Madrid: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide
By Ryan Opaz
To enter the capital city is beyond a fleeting experience, it’s an homage to all things gustatory. As the melting pot for every possible Spanish flavor, it’s difficult not to find something that tickles the palate.
Madrid’s culinary diversification began in the 16th century when King Felipe II established Madrid as the capital city of his kingdom; whereby, immigrants from all corners of the Spanish Empire streamed into the “villa” of Madrid bringing with them age old recipes and traditions. Of course, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like living in such times, but you can still get a sense of it by dining at the Posada de la Villa, an old flour mill built in 1642, or at Casa Botin, considered the oldest restaurant in the world dating back to 1725. While playing time traveler, you could also make a reservation at Llardy, where you’ll find a 19th century restaurant decorated in the ornate Belle Epoque style of Isabel Segunda. Might even want to don a top hat for this one.
Mind you, Madrid isn’t just a culinary haven, it’s home to some of the most breathtaking architecture in the world. Take a walking tour of Plaza Mayor, an iconic meeting point that once hosted bullfights, open markets, symphonies, tournaments and (not for the faint hearted) executions. Just up the road, cast your eyes upon the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) considered to be one of the most emblematic and beautiful buildings in Madrid, not only for its strategic location on a rolling bluff overlooking the river valley, but also for its architecture. And let’s not forget El Retiro, the perfect relaxing point in the center of the city where you can stroll in the botanical garden, feed the quasi-friendly fowl, or if energy dictates, fit in a quick game of paddle tennis.
Over the past decade, Madrid has settled thousands of foreigners from across the globe, providing the city an even greater international flavor. And when mixed with an already fabulous patchwork of Spanish culture, you’ve created an incredibly eclectic food scene. That said, there are dishes that are unique to Madrid and should not be missed during your visit!
Not to Miss Madrileño Delights:
- Churros and Hot Chocolate: This is your extreme version of a Boston donut drenched in Mexican style chocolate – not to mention a delicious heartattack in the making. Churros are long, sugar coated, crispy donuts that are dipped in a viscous spicy black chocolate sauce that have been known to cure depression in seconds flat. Head to Chocolatería San Ginés in Puerta del Sol for some of the best in Madrid.
- Horchata de Chufa: Although I find this creamy, yet refreshing, Valencian beverage rather odd, it’s the go-to summer drink when temperatures rise. Made from the nut sedge plant (or Tiger nut), and called chufas in Spanish, horchata is a sweet and nutty non-alcoholic drink found in just about every cafe or ice cream parlor.
- Jamon: It would be impossible for me not to mention this perfectly cured and addictive meat. Found in every cafe, bar and restaurant, the only question you need to ask yourself is, how much do I want to spend for superior quality jamon? Admittedly, the more you spend the more delectable the experience, but whatever level you choose, don’t miss this!
- Cocido Madrileño – This traditional chickpea soup made with meat and veggies is perfect for frigid winter temperatures. Created during the Middle Ages as an evolution of the Sephardic dish adafina, it became a staple in Spanish cuisine.
- Callos a la Madrileña – If you’re a friend of offal, then you’ll adore this dish! Made primarily of tripe, the dish is often accompanied with blood sausage, chorizo and trotters. Many times, you’ll also find beans included.
- Sopa de Ajo: By far one of my favorite dishes, consisting of a poached egg in chicken broth, flavored with Sherry and garlic. Simple, delicious and incredibly easy to make.
- Spanish wine: Yeah, it’s hard to narrow down which wine to enjoy considering your location in the dead-center of the country, but for this reason alone, try anything you get your hands on! With 72 different wine regions to choose from, not to mention hundreds of grapes, we encourage pure, unadulterated experimentation. There’s several opportunities to visit wineries from Madrid by train as well, or simply have a private guided wine tour customized for you.
Madrid Bar & Cafe Scene
Much like Barcelona, Madrid is renowned for its cafe and bar scene, where local watering holes line city streets in every which direction. Here you’ll find locals making a mad dash to the bar for a quick cafe con leche (latte) or cortado (espresso with a dash of milk) accompanied by a croissant. This is your average breakfast of champions unless you’re needing some extra punch in your coffee with a dash of brandy. Called a carajillo, reserve this bad boy for when you’ve had an opportunity to pair it with something heartier than a flaky butter coated pastry.
