by beautiful architecture or stunning vistas? Or going for cañas (beers) and tapas in a different bar each evening? Oh and do make sure to befriend a local and get an invite to a party, because the madrileños know how to throw a good one. The city’s residents are called gatos, or cats, for a reason: they’re real night animals!
Here are some of my must-do’s when in Madrid:
- Start your day in Spanish style
- Get a taste of local life in Madrid’s different barrios
- Soak up Spanish history in a world class museum (for free!)
- Discover Madrid’s greener side
- Bring out your inner-foodie
- Stroll along one of the city’s many lovely (hidden) squares
- Watch the sunset from an amazing roof terrace
- BYO and join an open-air drinking feast
- Party until sunrise
- Escape the city
Start your day in Spanish style
Spaniards don’t normally have a big breakfast. However, most bars do amazing café con leche (milk coffee) and – my favourite – pan con tomate: toasted baguette with crushed fresh tomatoes, olive oil and some salt. Ñom ñom ñom… If you’re looking for more contemporary style coffee, you may want to check out Toma Café (Malasaña); Ruda Café (La Latina), or Faraday (Chueca), just to name a few.
Get a taste of local life in Madrid’s different barrios
Had your caffeine dose and ready to hit the city? Go and discover Madrid’s central neighbourhoods, each of which has a different feel and vibe. El Barrio de los Austrias (the Austrian/Hapsburg quarter) is the historic heart of the city and hosts many iconic monuments, including the Royal Palace and the Plaza Mayor. Malasaña is Madrid’s answer to London’s Shoreditch and is filled with cool coffee shops and independent boutiques. Chueca is the famous LGBT district while Lavapiés shows the city’s multicultural side, with many Asian (mainly Indian) and African shops and restaurants.
Are you in for some fancy shopping or fine dining? Then head to the glamourous Salamanca district. Or would you rather go for some low-key, but fun drinks and tapas? La Latina and Barrio de las Letras (sometimes also called Huertas) are the places to be. Finally, not as well-known as the other areas, but probably my favourite (because I used to live around the corner!), is Las Salesas, which is located right between Malasaña, Chueca and Salamanca and has become a magnet for art galleries, concept stores and trendy bars in recent years.
Soak up Spanish history in a world class museum (for free!)
Interested in Spanish (art) history? Then you’re in the right place, because Madrid has a number of state-of-the-art museums. And what’s more, you can access many of them for free if you plan ahead! The Prado, arguably Spain’s most important art museum, has free admission from 6-8pm Monday to Saturday and from 5-7pm on Sunday. The Reina Sofía, the 20th century art museum with famous works from Picasso, is free from 7-9pm Monday to Saturday (closed on Tuesdays) and from 1:30-7pm on Sunday. Finally, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, which hosts an extraordinary private collection of historical European art, is free on Mondays from 12-4pm. The same rule applies to all three, though: arrive early or be prepared to queue!
Apart from these ‘Big 3’, Madrid has a range of other, smaller museums. For contemporary art, must-see places include Caixa Forum, Conde Duque, and – my personal favourite – Matadero, a former slaughterhouse (yes, true!) converted into an arts and cultural centre. All of these are completely free of charge. If you’re more into history and classical art then make sure to visit the newly opened Museum of Madrid’s History in Malasaña (no admission). A bit more off-the-beaten track but just as fascinating are the opulent Cerralbo Museum, located in a 19th century city palace near Plaza España, and the intimate Museum of Romanticism in Malasaña (not as in romantic, but as in the 18th century artistic era). Both are free after 2pm on Saturdays, with the former also being free to the public on Thursday evenings.
Interested in royalty? Then a visit to the largest royal palace in Western Europe might be your cup of tea. Madrid’s Royal Palace, in the heart of the city, has more than 3,000 rooms, some of which are accessible to the public. Tickets usually cost €10 but entrance is free for EU citizens during the last 2 opening hours from Monday to Thursday (opening times differ per season so check their site in advance).
Discover Madrid’s greener side
After such an overdose of art, it’s time to get some vitamin D and top up your tan in one of Madrid’s beautiful parks. The most famous is El Parque del Buen Retiro – or simply Retiro – Madrid’s version of Central Park. This vast green space filled with monuments, sculptures, lakes and beautiful trees was once part of the royal gardens but is now a huge public park in the heart of the city. Look out for the stunning Crystal Palace when you’re there!
