What to do in Madrid?
People keep asking me this, so I thought it would be practical to collect it all in a post. Since 2010 I have been going to Madrid almost every vacation, sometimes up to three months a year, so needless to say, I am starting to know it – even in all my lack of sense of direction. (Seriously, I once thought the royal castle of Oslo was my friend’s school, because I saw it from behind.)
Before I start the list, let me emphasize that my experience of M-town has been served through locals. That means there are some touristy things I haven’t bothered doing, but on the other side – there are things I know about that tourists usually would not visit.
Thanks to my ever present urge to buy stuff, I learnt to get around the city on my own – any shopper with even a drop of self respect refuses to drag her unwilling husband around as an unnecessary accessory. Madrid is great for shopping, and can be exactly as cheap or exclusive as you want, depending on the area.
Calle de Fuencarral
I am not sure if this is a famous shopping street or not, but it has definitely satisfied my thirst for materialism even in the brokest of times. Fuencarral is full of shops – independent ones and chains, some are super cheap and others medium. It’s a long street, so you’ll definitely need a few hours.
Sfera: if you’re broke. It’s like the HM of Spain!
Pull and bear: also cheap AF, and non-existent in my useless motherland.
Zakka: Great for gifts, real Japanese style and lots of stuff that will make you go AWWWW! Check them out on Instagram @kawaiizakka
American Vintage: not cheap, but if you’re into cupro and wool, this is your brand.
Llao llao: Stop here for a yoghurt ice cream. You will want to have it again for dinner.
MUJI: Another Japanese brand, and I promise you this store will make you want to redecorate your whole house. Prices are decent and quality good – they also have a small clothes section with super comfy and minimalistic items.
In the middle of Fuencarral you can turn and get into calle de Velarde. This is the best vintage area in town, and super charming and bohemian. Get lost in the narrow streets, but be aware that most shops here close during siesta time.
Williamsburg: both vintage clothing and redesigned items. The shop is run by one of the regulars in a bar I will mention further down, and she runs it with true passion!
Plaza de dos de Mayo: this plaza is the center of Malasaña and has lots of good bars and restaurants.
Probably my favorite neighborhood! This area is crowded with tiny, independent shops with unique treasures. Don’t be intimidated by the sex shops, Chueca is very liberal (and very gay!).
Batavia: Good luck with buying anything, but this furniture store will blow you away. Let’s just say this isn’t IKEA, and a closet here almost made my furniture maker mother cry.
Barei: Exclusiveness meets quirky at its finest. Top quality, awesome design. Easily one of the best shops in Madrid
Mot: Pretty much the same as Barei
Italian Skills: cool clothes, even cooler jewelry, made by a local Madrileña. Decent prices.
TRÄ: A little difficult to locate, so check your Google Maps. Awesome clothes, but not cheap
Échale Guindas: Fantastic little gallery that will inspire you to the core
Calle Claudio Coello
Welcome to the most expensive neighborhood in town! Among Gucci, Prada and Loubotain, you can find exclusive little niche boutiques and a few less expensive chains. Check out …& other stories, Zara home and all the tiny ones!
Madrid has a whole bunch of museums – some which I have yet to visit. However, three of them make out the most famous ones, and they are all very beautiful and interesting, each in their own way.
The Louvre of Madrid, and perfect for the classical art lover. You will get to see masterpieces by Goya, Velazques, Tizian and Rafael – basically the whole gang of naked, chubby angels in ecstasy (and don’t get me wrong, I love it). The building is also impressive, and the surrounding green areas frame it perfectly. If you’re lucky, you will find an absolutely amazing classical guitarist sitting on the corner playing Albéniz, and you will find yourself wondering why the hell he is a street musician.
Note: Prado is huge (like, really huge), so there is no way to see all of it during a visit. Get a map and find what you want to see. The average visitor spends 2,5 hours, but be warned: you will be quite exhausted afterwords, so be prepared to sit down for a tapa and a glass of Rioja ASAP when you’re done. Prado is closed on Mondays, and some days, at certain hours, there’s free entrance. Check in advance for good planning.
I tend to visit Thyssen almost every time I’m in town, mostly because they are really good at exhibiting new and exciting stuff in the temporary part of their collection. Here you can find everything from optical art to Rembrandt, depending on the time. It’s usually worth a visit, and they have a cool gift shop.
Note: Don’t be loud. The guards tend to be a little cranky.
This is where you go to see the mandatory Guernica by Picasso – but Reina Sofia also has some Dalí paintings that are worth seeing, if one is a fan (like I am).
Note: This is a complete modern art museum, so they tend to have some weird stuff.
The Sorolla museum is one of the underdogs among Madrid museums, but one of my favorites. The building is located in an absolutely wonderful townhouse, where the artist himself lived with his family. All the paintings are painted by lesser known Spanish painter Sorolla, and as amazing as they are, the house itself is equally beautiful. You will get to see his paint brushes and work space, which adds an extra layer of authenticity to the experience. Plus, you will end up dreaming about being rich and live in a place like this.
Other touristy stuff
Madrid is monumental and full of absolutely overkill buildings from the 18th and 19th century. Many of them are open to visitors.
