My eyes light up when people tell me they’re headed to Madrid. The short time I lived there as a kid gave me a long-lasting and deep connection to the city. Like a true Madrileño, I root for Real Madrid and get very defensive when someone suggests Barcelona is a better city. (It’s not.) I still speak with a Castilian accent because that’s what I learned. (The fact that it makes me sound pretentious is just a bonus!)
Last fall, a friend said he and his husband were heading to Madrid. I started firing off suggestions of what to see and do. Then I sent about two dozen texts as more ideas popped into my head. It was a deluge of disorganized information — like giving someone jigsaw puzzle pieces with no picture to help them.
In December, someone else was headed to Madrid. My recommendations were once again a useless jumble of names and places. Not very helpful.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. A colleague told me he and his wife are headed to Madrid this spring, and again I offered to provide some suggestions. This time, I’m going to do it right by writing everything down and providing some structure. Not only is this a more useful approach, but I can use it again when people say they’re going to Madrid.
In true Daily Dave fashion, this list is more verbose than it needs to be. Hey, it’s my blog and I’ll write as much as I want to!
Eating and Drinking
I’m not a foodie, so you might want to check TripAdvisor for tips. Here are a few things I enjoy:
Casa Mingo: This is an old restaurant known for two things: cider and roast chicken. The cider is made in-house, and it’s unprocessed and unfiltered (which means it’s cloudy). The Complimentary Spouse and I both enjoyed the chicken, but he was a bigger fan of the cider than I was.
Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico): You’ll find this all over the place.
The Gourmet Experience at El Corte Inglés (Princesa location): This is a high-end food hall on the ninth floor of a department store. The food is expensive but good. The views are good too. (This El Corte Inglés location spans three buildings. I can’t remember which one the Gourmet Experience is in, but there will be signs.)
Gazpacho: The best gazpacho in the world is made by my mom, but you can’t go wrong ordering it in Madrid.
Sangria: You can get this practically everywhere, from cheap bars to high-end restaurants. I am a purist, so if it’s not red, it’s not real sangria. The word “sangria” comes from “sangre,” which means blood, so why the hell would it be white? Who has white blood?1
Churros y chocolate: Churros are small and folded, unlike the massive sticks you find in the U.S. The chocolate should be so thick that you can float your spoon on top. The most famous place is Chocolatería San Ginés, but there’s usually a line, and you can get good ones elsewhere.
Helpful tip: Download the Fork app. It’s like OpenTable for Europe.
El Prado: This is where Spanish art, history, and culture come together. We had many a field trip there when I was in school! Two paintings to check out:
- Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez is the most famous and well-known painting here. I like it because it tells a story about palace life, instead of just being a typical royal portrait. My favorite detail is the mirror: That’s the king and queen, but if it were a real mirror, the viewer would be in the reflection.
- Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya will haunt your dreams. It’s really, really, really fucked up. You’ve been warned.
Museo Reina Sofía: This is Madrid’s modern art museum. I think it’s right up there with MOMA, the Tate Modern, and Pompidou Center. Picasso’s Guernica is the most famous painting here. It’s huge and there are always crowds milling in front of it, so don’t expect to take a good picture.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Along with El Prado and Reina Sofia, this is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. It’s not as impressive as the other two, in my opinion.
Museo Sorolla: Well outside the Golden Triangle, this is a small and interesting museum dedicated to Joaquin Sorolla. The building is his former home, which is nicely preserved and has a cute garden. If you visit, you can easily walk to the Salamanca neighborhood and check out Calle Serrano (which I’ll write about below).
Temple de Debod: This is an old Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt piece by piece in Madrid. (There’s no Elgin Marbles controversy here. It was part of a legitimate program to preserve historical monuments.) I haven’t been there at sunset, but I’m told it’s magical then.
The Royal Palace: There are more than 3,000 rooms, which makes me wonder if this happens.2
Plaza Mayor: This is a large historic square in the middle of the city. Since it’s a tourist magnet, you should probably skip the restaurants here. If you do a walking tour, this is probably where it will start.
Helpful tip: Do a free guided walking tour on your first day. You’ll hit all the historical sites around Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. There are just too many historical things for me to list.
Casa de Campo: Casa de Campo is huge. Like, really huge. It’s twice the size of Central Park (I think). The area closest to the city center still feels natural and unspoiled, with lots of walking trails and great views of Madrid. Further away, you’ll find an amusement park, zoo, aquarium, soccer stadium, and more things like that. We went on a field trip to the amusement park, and all I remember is that the rides seemed worn out and creaky. I imagine they have been fixed up since then.
If you go to Casa de Campo, check out the area around the lake, which is directly east of the Royal Palace. It’s a great place to stroll around, do some people-watching, and even grab a bite to eat. You can also rent a kayak, which Britt and I would not do because we’re landlubbers.
