Things to do in MadridUpdated August 2022
So you’ve added Madrid to your travel itinerary? Congratulations!
Madrid is my favourite city in the world, my second home and… (at the risk of sounding like an Instagram meme) it is my true happy place.
Buckle up, you are in for a treat!
- You absolutely must eat at La Castela – near Ibiza station(9), east side of Retiro.It’s Michelin Bib Gourmand so don’t just turn up – make sure you book online. Eat in ‘la barra’ on a ‘mesa alta’ if you can. High tables in the bar area for the full effect!Order about 3 or so dishes to share – highly recommend the Milhojas de ventresca and Chipirones encebollados… but basically everything on this menu is amazing!
90 min seating so don’t be late! The waitstaff have a Melbourne attitude but an old school Mediterranean approach… they are awesome but their English is a bit sketchy. You can eat and drink like a king here but will be hard-pressed to spend more than 75€ between two.
- Another favourite is the best Japanese we’ve ever had… also a Michelin recommendation. Torikey near Rios Rosas – their English is good and mention you are Australian as they have distant connections (the main maître d’ is Japanese but went to school in Melbourne). Again, you’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than 60€ on a meal for two here! And it’s incredible! Book online is best.
- Opposite Torikey is Jimbos the best Texan BBQ I’ve had outside of Texas (and maybe in it!).Book online if you can. That said we found if you just turn up and smile sweetly they’d usually find a way of squeezing you in. Lovely staff… pretty good English.
Mercados that have great food
- San Miguel is a must.. be warned it can be BUSY! A heap of storefronts had closed as a result of COVID but I believe there are new ones now filling those spots.
- San Anton in Chueca is a great easy place for a snack a beer. There is a nice rooftop terrace restaurant here too.
- I haven’t been but I believe Mercado de Anton Martin and Mercado de Vallehermoso have good food options too.
- Fogg Bar beer & burgers – don’t let the name fool you, these burgers are not just an afterthought. The menu is packed with gourmet-style burgers (the Chevre is my go-to) and butifarras (a.k.a. next-level sausages). Wash it all down with a fantastically curated selection of craft beers from near and far. Dani and his team in Pacifico have recently moved to a bigger place up near Retiro – 3 levels of fun plus a terraza!
- Casa Mingo traditional roast chicken… old school but delish! Walk it off with stroll down the Manzanares after lunch, but first make sure you check out Goya’s frescos in the chapel San Antonio de la Florida next door.
- Piri Peri Frango al Carbon – charcoal Portuguese chicken with excellent sides. Good value fast food for takeaway or eat-in (also available on UberEats etc)
- El Japo in Calle Segasta – good value Japanese with a trendy-vibe. There was a chain of 3 stores but I think covid may have closed the others. The Menu del Día is fantastic value.
… easy lunches?
- There are a heap of chain-store options for a quick bite while touristing.
Look out for Granier for an easy bocadillo (ie. roll filled with a deli meat, cheese and salad combo) and a pastry.
Rodilla do sandwiches kind of like Prêt-a-manger (but with no crusts… I’m still not sure why?!?)
- Of course the best lunch is the Menu del Día offered at pretty much every restaurant or bar in the city. They are a cheap and fast option (everything is made and ready to go) but also this is how you are likely to stumble across some amazing Spanish or Latin American home-cooked food.
- Madrid is well known for its stunning rooftop bars – and there’s no shortage of them in the centre of the city and along Gran Via! Google it… theres dozens of options, though the good ones will want you to pay a couple of hundred euros up front for a reservation.
- HOWEVER….. if you want rooftop vibes with spectacular views but at department store food-court prices, head to the rooftop at El Corte Ingles Gran Via. Sometimes it can be a little busy but if you lurk for a few minutes you should be able to nab a table outside… just be patient! Cold cervezas, yummy tapas & by-the-slice pizza are the go here. Head into El Corte Ingles and head to the top floor “gourmet experience”
- **July 2022 update – tried Ella Sky Bar on Gran Via – no reservation, just rocked up around 5pm. Charged 10€ a head at the desk just before the elevator, but that includes 2 drink tokens. There was no one else in the entire place when we arrived, and the views are awesome. The cooling misters on the top deck worked their magic despite the 37 deg heat, so had a few glasses of bubbles as we watched the sun set over Casa del Campo – perfect and cheap!**
Things to Do
- Visit Palace Cibeles (aka Centro Centro – entry is free), walk up Calle Alcalá to Plaza de la Independencia (big arches) and then into to Retiro.
