Late last week, I saw a Facebook post from a friend on my Timeline that caught my eye: “Have any of my Facebook friends been to Madrid? We’ll be there for a few days next week.” Obviously I immediately messaged her for a full breakdown of how long she’d be there, what she and her husband liked… and then, all hell broke loose. Everything I’d ever done, every place I’d ever visited all came pouring out onto my tiny iPhone screen until I had written a small book about my second home. I won’t have you all suffer the same absurd Facebook Messenger-travel guide that she was forced to endure, but I did compile a list of things not to miss if you’re ever visiting Madrid! Consider this my travel guide crossed with a passionate entreaty to not skip Madrid for Barcelona on your next Spain trip.
Templo de Debod – This place is always one of the first that I suggest to travelers in Madrid; many tourists don’t know about it, which makes it less crowded than a lot of the city’s attractions, but it is undeniably beautiful and historically important. The temple is an ancient Egyptian structure that was donated to Spain by Egypt in the sixties. The park that it sits in now rests high over the city, and the view at sunset is unbeatable. A word of warning though—anywhere tourists go in Madrid, pickpockets go, and El Templo de Debod is no different; watch your stuff like a hawk and keep a hand on your purse if you can.
Mercado de San Miguel – This one might have some of my Spanish friends groaning. This market, located just steps away from Plaza Mayor, is definitely a tourist destination—there’s no point in denying it. But, I tend to believe that tourist destinations become that way because they have something important to offer to visitors, and this market is no exception! Though pricier than many other markets frequented by locals, Mercado de San Miguel has a great array of “traditional” Spanish food for you to try with the added benefit of an extremely polished atmosphere. Among my recommendations for your visit here is the vermut (vermouth) bar; “vermouth hour” is a tradition in Madrid, and this booth is appropriately named La Hora del Vermut! Make sure they give you your allotted accompanying olives, because they’re just as good as their drinks! Other suggestions: croquetas (fried béchamel with various added ingredients), the wine-and-cheese booth, and of course, the ham booth.
If you enjoy that market and consider yourself a “foodie,” you might also enjoy Corte Ingles’ Gourmet Experience, on the 9th floor of the department store’s Plaza Callao location (go for the view if for nothing else). Markets with more local flavor include Mercado de San Ildefonso in Malasaña/Chueca, Mercado de San Antón in Chueca, Mercado de San Fernando in Lavapiés, and Mercado de la Cebada in La Latina, which has a multipurpose recreational area outside that hosts weekly salsa dancing, basketball games, concerts, and all sorts of other events.
Churros y chocolate –I’ll just say this: crispy, savory churros are delicious. Thick, rich hot chocolate is delicious. Dip the churros in the chocolate. Drink the leftover chocolate. You really can’t go wrong with those guidelines, but in the spirit of giving suggestions I can tell you that Chocolatería San Ginés is the most famous churreria in Madrid, in addition to being open insanely late (like, leaving-the-club-at-6:30-in-the-morning-late). If you’re more interested in the off-the-beaten-path spots, try Chocolat on Calle Santa Maria; Juan Alfonso, the owner, greets every person who walks in with a big ole’ smile and is just a generally kindhearted person. I used to stop here before I went to the gym in the afternoons (for a coffee, not churros, c’mon) and he’d offer me two or three free pastries every time I sat down. Eventually, the gym closed, but I continued my afternoon trips to Chocolat.
Tapas in La Latina – It would be hard not to partake in the “tapas culture” of Madrid; you’d probably have to actively try to avoid it. Visitors who want to dive headfirst into the tapas scene should head straight to La Latina, especially on a Sunday afternoon or evening—I have a well-evidenced theory that Spaniards actually came up with “Sunday funday” before frat boys did. Calle Cava Baja and Calle Cava Alta are particularly famous for the “tapas crawl” atmosphere—my favorite on Cava Baja is Taberna Txakolí, with a mouthwatering selection of Basque pintxos and good wine. Txirimiri, just a short walk away, is a Madrid fan favorite, frequently taking top honors in La Latina’s “Pincho Week” festivities. My favorite tortilla española (Spanish omelet) in the world can be found a stone’s throw from Cava Baja and Cava Alta at Juana la Loca; just across from there you can find El Viajero’s zen rooftop bar with views over the neighborhood to end your evening.
