City guide: Madrid
Currently studying for his master's degree in History at the London School of Economics, Juan José Rivas has lived in London for the past four years. Juan shares with us more about the place he was from - Madrid.
Every city has an orientation, a way that it is set up. Can you give a big picture view of Madrid that would help orientate a visitor to the city?
As with most European cities that have a medieval origin, Madrid has a chaotic centre plagued with small alleys and hidden plazas. It is surrounded by concentric rings of neighbourhoods that were built during each phase of its urban expansion.
The easiest way to navigate through Madrid is by following Calle de Alcalá, which is one of the longest streets in the capital. The Calle de Alcalá extends from the Plaza del Sol in the historical centre to the outskirts of Madrid. It also links the Calle Mayor and the Gran Vía together. The Gran Vía is a must see in Madrid as it houses, amongst other things, the iconic building of Metrópolis and Hemingway's favourite bar in Madrid - Chicote. It was in this bar where he covered the battle of Jarma as a war correspondent.
Pictured above: The start of the Gran Vía, with the iconic building of Metrópolis (credit: bodasytendencias)
What are some typical things to do in Madrid that you can't do elsewhere?
Madrid represents the best combination of culture, history, and parties. Since Madrid is not as touristy as the other cities in Spain (like Barcelona), it guarantees you a completely genuine experience. Madrid provides you with a unique mixture of both the past and the present: you can walk in the old neighbourhoods admiring the convents and churches built with the silver brought back from America and visit the houses of the authors of the Golden Age. Not forgetting some of the most trendy and edgy restaurants and cafés in the capital.
What are the best ways to get around the city? Any local tips?
The metro is the fastest and cheapest way to get around the city. Ticket charges are calculated according to the distance travelled, but it shouldn’t go over €1.70 if you are moving around the centre.
Some of the metro stations are also beautiful in themselves: the Goya station is decorated with copied illustrations by Francisco de Goya, an artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Also, Retiro station is covered with a painted mosaic done by Antonio ‘Mingote’, one of Spain’s most iconic caricaturists.
Ouside of Madrid
Madrid is also a hub that connects the whole of Spain. If you want to move around the provinces and visit the picturesque town of Alcalá de Henares, you should take the Cercanías train from Atocha. The town of Alcalá de Henares is home to one of the oldest universities of Spain and birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes.
There are also high speed trains that connect Madrid with cities such as Seville, Toledo, Valencia and Salamanca. Train tickets can be pricey but a return ticket to the old imperial capital of Toledo (just 30 mins away with the high speed, AVE) should cost no more than €25 and it is worth the ride!
Pictured above: Retiro Mosaic (credit: Wikipedia)
They say the Spanish know how to party. How do people in Madrid do it?
The tradition in Madrid is to start the “ritual” around 11 p.m. The young Spaniards prefer to meet at different bars and taverns throughout the city. In the Spring and the Summer, they prefer to meet at the terraces.
Usually, bars will usually close around 1am. After which, they will usually head over to one of the many clubs in Madrid (they usually stay open until 6am or 7am). It is not considered a proper night out if you don't end it with a “churros” breakfast when the bar opens again.
Nowadays, partying through the different zones of Madrid is considered a cultural activity. Head to the Malasaña neighborhood, a centric area with lots of history, if you want to have a relaxing time.
Besides partying you may also find some highly recognised discos such as Joy Eslava (Calle Arenal 11) or Teatro Kapital (Calle Atocha 121) which is closer to the centre. The Teatro Kapital is the most iconic place in the city and it used to be a theatre prior to being converted into a club. It is well-known for having 7 floors and a rooftop which overlooks most of the historical centre. Going to the VIP area of the club may be one of the best investments to enjoy the night on a stylish manner. Another famous club known for being the place where most Real Madrid players celebrate their important victories is Gabanna (Calle Velázquez 6).
Pictured above: Teatro Kapital (credit: eldiariodecaleb)
What are some of the typical dishes/food of Madrid, and where are your favourite places to go for them?
