“If you’re drunk before 2 a.m., we’ll know you’re a tourist. Welcome to Madrid.”
One of my biggest takeaways from Spain: these. people. party. And I mean, start with a lingering two- to three-hour dinner around 10 p.m. and end sometime around sunrise kind of party.
Mind you, between the two of us, Pat and I have a decorated history that attests to our ability to party. But not here. We didn’t even try. Our record was 1 a.m., and the only reason we were even out that long is because the takeout line at Wok to Walk was out the door.
Needless to say, after spending a month in our quiet little corner of Alfama in Lisbon, we had total sensory overload when we came out of the metro station in the heart of Puerta del Sol, Madrid. Our apartment was a five-minute walk from there, basically like staying a block off of Times Square.
Although I was a little overwhelmed at first by the amount of people and things going on, it was kind of nice being right in the middle of it all since we had a lot of ground to cover in ten days. Our accommodation was another successful HomeAway booking. It was a renovated attic apartment situated at the top of 10 flights of stairs (our glutes can’t seem to catch a break these days). Pat is happy to report that, unlike our apartment in Lisbon, this one was *almost* suitable for a six-foot tall human. He only had to duck in one corner of the room, which is a huge improvement from not fitting in 85% of our last apartment.
Overall, we had a fantastic time in Madrid. It was the quintessential Spanish experience full of tapas, a little too much Spanish wine, and several siestas in between. Here are the highlights:
Sandeman’s Walking Tour
We had an amazing first experience with SANDEMANs in Lisbon, so we immediately booked another tour with them right after we arrived in Madrid. We’re big fans of walking tours. In our opinion, it’s the best way to get oriented in a new place. Our tour guide, Jovan, was an expat from Denver (small world), so we hit it off right away. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of Madrid, what to do, and what to skip. We hit some of the big highlights, including Plaza Mayor, The Royal Palace, Sabatini Gardens, Cathedral of Madrid and more.
Mercado de San Miguel
AKA the holy grail of tapas. We love culinary collectives like this– it’s a great way to experience the best of a city’s cuisine all in one place. With food stalls ranging from croquettes (duh) to fresh seafood and burrata, you can (and we did) spend an entire day eating and drinking your way around the place. Since 99 percent of the time Pat and I get in arguments on the road (or ever) is over where we should go eat, this place was made for us. It’s completely set up for grazing, rather than having a whole meal at one place, so it’s a dream come true for the indecisive.
A day trip to Toledo
Due to the party culture I mentioned in the beginning, nothing is open before 10 a.m. here. I’m not exaggerating. We discovered this when we booked our day trip to Toledo and had to be at the bus by 8 a.m. Just when panic and caffeine withdrawal was starting to set in, I found a Starbucks– of course– and we were on our way.
A short drive southwest of Madrid lies Toledo, a tightly packed hilltop city overlooking the plains of Castilla La Mancha. With its reputation as a living museum, the former medieval capital of Spain rightly earned its place as a UNSESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s.
Toledo’s history is that of three cultures. Over the centuries, Muslims, Jews and Christians called the city home, and lived and worked together harmoniously. That heritage is evident by the wonderful contrast of mosques, cathedrals, synagogues and temples that line Toledo’s tangled web of narrow streets.
There is easily multiple days’ worth of things to see and do in Toledo, but since we only had one, we had to pick and choose. We spent the morning walking from one end of the city to the other, exploring the Jewish quarter, trying Toledo’s famous marzipan (a sweet treat made with sugar and almonds), marveling at views of the Tagus River that surrounds the city, and, of course, stopping at a café for paella.
The superstar of the trip was the Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada. This place will have even the least spiritual of people feeling closer to God. The Cathedral is the second largest in Spain (the biggest one is in Seville), took nearly 300 years to complete and is considered one of the greatest Gothic structures in all of Europe.
There are a lot of options for getting to Toledo from Madrid, including a high-speed train from the Puerta de Atocha station, bus, or a guided trip with one of the tour companies.
Jazz at Café Central
Café Central has held over ten thousand concerts in nearly 35 years, and is considered one of the best jazz clubs in Europe. It’s the only ‘club’ we went to the entire time we were in Madrid.
Being that it is a true jazz club, there is a cover price that varies depending on the concert and night of the week. We paid 15 euro per person, and it was worth every penny for dinner (not included) and great music. Make sure to get there when the band goes on or the place is packed. Be prepared to be directed to a chair or communal table when you walk in, and be on your best behavior, as distractions to the music won’t be tolerated. 🙂
Tour Estadio Santiago Bernabéu & Real Madrid Game
A couple of years ago, Pat and I decided that the whole concept of Valentine’s Day kind of sucks, so instead of the quintessential card exchange over a steak dinner, we decided to make it ‘Treat Yourself Day’. It’s a day where each of us gets to splurge and pick one thing to do/buy/etc. (within reason). Since Treat Yourself Day came while we were in Madrid, the obvious choice for Pat was to go to a Real Madrid game.
The game was on a Saturday, but since we couldn’t figure out how to buy tickets online, we decided we would head to the stadium the day before and hope we could get tickets at the box office. Estadio Santiago Bernabéu was a little over three miles away from our apartment in Sol, but we opted for the walk rather than the metro so we could see more of the city. It was a great way to explore neighborhoods that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and the exercise didn’t hurt either.
Luckily for us, getting tickets for the next day’s game was easy. Since we were already there, we opted to do the stadium tour so we could get the lay of the land before the game. We walked through the trophy rooms, locker room and even got to go out on the field. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge soccer fan, but I thought the tour was awesome. And Pat, who is a HUGE soccer fan, was totally geeking out. So that was fun.
