Each city has a personality. Many cities offer unique experiences that make them special and desirable. Paris offers romantic views and flaky croissants, Rome – picturesque ruins and pretty fountains, Berlin – history, so fresh that it feels like yesterday, and a ghost of a wall you can touch. And then there is Madrid, the city where people seem to be living on a whole different clock from the rest of the world; where aperitivo takes place at the time most Europeans have dinner and where dinner can easily spill past midnight. Madrid does not put visitors in awe the same way other European capitals do but it surprises with something else – richness! Not to be confused with luxury, Madrid’s richness comes through its residents’ ability to savor life one flavorful sip of sangria at a time; it comes with a culture where people enjoy socializing, be it at a bar over morning café con leche, at a tapas restaurant where huge wine casks serve as tables without chairs, or simply out on a street; it comes through intensity of a live flamenco performance which guarantees goosebumps; and finally, it comes through warmth with which the city embraces visitors.
Comida Muy Rico
If going to Madrid has never crossed your mind and you need at least one reason to visit, then go there for food! Spain is known around the world for its jamon, paella, cheese, wine, chocolate and much more, and Madrid, being both the capital and also geographically positioned in the center of the country, is by far the best place to experience all of the regional flavors. Madrid is packed with cafes, bars, and restaurants with very affordable prices which makes it very appealing to eat outside of home, pretty much all the time, especially when summer heat gives way to cooler autumn evenings and tables are arranged outside. The meal times may strike some as odd especially if they are coming from northern climates where its common to eat breakfast at 7-8am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6-7pm. Not in this town! You won’t find anything more substantial for breakfast except coffee and a pastry (and sometimes only after 9am) and a serious dinner won’t be served before 9pm. As far as lunch, I haven’t quite figured out when that time is but I suspect sometime between 2 and 4pm. My advice: don’t try to fit Madrid into your normal routine – instead, adapt to Madrid. It’s part of the experience so don’t be frustrated if you see restaurants that don’t reopen for dinner until 8pm. If you are short on time, cash, or both, a great way to navigate Madrid’s culinary landscape is through tapas – they are often included with a price of drink and allow you to visit several places in one evening without committing to one menu (Sidrería El Tigre would be a great choice for tapas).
Above: Staples found in almost every restaurant – pimientos de padrón (grilled peppers) and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes) – are life-saving options for vegetarians! When you get tired of drinking sangria and wine, head over to Naturbier for Spanish beer on tap and people watching on Santa Ana plaza.
Below: A visit to Madrid would not be complete without a taste of thick hot chocolate and crispy churros, perfect for dipping! Although this simple delicacy can be found in almost every cafe, Chocolatería San Gines would be an excellent choice, having been around for more than hundred years!
Sometime between eating and drinking, remember to venture out and explore the city, admiring its architecture with numerous plazas, palaces, churches and parks. One of my favorite activities would be going to El Retiro park on a sunny Sunday morning to watch well-dressed people stroll in clusters of large families and to watch turtles compete for a spot in the sun in small ponds. In the afternoon, enjoy the view on the top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes building. You have to pay to go up the elevator in addition to ordering a drink but it’s worth at least one visit (La Azotea). Finally, the perfect way to spend the evening would be to go to see a flamenco show even if you think it’s not really your ‘thing’. Live flamenco performance is so much more than just singing and dancing – it’s an expression of emotions that tickles your nervous system in a most unexpected way.
By the way, what they say about siesta is true! Even grocery stores close for few hours during the day, often featuring awesome food graffiti on shutters.
If you want to get away from the city for few hours, one of the easily accessible destination by public transport is a city of Toledo which offers 2,000 years of history and a VERY impressive cathedral (and I’ve seen many impressive churches). Even though quick online search reveals that most tourist sights consist of churches, synagogues, and mosques, my advice would be to just wonder through quiet streets and relax. For a pretty view of the city, climb up the tower of Iglesia de San Idlefonso.
Madrid is a lovely city to visit in the early fall when weather is pleasantly cool in the evenings and the tourist summer wave is over so be sure not to miss it!