about the city
From the high-fashion stores that line the main boulevard, Gran Vía, to the majestic granite buildings that give you a glimpse into the times of the great Spanish Empire to the perfectly manicured Retiro Park, Madrid is exceedingly grand. One quickly remembers how important Spain has been on modern history and how powerful the country once was just by walking through the streets.
As downtown bustles with well-dressed professionals, neighborhoods bustle with locals laughing in the plazas over a tinto de verano (red wine with lemon soda) or clara de limón (beer with lemon soda). In warmer months, expect late nights where dinner starts at 9pm and consists of tapa after tapa on the plazas that give you a small sense of space amongst all of the buildings. Have a drink, have a bit to eat, and repeat until you're buzzed and happy.
Madrid isn't the place for a relaxing vacation and has a distinctly different vibe from laidback Barcelona, so really don't compare them. It's hard to find a peaceful space to yourself, as even the main park, Retiro, is full of children chasing after birds and giggling with glee. Come here to be a part of history and dive into a culture that deeply appreciates the value of good food and drink with people you love. I'm still dreaming of padrón peppers paired with a massive gin and tonic (a Spanish girl's favorite).
Before you go
It's very easy to love Spain - beautiful buildings and people, late nights sharing laughs with people over delicious food and drinks, a rich cultural identity - but do make sure to read up on a darker time that was centered in Madrid: the Spanish Inquisition. Look, it was a long time ago, so there's absolutely no need to dwell on it and let it ruin the beauty that is modern Spain, which is much more open and tolerant to new ideas, but, as you know, here at Cat Call, I do value learning from our mistakes in the past to move forward toward a more wonderful world for all. Here's a podcast you can listen to on your plane ride over.
where to stay
As I often do, I suggest AirBnB for finding options in the Malasaña neighborhood that make you feel at home. This location is perfect, which is why I'm not really suggesting anywhere else, because it's a neighborhood where many people actually live (or want to live!) with lively plazas full of locals meeting up for cervezas y tapas at night but within walking distance to main of the main attractions- Gran Vía, Plaza Mayor, Retiro, etc. There is also a subway in the area where you can easily get to/from the airport or train station or elsewhere in the city.
what to do
You'll notice a common theme to most of the things I'm suggesting you do- history! While Spain's sphere of influence has shrunk in more recent history, you cannot forget how powerful the Spanish Empire once was. There is a lot to learn about in Madrid, so pull out that old World History textbook, and brush up on your knowledge. Then, get in a student mindset because you'll be walking between buildings where some world-changing events happened. Don't miss out by just drinking sangria all day and night...
SANDEMAN's New Europe Free walking tour- With tours all over Europe, this company knows what it's doing. They describe their tours as "infotainment" - mixing history with charismatic storytelling. Meet in the middle of Plaza Mayor for a 3 hour walking tour that takes you through much of the historic center of the city. Because this is a city so rich in history, I really think this is a must-do on your first day to get a strong sense of why the country is the way it is. Get Mari as your guide if able. She was the cutest and so animated! We loved our time with her.
Plaza Mayor- While now a spot you'll likely not catch a local at, this is the start of many of the walking tours (including SANDEMAN's above!) because it's a place full of importance in Spanish history. Travel back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when this plaza was home to the terrible "autos de fé"- the punishments to those who were seen as heretics of the Catholic Church. Now, this plaza is used for large celebrations.
Parque Buen Retiro (or "Retiro" for short)- Stroll around at dusk, watching the sky turn to pink as kids run around chasing birds and lovers paddle-boat along the lake. It's a romantic and charming spot, packed full of locals looking for a respite from the chaos of the city. I won't go so far as saying it's very relaxing, though. On a good day, there are people all over the place, walking down the manicured paths that weave through the trees or sitting on benches catching up on their days. Like Madrid itself, the park is grand with beautiful well-kept gardens and elegant buildings such as the Palacio de Cristal (make sure to swing by!).
Prado Museum- I almost skipped this, but my friend from Spain scoffed at me, so I followed his advice to go, and I'm glad I listened! Listen, this is a really big museum full of lots of art, which honestly just isn't always my thing. However, there are two big things that set this apart for me- 1) the architecture is phenomenal. If you appreciate beautiful spaces like I do, this alone is reason to walk through it's glorious marble halls. 2) Many of the paintings depict some of the most important historical events of the last few centuries. Definitely pay for the audio guide to learn more about Spanish history, which plays into the origins of much of the modern Western world as we know it today. Also, make sure to pick up a brochure, which tells you exactly which ones you shouldn't miss.