We had great seats right above one of the goals, so I got to stare at Christiano Ronaldo for the first half, which was great. Pat could give you the technical details, but I do know Real Madrid won 2-0 and the fans were awesome. If you’re looking for a cultural experience, it doesn’t get more Spanish than that.
Staying blonde abroad
My Treat Yourself Day was a little more anticlimactic, but I had to throw it in here because it was such a fun experience.
I’ve been coloring my hair every eight weeks for a decade now. Needless to say, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do about that while I was on this trip. I put all my eggs in the Trip Advisor basket and, thankfully, everything turned out GREAT. The folks at ‘Are You Ready?’ salon were fantastic. No one spoke English when I first got there, but between Google translate and showing them pictures, I hoped for the best. They specialize in all-natural hair care with no chemicals and no bleach, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again. If you’re in Madrid and need a hair treatment, cut or color, definitely check them out.
Eat at the oldest restaurant in the world
Restaurante Sobrino de Botín was founded by French chef, Jean Botín, in 1725. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it’s the oldest restaurant in a world, albeit on a technicality. While the founding date isn’t necessarily the oldest in the world, Botín has never been closed in nearly 300 years of business, so it takes the cake for longevity. As an added fun fact, it was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite restaurants. From the book “The Sun Also Rises” – “We lunched upstairs at Botín’s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta.”
Reservations are not easy to come by, so I recommend making it one of the first things you do when you get to Madrid if you want to go. The only time they had open during our stay was for a late lunch, but they serve the full menu for lunch and dinner so we didn’t miss out. We ate in the bodega (“cellar”), and I had the Chicken Fricassee with almond sauce and Pat had their famous cochinillo aside (“suckling pig”), which is roasted in their nearly 300-year-old wood-fired oven.
On the way out, you can peak in the kitchen and see all the (dead) baby pigs waiting to be roasted. Pat didn’t even care. Chefs have no souls when it comes to baby animals.
“Gourmet Experience” at Plaza Callao
Are you noticing a pattern? Another restaurant collective sits atop the Corte Inglés shopping center in Plaza Callao, offering an outstanding view of Madrid from their outdoor terrace. Shopping-wise, they have an extensive selection of high-end gourmet products, from wine and olive oil to chocolates and homemade jams.
The best part, of course, is the restaurants. There is a huge variety, ranging from international chains to locally-owned establishments. Whether you want to piece together a full meal from a few different places or just enjoy a handcrafted cocktail with a view (try to go at sunset, if you can), I wholeheartedly recommend a stop here.
Buen Retiro Park
Parque del Buen Retiro literally translates to “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”. It’s a beautiful 350-acre park filled with beautiful sculptures and monuments, and it’s a short walk from the Prado Museum (which we didn’t go to, but you probably should). It’s also a great place to run, which I didn’t do either, but really should have.
Terrace at Círculo de Bellas Artes
The best for last. The roof of the Círculo de Bellas Artes has spectacular panoramic views of Madrid. Grab a coffee or a glass of wine and take a siesta on one of the lounge chairs – it’s worth dedicating a whole afternoon or early evening here.
I know you’re probably thinking there are a ton of famous museums that aren’t mentioned here, but we just didn’t have enough time with our food and siesta schedule. #Priorities. If that’s your thing, head down the Avenue of Art and hit the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen museums.
One thing is for sure, you will NEVER be bored in Madrid.
We’ve developed a pretty laid-back travel style over the last couple of months. Our goal is usually to pick one big thing to see or do each day, so suffice it to say we were in overdrive on this trip and still didn’t get to everything.
One thing I’ve learned about traveling: you’ll never see everything a place has to offer in one trip. Don’t even try. You will run yourself ragged and won’t actually enjoy where you are. And in a place like Madrid, where business literally revolves around a napping schedule, stressing yourself out to get the ‘full’ experience is totally hypocritical.
My advice? Prioritize. Do the things you want to do, not the things you feel like you have to do just to say you did it. Especially if, deep down, it doesn’t particularly interest you. Prioritize what’s most important to you and tackle those things first.
This is especially true if you’re on a budget. So, yeah, we didn’t spend 30 euro to go to the Prado. But we did spend almost every evening seeking out a different rooftop terrace to watch the sunset, taste new wines and eat fantastic food. ¡Olé!
Mercado de San Miguel | Espacio Culinario
Plaza de San Miguel, Madrid
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Tel. 34 915 42 49 36
Café Central Jazz Club
Plaza del Ángel, 10, Madrid
Tel. 91 369 41 43
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium Tour
Avda. de Concha Espina 1, Madrid
Adult ticket: 24.00 €
Non-match day hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Sundays and holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Visit website for match day hours.
Are You Ready? Hair & Beauty Salon
Cuesta Santo Domingo, 10, Madrid
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Closed Sunday
Tel. 34 911 69 37 58
Restaurante Sobrino de Botín
Calle Cuchilleros, 17, Madrid
Hours: Daily, 1 to 4 p.m., 8p.m. to 12 a.m.
Tel. 34 913 66 42 17
Reservations online via the website.
“Gourmet Experience” at El Corte Inglés
Centro Comercial El Corte Inglés, Plaza del Callao, 2, Madrid
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Tel. 34 913 79 80 00
Buen Retiro Park
Plaza de la Independencia, 7, Madrid
Círculo de Bellas Artes
Calle de Alcalá, 42, Madrid
Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Tel. 34 913 60 54 00
Entrance to the roof: €4 per person