From the best places for real-deal tapas to the hottest places to hang out and the coolest places to chill out, take a tour of 10 exciting things to do in the Spanish capital with a native Madrilenian.
1. San Ginés: hot chocolate
Founded in 1894, San Ginés chocolaterie is the perfect place to enjoy Madrid’s famous breakfast: chocolate and churros. Open 24 hours every day, it’s definitely worth a visit even if it’s almost always full. If you’re patient you’ll find a seat sooner or later. I love to sit on one of those green couches, sipping dense chocolate while I admire the decoration of the room and watch people come and go. Better not come too early for breakfast, as one consolidated tradition in Madrid is having chocolate and churros after a loooong night out! I also recommend stopping by La Mallorquina patisserie, just a few blocks away, to get some napolitanas.
Pasadizo de San Ginés 5, 28013 Madrid
+34 91 365 6546
2. Museo del Prado: saints and sinners
Renowned as the world’s largest art gallery, Prado Museum was opened in 1819 and contains over 9,000 artworks. As an art lover, I tend to let myself drop in on weekday afternoons before 5pm, when it is less crowded. Sometimes I attend the educational activities that take place daily: these are free and you can sign up for them at Jerónimos building 15 minutes in advance, but you need to understand Spanish. The Museum also holds temporary exhibitions of artworks by prestigious artists or pieces from other museums around the world. But I prefer to laze around the permanent collection, looking for pigs dressed as nuns and saints being breastfed by the Virgin Mary. If you have the time, make sure to visit the nearby Thyssen, Reina Sofía and Archaeological Museums as well.
Paseo del Prado s/n, 28014 Madrid
+34 91 330 2800
3. Ateneo de Madrid: art, science and culture
Virtually unknown to the general public, Spaniards included, this hidden gem is one of my favourite places to read, study and rest in Madrid. When I say hidden I don’t mean it idly: the entrance generally goes unnoticed by passers-by. Founded in 1835, this institution holds the second largest library in Spain, only surpassed by the National Library, and it has witnessed many historical events, as this was the cradle of liberal movements and Masonic meetings. I love its smell of old books, wood and paintings. You need to be a fellow to study at the library, but everybody can attend the numerous concerts, exhibitions, lectures, film series and plays that take place throughout the year paying a small fee. Definitely worth a visit.
Calle Prado 21, 28014 Madrid
+34 91 429 17 50
4. La Latina: great barrio for tapas
Tapear: one of those Spanish words that can’t be translated to English. You go to a bar and ask for a drink. The waiter brings not just the drink but some good food as well. You think they’re going to charge you for that, but don’t worry, it’s free! In Spain you ask for a drink, you get a tapa. La Latina is a good area to go and find tapas in Madrid. Most people like to go round the bars, looking for the best ones, of which there are many. If you’re lucky, you can have lunch paying for just two or three drinks! Personally I prefer to sit on a terrace with friends, enjoying delicious food and good conversation for hours.
Plaza de La Latina and surrounding area, 28005 Madrid
5. El Retiro: green escape in the middle of the city
When I need a mental break from the streets, a walk through El Retiro transports me to the loveliness of 18th-century palace gardens. My favourite place is the Crystal Palace and its surroundings, where I love to sit on the grass with a book, poking my head up once in a while to admire the play of light, shadow and colour on the pond. There are also ducks, turtles and plenty of birds to watch, and stands to buy ice-cream or snacks; and the palace holds modern art exhibitions that are interesting to see. If you’re looking for liveliness, there are always activities, exhibitions, concerts, puppet shows, street performers and fortune tellers in other areas of the park, besides an annual Book Fair.
Main entrance: Plaza de la Independencia s/n, 28001 Madrid
6. Teatro de la Zarzuela: quintessential Spanish experience
One of my all-time favourite personal traditions is an annual visit to La Zarzuela. Practically unknown to non-Spanish speakers, zarzuela is the Spanish musical theatre genre, combining operetta and spoken parts. This is quintessential Spanish classical music, and Teatro de la Zarzuela is the place to enjoy it: a beautiful 19th-century theatre, live instrumentalists, dozens and dozens of performers, first-rate singers, superb staging and reasonable prices. Even friends who don’t understand Spanish have loved the music, costumes, scenery and dancing. The fact that the sound is all acoustic, with no body microphones used, adds charm to this not-to-be-missed experience: Spain as it used to be. Concerts, ballet, opera and guided visits are also available.
Calle Jovellanos 4, 28014 Madrid
+34 91 524 54 00
7. Mercado de San Miguel: food from €1
An old traditional market converted into a modern gastronomic experience, its greatest asset is you can taste samples of food for very little money, sometimes even for free, before deciding whether to buy this or that. There’s a huge variety of food: cold meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, sushi, seafood, chocolates, frozen yogurt, juices, sangria, wine… all deliciously tasty and fresh. I love to walk around enjoying mouth-watering smells and flavours, while natural light floods the building, emphasizing the beauty of its iron and glass structure. Always full, it is nevertheless another great place for tapas, very lively and really close to Plaza Mayor.
Plaza de San Miguel s/n, 28005 Madrid
+34 915 42 49 36
8. Microteatro por Dinero: alternative theatre
Created in 2009 as a theatrical experiment, Microteatro was a total success from the beginning, and it’s indisputably one of the hottest places in Madrid nowadays. Five plays take place simultaneously within the small rooms where prostitutes worked in this former brothel. I love having the chance to experience theatre in a totally innovative way, as actors and public interact in a limited space. Plays are 15 minutes long at €4 each, with several performances per day. I like to come here with my actor friends: we book tickets, ask for a drink at the bar and have a good conversation between each play, spotting famous faces more than once. Always crowded, especially on weekends, you must come early as tickets sell out very quickly.
Calle Loreto y Chicote 9, 28004 Madrid
+34 91 521 88 74
9. Templo de Debod: Egypt with a view
A gift to Spain in 1968, this 2200-year-old Egyptian temple dedicated to Amon and Isis is located on a hill over Casa de Campo and is, without a doubt, my favourite view in Madrid. Stunningly beautiful sunsets behind an illuminated temple that is reflected in the water makes this the perfect spot for pictures. By day the views to the Royal Palace and cathedral on one side and Casa de Campo and the mountains on the other are also worth enjoying. This is one of my favourite places to go for a picnic, too, as there is a nice park surrounding the temple. Not to be missed!
Jardines del Templo de Debod, Calle Ferraz 1, 28008 Madrid
10. Lavapiés: around the world in one dinner
Arguably the most genuine neighbourhood in Madrid, Lavapiés is the place to go for dinner. With over 50% of its population being non-Spanish, here you can find any kind of food: Chinese, Moroccan, Thai, Indian, Senegalese, Greek or a Cuban delicatessen, all serving great food for little money. I love to come here at night, when there’s a great atmosphere of bars, tapas, terraces and multiculturalism, and enjoy a nice couscous for only €8. Another option is spending an evening with friends in an Arabian tearoom. One of my favourite events is Tapapiés, a tapas’ fair that takes place in October: tapas and beer for only €1 each. Just get ready for a whole lot of smoke as many Spaniards smoke like chimneys, and try not to look like a tourist!
Plaza de Lavapiés and surrounding area, 28012 Madrid
Tripbod Inés is a writer, historian and teacher of Spanish from Madrid who is passionate about her city and loves to explore and discover its hidden treasures by herself or in the company of friends.