Madrid, unlike the warmer cities of Andalusia, is more famously known for its salty dishes. Madrid’s cuisine represents the union of the two Castilles.
Adventurous meat-eaters should try the Callos Madrileños, a spicy broth with chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) and beef tripes. Even though it sounds quite barbaric, it is a delicious dish! You can find the best Callos in Bodegas Rosell, a traditional tavern on the General Lacy street, next to Atocha.
If you're looking for a more affordable Spanish cuisine, you should try out the bocadillos de calamares, or literally, fried squid baguettes. Despite the fact that Madrid is miles away from the nearest harbour, these calamari baguettes have become the most iconic food to have during football matches (for some strange reason). They can be found at any bar or cafeteria for a cheap price. They should also be paired with an ice-cold beer and a Real Madrid or Atlético de Madrid game.
Finally, churros are Madrid’s favourite breakfast. Tradition has it that families used to have churros on Sunday morning after early mass. Madrid’s churros are different from the rest of Spain and can be easily found in any bar. However it is better to get them from shops that call themselves “churrerías”. The melted chocolate is literally made out of a melted bar of chocolate, milk and flour. This is a must have breakfast.
Pictured above: Bodegas Rosell (credit: Irene Uceda)
What are your favourite neighbourhoods in Madrid?
Every visitor must go to these three neighbourhoods in Madrid: Centro, Retiro, and Salamanca.
Centro is the old historical centre, as its name implies. It is a chaotic amalgamation of streets, alleys, and plazas that often lead to dead-ends. But, it conceals some of the most beautiful corners of the city along the most emblematic buildings of Spain’s old empire.
Retiro is the neighbourhood where Madrid’s biggest and most beautiful park is placed - El Retiro park. El Retiro is a symbol of the city. It used to be the private hunting grounds for the kings of Spain until the 19th Century where it was then restructured and opened to the public.
Salamanca is one of the Nineteenth-century extensions of the city. You can find the National Library and the Golden Mile of Madrid (Calle Serrano) there.
Tell us where to eat and drink in your favourite neighbourhoods!
Filled with Renaissance and Baroque buildings, Centro is regarded as the historical heart of Madrid. Visitors should take some time and head to Plaza Mayor, the town’s main square as well as the neuralgic centre of imperial Spain. The Plaza Mayor itself is full of small taverns and hidden bars that date back to the 19th century.
Mercado de San Miguel
Going up the street of Calle Mayor, you will come across Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market that has been closed for many decades and has just been reopened recently. The market is bustling with many food stands today and you can find the best tapas and wine of Spain here. Do not leave the market without ordering a toast of gulas con alioli, a Madrilian specialty that consists of a bread toast topped with gulas (similar to glass eels) and a sauce made of mayonnaise and garlic.
Royal Theatre, Placio de Oriente and Almudena Cathedral
The Royal Theatre, the regal compound of the Palacio de Oriente and the Almudena cathedral are all located at the end of the street of Calle Mayor. In which, they are all separated by the Gardens of Sabatini. The Palacio de Oriente (literally translated as the Oriental Palace) is the biggest royal palaces out of all the rest in Europe. Built in a Neoclassical style dating back to the 18th century, this palace is a must see. The royal compound is also home to some of the most iconic cafés in Madrid, and it is a good place to chill at night.
Visitors should also head to the Hortaleza district, which is known as the "Literate’s Neighbourhood" (because of the many poets and theatre authors of the Golden Age who lived here). The house of Lope de Vega (whose work was read in Spanish by Shakespeare) is still opened to the public. This cozy area is dotted with convents and palaces that date back to the 17th century, when Spain was at the peak of its power.
As Hortaleza is built upon a hill and has small lanes, it would be difficult to walk through it. You should reward yourself with some beer/wine. The Taberna La Dolores (Plaza de Jesús 4, 28014 Madrid, Spain), is one of the most iconic taverns in Madrid and sells the best tapas in Madrid. Lastly, do visit La Dolores, which is located in front of the Sanctuary of the Medinaceli Christ (Cristo de Medinaceli). It is one of the most popular and revered images in Madrilian hagiography.
