With over 3 million people in Spain’s capital, Madrid is big, busy, and diverse. We stayed in a tiny basement Airbnb near Sol, the city center where you can find countless restaurants, shops, and entertainment. The number of places to eat tapas was mind-boggling. It reminded us a bit of NYC and was sensory overload at times having just come from a quiet and relaxing week in southern Portugal. It definitely took us a couple days to adjust. With temperatures in the 90’s every day and no breeze it was a hot urban jungle especially in the afternoons. Outside the city center there were nice museums, government buildings, and beautiful parks somewhat similar to DC.
We kicked off our visit with a free walking tour of the city that came highly recommended. Our tour guide Enrique was awesome and in 3 hours we learned a lot about the history of Madrid and saw several historic sites such as: Plaza Mayor, Botin (the world’s oldest restaurant founded in 1725), and the Palacio (Palace) where the royal family used to live. We also learned about the history of the tapa, which literally means “top” or “lid”. In the old days it was law (which no longer in place) that a piece of free food must be served with every alcoholic drink purchased to keep the peasants working hard. The “tapa” was served on a plate and placed on top of a mug or glass to keep dirt and insects out. These days tapas aren’t just small plates of food with your drink, it’s a lifestyle. Several times a week locals go out with friends and hop from bar to bar to socialize and get free tapas with their drinks. Some common tapas are croquettes, patatas bravas (fried potatoes), jamón or other meat or fish on bread, and tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette with potatoes, onions, and eggs). Olives and chips are also acceptable though considered to be the bottom of the barrel. In Madrid the secret is to find the places that give you the best tapas. If you hit 2 or 3 good places in a night you don’t have to pay for dinner. Pork is another huge staple in Spanish cuisine and we definitely had our fair share. Speaking of food & drink, the beer in Spain is pretty light and there is not much variety compared to what we’re used to back home. On the bright side, the wine is very cheap and only costs around $2 per glass, which we took full advantage of.
Being centrally located gave us a chance to explore many different neighborhoods on foot. Malasaña, Chueca, and Salamanca were a few of our favorites and each had a different vibe. We went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and saw famous works of art by Dalí, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Renior, and others. One of our favorite (and free) place to visit was Retiro Park. Spread over 350 acres its lush grass, expansive rose and botanical gardens, boating lake, running trails, and museums were a great break from pounding the pavement. So much so, we went twice! Another highlight was the Flamenco show we went to at the end of the week. The venue was intimate, with only a handful of tables that enabled us to experience the passionate performance up close. Here’s a short video of it.
Some of our favorite places to eat & drink include:
- Bar Tomate – great cocktails and fabulous ahi tuna – a nice change from tapas.
- Tribuetxe – hidden gem with very innovative and healthy tapas.
- El Sur – affordable, great service and even better ropa vieja & grilled calamari.
- Malaspina – great tapas bar with old school atmosphere.
- Arugula & El Azul – excellent fresh local ingredients and affordable healthy lunches.
- BeeBeer – a taste of home (they even carry Flying Dog!)
- La Campana – super cheap fried food paradise. Locals especially love the fried calamari sandwiches. Jenn wasn’t into it, but liked the $1 glasses of wine.
- Museo del Jamón – a staple in Madrid. Cheap beer and Jamón sandwiches.
Some of our favorite places to we visited:
- Retiro Park – fantastic huge park in the city.
- Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – houses centuries of famous art and free entry on Monday.
- Las Carboneras Flamenco Show – intimate Flamenco experience!
- Sandeman’s New Madrid Free Walking Tour – free walking tour around the city. We tipped Enrique at the end – it was well worth it!
- Mercado de San Anton & Mercado de San Miguel – two markets that are both very well done. Food and drink galore.
- Plaza Mayor – huge town square with lots of history. This is where ceremonies, parties, and executions used to take place. The free walking tour starts here.
Adios, Madrid! Glad to have visited, but we’re ready to explore another coastal city for the next 10 days. After a week of eating out we (especially Jenn) can’t wait to have a kitchen again. On to Barcelona!