The “Golden Triangle of Art” – Madrid has three world-class art museums all in the same walk-able area; even if you’re not “an art person,” I think it would be a shame to miss these museums. The Museo del Prado is the largest: if you’re trying to rush through, at the very least stop by the El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya paintings. Velasquez’ Las Meninas has haunted every AP Art History Student since it was painted, and visiting the room where Goya’s “Black Paintings” have been placed is an eerie but unforgettable experience. The Museo Reina Sofia is filled with modern art—if that’s not your thing, I wouldn’t blame you for visiting just to see Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica—many art historians have credited it for bringing international attention to the Spanish Civil War which it depicts. The Museo de Arte Thyssen-Bornemisza may lack a staple “masterpiece,” but to me, it’s the most enjoyable of the three because it really requires no agenda—just show up and enjoy the various styles and time periods of the museum’s diverse collection.
The Nightlife – I doubt this is a major revelation to anyone, but Spanish people like to stay out late (see: churrerías open until 7AM). I don’t think a proper trip to Madrid can exclude at least a taste of the nightlife, though by no means does that mean you have to go to one of Madrid’s famed discotecas. If you want those, they’re there for you—try Kapital (7 stories tall) or Joy Eslava—but be aware that your wallet will be a lot lighter in the morning. Malasaña, just north of Gran Via, is chock-full of fun bars like Tupperware (my personal favorite), Madrid Me Mata (which doubles as a Spanish rock’n’roll museum), Freeway, and Angie. Also in Malasaña sits an unassuming little gem called Casa Camacho, where a Malasaña concoction called the “yayo” is served— vermouth, gin, and god knows what else; this stuff will do the job.
Of course, if you have more than a few days, there is a lot more you could enjoy in Madrid—I didn’t even mention the Royal Palace, Santiago Bernabéu stadium, Retiro Park, or the Puerta del Sol or Plaza Mayor (which would likely be the first two places any tourist would stop anyway). The places and things I’ve mentioned here are meant to give you a good idea of what Madrid is like—while many cities in Europe begin to feel like one giant checklist of sights to see, Madrid is here for you to enjoy and experience. Next time you plan a trip to Spain, don’t leave Madrid off the list!
Templo de Debod, Calle Ferraz 1, Madrid 28008.
Mercado de San Miguel, Plaza de San Miguel, Madrid 28005, +34.915.424.936, http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/en/.
Gourmet Experience Gran Via, El Corte Ingles Callao, Plaza de Callao 2, Madrid 28013, +34.913.798.000, https://www.elcorteingles.es/supermercado/aptc/gourmet-experience/granvia/.
Chocolatería San Ginés, Pasadizo San Ginés 5, Madrid 28013, +34.913.656.546, https://chocolateriasangines.com/.
Chocolat, Calle Santa María 30, Madrid 28014, +34.914.294.565, http://www.chocolatmadrid.com/.
Taberna Txacolí, Calle Cava Baja 42, Madrid 28005, +34.913.661.224, http://www.tabernatxacoli.com/.
Txirimiri, Calle del Humilladero 6, Madrid 28005, +34.913.641.196, http://www.txirimiri.es/.
Juana La Loca, Plaza Puerta de Moros 4, Madrid 28005, +34.913.640.525, http://juanalalocamadrid.com/.
El Viajero, Plaza de la Cebada 11, Madrid 28005, +34.913.669.064, http://www.elviajero.com/en/.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Paseo del Prado, Madrid 28014, https://www.museodelprado.es/en/.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Calle de Santa Isabel 52, Madrid 28012, http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid 28014, http://www.museothyssen.org/en/.
Casa Camacho, Calle de San Andrés 4, Madrid 28004, +34.915.313.598.