Keep in mind bars and cafes fall into a very similar category: both typically serve espresso and basic pastries. The difference generally lies in the ambiance and menu. A good rule of thumb is to window shop. If you see a healthy display of pastries in the window, you’ve most likely fallen into cafe scene.
Great areas for bars and cafes:
- Santa Ana – Located just off Puerta del Sol and nestled in one of the older barrios of Madrid, Plaza Santa Ana is a very welcoming area and well known to legendary authors such as Cervantes who frequented this area often. Here you’ll not only find a wealth of quaint bars packed with locals, but also the oldest theatre in Madrid, Teatro Español, which was built in 1745. Just down the way, don’t forget to make a pit stop on Calle Huertas where the nightlife thrives.
- Malasaña – Home of the famous “movida” movement in the 80’s, this area is chockfull of retro bars, hipster hangouts, bohemian cafes and alternative lifestyles located in a very local, neighborhood feel. If you’re looking for great places off the beaten tourist track, head here!
- Salamanca – Despite the high class, chic exterior, some of the most laid back and cozy cafes are housed in this neighborhood. Don’t hesitate to stumble upon hidden spots nestled off main drags of Serrano and Velazquez streets.
Restaurants in Madrid
Madrid is a fantastic city to find a quality meal at any budget. In part, this is what makes Spain unique as a result of the thriving tapas and gourmand scene; but on the other hand, it’s a treasure to Madrid due to its growing population – not to mention, this city never sleeps. And we do mean, never. It’s a city of street life, where grandmothers enjoy a glass ColaCao (chocolate milk) on an open terrace with their young grandchildren under the stars. It’s safe, tourist friendly and offers as much diversity as the mind can muster. From the incredibly traditional La Vanencia Sherry bar to the Michelin starred Club Allard, quality comes in every price, style and form.
Areas lined with great restaurants:
- Around Retiro Park and Neighborhood – Here you’ll find loads of outdoor terraces, great for an aperitif of vermouth before or after taking a walk around the park.
- Plaza Mayor, Plaza de San Miguel, Puerta del Sol – Find the best places to sample Madrid’s most famous cuisine, the Bocadillo de Calamares (a baguette sandwich with fried squid and mayo) at El Brillante to the most famous Chocolate and Churros, all the famous clientele who have eaten there are on the walls. Calle Cava Baja is the place to go for tapas.
- Calle Serrano, Barrio de Salamanca – Great places for people and celebrity watching, very upscale eateries among fantastic shopping
- Chueca neighborhood – Gay area with loads of fantastic little restaurants and alternative shopping.
- Puerta de Alcala – On one side, a very famous charcuteria called Mallorca that you can go for delectable sandwiches for breakfast/lunch. On the other side, some great terraces to have a glass of wine or cocktail.
Though Madrid is relatively chill when it comes to dining norms, there are a few I would suggest keeping close at hand.
- When to Eat: Madrid (and Spain in general) functions much in the same way as hobbit’s village. There are approximately 6 meals a day, or more, depending on what your objective is. As a basic guide, you can assume the following: 8am coffee, 10:30 coffee and croissant, 14:00 lunch; 17:00 or 18:00 coffee and a sweet; 21:00 dinner. If you arrive 15 minutes late to any of the meals, rest assured so is everyone else.
- Be Assertive: Understand that assertiveness is the key to success in any restaurant, bar or cafe. Whether you need to order, grab a drink or simply pay your bill, don’t hesitate to make a beeline straight to the server or motion for him to come to your table; otherwise, you may be reaching retirement before your needs are met – this includes paying your bill!
- When in Doubt use Silverware: Though you will see many people use their fingers, they tend to be tourists. As a general rule of thumb, even if you’re enjoying toast, cut that bad boy with a fork and knife.
- Dress Code: Here I am only referring to the restaurant scene, but just about anything goes. Would I suggest avoiding a t-shirt and shorts for a nice dinner, yes, but you won’t get kicked out. Madrid is lovely in its informality, but try not to abuse its flexibility.
