Last updated on October 29, 2014
Sylvie, my girlfriend, was living in Madrid when I met her. I was living in Barcelona at the time. Every weekend for a year, I’d jump on a plane and take the fifty-minute flight to Madrid to see her.
We would meet at Plaza del Sol and go for tapas and vino-fueled adventures across the city. Care-free and blissfully happy, discovering hidden bars and magical streets drenched in centuries of Spanish history and tradition. It was a wonderful way to fall in love, both with her and with the city.
So here you have it: my loved up, and possibly a little over-affectionate, guide to the best things to see and do in Madrid. Whether you’re traveling with your partner or travelling alone, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with this elegant and unimaginably romantic city. ¡Vamos!
Madrid comes to life at a surprisingly slow pace. As the sun rises, men with old-fashioned suits and heavy newspapers meet to talk about business and politics. Nothing hits the spot like a strong cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Sylvie and I would always head to the same little corner cafe, Gelateria 4D, in the lively neighborhood of La Latina, where she lived. We’d sit and watch old people walk their little dogs whilst writers and poets mused away in the warmth of the early morning sun.
Nearest Metro Stop: La Latina
What to eat for breakfast in Madrid
Try a croissant with ham and cheese and grilled a la plancha, or indulge in chocolate con churros (sticks of sugary-donut-goodness dipped in melted chocolate) if you have more of a sweet tooth. For a classic taste of Spanish breakfast (actually, this is a Catalan speciality), try pan con tomate (toasted bread with garlic and tomato puree). It probably won’t fill you up for long, but that just gives you an excuse to go for a second breakfast at the next sunny terrace you find. ¡Olé!
If the weather isn’t muy bien, head over to the famous Café Comercial, which has been an important meeting spot for local madrileños since 1887. You’ll find them playing chess and drinking carajillos (coffee with brandy) with their breakfasts!
We discovered a number of roof-top terraces in Madrid, but the one with the most arresting views has to be that of the Circulo de Bellas Artes. Perched on top of one Europe’s most important art institutions – where big names such as Picasso came to study – the views over Madrid are simply incomparable. Grab a quick bite to eat, a coffee or una caña (a small beer) and prepare for your mind to be blown.
Nearest Metro Stop: Sevilla or Gran Via
3. Delve into Madrid’s Vibrant and Colourful Malasaña Neighborhood
Malasaña is a bohemian neighborhood full of vintage fashion boutiques, retro cafes and bars. It attracts the city’s young creatives, who you’ll find flicking through old boxes of vinyl.
Check out our favourite little cafe-come-bar, Lolina Vintage Cafe. Decorated with psychedelic prints from the 50s and 60s, and furnished with old leather couches, it sums up everything I love so much about this quirky little barrio. Grab a coffee or sip on a mojito, this is a side of Madrid most visitors never get to see.
Nearest Metro Stop: Tribunal
4. Go to Foodie Heaven, at Mercado San Miguel
Possibly my all-time favourite place to hang out in Madrid, Mercado San Miguel is quite literally foodie heaven. Housed in a beautiful glass and wrought iron space, the food stalls here sell a huge selection of quality Spanish produce from all over the country.
Do as Sylvie and I did every Sunday and grab some €1 seafood tapas treats from La Casa del Bacalo, before heading over to Pinkleton & Wine to taste some of the most incredible Spanish wines on the planet. Did someone say Rioja o’clock?
Nearest Metro Stop: Opera, La Latina or Tirso de Molina
5. Sip on a Coffee at Plaza de Oriente, with Views over the Palace
Sometimes Sylvie would have to work while I was visiting. I’d spend hours and hours hunting out cafes and seeing the sights that she’d already seen a million times. One of my favourite places to while away my day was the affluent area of Plaza de Oriente. Bordered by a horseshoe of terracotta buildings, formidable statues and elegant gardens, it’s easily one of the world’s most magical places to stop for a coffee. And with its idyllic views of the Palacio Real de Madrid, I’d strongly recommend you put this somewhere near the top of your ‘must-see’ list!
Nearest Metro Stop: Opera
6. Bask in the Sun at El Retiro Park
El Parque de Buen Retiro (The Good Retirement Park) was originally used as a playground by the Spanish Royal Family. Vast and deceptively spacious, El Retiro is the perfect place to chill out and soak up the Spanish sun. Follow the leafy paths to the the boat lake, or cool yourself off in the spray of one of the fountains, it’s all about taking it easy.
