I LOVE Madrid. Any traveler who meets me and asks me “D, what is your most favorite place you have visited since you started traveling?” my response is always this:
“I adored Spain. I could live there. And Madrid, mmmm.”
Well, something like that.
I have gotten messages from people throughout my adventure asking my advice on where to go, what to do, etc. so have decided to share my insight with you!
Stay tuned … most cities will have a “Best of …” for your reading (and trip planning) pleasure.
Now, on to the good stuff … Madrid.
Where to … stay
I stayed at two hostels in Madrid, both were nice. But, in Madrid, there are heaps of really great hostels to stay at (just check out Hostel World), it’s just a matter of whether you want a social atmosphere or a place to rest your head. Regardless, location in Madrid is key. There is something to be said when you can open your balcony doors onto Atocha and hear the hustle and bustle.
If that’s your thing, look for a hostel located nearby these major Metro stops:
Chueca (gay district)
Lavapies (GREAT if you want some delish Indian food)
Where to … hang out on sunny, beautiful days:
Any day of the week is perfect to hang out at Retiro Park. Originally created as a royal park, the “Lungs of Madrid,” located in the heart of the city features everything from palaces to sport fields to boat-filled lakes to rolling hills perfect for an afternoon makeout or picnic. You can get there from the Retiro Metro stop.
On Sundays, the action is at La Latina. Streets lined with table and chairs fill up early, so stake your people-watching location before siesta. If La Latina is packed, head to Plaza Mayor or Puerta de Sol (both at/near Sol Metro stop).
If you want to play tourist, head to the Palacio Royal de Madrid, the Royal Palace (Opera Metro stop). Yes, if you want to see the interior, you will be inside, but simply strolling the grounds is breathtaking.
Where to … get filled up on tapas
Hands down, my favorite tapas experience was at El Tigre, located in the Chueca neighborhood (Chueca or Gran Via Metro stops).
At El Tigre, you order a glass of vino tinto (red wine) for two euros and then the Tapas God behind the counter hands you a plate piled high with tapas of every kind — tortilla, patatas bravas, jamon, queso … you name it — to accompany your drink. The best part is every time you order your cheap drink, you get another plate of deliciousness to soak up all that alcohol.
For a more varied experience, there is Mercado Plaza San Miguel near the Sol Metro. This gorgeous old building is PACKED with little stands featuring some of the freshest and tastiest food, including oysters, fruits and veggies, and tapas. Lots and lots of tapas.
Again, if you want to snag a seat, get there early. Otherwise, start practicing balancing a plate of tapas and a glass of vino tinto and eating/drinking at the same time.
Where to … get culture
I always like to mention the free stuff first, so the best free place to get culture is the Caixa Forum, a multi-floored art museum with rotating exhibits. This post-modern gallery even has a vertical garden just outside that changes with the seasons. It’s all sorts of pretty.
Then, every night (except Monday when the museum is closed) The Prado opens its doors to the public to take in all of the famous artists housed there for … free. Tuesday – Saturday from 6 – 8 p.m., visitors can enjoy everything the museum has to offer at no cost. On Sundays, entrance is free. Period.
My favorite museum is the elegantly beautiful Reina Sofia. No, it’s not free. But, for a 6 euro price tag, you have access to floors and floors of jaw-dropping 20th century art. Picasso and Dali mingle among notable Spanish contemporary artists.
All of these are a quick walk from the Atocha Metro stop.
Where to … eat the best chocolate you will ever have (outside of Belgium)
The best and most unique chocolates in Madrid can be found at Cacao Sampaka, a modern chocolate/coffee shop that offers up some of the most mmmmgood chocolates taste buds will ever enjoy. Seriously. They’ve got it all — balsamic chocolate, lavender chocolate, rosemary chocolate, liquor-filled chocolate, thick as molasses hot chocolates. It is a must. And, a half-second walk from the Alonso Martinez Metro stop.
Where to … shop ’til you drop
Gran Via has it all … bars, clubs, restaurants, prostitutes and TONS of stores no matter your budget. For those watching the cents, there’s Lefties and H & M, and tons of shoe stores featuring pretty cool shoes and cheapie price tags (I got a pair of knockoff high-top Chucks for 10 euros).
If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, there are also higher-end stores like Miss Sixty, Calvin Klein and some fabulous (non-American) shops, too.
Where to … meet locals and other people who speak English
Madrid is packed with English speakers and nearly every night of the week there is a mixer/language exchange where you can meet locals who want to speak English with you.
On Tuesday nights, there is Hello Lola at Ole Lola; Wednesday and Thursday nights it’s J & J Books and Coffee; Friday check out El Seiscientos.
Where to … go on a day trip
There are a few places under two hours away from Madrid to check out that are worth the bus (or train) fare — the two most popular ones (and the ones I visited) were Toledo and Segovia.
Toledo, the former capital of Spain, is south of the city and treats visitors to a medieval city perched on a hilltop with stunning views and packed with history.