- Parque del Retiro… one of my favourite places in the world. I’ve spent hours here – running in the morning, reading under a tree, feeding ducks with Lola, watching Lola rollerblade (!) – it’s special at every time of year and different through out the day. Go ‘pasear’ around 6 pm and see the place come alive with locals out socialising on their evening stroll. If it’s not too busy have a drink at La Florida.
- While in Retiro go to the Crystal Palace (free entry to whatever exhibition is there from Reina Sofia), and down to the La Rosalada (rose garden)
- Visit Plaza Mayor (a close walk from to Sol.. right next to Mercado San Miguel)
- While you are in the neighbourhood visit the Royal Palace – it’s cool if you are into Palaces… we thought it was ok but overpriced (and there are better ones outside of Madrid!). Changing of the guard happens on Wednesdays.
- Chamberi Anden 0 – Abandoned ‘ghost station’ on metro Line 1 – and if you are into trains there are a bunch of other metro museos (We’ve now done them all.. perhaps give the Pacifico vestibule a miss unless you are really keen and your spanish is fluent!)
- Plaza de España – brand new square at the end of Gran Via (the entire time we lived there is was construction site!). The statue of Cervantes remains and a new playground and some large sculptures were going in when we visited in July.
- Biblioteca Nacional de España (here) – a building befitting the greatness of Spanish literature, including a couple of gallery spaces with rotating exhibitions that are generally free. The domed reading room is said to be spectacular, but only opens to public during Open House Madrid.
- Centro is the go-to – try Gran Via, then the paseos down to Plaza del Sol
- For Vintage stuff go to Malasaña – heaps of second hand and thrift style vintage in the streets around Plaza de San Ildefonso – most are pay by the kilo.
- Go shopping and wander along Calle Fuencarral in Malasaña and around Chueca
- El Rastro – the famous flea market down through Lavapies. Used to be only Sunday but post-pandemic is Saturday and Sunday (with vendors taking alternate days in a bid to make it less crowded… which my or may not work, and if it does certainly reduces the atmosphere of the whole experience.
- Mercado de Motores – art market in the old rain sheds in Delicias that houses Museo del Ferrocarril de Madrid – if you like old trains then check out the museum as its chock full of them.
Galleries & arts spaces
- Try and do one of the big three museos depending on your taste. Of my who arts space list, these are the only ones you will pay for. Unless you are visiting for a week (or more) just chose one of the big 3 and instead visit the others I list below for the real gold!
– Museo Reina Sofia (Modern art, great temporary exhibitions and of course, Guernica)
– Museo del Prado (old masters)
– Thyssen Bornemisza (private modern with an amazing collection of of European art from the last 200 years)
** All 3 have free times but be warned, in peak tourist time this will be unbearably busy. Better getting a Museo del Arte pass to visit all three.
- Retiro Park’s Reina Sofia exhibition spaces – an extension of the programming at the Reina Sofia, except these exhibitions are in the beautiful Retiro and FREE. They are the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) and the Palacio de Velázquez.
- Centro Centro – Madrid’s impressive old ‘communications palace’ that is now a public arts space – four floors of rolling exhibition space – and somehow always one that will blow your mind. And it’s FREE! If you are into architecture the building and it’s history is fascinating, and they run free guided tours in English (book via the website)
- Sala de Canal Isabell II – a gallery housed inside the first elevated water tower built in Madrid. Run by the Communidad de Madrid and dedicated to temporary exhibitions of photography and fashion, this is one of the best, and most unique photographic gallery spaces if the world. Oh, and did I mention, it’s FREE.
- Matadero – Madrid’s old slaughter yards and meatworks on the banks of the rio now houses a contemporary arts precinct. The website is a usability disaster but don’t be discouraged – you can stumble across the best contemporary installations and exhibitions in the world in this space. See what’s on in Nave 0 (usually larger installations), Casa de Lectura, Intermediae, Design school.. or just go down and go for a explore. Almost everything here is always FREE!
- Conde Duque – another cultural precinct, in the inner north a short walk from Malasaña. Usually has a couple of exhibitions running, but can also house markets or installations in the massive dual courtyards. Also… FREE!
