Friday, 15 May 2015

My List of Things To Do in Madrid

    Lavapies: one of Madrid´s older, working class areas

For those who don´t know,  I lived in Madrid for two years until late 2014 when I got a seemingly better work offer in Holland.  I figured,  it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work in an environment where I can learn  aspects of my industry that I can never hope to get exposed to in my (then) current job.  So when 2015 came, I jumped ship and am now living in The Netherlands.

I have been in NL for a mere four months, and to be honest, I am still adjusting to the culture and to the perpetually cold weather.   Call it foresight, but a couple of months ago, I chanced on cheap fares to Madrid and told myself that it would be the perfect getaway from the cold dutch weather so  I booked myself and the Madrid-crazy GBF tickets for a four day Madrid stay.

My great Madrid getaway weekend happened two weeks ago.   I am back in the Netherlands, but my mind is still preoccupied with  warm memories of Spain. Before I went back to Madrid, I thought it  would be weird to visit the city I considered my second home  and see it through an outsider´s (or tourist´s) eyes.  I fully expected a bad case of ennui,  that feeling of becoming a stranger looking in, that sense of in-between,  savouring what was once so familiar and realizing that I was no longer part of it.   Can you imagine my surprise when the first thing I felt when I landed in Madrid was  a great bubble of joy.  I kept exclaiming how it was oh so good to be back!

I only had four short days in Madrid.  So I did all the things I loved, which is basically, eat and eat and eat!  I suppose I  wanted a part of my old life back, even if only for the weekend.    I met up with friends, caught up with the latest news about people,  ate the food I missed, walked through my favorite paths,  and I even found time to act as the Madrid tourist guide of a good friend´s sister and her family who were visiting Europe for the first time.  It´s was funny how in Madrid, I felt so energized and I am able to do a lot of things in a given day. But where I am now,  the time seems to move too fast.

Even in Holland, people ask me the perpetual question: which city is better, Madrid to Barcelona? My answer is always the same.  My opinion will invariably be biased because I lived in Madrid whereas I only visited Barcelona.  For a tourist who wants the sights and attractions, Barcelona has a lot more to offer  --- there´s the beach, there´s Gaudi, and there´s the beautiful and truly spectacular Sagrada Familia.  And maybe because it is more touristy, I found Barcelona more expensive, the people a little bit more reserved.  Madrid  has no beaches to boast about,  there are areas where you could see that it really is a working city (like the Bronx in NY),  but for me it is like a second home.  We all know that Spain is still experiencing the after-effects of the recent economic crash in Europe, so yes, you can feel that.  But what I find amazing is that it never made Madrid feel unsafe.  Paris and the big cities in Italy is way scarier with a lot of suspicious souls haranguing you in th evening.  In Madrid, I used to walk or jog in the late evenings,  as late as 10 PM, and I would meet people in the street doing the same thing.  In Madrid, going to the city center at midnight is normal.  There will always be people in the streets, and if you want to party,  the crowds come in at 1 AM.  I always say, Barcelona is the city you go to if you want to dazzle people with selfies,  but if you want to have a feel of the city, to interact more with locals, I say, Madrid is the city for you.

So what did I do during my short trip to my beloved Madrid? Here.  I crammed them into a list so that just in case you find yourself in Madrid,  you can use this as a handy reference:

(1)  Have Churros con Chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines
Churrerias are a dime a dozen in Madrid and every respectable bar and eatery in Madrid offers churros for breakfast, but the best thick chocolate to dip your churros in can be had at Chocolateria San Gines.  It is very easy to find as it´s very close to Puerta del Sol, which is considered the epicenter of the city.

A breakfast of Churros, thick delicious chocolate and freshly squeezed orange juice is  a cheap and perfect way to start the day.

(2) Visit the Puerta del Sol early in the day and late at night

     Puerta del Sol in the morning before the crowds 

    Photo from

Puerta del Sol is the most famous meeting point in Madrid because of its proximity to all the central attractions -- La Latina, Chueca, Lavapies, the Gran Via shopping street, and the museum district.  Here, locals out for some shopping therapy, tourists  out to have their picture taken at the Bear and the Tree statue, those who are passing through on their way to the Plaza Mayor, and those going on a tapa crawl at the nearby La Latina congregate.  From noon to the late evening the Plaza Mayor is buzzing, always teeming with people.  It´s nice to sit by the fountain and people watch, listen to the cacophony of sounds, smile at strangers but I like Puerta del Sol better in the early morning when it is still clean of both litter and people, where you can better appreciate how big it is, how grand.
(3) Visit the El Rastro
El Rastro  Image from

El Rastro is the biggest flea market in Madrid. It is open every Sunday from early morning to about 3 in the afternoon.  It is a long strip of stalls selling everything from antiques,  clothes,  souvenirs, to homewares and second-hand stuff.  Even if you don´t plan to buy anything it is a nice experience to walk through the Rastro and watch how the Spanish haggle (the people chat a lot with the vendors!) and you  can take vivid photographs of the market for keepsake.  The weekly rastro is spread along the Embajadores  district which is in the city center.  One can walk to the Rastro from Puerta del Sol or La Latina.  Last April, I  scored a  maxi dress and very boho blouse for very affordable prices
( 10€ for the blouse, 15€ for the dress).