Plaza Real de Madrid- I ran out of time to actually do this, but I'd definitely love to do it next time. The largest square-footage palace in all of Europe, this is the official residence of the royal family in Madrid. However, the current royal family has chosen for their primary residence to actually be at a more modest location just outside of Madrid. This palace is still used for many public events though.
Walk down [or shop at] Gran Viá- If you're not new to Cat Call, you'll know I only recommend shopping if it's fair trade and artisan-made, but the main boulevard of Gran Vía is your place if you like high-end shopping or the fashion-forward, low-cost brands like Zara and Mango. I'm only even mentioning this because Zara and Mango are actually Spanish companies, so if you're gonna shop there, you might as well do it in Spain! I equate this area to the Times Square of New York City, which either instantly excites you or causes you to run the other way. However, if you're a first-timer to Madrid, walking down the boulevard is a must. Maybe see a show here. Then, leave and go learn some history or mingle with locals in other locations. ;)
Plaza de Cibeles- There's not necessarily much to do here. It's just a large roundabout in front of the City Hall with a gorgeous statue of the goddess Cybele in a cart pulled by lions, but it's so beautiful!!! Pass by here after walking down Gran Vía.
where to eat
I have a few places I suggest, but there are so many tapas bars with delicious food that it's hard to go wrong. Thus I'm going to focus on some of my favorite things that I always ordered at tapas places: Spanish tortilla (like a potato omelette. Not even close to a Mexican tortilla!), jamón (cured ham is practically sacred for Spaniards), croquetas, padrón peppers, pan con tomate. Spaniards seem to really love their "ensaladilla rusa"(Russian salad) made up of mayonnaise, tuna, and potatoes, but I wasn't as big of a fan, nor were any of my American comrades. However, order it at least once because it definitely seemed like one of the main things locals get.
Interesting fact about why ham is such a central part of the Spanish diet: During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church made sure everyone was proving themselves as a true Catholic or else they would be killed. One way people did this was by consuming pork. Some would even hang a pig outside of their home as a sign that they weren't Jewish or Muslim, both of which are ordered to not consume pork as part of their religion. That has trickled all the way down to the modern Spanish diet.
Sobrino de Botín- Some say the oldest restaurant in the world, some say the second oldest restaurant in the world- either way, it's old and still popular for a reason! The ceilings are low, the tables are clothed, and the waiters are in nice uniform- taking you back to an earlier time. Order the roast suckling pig. Sure, you'll be stuffing yourself with jamón the entire time you're in Spain, but you might as well order ham served a different way. It's a huge portion, so if you're like me and my friends were, you'll be laughing that you've basically just turned into a giant ham after this meal, but seriously, the skin is crispy and the meat juice and tender. It's a must!
Chocolatería San Ginés- Another old place, stop here for breakfast, and you'll truly wonder how the Spanish manage to stay so skinny. Order tres churros con chocolate, which is more than enough. You'll get 3 churros with a good glug of melted chocolate that you dip your churros in. Don't be like me who didn't order the chocolate. You'll want it and will just end up using your friend's.
Lateral- Multiple of our local friends suggested this place, so it's clearly a favorite! The ambiance is a bit nicer, so make sure you're dressed up to fit in with the fashionable locals. They have all of the traditional tapas that I listed above and really good desserts. The chocolate pie was one of my favorite desserts I've ever had, so really make sure to save room! There are multiple locations.
Perrachica- I didn't end up going here but had it recommended by a friend who lives in Madrid and have been drooling over the decor. The food is supposed to be fantastic, and it's a great place to get drinks with friends. Reservations recommended.
Pipa & Co- From the owner of Perrachica, this is slightly more casual and has a beautiful ambiance with plants galore. I recommend this place more for the day time.
Arroces de Segis- This is a bit far out from most places you'll be going to, but you must go! The owner is the kindest gentleman who so clearly takes deep pride in this family-owned business, and they'll treat you just like you're a member of their own family. We got there at 2pm for lunch and were the first ones there (haha! Definitely not on American time...), so book a reservation for 2:30 or 3, and enjoy a delicious prix-fixe meal that includes many different of your favorite Spanish appetizers, a main course of one giant paella of your pick (soooo good!), and a delicious flan for dessert. Paired with beer or wine, of course. Arrive hungry & thirsty!
BUT, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, make sure to stumble upon some casual tapas places at night time. Find a bustling plaza where there are a bunch of people drinking (they're sprinkled all over town in between buildings), grab a clara con limón (a local favorite of beer and lemon soda), and order away. Also, gin and tonics are HUGE with Spanish women, which I was pumped about! They serve them in giant glasses, but be prepared that you'll have to tell them exactly which gin you want, which is honestly a bit stressful since I didn't know Spanish brands, but the waiters always had good suggestions. They also serve them with little candies, which you can put into your G&T to flavor them! Loved it.