One of Madrid’s most famous green spaces is actually not outdoors, but inside a train station. Yes, you heard that right. Atocha is the city’s biggest railway station and its former grand departure hall has been converted into a vast indoor tropical garden, with turtles and all! It’s a great space that’s definitely worth checking out.
A lesser known green oasis is Madrid’s river side, which until recently was an ugly motorway. At the start of this century, a network of tunnels was built, traffic disappeared underground and Madrid Rio was born: a 6km long park along the Manzanares river.
Madrid’s largest public park is Casa de Campo on the west side of the city. It has its own theme park, cable car, zoo as well as wild flora and fauna. It’s one of the biggest urban parks in Europe and you’d hardly believe you’re in the Spanish capital!
Bring out your inner-foodie
Can’t get enough of Spanish food? Want to immerse yourself in the local culture? Then make sure not to miss one of Madrid’s many indoor food markets. The touristy but mouth-watering San Miguel market near Plaza Mayor is a feast for the eyes and taste buds. Its hipster version is the San Ildefonso market, a newly opened street food market in Malasaña. Platea in the Salamanca district is a similar, but more high-end concept. This cinema-turned-food-court has a range of stalls, bars and restaurants, all overseen by three Michelin-starred Spanish chefs – a real Walhalla for food lovers!
For a truly authentic experience, go grocery shopping in your neighbourhood’s local mercado. In the city centre, these include San Antón in Chueca, Barceló in Malasaña or Antón Martín in Huertas. Some of these markets have recently been renovated and have been extended with entire food courts, so you can taste and buy at the same time – dangerously good…!
And of course, say Spain and food and the first thing that comes to mind is tapas. Hence, a trip to the country’s capital wouldn’t be complete with some good old cañas y tapas (small beers with a snack) in La Latina on a weekend afternoon. Right across the corner from Madrid’s most famous Sunday flea market – El Rastro – you will find a myriad of small bars and cafes that serve some amazing little snacks with your drink. But be early, or be prepared to stand! Outside of La Latina, great places for tapas include Bodega de la Ardosa in Malasaña and Lateral in Barrio de las Letras.
While tapas are originally from southern Spain, something more typically local is a cocido madrileño, a chickpea-based stew with potatoes, meat and vegetables. It’s a popular winter lunch dish, but can be eaten throughout the year in restaurants like Taberna de la Daniela (with branches in Barrio de los Austrias and Salamanca).
And there’s always room for dessert, so drop by at Mama Framboise for Madrid’s best pastries or go for the more traditional churros con chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés (an institution in Madrid, open 24 hours a day). Sugar overdose guaranteed!
And because one can never have enough tapas, I’ve dedicated a separate blog post about where to find the best tapas (and other food) in Madrid.
Stroll along one of the city’s many lovely (hidden) squares
What better way to digest all of this food than going for a stroll along one of Madrid’s many hidden and not-so-hidden squares? Sure, Plaza Mayor, Cibeles or Sol are all beautiful, but there are plenty of other, quieter and possibly even more beautiful plazas across the city. Take the quaint and intimate Plaza de la Paja and Plaza de San Andrés in the heart of the city, for instance, which are lined with trees and surrounded by traditional buildings and small churches. Or mix and mingle with students at the Plaza del Dos de Mayo in Malasaña or the quieter Plaza de las Comendadoras in Universidad.
Probably two of my favourite squares though are a bit off the beaten track, but therefore all the more authentic: the stunning Plaza de Olavide in the Trafalgar neighbourhood, which is filled with small terraces and local families, and the Plaza de la Villa de Paris, a lovely quiet square just behind the Supreme Court.
The list of pretty squares could go on and on – the best way to discover them is by getting lost and accidentally stumbling on one!
Watch the sunset from an amazing rooftop terrace
On a hot summer night, or on a sunny spring or autumn afternoon, what’s better than enjoying a drink whilst watching the sun set over the city? Nothing, right? Well, luckily, Madrid has a number of fabulous rooftop bars with incredible vistas. One of the most well-known ones is Azotea on top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes, with stunning views over much of Madrid. Unfortunately they’ve recently started to charge a €4 fee to enter the rooftop, but it’s worth it for a one-off. Other fancy rooftop bars are the Oscar Terrace at the Room Mate hotel in Chueca and Radio at the ME Hotel at Plaza Santa Anna.
