Spain is one of our favorite destinations. Madrid embodies all that we enjoy about this country: the food, the architecture, and the vibrant city life.
Day 1 – Tuesday, June 23, 2015
It didn’t take long in Madrid to remember why we love Spain. Because our plane had arrived late on the previous day, we stayed in a hotel close to the airport. On Tuesday we made our way from our hotel to the city center on the public metros and checked into our Airbnb rented apartment where we’d spend the rest of our stay in Madrid. We knew it would be hot, but left to explore the city mid-afternoon. Soon after leaving our apartment we were on large streets crowded with car and pedestrian traffic. The buildings along the large streets of Madrid are stunning, with statues and domes adorning them. Off of the main streets are a maze of small cobblestone roads and squares. The streets are busy with cafes, but the stories above the cafes are filled with wrought-iron railings and decorated balconies.
We were searching for an outdoor cafe when we came across something even better, the Museo del Jamon. The Museo del Jamon is a chain local to Madrid, with outdoor seating at some locations. The location we found had very limited outdoor seating, so we sat inside. Tables were already set with food for a tour group which had pre-booked, and their food looked very good to us. The menu has eggs, salads, and other dishes but it is mostly tapas and charcuterie featuring ham. We started with Jamon de Melon (ham with melon). We also sampled stuffed mushrooms and a plate of hams and cheeses. It was much more filling than we expected and a delicious meal we’d happily repeat.
With our stomachs full, we took to wandering around the city. In particular we aimed ourselves towards Plaza Major and Palacio Real. Along the way, we also crossed Puerta del Sol. Puerta del Sol and Plaza Major are important due to their function as a gathering point for the locals, and were not (at least to us) particularly interesting for their architecture. We also passed Mercado San Miguel, which would have been great to have found before having eaten. Mercado San Miguel was a market space with counters mostly selling prepared food and lots of sangria. Counters ranged from fresh pasta, produce with juice, cured meats, cheeses, seafood, oysters, and more.
The gardens outside of the Palacio Real were stunning and my favorite site of the day. There was some construction behind the Palacio Real and we couldn’t figure out if there was an entrance to the large green Parque del Campo del Moro which was shown on our map. By now, it was very hot and we decided to follow local custom and retire to our apartment for a siesta. We were surprised to get home just before an hour long thunderstorm and downpour.
As the sun set in the evening, people headed out and the streets had more energy again. We left our apartment and walked past several crowded bars to Casa9. Casa9 is a restaurant we had found through Yelp. We expected tapas, but instead found a price-fix menu. For one price, everyone got an appetizer, main dish, dessert, drink, water, and coffee. There was no ala carte menu. The menu was very enjoyable. I think that we both agree that highlight was Jon’s leg of suckling pig, however the rest of the food (including asparagus, mushrooms and scallops, and tuna) was very good too.
Day 2 – Wednesday, June 24, 2015
We prepared ourselves for another hot day. At 11am we walked to Plaza Major to join a free walking tour of the city. After checking in with our guide, we waited in the shade for our tour to begin. Meanwhile, similar tour groups were forming around the Plaza. We had a very energetic guide who did a fabulous job leading a tour group which wasn’t small. The tour focused on the Spanish monarchs and the monarchs before Spain was established. Our guide took us through many small squares we might not have given much notice to otherwise, but which have interesting histories. Most of the larger sites on the tour we visited the previous day; Catedral de Almudena, Palacio Real, the opera house, etc. The tour was focused on the western side of Madrid, although separate tours go to the eastern half. We managed to keep cool during the tour, and enjoyed the 15 minute break midway through.
When the tour was finished, we walked straight to Mercado San Miguel. The market was as busy as we had seen it before. Our first stop was to La Casa del Bacalao, a seafood counter with tapas for €1 apiece. This was a delicious way to start our lunch and probably the best bites we had while in the market. We had tapas of octopus, herring, cod, and sardines. While at the market we also tried a empanado, sausages, and gazpacho.
Now that the sun was high, we went home to rest in the shade. When evening came, we went in search of traditional tapas. Traditional tapas are not as refined as tapas restaurants in America. Tapas began as a small plate of food which accompanied a drink (to soak up the alcohol, so to speak). This means tapas is a bar food and not fancy or gourmet, and bar food is what we got at our first stop of the evening El Tigre. Tapas at El Tigre are free when drinks are purchased. For €5 each we were given a large beer along with a plate of paella and a plate baguettes topped with mushrooms, ham, and other snacks. The food wasn’t great, but for the cost it was expected. Instead of staying and ordering more ala carte tapas we decided to head to another restaurant.
Our second try was much better than the first, and we ended up at Gastromaquia. Gastromaquia was a bit pricier than some of the other tapas restaurants we’d eaten at, but it was good. Knowing we’d already eaten some tapas, we limited our meal to two dishes, goat cheese (with honey) salad and fish stew.
