Ah Spain, there are so many things to love about you: thick hot drinking chocolate and churros for breakfast, tapas for all day snacking, and all the lush parks throughout the cities! And Madrid definitely has it all!
Our first taste of an Overnight Train
We arrived via the overnight train from Lisbon and while we had trouble sleeping, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. The cabins were decent in state and size. First class came with a bottle of water and a pouch of toiletries: ear plugs, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, and a packet of tissue. We didn’t use the ear plugs but I doubt it would have helped as the train makes quite a bit of noise and I kept half waking each time I thought I was about to roll off the bed from the rocking of the train.
Explore Madrid’s Gardens & Eats
We walked everywhere we went in Madrid; our AirBnB was located just 15-30 minutes walking from most of the major attractions, like El Retiro Park or the Palacio Real de Madrid. We spent our first day exploring the West side of Madrid. We walked around the Plaza de la Armería to the grandiose sound of Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye on an accordion and made our way through Jardines de Sabatini, where we had to hide under a tree to wait out some rain, to the Templo de Debod, which was inexplicably closed. Disheartened, we decided to do something that always makes us happy: eat.
We dove right into our first experience of true Spanish tapas at Juana la Loca. To soothe our rain-chilled souls, we ordered the hearty tortilla patatas, a rich and earthy truffled risotto, the savory and sweet ibérico loin of pork, a mushroom toast (because I love mushrooms), and the tender shredded duck confit crepe. All the plates had bold flavors and we left quite satisfied. Oh and don’t don’t forget a glass of Ad Libitum, a delicious red wine.
For dessert we went to go find some of the famous Spanish chocolate, so we headed to San Ginés for chocolat con churros, where 6 churros is never enough and the chocolate is like drinking a hot chocolate pudding. However our favorite place for chocolate turned out to be just down the street, at El Riojano, where it’s a little darker and richer. Contrary to American belief, churros and chocolate is meant for breakfast, not dessert! People who approve of chocolate for breakfast are definitely my people.
Witness the passion that is Flamenco
That evening we went to watch an intimate flamenco show at La Cueva de Lola. It was yet another first experience for us and it was much more intense than we had expected. The graceful fingers of the guitarist flying over the strings, the deep throaty powerhouse of a singer, and the almost feverish snapping and stomping of the dancers had us simultaneously drawn in and reeling back from the passion.
While flamenco is not just about the dance, I was pleased that the male dancer took on the longer solo. While we couldn’t understand the song, or perhaps because we couldn’t, we were left to focus on the incredible expressions of the dancers; their arched brows and proudly puffed chests to their steps that go from slow and deliberate to a crescendoing cacophony of rhythm. We left La Cueva feeling breathless and wonderfully drained.
Visit Madrid’s Parks
The next day we headed towards the East to Parque de El Retiro, a giant park that you can spend an entire day walking. I’m always impressed by the manicured hedges popular in European gardens, and El Retiro is no different. We wandered along with local joggers and dog walkers and made our way to the Palacio de Cristal, a stunning glasshouse exhibit. It wasn’t very big, but we took our time inside, admiring how the fragmented windows framed the turning leaves outside or how the glass would catch the sunlight. Making our way up North, we came to the Estanque grande del Retiro, where we watched families on rowboats and listened to the smooth sounds of a saxophone mingled with the sounds of water.
For lunch we explored Mercado San Miguel, the very popular food market of Madrid. The food seemed priced for tourists, however, the drinks were reasonable and we found a delicious white wine, 2017 Ermita Veracruz Blanco – Rueda, crisp and just a touch sweet! We did manage to find one tapas bar which had 1-2 EUR tapas, so we snagged a few and squeezed into a corner to people watch. Soon it felt too crowded so we slipped outside and directly in front of the Mercado is Bar Cerveriz, an unassuming little bar that we almost missed while looking at the Mercado. Bar Cerveriz has the very best tortilla: the egg is so soft and just a tad runny. So perfect!
And just down the street from the Mercado San Miguel and Bar Cerveriz, is Mercado Jamon Ibérico, where we finally got to sample the ubiquitous ibérico ham. When we first arrived the place was packed and we debated waiting or finding another spot. We were already feeling a little overrun from the Mercado San Miguel so we decided to walk around the block and see if a table would open up. Alas, we returned to a full room again. But we didn’t want to give up – we came to this shop was specifically so we might try a variety of ham and maybe learn a little something, rather than just pick a pre-sliced packaged ham randomly anywhere and call it a day. So we worked up the nerve to ask the guy if we could do a sample plate anyway, and we were so glad we did. He got us settled at a table in the back where they host a class, recommended his favorite red wine and sliced us a big platter of two of their most popular hams. We preferred the one aged almost 6-years, which was milder in flavor but almost melted in the mouth, compared to the 4-years.