On a bit more of a budget? Then check out the rooftop terraces at El Viajero in La Latina, El Paracaidista in Malasaña (which is located on top of a cutting-edge concept store), or at the San Antón market in Chueca.
However, my favourite roof terrace must be at The Hat hostel, in the heart of the city. This uber cool rooftop bar serves affordable drinks and has spectacular views over the oldest part of town.
You can find a more amazing roof terraces in Madrid here.
And a final secret tip for those of you that don’t want to bother paying for a nice sunset view: the mirador at the Templo de Debod – the remains of an ancient Egyptian temple (for real!) – offers stunning views over the Royal Palace and much of the rest of the city.
BYO and join an open-air drinking feast
Although it’s not officially allowed, botellón (litarally: big bottle) is a typical Spanish phenomenon. It simply involves young people coming together at night time in public spaces, bringing their own drinks (in a big bottle…) and just having a blast in the open air, all made possible by the Mediterranean temperatures.
Botellones happen everywhere in Madrid, but are most common in and around Malasaña, particularly at the Plaza de San Ildefonso where you’ll typically find dozens of people sitting on the pavement having a drink at night. Buy a couple of beers from a local street vendor or night shop and join the crowd! It’s cheap, fun and THE best way to get to know locals.
Party until sunrise
The Spanish LOVE a good fiesta and definitely know how to throw a good one. There are countless bars and night clubs spread across Madrid, which normally don’t get busy until 2am. So, if you’re in for the full Madrid Experience, be prepared to party a lot and sleep little (forget that siesta, Spaniards sleep fewer hours than anyone else in Europe).
Ideally, your new Spanish BFF that you will have met at the bottelón will show you where to find the hottest parties, but if not, here are some tips. The list is endless, but some of the most popular night clubs in Madrid include Teatro Barceló, Joy Eslava, Sol y Sombra and La Riviera. A lot of the more exclusive night clubs are situated around the Paseo de la Castellana, the city’s biggest avenue. Are you up for something more alternative, then go to one of the many bars and clubs in Malasaña, such as the iconic La Vía Lactea, the hipster Ocho y Medio indie nightclub, or smaller and more intimate clubs like Sala BarCo and TupperWare. Chueca is full of smaller and bigger LGBT friendly bars and clubs. Electronic and techno fans can eat their heart out at Nox (near Chamartín) and Fabrik (on the outskirts of the city). Finally (as a last resort): are you with a group of friends and can’t make up your mind? Try one of the 7 floors at Kapital, a huge night club near Atocha that has something for (almost) everyone…
Escape the city
Although Madrid never-ever gets boring, you might want to get a break from all the hustle and bustle of city life. In that case, you don’t have to look far, because this city of 3.5 million is surrounded by a number of beautiful smaller towns, palaces and nature.
A 40 minute train ride takes you to gorgeous Toledo, known as the ‘City of 3 Cultures’ because of its Islamic, Jewish and Christian history. Other day trips include the medieval towns of Segovia and Ávila or even Salamanca, which are now linked to the capital by a new high-speed rail. If you’re interested in literature you might want to visit Miguel de Cervantes’ hometown Alcalá de Henares.
The Madrid region also boasts a number of impressive palaces, such as El Escorial or the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and only an hour away by train from central Madrid.
Alternatively, for the Sporty Spices among us, the Sierra da Guadarrama – a mountain range just north of Madrid – offers spectacular opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and even skiing.
Madrid’s best… (IMHO):
- Breakfast: pan con tomate at any local bar
- Coffee: Toma Café (Malasaña); Ruda Café (La Latina); Faraday (Chueca); Cripeka (Las Salesas); Federal Café (Universidad); La Colectiva (Trafalgar)
- Pastry: Mama Framboise (Las Salesas)
- Tapas: Bodega de la Ardosa (Malasaña); Restaurant Lateral (Plaza Santa Ana); Mercado de San Miguel; or anywhere in La Latina
- Hostel: The Hat (Barrio de Los Austrias): cool design, great location, amazing rooftop terrace; Room 007 (Chueca): clean, nicely decorated rooms – both with dorms and private rooms
- Hotel: Artrip (Lavapies): affordable cool
- View: Mirador del Templo de Debod
- Public swimming pool: Lago (Casa de Campo)