(4)  Shop Spanish
    Image from
Of course you are familiar with Zara, Mango and perhaps Desigual.  These are the Spanish high-street brands that have become worldwide retail giants.  To a lesser extent,  Pull&Bear, Bershka, and Stradivarius are also slowly slowly getting into the global retail map.   So in Madrid, GO!  Shop to your heart´s content!  But hey, there are other brands that are worth looking into.  My personal favorite among the Spanish brands is Sfera.  Sfera´s sensibilities are close to Zara´s design with prices that are at par with Mango, which is to say that for me, Sfera is the cheaper alternative to Zara. Other brands to check out are Pimkie, Springfield, Massimo Dutti and the inhouse brands at ElCorte Ingles, Spain´s version of Macy´s.

There is of course the luxury leather brand, Loewe, but for mortals like me the go-to brand for quality leather goods from Spain is Bimba y Lola.

There are some big malls in the city, but my favorite places to window shop are the shops at Orense in Nuevos Ministerios, and the more tourist-filled  Gran Via Shopping street close to the Puerta del Sol.

    The Style Outlets as SS De los Reyes.  Image from
There are also factory outlets for these Spanish brands, the closest to the city center is The Style Outlets at SS De Los Reyes, about an hour from the city center.

(5)  Have a Bocadillo de Calamares at one of the shops near Plaza Mayor

Fresh-tasting, delicately breaded squid rings sandwiched in crusty buns, have them with a tall glass of Tinto de Verano or Sangria, and while you´re at it, order a side order of pimienton de padron, fried peppers. The cost? Only about 7€ per person.

The bocadillos de calamares (literally translated, squid sandwich)  is Madrid´s favorite sandwich.  You can find this sandwich in most bars around the city,  but to get the most delicious iteration, head over to one of the shops specializing in this sandwich around the streets circling the Plaza Mayor at the city centre.  Look for a shop with lots of Spanish people queueing for their bocadillos.

(6) Walk your way to a food adventure by venturing out of  Plaza Mayor to the Mercado San Miguel, then  to the restaurant caves, towards Botin and finally to Cava Baja for some tapas
A food adventure is never too hard to do in Madrid, where good food at better prices is of utmost importance for most people.  Even at the city center, where the prices are relatively higher,  the food are still good quality. I toured a friend´s American sister for a day and because her family of three really wanted to go into a food adventure we followed this route:

  • Bocadillos de Calamares near Plaza Mayor, then snapshot-taking at the Plaza Mayor
  • A two minute walk to the Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid´s gourmet food market

       Where they had a fill of tapas: pinchos with bacalao and anchoas, croquetas, a plate of jamon and         a serving each my favorite food in the mercado: a big blob of burrata cheese on crusty bread               topped with homemade preserves.

  • A walk passing through the cave restaurants below the Plaza Mayor 
  • A short stop at Restaurant Botin, the world´s oldest restaurant, for some picturesimage from 
  • We walked further to Cava Baja for to show them where one can go on a tapa crawl with the locals.  The plan was for them to have at least one tapa but by then they were already full so we just walked through the street, so they can see how the tapa bars were as they planned to do the tapa crawl the next night.

(7) Take the time to enjoy your awesome two-course lunch for only 12€.
Lunch is an unhurried affair in this city. At my former company in Madrid, we had the option to  extend our lunch hour up to two hours. And why not? The lunches at restaurants in Madrid are awesome.  Imagine for only 8 to 12€ you get to have a basket of delicious bread for your appetizer,  a first course (usually a choice of either a salad, a pasta dish, paella, a cooked vegetable dish or soup),  a second course (where you get your protein. it can be steak, fish, stew, chicken or pork served with potatoes or salad), a dessert (flan, pudding, cake, ice cream or fresh fruits, your choice) and oh, a glass of wine (or juice or mineral water) with your meal.   It is so easy to eat well in this city.  And that is what I miss the most about Madrid.
    The free bread and wine

    My spectacular salad with membrillo (quince cheese) and what I assume is feta cheese

(8) Walk through the picturesque Banco de Espana Avenue towards the Museums and to Retiro Park
The tree-lined avenue from the beautiful Banco de Espana building towards the museum triangle is my favorite walking spot in Madrid.  It is beautiful and cool even in the summer, the building architecture is classically Spanish.  You can walk your way to the big three museums in Madrid -- The Prado, the Reina Sofia and my favorite museum of the three, The Thyssen.

    Banco de Espana  Image from

Walking through the avenue will reward you with a view of Atocha Renfe Station,  Madrid´s central train station.
    Atocha Renfe Station

A few more steps and you can take a splendid respite at Madrid´s own version of Central Park,  the expansive Retiro Park, which you must absolutely visit when you are in Madrid.  See #9 below.

(9) Spend a few hours at Retiro Park, enjoy the view, find a bench, take a nap, read a book, reflect, walk through the  greeneries, watch the locals paddle through the manmade lake, or visit the Palacio de Cristal.

    Entrance to Retiro Park
   A bench to sleep in.  Yes, I took an hour-long nap in this bench.
   One of the gardens inside Retiro

    The Palacio de Cristal

(10) Say hello!
My last to-do in Madrid, and in Spain in general, is  very simple, and that is to say hi to the locals! Often, you would hear strangers greeting you with hello (hola), don´t hesitate to greet them back, say hola!   Don´t hesitate to ask for  help too if you need it.  Smile and  enjoy the vibe.  Madrilenos are a gregarious lot, they stare right back at you when you look at them,  they talk and chat endlessly, but if you smile back and say hello they will warm up to you too.  When the streets are full of people expect the staccato of conversations to fill the air, but that is what you came to Madrid for, right? To discover its spirit, so sit back, enjoy the somewhat noisy vibe of this lively city.


  1. I've never been to Spain (sob), so I will totally bookmark this and remember to check once I get the chance!

  2. You have to visit Spain Vita! :-) Also if you pass by my NL do let me know! :-)

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