Madrid is a booming capital city, and a great destination for tourists. We’ve got a stunning royal palace, world-class art museums (three of them, in fact), and plenty of beautiful plazas to wander through. With all these exciting spots right on the tourist trail, it can feel hard to break through and experience the real Madrid if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here are five Madrid tips for the inquisitive visitor in Madrid!
Madrid Don’t-Miss List
The Mercado de San Miguel, just steps away from tourist haven Plaza Mayor, is an excellent place to get a feel for the types of food you can find in Madrid. Packed to the brim with ham, cheese, and wine, it’s easy to miss specialties like croquetas, fried béchamel with a variety of fillings mixed in, or vermut (vermouth), a Madrid specialty that even has its own hour of the day! La hora del vermut is when the locals flock to terraces or bars to sip on the refreshing, cool drink (although to be honest, I see madrileños drinking vermouth at all hours of the day—and I follow their lead!).
Though Mercado de San Miguel is a great first stop, it’s often crowded with tourists and it recently has lost a bit of its authentic feel. Close by you can find the Mercado Antón Martín, and while it lacks the polished elegance of the Mercado de San Miguel, it makes up for it with its huge variety of cuisines and relaxed atmosphere. Just north, in the trendy neighborhood of Chueca, you’ll find the Mercado de San Antón, an upscale market that’s as much a destination for food as it is for seeing-and-being-seen.
Just a short walk away on the shopping thoroughfare Calle Fuencarral, you can find the Mercado San Ildefonso, a great choice if you’re looking to enjoy some drinks and food on an open-air terrace. All of these markets are within easy reach for a tourist—in the historic centro of Madrid, well-connected by public transportation, and totally doable even without an extensive knowledge of Spanish.
Museums outside “The Golden Triangle”
If you like art museums, chances are high that you will land in Madrid and run straight to one of the three museums in “The Golden Triangle”—the Prado (with famous pieces by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya), the Reina Sofia (where you’ll find Picasso’s iconic piece Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza (a thorough mix of old and new pieces).
These are incredible museums—I spent a summer taking a class in the Prado every day and I still go back and find something new to enjoy every time. But if you’re looking for something a little less busy and crowded, there are plenty of other museums in Madrid that are super enjoyable without the crowds.
The Palacio de Gaviria is a small space just off of Puerta del Sol on Calle Arenal, currently showing pieces by Duchamp, Magritte, and Dalí. A few months ago, they had an exhibit featuring the works of Alphonse Mucha, one of my all-time favorite artists; as a small, relaxed space, free from the crowds of the “big three,” it was the perfect afternoon activity. The Museo Sorolla is also a local favorite, where the painter’s own objects, letters, and photographs are preserved along with his paintings and drawings. The museum is located in Chamberi, close to metro stops Rubén Darío and Gregorio Marañón.
El Templo de Debod
Chances are, as a visitor to Madrid, you’re going to visit at least the outside of the Royal Palace—and you definitely should! But while you’re in the area, take a short stroll to this Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain in the 1970s. Visit the small museum in the temple, or just enjoy the grounds and the small park that surrounds it. Locals know the temple as one of the best spots to catch a gorgeous Madrid sunset—but also one of the best places for tourists to get pickpocketed, so make sure to keep a hand on your valuables at all times!
Chocolate con churros
Don’t miss out on this Madrid traditions! Much like la hora del vermut, there is definitely a time and a place for churros and hot chocolate—though arguably the right “hour” depends on how old you are.
Young partiers can be found at the city’s most famous chocolatería, Chocolatería San Ginés, at any time of night or very early morning (it’s open 24 hours a day); groups of grandma friends often go out to enjoy churros and hot chocolate in the late afternoon. If you ask this girl, any time of day is the right time of day for this sweet-and-savory treat. San Ginés is the venerable institution of the Spanish snack, but my preference is Chocolat on Calle Santa María—it’s small, friendly, and less of a frantic experience than the former.
Tapas in La Latina
Navigating the bar scene as a tourist in Madrid can be a daunting task, but don’t let this stop you from enjoying one of Madrid’s best traditions: Sunday in La Latina.
While any day in La Latina is a lovely experience, Sundays in this traditional neighborhood are something special—vibrant and social, a never-fail remedy for the Sunday scaries. Be ready to gently nudge your way to the front and shout your order—and then get ready to enjoy. Calle Cava Baja is the most popular street to hop from bar to bar—my favorite spots are La Bayuca, Lamiak, Txacolina, and Vermutería La Bolita Negra (if you’ve gotten a taste for vermut).
Just a short walk away, you’ll find Juana la Loca, my pick for the best Spanish omelet in Madrid. No matter what you try, you’ll definitely find something to like, all while soaking up the real local atmosphere!
If you’ve visited Madrid, where else would you add to our list of off-the-beaten-path options for a visitor? Let us know in the comments!
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If you’re a Madrid expat and want to get to know Madrid better or you’re planning a visit to Madrid then you might find one of these Travel Guides handy! The Lonely Planet Guide (see below) has always been my personal favorite.