The City Hall
This is my absolute favorite building in Madrid, and I love the fact that it used to be the post office until more or less recently. Now it has become the city hall, and unfortunately I have never been inside it, but it gives a whole lot of pleasure just gazing upon this maximalistic wedding cake like palace.
The Royal Palace
The area around the royal palace is great for evening strolls! Make sure to peak over the wall by the edge – the level below has beautiful gardens, kind of British style.
A very awesome tree
Take the metro to Plaza Sol, and then… get the hell out of there! It is the only place in the city I systematically avoid, as it is an awful tourist trap, full of overpriced bars and people desperate to sell you crap. Plaza Mayor is really close though. It is also touristy and overpriced, but the square is marvelous, and you should see it. In general, this part of the city is old and very charming, and as long as you get out of the two major tourist traps, there are good bars with great food everywhere.
The National Library
Unfortunately they have very few tours to see the collection of books, but just entering the main hall is worth the visit. The building looks like it’s made for giants, and ~everything~ is white marble. Magical.
El parque Retiro
The Retiro Park is the Central Park of Madrid. It’s absolutely huge, and very beautiful. It has (artificial) lakes with (real) ducks, nice buildings and even a small crystal palace. There are bars in there for when you get tired, and it’s a great place to be all year round. Apparently there is also a monument of the devil in there, but according to my husband, you only find it when you are not looking for it. Naturally, the devil being as he is.
Eating and Drinking
One of our favorite places to eat is an informal tapas restaurant called Almendro 13, which is also the address of it. Order huevos rotos or huevos emporrás, and un roscón. It. Is. Good.
This bar only serves croquetas and fried bacalao, and there’s a reason for that. They opened in 1860, and remain awesome. Even people who don’t like cod, like cod here.
If you’re up for the more authentic and even less formal eating experience, go to Chamberí. Sure, the menus won’t be in English and the waiters will only say qué if you ask them to translate, but the food will be the cheapest and best you’ll have. The trick in this neighborhood is usually to go to the bars that look the shittiest.
Bar las bravas
This is one of my regular hang-outs, perfect for pre-partying. It is an absolutely hideously looking little neighborhood bar, where customers simply throw their dirty napkins on the floor. But hell can they make hamburgers, morcilla or tortilla – and even better, if you order a drink (duh), you get really good, big, free tapas. You can actually get full here without paying for food at all.
El rincón de Fer
These guys are also generous on the free tapas, but if you do order something to eat, you get absolutely huge portions! And they’re so good. I would seriously recommend starving yourself before going here. You’re gonna gain 5 kilos. And it won’t even cost you much money.
La negra Tomása
Up for the real Latin spirit? This Cuban salsa place will latinize your every pore. They make the tastiest mojitos, and the dancing crowd actually know what they’re doing . There is live music many nights a week, and the bands are absolutely impressive. I once witnessed the pianist having a long conversation with her friend while improvising on the piano for several minutes, without even looking. The owner usually comes out and strolls around during midnight – and yes, she is a big black woman called Tomása.
Food Words and Such
Many of Madrid’s best bars won’t have menus in English. So – here is a small vocabulary containing my favorite dishes!
Huevos rotos: Literally means broken eggs, and comes in various shapes and forms. It’s always however, fried potatoes with fried eggs and Spanish ham on top.
Salmorejo: You may know gazpacho, and salmorejo is its ingenious cousin. It’s a kind of tomato based soup, served cold and often with Spanish ham and eggs on top. It also contains bread crumbs, so it’s much thicker and fuller than the gazpacho. Great as a starter!
Morcilla de Burgos: Brace yourself: here comes the blood sausage. I’m usually not a fan of intestine based food, but this sausage is amazing. Put your fears aside and try it – you won’t regret. The de Burgos type is always baked with rice.
Pata negra/Bellota: Should you find a ham on the menu that costs three times as much as everything else, you have found a pata negra or a bellota. This is the best and most exclusive ham, and is worth every eurocent. It often has a slight taste of hazelnut, and melts on your tongue.
Pimientos de padrón: These are small, green peppers with salt and oil. Sounds simple enough, but it’s really damn delicious. They’re also kind of jokesters, as you will usually find one super spicy one among the regulars. No one knows which one it will be.
Chopitos: Like seafood? I usually don’t, but these little squid dwarves are tasty as hell.
Lacón a la gallega: Pork, and the softest you will have. A bit risky, as they sometimes salt it too much, but when you find a good one, it’s delicious. Usually served with boiled potatoes and pimentón; a pepper based spice.
Churros/porras: These guys are my go-to breakfast meal. Churros are getting famous outside Spain, but if you are wondering what a porra is, it’s basically a huge churro.
Menestra: All the fatty food can make you crave some vegetables. Menestra is a veggie mix, sometimes mixed with Spanish ham. It can be refreshing when you feel your colesterole rising.
Chorizo: We all know this one I think, but look for the one a la sidra – boiled in cider. Other great sausages are salchichon (raw) and chistorra (fried).
Croquetas: Croquets are always a win. They are usually filled with ham, but sometimes with bacalao (cod) or something else.
Pimientos rellenos: Bell peppers filled with meat stew or bacalao. So good.
Cazón: Always look for cazón. When they have it, get it. It is the best shark you will ever eat.