Sylvie’s friends would often come to join us with a picnic and a few cans of cold Mahou beer. We’d play guitars and throw a frisbee around whilst dodging people on rollerblades and skateboards. Our favourite spot in El Retiro, apart from the Alice in Wonderland-style hedge sculptures, has to be the Crystal Palace. One of the most beautiful buildings in Madrid, it’s a giant greenhouse built almost entirely from steel and glass, nestled away in a green city paradise.
Nearest Metro Stop: Retiro, Príncipe de Vergara, Ibiza or Atocha
7. Step Back in Time with a Walk through Plaza Mayor
Only a stone’s throw away from Puerta del Sol, which is Madrid and Spain’s most central point, you’ll discover the mighty square of Plaza Mayor. I would stand there in awe as Sylvie told me about the momentous things that had happened there over the centuries: bullfights, public executions and religious celebrations. You can really imagine the spectators cheering and hollering from the handsome balconies that overlook the square. Incredible.
Plaza Mayor Top Tip
There are nine entrances and exits to the square, which will lead you to a multitude of traditional shops, cafes and tapas bars. It’s on one of these streets that you’ll find Restaurante Botin, which is considered to be the oldest restaurant in the world. They serve rustic Spanish fare, such as suckling pig and roasted lamb. In reality, it’s a tourist trap – over priced and uninspiring. Take your photo and move on. There are better places to eat in Madrid!
Nearest Metro Stop: Sol
8. Go Bar Hopping and Tapas Tasting in La Latina
La Latina is the liveliest and most electrifying barrio of Madrid, perfect for bar hopping and indulging in eternal fiestas. Sylvie lived right in the heart of it and we loved exploring the ancient little bars that line the narrow streets. Start at one end (either will do) of Cava Baja, where you can pop in and grab a drink and a quick tapa before moving on to the next place. This is the place to experience the real nightlife of Madrid – don’t forget to dress up!
El Viajero was always one of our favourite Sunday hangout spots (La Latina is busier than ever on Sundays), and has an excellent selection of tapas and affordable wines. They also have a secret roof terrace with views of the bustling streets – and mojitos!
Nearest Metro Stop: La Latina
9. Indulge in High-End, Authentic Tapas, without Blowing Your Load – at Restaurante Lateral
If I had to choose one place to eat my last meal, it would be here at Lateral. It’s elegant and modern, yet traditional and understated all at the same time. They serve high-end tapas at insanely affordable prices and the service is impeccable.
Top Tip: Be sure to try the tortilla Española (potato and egg omelette). It may be a simple, classic dish, but the way they make it here is simply divine! I also recommend the tasting dishes with various meats and cheeses – perfect for getting a little taste of everything and discovering new flavours.
Top Tip 2: There are about six Lateral restaurants in Madrid, but my favourite is the one in the beautiful square of Santa Ana. It’ fairly small and there’s always a line out the door. Just get your name on the list and grab a drink from the bar!
Nearest Metro Stop: Sol
10. Watch an Indie Movie on the Rooftop Cinema of Cine Doré Filmoteca
One of the most romantic dates Sylvie and I have ever had was when we watched the Spanish version of Vanilla Sky on the roof of Madrid’s retro Cine Doré Filmoteca cinema. It was a warm summer’s evening and we sat with about 50 other people, all with golden suntans and glasses of wine, under a still black sky of diamonds.
I didn’t understand a word of it, of course, but I’ll never forget how magical it felt to sit there in the open air, just breathing in the good vibes. Tickets cost a mere €3-4 and you can indulge in a world of indie films from Spain and further afield. But, to be honest, you could watch the worst film in the world here and still have one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
Top Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who are rumored to own an apartment in this trendy and rustic little neighborhood.
Nearest Metro Stop: Antón Martín
Where to Stay in Madrid
If, like me, you like to experience new destinations in the same way the locals do, I recommend renting out an apartment. Not only will it probably work out much cheaper than a hotel – especially if you’re travelling in a group – but it will also give you a better feel for what it’s like to actually live in the heart of this wonderful city, which I believe is a priceless experience. There’s nothing better than spending the day at the local markets and then heading back to your own apartment to layout a selection of tapas to get your appetite going before dinner.
Check out WaytoStay.com/Madrid for some of the city’s finest apartments. From grand old apartments fitted out in classic Spanish style, to contemporary loft spaces and tranquil retreats, these guys have it all. You can have a look for yourself by doing a quick availability search below…