Looking back, I feel as though there’s a trend emerging from this years travel destinations.
I swear, the more I travel, the more food-centric my trips become. Porto was heavy on the natas and port, Zante had me discover the delights of Greek Island cuisine, Berlin was super focused on it’s international street food and German beer, then my short weekend in Venice quickly became one long cicchetti bar-crawl.
As I approach my thirties, I’m realising that I’m such a simple creature; feed me good food, and I’ll keep on smiling! Now, tell me a better way to celebrate getting old than to catch a flight over to the city of Madrid and spoil myself with endless tapas in the Spanish sunshine?
We spent a relaxing three nights in Madrid, drinking at some of the best tapas bars in the city’s vibrant La Latina district, goggling at world-famous Picassos, or just sun-seeking in Retiro Park. Madrid isn’t everyone’s first thought when they think of a ‘holiday in Spain’, so I wanted to throw a spotlight on this incredible destination and share my quick guide of what to see, do and most crucially, where to eat!
Visit Plaza Mayor
A good starting point to any city is the main square – it’s a good bet that you’ll find art, history, architecture and no doubt some street entertainment. We found ourselves passing through here quite often as we visited the various attractions to the north and south of the city.
This was also the meeting point of our Sandemans free walking tour, where our tour guide walked us through the history of the space; celebrations, executions and even bullfights took place here. Something you wouldn’t expect though, Plaza Mayor was also the site of countless bird deaths, all owing to a design mishap of the King Phillip III statue in the centre of the square! King Phillips’ horse was initially designed with an ‘open mouth’ – curious birds would slip in down the horses’ neck, but couldn’t escape the same way. The fate of these birds was only ever discovered after a local threw a firecracker into the statue… I’ll spare the gory description but you can bet it wasn’t pretty.
Today, the horses’ mouth remains firmly closed!
Choose Churros Anytime of the Day at San Gines
The finest example of the Spanish doing things well, is the fact churros exist as a breakfast item. Doughnuts and hot chocolate sauce for breakfast!
But logic dictates that if something is so good, why keep it for a certain time of day? I’m imagining that a similar thought was had by the owners of Chocolateria San Gines, Madrid’s 24/7 Churro house.
It’s a dangerous concept and we ended up taking full advantage of being able to indulge in plates of churros whenever the hell we wanted. Churros for breakfast? Sure. Mid-afternoon snack? No problem. Post-dinner dessert? Of course! Tipsy-as-anything 2am munchies? Good lord, YES!
Having been around since 1894, these guys have churro making down to a fine art, and service is quick. Even if there’s a queue out the door, it was never long until we found a table and were chowing down on a mound of deep-fried goodness and a bowl of their rich hot chocolate.
Stop for Drinks at Mercado de San Miguel
I did say food would feature heavily in this guide!
I’ve been to a lot of city markets all over Europe, but Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel might be one of my favourites. What this compact market lacks in size, it makes up for in the sheer quality of the food on offer. Mainly sticking to the bar – naturellement – we managed to sample the few different types of Estrella, and we couldn’t resist ordering a few tapas to keep us fed as well as watered.
Bonus tip – just around the corner from the market is El Minibar. Honestly, the name makes it sound atrocious, right? But this badly kept secret is where you’ll find the best tapas meal you’ll have in Madrid. If it’s busy, which it will be, make sure you stick it out and wait for a free table. The Manchego cheese infused with truffle is something to write home about.
Spend Hours Eating Tapas in La Latina
Now, here’s the secret behind my real love for Madrid; the La Latina district.
It was a conscious choice that our hotel was right in the middle of this area, because we wanted to be as close as possible to all the best tapas bars. I think it says a lot about me that I want to be within stumbling distance of the wine and food…
So yeah, this was the best decision of the whole trip! After a day of sightseeing, we’d head back to the hotel, freshen up and head down the road to bar-hop until midnight.
A little back
Best tapas bars in La Latina? El Bombin Quinteria is easily the best place to start; a tad off the main road, this super affordable and popular bar serves the best free tapas with your beer – we had just three days in Madrid? You’ll bet we came here at least twice every day! Just around the corner was Casa Gerado – wannabe wine connoisseurs need not look any further – take a pilgrimage to this wine bar with bottles stacked high; extending floor to ceiling. To entice you further, their entire menu is made of various plates of cheese. I got giddy just reminding myself of this place!
Don’t leave La Latina without walking down the popular Calle de la Cava Baja. To sample a traditional Madrid dish, head to the end of the road to Pez Tortilla for Spanish omelette. To clench the deal, they even had a great menu of modern craft beers – I couldn’t get enough of the vibe in here! Finally, for something totally different, go to Taberna Tita Pepa for some live music and traditional tapas.