For another dessert that’s acceptable as breakfast, try a napolitana de crèma (or) chocolate from La Mallorquina. They’re essentially Spanish croissants and I’d even go so far as to say I like the napolitana de chocolate more than a traditional French pain au chocolate – they have a much better chocolate to bread ratio. As we joined the queue, I almost felt like I was in Chinatown: people just crowded in and those grandmas had no qualms about cutting in front of you! Stand your ground though, the napolitanas are worth it; we went back the very next day for more.
Black Week Shopping in Europe
We happened to visit during the Thanksgiving week and discovered that while Thanksgiving is obviously not an European holiday, Black Friday is celebrated, so there were lots of people out shopping during our stay. The sales are not as big as they are back home, but we did take advantage when we decided to switch from our double backpacks and join the roller luggage club (read more about that here).
There were some really cute boutique shops we found, like Zappy which was like a Daiso, and Pampling, a store front of awesome pop culture mashup tshirts similar to Threadless back at home.
After all my pining during our window shopping, Carl figured I could probably use some food. Carl and I love food shopping more than we do any other kind of shopping, so we quickly headed over to Mercado de la Cebada before they closed. It’s like a mall for farmer’s markets! We found some interesting giant flat green beans called judía verde, which didn’t taste very different but held their crunch really well. Carl chopped them up and threw them in a shrimp pasta, because, you can never go wrong with pasta.
We spent about 5 days in Madrid and felt it was an enjoyable pace. There’s so much to eat you’ll want to make sure give yourself enough time for it all. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
We found a great apartment in the heart of La Latina, which is walking distance to all of our recommended places. The apartment was spacious, the bathroom sized for normal people (fairly rare in Europe), and there’s a full sized fridge with freezer. The bedroom was quaint, but the sloping ceiling could be problematic if you’re forgetful or taller than average.
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We found that in Spain there were less multilingual people and even if you might look like a tourist/not Spanish, people will first speak to you in Spanish. This suited us fine because it helped us really practice Spanish, rather than just asking people if they spoke English all the time.
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None at the time. Their windows don’t have screens.
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Currency: 1 EUR = 1.15 USD
Tipping is not required but is widely practiced here. Apparently there aren’t hard calculations, but rather some small change for the bar or table service or 1-2 EUR at the table.
$60-80/person: This was for 4 evenings in Madrid with a private Airbnb apartment. We cooked some of our meals in, had one sit-down meal, and bought some snacks. We found our Flamenco show off Groupon (about 20 EUR for two people with drinks!) – note that you have to look under Spain’s Groupon and create a whole separate account to use Groupons based in Spain.
Some typical costs
- tapas: 1-10 EUR
- chocolate con churros: 3.50-5 EUR
- glass of wine: 3-5 EUR (check the price of a bottle, it may save you a ton)
- AirBnB: $39/night
Juana la Loca, juanalalocamadrid.com, Plaza de Puerta de Moros, 4, $$-$$$
Chocolaterie San Ginés, chocolateriasangines.com, Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5, $
El Riojana, confiteriaelriojano.com, Calle Mayor, 10, $
La Cueva De Lola, Calle de los Mancebos, 2, $-$$
Parc du Retiro, esmadrid.com/informacion-turistica/parque-del-retiro, Plaza de la Independencia, 7, Free
Mercado San Miguel, mercadodesanmiguel.es, Plaza de San Miguel, $-$$$
Bar Cerveriz, Plaza de San Miguel, 2, $
Mercado Jamón Ibérico, mercadojamonibericomadrid.es/es, Calle Mayor, 80, $-$$
La Mallorquina, pastelerialamallorquina.es, Calle Mayor, 2, $
Other places we tried that were great but did not make our top favorites:
Mistura, misturaicecream.com, Calle de Cdad. Rodrigo, 6, $$ – hand crafted ice cream, 9 EUR for a pint. Try their Dulce de leche, very caramel-y and creamy!
La Campana, Calle Botoneras 6, $ – Get super fresh fried calamari sandwiches, bocadillo de camarones.