- Napkins to the Floor: Admittedly, there is nothing as fun as a food fight, but as this isn’t quite considered “polite”, the second best option is to toss something over the shoulder, and why not be a napkin? In Madrid, you’ll see several bars covered in soiled (or semi-soiled as the napkins are generally nonabsorbent) napkins. Join in the fun, because when will you get this chance again?!
Local Markets in Madrid
Another “must do” while in Madrid is to visit the numerous markets available to you. For those of you who prefer to rent an apartment during your stay, these are the ideal places to peruse for fresh produce, meat and fish. Additionally, as each stall tends to be family run, you’ll find some locally sourced produce.
Places to visit include:
- San Miguel Market: The iron-and-glass Mercado opened its doors in May of 1916, an ode to modernism, until it eventually feel out of style and became another abandoned architectural artifact. In 2003, private investors grabbed hold of this treasure to fashion a bustling market of 33 stalls under a wood and iron roof complete with green engineering. Not only gorgeous, you’ll find locals milling about searching for their daily produce, books and floral arrangements. Here you can also enjoy a glass of wine, tapas, incredible cheeses and of course, mouth-watering jamon.
- San Anton in Chueca: If you’re looking for a one stop shopping extravaganza, this is it. This newly remodeled 3 floor wonder combines gourmet shopping on the 1st floor, kiosks on the second floor serving everything from international cuisine to cider, beer and wine; and finally, La Cocina de San Antón restaurant on the top floor with a gorgeous view of the surrounding tile rooftops. Mind you, this isn’t where you’ll find traditional flare, but this market will provide a fab place to shop and eat on a gorgeous day.
- El Rastro: El Rastro is by far the most popular open air flea market in Madrid. It’s impossible to visit Madrid and not experience this chaotic wonderland on a Sunday morning. From antiques to local wares, the greatest joy of this market is purely the people watching. Even if you’re blurry eyed from the previous night’s activities, head to the market just outside of La Latina or Tirso de Molina metro stations and enjoy the insanity.
- Mercado Vallehermoso: If Mercado de San Miguel is the Manhattan of Madrid´s Mercados, then Mercado Vallehermoso is the Portland. It’s a lovely mix of traditional and contemporary, with a twist of homestyle. Look out for fantastic produce (fruterias), buttery cured ham (jamonerias) and some of the best fish in Madrid!
Remember: One rule of thumb, watch your possessions! Though Madrid as a whole is incredibly safe, pick-pocketing has turned into a science, and there is no better location to bump and grab than a busy and crowded market, especially in the Rastro!
Festivals in Madrid
One of the many reasons to fall in love with Madrid is the people’s innate ability to turn every situation into a festivity. Regardless of the weather, social mood or political unrest, you can count on the Madrileños to magically create a celebratory spirit. Consequently, there are dozens of festivals hosted throughout the year, but we’ll do our best to give you some of our favorites.
Festivals in Madrid:
- Los Reyes (Three Kings) – January 5 : Assuming you made a mad dash to Madrid right after the New Years, you’ll undoubtably run into the famed Reyes. On the evening of 5 January, also known as Noche de Reyes, bright-eyed children strategically place themselves along Calle Alcalá to watch the annual cabalgata (parade)…okay, maybe “watch” isn’t the key term, but rather wait until sweets are thrown by the barrel fulls from elaborate floats. The next day, on January 6th, families gather for gift giving followed by a large dinner.
- San Isidro – Around May 15 : San Isidro is the patron saint of Madrid, known as a humble 12th-century labourer who’s reputed for numerous miracles and whose wife, María de la Cabeza, was also canonised, making them the only sainted couple in history. Consequently, you’ll find music, food and festivities, not to mention plenty of fireworks and bullfights, during this week long celebration. Forget sleeping and enjoy the fun!
- Verbenas de San Cayetano, San Lorenzo & La Paloma – August 6-15: In true Spanish spirit, the streets and squares of Lavapiés, Rastro and La Latina are prepared for some serious summer partying. From live music to massive grill outs, this is a great excuse to mill among the locals and enjoy the summer weather.
- Festival de Otoño – 4/5 weeks in October/November: A great way to forget winter is about to arrive, this festival has approximately 70 theater, dance and music performances and remains one of the city’s major performing arts events. If you’re a fan of the arts, you’ll thoroughly appreciate this event.