El Retiro: Whereas Casa de Campo has size, El Retiro has charm. It’s still pretty darn big, but it feels more like a proper European city park, with formal gardens, sculptures, a colonnade, fountains, and such. There are also plenty of places to eat.3
Be sure to look for el Palacio de Cristal (The Glass Palace), which is built out of glass and cast iron. I imagine it was what the Crystal Palace in London looked like before it burned down. If you get there late in the afternoon, you’ll be able to see the sun streaming through the windows.
Fun side note: The Plaza de la Independencia is located at one of the entrances to el Retiro. There you’ll find two incredibly important and historically significant landmarks: the beautiful Puerto de Alcalá and my dad’s old office building.
A related fun side note: When I took my AP History test in [year redacted], the surprise essay question was about the Spanish Civil War and there was a picture of fighting at the Puerto de Alcalá. I aced the shit out of that essay.
Rio Madrid: When I lived in Madrid, I didn’t even know there was a river running through the city. It was completely blocked in by the M-30, which means my family drove near or around it too many times to count and I never noticed it.
Now, the river is hard to miss. That long stretch of the M-30 has been moved underground, opening both sides of the river to development. It’s now a beautiful linear park with lots of places to walk, run, rest, and have fun. Britt and I first explored Río Madrid on Segways, and went back later that day. We can’t wait to go back.
Quick note: The actual name of the river is Manzanares. And it’s really a stretch to call it a river. It’s more of a dried-up creek. Still, it’s an awesome area to visit.
Cool Neighborhoods and Streets
Chueca: It’s the gay neighborhood in Madrid. Hell, it might be the gayest neighborhood in the world — and I’ve been to San Francisco and Provincetown! There are so many Pride flags here that you’ll think a rainbow threw up. All that aside, it’s an awesome part of Madrid with great restaurants and bars. Check out Mercado San Antón, an indoor food market with restaurants and a cool bar.
Plaza del Sol: This is literally the center of Madrid. It’s kilometer zero for the entire highway system — all distances are measured from this spot. Look for:
- The Oso y el Madroño statue: The image of a bear pawing at a strawberry tree has been associated with Madrid for centuries. By the way, guess what no longer lives in Madrid? Bears and strawberry trees.
- The Tío Pepe sign: Tío Pepe is a brand of sherry. This sign has been there forever.
Lavapiés: This is a really cool neighborhood with an alternative vibe. It’s where you’ll find tons of street art. I highly recommend taking a guided street art walking tour.
Gran Vía: This is the main road in the middle of Madrid. The architecture is gorgeous. Britt and I usually try to stay somewhere on Gran Vía because it’s centrally located.
Calle de Preciados: This is a pedestrian street between Gran Vía and Plaza del Sol. A lot of other nice pedestrian streets branch off of it. You’ll find a huge El Corte Inglés department store here.
Calle Fuencanal: You’ll find a little bit of everything on this pedestrian shopping street. It’s often crowded, which makes for great people-watching. It branches off Gran Vía.
El Rastro: A massive flea market is held here every Sunday. Keep an eye on your wallet.
Calle Serrano: This is the ritziest shopping in street in Salamanca, the ritziest neighborhood. Basically, it’s the opposite of el Rastro. Here you’ll find Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, and so on. It’s considered to be Madrid’s Fifth Avenue or Champs-Élysées, but I don’t think it’s particularly picturesque.
From Madrid, you can get nearly everywhere quickly on high-speed rail. Here are two places about 30 minutes away:
Toledo: This is a beautiful old city with a gothic cathedral (still in use) and a historic synagogue and mosque (not surprisingly, not in use). The synagogue is now a museum, and the mosque is a church. Toledo used to be known for making steel weapons, so everywhere you go, you can buy full-sized souvenir swords and knives. My brother bought a whole bunch of swords, and I have no idea where they are now.
Segovia: Come for the Roman aqueduct. Stay for the cathedral and fortress! Each of these would be worth a trip on its own, so seeing all three in a day is incredible.
Here’s a video of Segovia
I made on the 30-minute train ride back to Madrid that took forever to make because I am an artiste.
If I had to recommend just one place, it would be Segovia. There are plenty of cities with cathedrals and castles in Spain, but only one has an aqueduct like this.
I hope you enjoyed my unnecessarily long Madrid travel guide. If you didn’t, you only have yourself to blame. You could have stopped reading at any point.
1 I’ve just learned that Antarctic blackfin icefish have white blood. Those guys are allowed to order white sangria. Humans, on the other hand, should be drinking red.
2 What, you thought I wouldn’t be able to work a Simpsons reference into this blog post? You underestimate my powers.
3 There’s also a statue of Satan somewhere in el Retiro, but I don’t remember where.