I have a special predilection for this neighbourhood since it is where I live. Retiro has one of the most emblematic parks in the whole of Spain - the Retiro park. You should avoid going to the park on weekends since it will be packed with people from all over the city (it even has its own metro station!). However, if you have the chance, you should visit it during a weekday morning where you will be able to find a mirror of Spain’s society: housewives doing their morning exercises, old retired men feeding the pigeons and occasional squirrels or South American maids taking the kids of their host family out for a walk whilst chatting amongst themselves (you could argue that nowadays, the mother tongue of any Spanish kid whose parents are both employed is Latin American Spanish).
Paseo de Recoletos
Next to El Retiro park you will find the Paseo de Recoletos, a long avenue that links Atocha station with the Calle de Alcalá. This avenue is a must see! Along this avenue, you can find Museo del Prado, the world’s largest art gallery. It has a sublime collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, Flemish art, and Spanish works that date to the time of the Baroque.
With regard to eating and drinking, Retiro has some of the most wonderful pearls of Madrid’s gastronomy. Casa Portal is a restaurant that prepares food from one of Spain’s most northern provinces, Asturias. It is located at calle Doctor Castelo 26 and they serve some of the best meat-based dishes in Madrid. If you want to get a taste of Asturias, you should order their “tortilla” (you will be surprised) or chorizo along a glass of traditional sidra (Asturian cider).
Pictured above: Museo del Prado (credit: Alquiler de Coches), Casa Portal
This neighbourhood was built during the 19th century as part of a plan to extend the urban area of the city of Madrid. It was the Spanish equivalent of Notting Hill or Kensington - a suburban area where the middle class came to live. It is in this neighbourhood that the shopping areas of Madrid are located.
Serrano, Goya and Príncipe de Vergara
The streets of Serrano, Goya, and Príncipe de Vergara encompasses the golden mile of the city. There are second-hand bookstores that still keep some original volumes from centuries ago and they are worth a visit!
Plaza de Colón
Plaza de Colón (Columbus’ Square) is considered one of the biggest squares in Madrid and it is a hub between Recoletos and Cibeles (in the South), and Paseo de la Castella (in the north where Santiago Bernabeu stadium is located). In Colón you will be able to find Platea, an old cinema that has been reconverted into a food market. Not only will you be able to find some of the finest tapas here, you will also be able to get a good beer and wine.
One must also visit the The National Library and the National Archaeological Museum. Especially for those who love the history of art, the National Archaeological Museum is one of the finest examples of Enlightened architecture.
Walking down Serrano from Colón, visitors will arrive at what is possibly Madrid's most emblematic monument, the Puerta de Alcalá or Alcalá Gate. Rooted in the middle of Alcalá street, this majestic piece of art was meant to be the gate of the city, and to pave the road to the neighbouring town of Alcalá de Henares.
One of Madrid’s newest businesses, Harina, is located in front of the Puerta de Alcalá . It is a juice/breakfast/tapas place with a modernist vocation. Harina is one of the few places that offers healthy juice mixes as well as traditional coffees from Latin America.
Any other tips about Madrid?
If you want to visit Madrid, you should do it during the Spring, especially in May. May is the month when the national uprising against Napoleon is celebrated. While it gets too hot in the Summer, Madrid becomes very cold in the Winter as it is located in the outskirt of the Central Mountains Range.
The Spaniards are friendly people and they do welcome tourists. Despite the fact that Madrid is not as touristy as the other cities, try to avoid eating or drinking in the more touristic places (like the Plaza Mayor or Gran Vía). Since Madrid is full of young professionals and is considered a cosmopolitan city there are plenty of people who speak English (compared to other cities). However, Spaniards are usually very proud, and they appreciate it immensely, especially when the foreigners show an interest in learning and speaking their language.
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