Then, there is Segovia, a slightly longer ride (unless you take the high-speed train), but worth every minute to get there. Segovia not only has a castle that draws comparisons to Cinderella’s digs, but also an ancient Roman aqueduct that cuts through its center. If you like pork, be sure to try the roast suckling pig, which is so tender and fresh it is sliced with dishes instead of knives. Truth.
To book travel:
Alsa — the major bus line in Spain and the cheapest option for short-distance travel
Renfe — the train
AVE — high-speed train
Want to add your favorite places? Leave a comment below.
28 thoughts on “A BRIEF intermission: The best of … Madrid”
Love Madrid. I would just add the Il Rastro flea market on the weekends in La Latina is by far one of the biggest, coolest markets I’ve ever been to. Totally busted my budget there on cute jewerly and souvenir fans.
I’ve heard about it but haven’t gone yet. Perhaps tomorrow!! Thanks for the addition!!
Ohh, wish I’d known about Cacao Sampaka before our recent trip there. I quickly became addicted to chocolate/churros
It was the most amazing chocolate I have ever had! There is a cafe and a store. We had chocolate cake and hot chocolate, and then went and got little boxes of chocolate deliciousness. They have stores in a few other places in the world, too, so you can get them if you happen to travel to some other places as well.
Great tips!!!! I printed this out for my trip to Madrid later this year!
That’s excellent! When are you heading to Madrid?
Are you still in Madrid? I just got back here!!
You know, D, I can’t wait until I can go back to this post because I’ll be getting ready to my visit to Madrid. Le sigh, someday! And chocolate??! Better than Ethel M?? LOL 🙂
Shhhh. Yes. Better than Ethel M. Sorry honey.
Yay D!!! This is my new Madrid Bible! Will be printed and taken tucked inside my Italian language Lonely Planet so that I actually know what I’m doing!! haha!
I am so glad it will help you!! If you have any other questions about Madrid, let me know! Enjoy!!
Great info, I’ve gotta try Sampaka and El Tigre! I also recommend Chocolatería Valor, very near Callao… In summer they’ve got fabulous “granizados” made with real fruit or chocolate, and in winter they’ve got several kinds of hot chocolate with “churros” for dipping (Spanish people love to dip things in coffee or hot chocolate). The fact that it’s 2 minutes away from my office is very, very dangerous. They sell quality chocolate as well.
Yes, Madrid is fabulous for buying cheap shoes! Gran Vía is not bad for shopping but it’s mostly full of chain stores, either Spanish or international… Zara, Mango, Bershka, H&M, Blanco, Stradivarius, etc which you’ll find in every single shopping mall in Spain (if you’re American you probably won’t know most of them anyway, so you won’t care, though!). The best shopping area for “independent” shops has traditionally been the area around Hortaleza street (Chueca). It seems to be taken over by the same chains little by little as well, but you can still find more individual options there.
When I head back to Madrid, we will have to go out!!!
I loved La Latina on Sunday! I spent waaaaaay too much money there though! 😛
It is so much fun! So alive!! Easy to spend money though!
I am so excited about my first trip to Spain this summer. Whoo hooo!
Nice!! Let me know if you have questions. It’s my favorite place!
Very good tips indeed! Two places I would throw in where to eat are very near Plaza del Sol, a must see when there. Restaurante La Catedral and 101 Montaditos are rather cheap and each provide excellent yet very different eating experiences!
Thank you for the tips! Just another reason for me to go back to Madrid!! 🙂
Sweet guide…So sad I haven’t made it to Spain yet! Your posts are awesome!
Aww, thank you!! I am in LOVE with Espana!!! It’s a MUST-VISIT! But, you need lots of time. There is so much to see and do!
Amazing — definitely some things I missed the few times I’ve been there. I want to go back!
Hi D! Im from Jakarta Indonesia, n dying to go to Spain, especially Madrid and Barcelona, but according to this, the best time to go there in September and I dont think I cud go there this year. And after I read your blod.., hell no I cud wait till September next year. Any suggestion? I prefer warm-hot weather where I still can get my tan at the beach in BCN. Do you think it’s enough to spend 1 week in each city? And is it safe to go travel by myself there? any tips?
Hi Tippi! You can go to Spain any time of the year. Summer months are hotter and more crowded because it is tourist season. I was in and out of Spain in March, April, May and June and those were all fine months to be there. The weather wasn’t too extreme, the tourists weren’t out in full force. If you want hot weather, summer. However, the southern coast of Spain is good most of the year for beach-going. There are so many wonderful places in Spain! A week in each city is great to scratch the surface. You can do day-trips from there, too. In Madrid, I did two day trips, and they were both great. Travel by yourself? Absolutely. I did Europe solo and it was great! You can meet people in hostels and make friends. As for safety — be smart. Don’t get drunk and stumble around the city at 2 a.m. Don’t leave your belongings unattended. Be aware of your surroundings. 🙂 Have fun!!
Thank you sooo much for the tips and recommendations! I am going to Spain in August and trying to plan out a rough itinerary of where I want to go…. I can’t wait to see Madrid and check out some of the places you recommended!
I had such a great time in Madrid. I fell in love with the city. I hope you do the same!