Sightseeing in Madrid
Although we encourage you to eat and drink your way through Madrid, you may need the occasional culinary break to wander the city streets. If you’re like me, you can handle only a few museums before you’re on historical overload. However, what makes Madrid so incredible, is that despite the laundry list of quality museums, you can also don your trainers and spend the day sightseeing on foot. Madrid is a fabulous walking city. Plot your route well, and you can plan a gourmet walking path, catching both the foodie and architectural wonders in one fell swoop. Here’s a few spots worthy of checking out…
- El Prado: One of the world’s finest collections of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century, it’s unquestionably a must visit. And while you’re there, make sure to visit the Royal Botanic Garden located directly adjacent to the Prado where you’ll find 30,000 different species of plants.
- Madrid Rio: Though lacking the same historical prestige as El Retiro, the Madrid Rio features 17 new playgrounds (including fitness areas for adults) as well as running and biking paths, a skate park and an almost-100-foot-high climbing wall.
- Museo Cerralbo: Ever wondered what it would be like to travel back to the 19th century and live like a Spanish aristocrate? After watching Downton Abbey, I trust your interest may be piqued. This is your opportunity to see priceless works of art, jewelry, coins, clothing, etc collected by the Spanish intellectual (or eccentric), Marquis of Cerralbo.
- Corral de la Moreria: Considered one of the most famous tablao flamenco houses in the world, it was founded by Manuel del Rey in 1956 and has remained landmark ever since.
Accommodation in Madrid
When choosing your accommodation in Madrid, one must remember that location is vital. In a city that never…ever sleeps, it’s important to find a hotel that is both situation in the heart of the city so that a taxi cab is a short hop away from your bed, and is of quality so that your windows are at the very least, double-paned. Here are a few worth investigating:
- Palacio de Tepa – Luxury without going overboard, this hotel features contemporary rooms yet located in a perfectly centric and historic area.
- Casa De Madrid: Going the complete opposite direction, here you’ll find charm, affordability and great storytelling. Located in Plaza Oriente, the hotel contains 7 spacious rooms that are themed from the Hapsburg Dynasty.
- ME Madrid Reina Victoria: Once a favoured hangout for Madrid’s matadors, this tower-topped hotel is now home-from-home to a glamorous crowd of fashionistas, financiers and fiesta-seekers in search of fine food, knockout panoramas and an unbeatable central setting.
- Casa de Madrid: Located in a landmark 18th century building, in the old part of Madrid where the Habsburg dynasty built their Royal Palace. Its many balconies face Madrid’s Royal Opera House, and has views of Plaza Oriente and the Royal Palace. Casa de Madrid is not like a traditional hotel – it offers a unique and romantic luxury accommodation experience.
Shopping in Madrid
We all find ourselves on the very last day of the trip completely lost as to what to bring family members and friends. And I trust many of you have made that rushed purchase at the airport seconds before the last boarding call – rest assured that we’ve all been there, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are a few suggestions on great gifts to pack away deep in your suitcase!
- La Tintoreria: Since 2009, this small but dedicated team has acquired over 1500 references of Spanish and international wines.
- Poncelet: With 90 different Spanish cheeses, and 230 international cheeses, the cheese addicted among you will have a field day exploring their shelves!
- Cacao Sampaka: For those of you who worship the coco bean, who crave something rich and sweet and possibly exotic, Sampaka is your fix.
- Mama Framboise: From homemade pastries to decorative candies, each and every creation is devised from the famed pastry chef Alejandro Montes.
- Patrimonio Comunal Olivarero: Run by a foundation promoting Spanish olive oil, the store sell been selling quality Spanish oil for nearly half a century with approx. 80 brands located from Andalusia in the south to Catalonia on the French border.
- Lavinia: This three-story wine superstore sells everything from 1945 Mouton-Rothschild at €22,000 to hip and organic wines for under €10. If you’re looking for vinous gifts, this is a fast and easy choice.
- Casa Gonzalez: Not only does Casa Gonzalez offer over 40 wines by the glass from some 200 references, it’s also one of Madrid’s most welcoming delicatessens, whose family history dates back over 80 years.
- Wine Attack: Fantastic organic and natural wine shop in the heart of Madrid!
- Spicy Yuli: Focused exclusively in artisanal spices and herbs.
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