Want to visit Madrid like a local? From tempting churros and tapas bars to experimental theatre, we bring you the best things to do in Madrid beyond the Plaza Mayor...
1. San Ginés
Founded in 1894, San Ginés chocolaterie is the perfect place to go in Madrid to enjoy the local’s favourite breakfast: chocolate and churros. Open 24 hours every day, it’s definitely worth a visit even if it’s almost always full. If you can grab one, sit on the green couches, sipping rich hot chocolate and watching people come and go. If you haven’t overdosed on sugar in your first day, stop by the bustling La Mallorquina patisserie, just a few blocks away, to get some napolitanas – a kind of gooey sweet pastry similar to the French pain au chocolat.
Renowned as the world’s largest art gallery, Prado Museum was opened in 1819 and contains over 9,000 artworks. If you can, drop in on weekday afternoons before 5pm, when it is less crowded. You can sign up for free educational talks and activities at Jerónimos building 15 minutes in advance, but they are only conducted in Spanish. The Museum also holds temporary exhibitions of artworks by prestigious artists and the permanent collection boasts pieces by early Renaissance painters like Fra Angelico as well as native masters like Goya and Ribera. If you have the time, make sure to visit the nearby Thyssen, Reina Sofía and Archaeological Museums as well.
Virtually unknown to the general public, Spaniards included, this hidden Madrid attraction is a favourite reading spot for those in the know. Even the entrance on Calle del Prado generally goes unnoticed by passers-by. Founded in 1835, the 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. For bookworms, it’s hard not to love the 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.
4. Tapas in La Latina
In Spain, you ask for a drink, you get a tapa. Don’t worry, it’s usually free! La Latina is a great area to find some of the best tapas in Madrid. If you’re on a budget break, you can hop from bar to bar and have lunch, paying for just two or three drinks, or linger on a terrace with friends, enjoying delicious food and good conversation for hours. Try the characterful and tiny Al Vicente Copas, tucked away off Plaza de Puerta Cerrada on Calle Segovia (hint: look for the sign that says San Román).
5. El Retiro
When you need a mental break from relentless Madrid sightseeing, a walk through El Retiro transports you to the loveliness of eighteenth century palace gardens. Head for the Crystal Palace and its surroundings, where you can sit by the pond and watch the play of light, shadow and colour, as well as the resident ducks, turtles and birds. If you’re looking for a more lively atmosphere, there are always activities, exhibitions, concerts, puppet shows, street performers and fortune tellers in other areas of the park, besides an annual Book Fair. in October. The main entrance to the park is on Plaza de la Independencia.
Practically unknown to the rest of the world, zarzuela is a Spanish musical theatre genre, combining operetta and spoken parts, and undoubtedly one of the most interesting things to see in Madrid. This is quintessential Spanish classical music, and Teatro de la Zarzuela is the place to enjoy it: a beautiful nineteenth century theatre, live instrumentalists, dozens and dozens of performers, first-rate singers, superb staging and reasonable prices. Even non-Spanish speakers will be mesmerised by 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.
An old traditional market converted into a modern gastronomic experience, the mercado’s greatest asset is you can taste samples of food from as little as €1, sometimes even for free, before deciding whether to buy. 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. It’s entertainment enough just 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.
Created in 2009 as a theatrical experiment, Microteatro was a total success from the beginning, and it’s indisputably one of the hottest places to go in Madrid nowadays. Five plays take place simultaneously within the small rooms which used to be part of a brothel. Actors and the public interact in a limited space in a totally innovative way and plays are 15 minutes long from €4 each, with several performances per day. Crowded on weekends, you must come early as tickets sell out very quickly.
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, one of the top Madrid tourist attractions, not least for the sprawling view. 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. Pack a picnic and spend a few hours in the surrounding park.
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. By day, you can spot some pretty amazing examples of Madrid street art, but come here at night and there’s a great atmosphere around the bars and outdoor terraces. Enjoy steaming bowls of couscous or noodles, or lounge in an Arabian tearoom. One of the best events is Tapapiés, a tapas fair that takes place in October: tapas and beer for only €1 each!
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_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._
*Published November 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.