Get Cultured at the Museo Nacional Centro
de Arte Reina Sofia
The Museo Reina Sofia is Spain’s national museum for contemporary art and is home to ‘Guernica’ – regarded as one of the most important political ant-war art pieces, painted by Picasso as a reaction to the Nazi’s bombing the Basque city during the Spanish civil war. Side note: as you may already guess, I always enjoy a Picasso in general, considering that he is the name-sake of my miniature dachshund, Pablo!
Art buff or not, Guernica’s sheer size and the bold and haunting abstract imagery makes an impression – well worth forking out the entrance fee to experience this masterpiece. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering through the permanent collections of the Reina Sofia which also include artworks from surrealists’ Salavdor Dali and Joan Miro as well as other notable Spanish artists.
The Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral
Located right next to one another, the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral with it’s colourful ceilings and ornate crypt. We passed by these buildings with our free walking tour guide and he joked that the ‘laid-back’ Spanish took over 100 years to build the Cathedral, finally announcing its completion in 1993. Of course, he was quick to point out that this timeline was infinitely better than their Catalonian friends who are still working on their cathedral ;).
The Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral are two of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions – the Royal Palace is actually still the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family and the largest functioning royal palace in the whole of Europe!
Indulge in Rooftop Cocktails at the
Circulo de Bellas Artes
Seek out cocktails and a bit of perspective.
The rooftop of the Circulo de Bellas Artes is a well known look-out point for unrivalled views down the main shopping street, the Gran Via and across the rest of the city.
There’s a small fee to reach the top and you’ll need to pay for coffee or a cocktail once you’re there, but the uber-cool chill-out tunes and comfortable lounge chairs will entice you to stay a while and work on your freckles (pale-gal problems).
Relax in El Retiro, Madrid’s City Park
Even in October, Madrid was hanging onto to the end of summer with long days of sunshine and Retiro Park was the perfect location to spend a slow Sunday morning.
Having been to countless city-parks around Europe, I think Madrid’s Retiro Park has got to be up there with the best. For one, it’s absolutely huge! An expansive 300 acres, with large grassy areas, 15,000 trees, a rose garden, Palacio de Cristal – the glass pavilion (complete with scores of sunbathing terrapins) and a boating lake.
On Sunday, the park was full of families talking walks with ice creams, roller blading couples, running groups and tourists grappling with their oars on the lake.
Seek Out Bar La Campana for
Bocadillos de Calamares
I apologise in advance for the next paragraph that will read like a love letter to a calamari sandwich. Written down, I’m sure this sounds ridiculous, but for those that haven’t tried this sandwich, you’ll never understand, dammit! *dramatic hand clasping!*
Already somewhat of a calamari fan, I love finding a good fried squid dish when I travel. Bar La Campana serves up monster calamari sandwiches, perfectly battered in a huge crusty bread roll. Service borders on the chaotic; a half-formed queue pushes towards the till, but the sandwiches come up quick. Proper fast food.
And this is good. Paying only 3 Euro for the privilege seems if I’m cheating them somehow. Hands down the best and most delicious, budget lunch in Madrid.
Find Egyptian Treasures at the Temple of Debod
We nearly missed this place off our itinerary. We were meant to be on a day trip to Toledo but a monumental screw-up with the trains meant we had another day exploring Madrid. Cue an unplanned stop at the Temple of Debod.
In hindsight, I’m glad that we did screw-up our trains as our mid-morning stroll through the park was just perfect. In contrast to the busy La Latina district or the crowds of the Gran Via, the park was relatively unpopulated and boasts some of the best views in the city.
The Temple of Debod is also actually really impressive on account of it being unfathomably old! Who’d have thought that you could hang-out in front of an Ancient Egyptian structure, originating from the 2nd Century BC, in the middle of Spain?
So what is it doing here? In 1960, the construction of the Great Dam of Aswan posed a threat to this and other monuments in Egypt. UNESCO stepped in and Spain was able to provide aid to help to save the sites. As a way of saying ‘thank you’, Egypt gifted the Temple of Debod and it was re-built in Madrid in 1968. Seriously cool.
Hunt Antiques and Tourist Trinkets at the
El Rastro Sunday Market
Another perk of basing ourselves in the La Latina district was being close to the famous ‘El Rastro’ Sunday Market. Some sources claim that this is the largest open air flea market in Europe.
It took us quite a while to wander around – we didn’t have a set direction, so we just dived right in and followed the general flow of the crowd. There really is no theme for the market; from flower stalls, to second hand clothes, to hand crafted jewellery, to leather bags to a treasure trove of antiques! I spotted so many gems that I’d love to take home – curse bringing ‘hand luggage only!’
A long weekend was just enough time to explore the best of Madrid, and it was exact amount time I needed to really fall for the Spanish capital.
Honestly, it was probably the food… It was definitely the food!
Have you every been to Madrid, or is Madrid on your bucket list? Where else in Spain should I travel to?