The spectacular city case for Madrid, Spain, Part 1: Plazas, restaurants, and the best spots to visit

I'll open with a bold statement: Madrid is the most spectacular western city that most readers of this blog have never been to. Wide avenues and narrow streets, outdoor plazas and taverns tucked away, the most intimate of neighborhoods in the European Union's third largest city... Madrid is the next city to which you should plan to say hello. Betting odds say that you'll fall in love with it, just as I once did years ago.

I've been cooking this notion in my mind for a long time, since I first visited Spain with my grandparents when I was thirteen years old. We spent two weeks in the country, but barely cracked two days in its capital city. On each pilgrimage since then, curious friends have asked me if I had plans to visit this place or that, but very rarely have they asked me about Madrid. Why, I have often wondered, is Madrid not higher on the bucket list for more travelers?

Allow me to convince you that it should be, and show you around the city with recommendations for your next visit.

Historical Context

Though founded over a millennia ago, and therefor far older than any modern city you'll find in the Americas, Madrid is a bit of a late bloomer in the development of notable European cities. Rome is Rome, Lisbon is ancient, and London had been the home of English kings for well over five hundred years by the time the Spanish monarchy moved from the cities of Valladolid and Toledo to set up permanent shop in Madrid. In the five hundred years since (give or take), Madrid has grown to be the home of more Europeans than any city save for London and Berlin. Its population would easily make it the third largest city in the United States as well.

Plazas, Stone Streets, and Grand Avenues

Most of what I'll share with you here is concentrated around the historic city center bounded (roughly) by the broad avenue called Gran Vía to the north, Palacio Real (the royal palace) to the west, Parque de Retiro to the east, and a southern boundary that for the sake of argument we'll mark off as the joining of the streets Ronda de Toledo and Ronda de Atocha.

Open plazas that appear around so many of the street corners are perhaps my favorite of Madrid's urban features. Of these, Puerta del Sol is by far the busiest such that you might think of it as the uniquely Madrid take on Times Square. It's too busy for a drink or meal. Nearby you'll find Plaza Mayor, which dates to the 1600s and is quite literally one of my favorite specks of ground (or cobblestone) on the planet. There's a bustling tourist climate there, so I am somewhat non-committal about dinner, though I recommend you try it once. I recommend Plaza de Santa Ana a short walk away. The narrow street called Calle de las Huertas runs a roughly east-west line just a block south of Plaza de Santa Ana. Walking the stretch of it delights me every time. Restaurants and bars dot every stone-laid block, and there are always people out and about. Spend some time here.

Food and Drink

I've written about the mesónes that you'll find on the street down below Plaza Mayor. They -- particularly Mesón del Champiñón -- make Madrid for me. What I love most about Madrid are all the great small places that knit themselves together into a blanket of outstanding cuisine spread out over the city. The corner of Calle de las Huertas and Calle de Jesús summarize this phenomenon quite nicely: I'd go back to El Diario, La Esquina, and Le Comptoir de la Crepe any time, but it's unlikely that any will get a visit from a high flying food critic any time soon. Madrid is home to many great restaurants, but I predict you will find the places that please you most are the little ones you discover for yourself.

We have to talk about Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, located just down the block from the mesónes. Botín is well known as the oldest continually operational restaurant in the world, and as a favorite of Earnest Hemingway. I was dying to have their signature dish, cochinillo asado (roast sucking pig) about ten years ago, so wandered in to make a reservation for the next night and was told they only had "early reservations" left -- either 9 or 10pm. This place is quite popular, and you'll be both tempted and encouraged to go. The catch, though, is that I think it's over-hyped. I first dined there in the late 90s, and since then it has either become far more tourist-trappy, or my taste in restaurants has matured a lot (I happen to know both are true). It's a good experience if you go into it knowing it for what it is, but not one that I have a need to repeat .

The United States is relatively new to producing outstanding wine, so showing it off in trendy wine bars or elegant restaurants is very much part of the cosmopolitan culture in cities like New York and Washington, whereas Spanish wine production is so old and so ingrained that it's much more understated, much more part of the culture than something one would "do". You'll drink a lot of wine in Madrid, but much of it is likely to come in the form of sangría in a ceramic jar at a mesón rather than from a mile-long wine list at a trendy wine bar.

Newcomers will find that Madrid, and Spain generally, is a haven for night owls. Do not go in thinking that you'll be eating lunch at noon and dinner at a reasonable six or seven o'clock. Lunch may happen by 1:30, and dinner is going to run you a start time of at least 9:00. You will, by the way, be well served by some working knowledge of a 24-hour clock; both 12-hour and 24-hour clocks are used interchangeably in different contexts. In any case, a light breakfast is important if you plan to walk around a lot, with lunch around 1:30, tapas (the small plate dishes available in most cafes and restaurants) in the late afternoon and early evening, and then dinner late. Because Madrid is six hours ahead of Eastern Time, I find that the late meal times actually helps with the timezone adjustment from the United States.

The Places you'll Go

You're in the big city, and there are many places to go. Some of our favorites are below, easily findable on Google unless otherwise noted.

  • Retiro Park (Parque de Retiro) was originally part of the grounds of the sprawling Buen Retiro palace. Though the palace is long destroyed, the public park remains an immense green space suited for long walks and snacks on cafe terraces. Consider renting a rowboat and spending 45 minutes plying the waters of the lake in the park's center.
  • Royal Palace (Palacio Real) is the official seat of the king, though in practice the royal family has not lived here for a century. It's the largest palace in Europe, and incredibly open to public consumption. Waves of visitors have taken their toll, but much of it is exquisite. Citizens of Spain, other EU countries, and Ibero-American nations are offered free admission at specific times. Otherwise it will run you about 10 euros apiece.
  • The Reina Sofia art museum is, for my time, more compelling than the nearby Prado (I can hear art lovers howling at me as I write this). It's true, I don't love art museums, but I have spent hours staring at Picasso's Guernica that memorializes the bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It's one of those paintings that teaches me something new every time I stare.
  • It's a true shame that Congreso de los Diputados, the Spanish capitol building, won't appear on every itinerary. We think it's one of the neatest places to visit. You might note how unassumingly it sits on the street, clearly a capitol but without a lot of fanfare. The interior is beautiful, and the hemicycle (the "debating chamber") is stunning. Consider a tour.
  • Santiago Bernabéu is the home of the famous Real Madrid fútbol (that's soccer) club. More than just a stadium, this place is a museum and shrine to one of the most successful teams in professional sports history. I haven't visited since 2007, but at that time the tour could take an entire afternoon climbing to the height of the stadium, visiting field level, and winding through trophies and photographic memories of past glory. Sports fans rejoice!
  • If you've planned enough time in the city, I recommend considering excursions by train to outlying smaller cities with much to offer. A beautiful cathedral and charming narrow streets make Toledo my favorite, though the monastic palace of El Escorial, city walls of Ávila, and the Alcazar (castle) in Segovia (among many other things).

Bottom Line

We'll talk the logistics of getting around and places to stay in a future post, lest this thing get out of control.

There's a lot here, both literally in this piece and in Madrid itself. I've found the city resonates for me, and is a place I can't ever wait to get back to again and again. It's the type of place that has never gotten old for me. I always crack the biggest smile you've seen the instant the plane's wheels touch down on the runway. I hope you find it to be just as magical.