- Tabacaleria – an amazing contemporary arts space in an old tobacco factory. A fantastic run down old derelict space with edgy, yet to be discovered installation art (Currently closed for renovation…. hopefully they don’t lose the beauty that came from the decaying building!)
Last but not least….. there is always somethign happening in Madrid. A festival, performance, exhibition, open-house, free show. So …
- …check out the latest at madrid.es and the Madrid tourism mag for what’s on.
Incredible exhibitions can often be found in municipal buildings throughout the city – these are usually free and listed in the latest issue of the esMadrid tourist magazine. Get a hard copy at tourist info points around the city, or find it online using the link above (and bookmark it as it is VERY difficult to find on the website!) Oh, and if you are visiting in July/August check out Veranos de la Villa – an incredible annual summer program
Madrid All Year Round
Ok, here’s a list off the top of my head of ‘what happens and when‘. Will add more as I remember things… there’s so much more than this! Check the esMadrid magazine for a comprehensive ‘Whats On’ for the current month.
January: Three Kings Day Parade(5th) and the Dia del los Reyes itself (6th)
February: Cherry blossoms in Retiro and Parque de la Quinta de los Molinos,
March: Semana Santos (Easter)
April: Madrid Marathon.. rain, lots of rain (by Madrid standards anyway!)
May: San Isidro (15th)
June: Feria del Libro de Madrid, PHotoEspaña, Orgullo LGTB Madrid
August: Apart from being incredibly hot (many of the locals clear out and go to the beach to to visit family pueblos for the month) there are the big three fiesta – Fiestas de San Cayetano(7th), Fiestas de San Lorenzo (10th) and Verbena de la Paloma (from 12th). This basically means a good week of street party in the Embajadores / Lavapies / La Latina neighbourhood.
September: La Vuelta (Spain’s big cycling race ends in Madrid), Open House Madrid,
October: Luz Madrid
November: Meninas Madrid (in the street), Christmas Lights (turned on the last Friday in November)
December: Christmas (lights, iceskating and Christmas markets)
It’s true, I’m a coffee snob. Coming from Melbourne this is pretty normal, but it does make travelling excruciating. You can get a straight-up café con leché pretty much anywhere, and sometimes the results will be surprisingly ok but often they are almost undrinkable (sorry, it’s true).
My tried and tested list of ‘speciality’ coffee (ie. ‘Melbourne style espresso’) is below. (the full list in google maps is here.)
- Get an Allpress fix at the Aussie-owned Federal cafes in Centro – one near Plaza Mayor and the other near Conde Duque.
- Ruda – my sentimental favourite. The first excellent coffee I had two weeks after moving to Madrid! There are not heaps of places to sit down inside but it’s great for a takeaway. If you go on a Sunday, grab a coffee and wander down El Rastro.
- Bianchi Kiosko Caffé – no bullshit hole-in-the-wall in the guts of Malasaña. A firm favourite when heading down Calle Fuencarral on a weekend arvo.
- Feliz Coffee (Calle Lope de Vega) A great hole-in-the-wall style cafe with excellent coffee. This area of Cortes is full of tourist accomm and it’s hard to find a good coffee, so this place is a gem! Tell them you are from Melbourne… they love Melbourne people!
**Update July 2022 – Feliz is now my favourite coffee in Madrid and they have opened a second store around the corner on Calle de Ventura de la Vega, simply called Feliz. It’s got a few tables and incredible pastries to go with the fantastic coffee and lovely staff.
- Nommad Coffee – At the north end of Retiro. VERY expensive for Madrid, but the coffee is excellent and the park is right there… ! (DO NOT buy a coffee from anywhere in the park… trust me!)
- Don’t sweat the language – people are generally amazingly generous. And if you get stuck always remember that Google Translate is your friend. This goes for researching on the internet too.
- Public transport in Madrid is excellent. The buses are fast (!) and run often. The trains are super regular and with a change or two can weave you all around the city. PT is genuinely all you need in Madrid.
Get a Metro card and load up a tourist ticket and ride to your heart’s content. If you are stingy you can load a 10 trip ticket but if you are touristing lots, you’ll want an unlimited. Be warned google maps is good with routes but crap with times and connections. I found Citymapper to be the most accurate app for getting around town.
- You can also train to and from the airport with your metro card – you just need to add the airport fee at a machine (you can do this at the airport train station).