Day 3 – Thursday, June 25, 2015
It was time we explored the eastern half of Madrid. We picked a walking route which took us past the Fuente de Cibeles, the Palacio de communicaciones, Puerta del Alcala and into the Parque Del Buen Retiro. The Parque Retiro is a large park whose signature feature is the Momumento al rey Alfonso XII, a colonnade and pond. Wondering through the park, we found several other fountains and promenades. Our favorite was the manicured Plaza Parterre. We didn’t even make it to the Rosaleda or the Forest of Remembrance. In the center of the park is the Crystal Palace.
It was mid-day and we decided to try and escape for the heat. I had read about several free museums; bullfighting and the museo arqueologico, but the naval museum was closer and so we headed there. Although it is free, we were asked for a €3 donation (which didn’t sound very voluntary). For an additional fee audio-guides were available. The museum was mostly artifacts and models of historical naval vessels. A few placards had English on them below the Spanish, but overall there was very little that we could read. The Spanish descriptions on the placards didn’t appear to be very long or informative either. Some of the artifacts were interesting looking, but we didn’t learn much while there. The two highlights of the museum to us was the display of artifacts recovered from the sunken ship San Diego and the temporary exhibit. The temporary exhibit was about famous ships, including fictitious ships and had a free audio-guide through our phones. Some of the ships in the exhibit included the Argo, the Nautilus, and the Titanic.
For a late lunch we stopped at Taberna la Alhambra. The restaurant had full meals and tapas. In Herrwego style, we ordered too much food, two starters and two meals. The tuna and tomato salad was very good, as was the entrecote beef and grilled octopus, both which were served with a heaping portion of fries.
At 6pm the Museo del Prado, considered the finest collections of European art, opens to the public for free. When we arrived at 5:40pm there was already a line more than a block long. Considering the size of the line, we were inside the museum fairly quickly. The first room we found was the Flemish paintings from 1403 to 1570. This turned out to be one of my favorites. The art was bright and had so much happening in each painting. To make it even more enjoyable, every painting had a paragraph in English about the scene. To make the most of our time, we steered ourselves towards some of the masters we wanted to see. We visited El Greco, Rembrandt, and Goya. Goya’s black paintings really stood out and were interesting. Along the way, we passed a special exhibit of 10 Picasso paintings which was another highlight of the museum for us.
At 7pm the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the modern art museum, opens free to the public. When we left the Prado, we headed straight there and arrived close to 7:30pm. By that time there was no line and we were able to go right in. The museum has a nice courtyard space, but we skipped to the second floor to see the surrealism, and most notably works by Salvador Dali. We also had time to view the Revolt to Post-modernity collection on the first floor, but we didn’t enjoy it as much. We left the museum just before it closed at 9:00pm.
The walk back to our apartment was lovely and took us through some cool neighborhoods which would have been fun to explore with more time. We took a break at our apartment until we got hungrier. Finally after 11pm we headed out the door for dinner. We were finally living on a Spanish schedule. The streets were the most alive we had seen during our stay. I’m not sure if it was the late hour or because it was Thursday. Stores on our street which had been closed every time we walked past were finally open. We headed to Bodega de la Ardosa. Ardosa isn’t the secret it used to be, and even the ‘hidden’ backroom (accessed by crawling under the bar) was crowded. We managed to get two standing places along the bar. Drinks were cheap and we paired them with several canapes (even smaller plates than tapas). Most of the food we ordered was anchovies on toast with various other toppings. We also tried the gazpacho, herring, and tortilla (a Spanish omelet).
Quick Guide to Madrid
- Free walking tour – Most of the sites in Madrid are beautiful architectural treasures which can be enjoyed by walking. A walking tour will make sure you see the most popular attractions while providing some history and local insight.
- Mercado San Miguel – For a taste of fresh Spanish food, this market is lovely. Choose from tapas, seafood, or ham cut fresh in front of you.
- Free museums – Madrid is full of museums with free public hours. The most popular is the Museo del Prado, considered the finest collections of European art, which is free after 6pm (go early because there will be a line). The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the modern art museum, opens free to the public at 7pm. The bullfighting museum and the Museo Arqueologico also have free hours.
- Mueso del Jamon – This Madrid chain serves terrific Spanish ham in a wide array of dishes.
- Casa9 – This modern restaurant offers a nightly price fix menu including an appetizer, main dish, dessert, drink, water, and coffee. However, there is no ala carte ordering.
- Gastromaquia – A bit pricier than some of the other tapas restaurants we’d eaten at, but it was good with inventive dishes.
- El Tigre – Authentic tapas are served free when drinks are purchased. Its a fun atmosphere, but when the food is free, you get what you pay for.
- Bodego de la Ardosa – Ardosa isn’t the secret it used to be, and even the ‘hidden’ backroom (accessed by crawling under the bar) was crowded. We managed to get two standing places along the bar. Drinks were cheap and we paired them with several canapes (even smaller plates than tapas).
- Taberna la Alhambra – Traditional food, large portions.
- Google Maps – The public transportation option on google maps was well informed in Madrid.
- Transportation – Madrid has a local metro system, although many of the main sights are walkable from the city center. The metro tickets were typically €2 or less per ride and the ticket machines has English on them.
- Wine – Enjoy the Spanish wines in Madrid, they are cheap.
- Yelp – We found that the popular restaurant application yelp worked very well in Madrid.