I’ve been to Madrid many times, so I’m no longer spending my time around the Royal Palace or the splendid museums (although I might write up on those one day). In fact, initially I was rather discouraged by touristy Madrid during my recent trip. “Have I lost my love for this city?” I feared for a second. Hectic Sol, the ever crowded Plaza Mayor, classic Arenal street,… They no longer managed to impress me. Perhaps I hadn’t kicked-off from the small Camino villages yet.
My passion came back as I retreated to the neighbourhoods north of the Gran Vía and lost myself in browsing the many shops and cafés. That’s when I remembered: Madrid is not a city of sights. It is no Sevilla or Barcelona. Instead, it’s a city made up of many tiny towns, all with a distinctive feel. And the nicest thing to do there is not to catch a metro from one church to another, but to get lost in the streets and linger on the squares. More than any other Spanish city, Madrid is a place to simply be.
Here are some highlights of my last visit:
The nicest park in Europe
Time spent in Retiro is never wasted time. It’s broad white lanes, little side roads, rose gardens and palaces will make you forget your in a capital city. Once you get away from the gates the noise of the surrounding roads dies out and a different Madrid unfolds.
No park has ever earned my love like this one. It’s clean and cool, calm and yet full of life. A stroll in the evening, when the golden light of the setting sun casts long shades, is a true delight. Families picnick on a blanket, students read on the grass, locals jog or walk their dog, tourists row boats around the pond, musicians play the guitar near the terraces… There is a place for everyone in Retiro and a trip to Madrid is not complete without a stroll through it.
Calle de Alfonso XII
An unusual bookshop
I found this little store completely by surprise, but immediately fell in love with it. It seems to be mainly selling pop-out children books, but they’re all crafted so beautifully they manage to impress even adults. There are pop-out cards and lantern-like decorations to hang from the ceiling as well as some notebooks and gadgets – but mostly it’s the story books that steal the show. I found them very unique and unusual. The friendly man behind the counter played classical music that spread out onto the street and the smell of wood and paper just added to the experience. I could have spent half a day, just sitting down and reading all those little treasures.
The most wonderful book I found was a pop-up edition of Le Petit Prince (which they sold in both French and Spanish). It was crafted so perfectly it brought tears to my eyes and until this day I regret not having bought it (as I thought it was too big for my luggage and beyond my budget). Mistakes were made that day. There should always be room in a backpack for books as pretty as these.
Tres Rosas Amarillas
Calle del Espíritu Santo, 12
For cheese lovers only
I hate to write about Almacén de Vinos, because deep down I’d rather keep it a secret. However the experience of picking an unknown cheese from the small menu and selecting one of the fine reds to go with it… It just begs to shared. We were recommended a strong, aged Spanish cheese called Bomba and it did not disappoint. I still find myself craving it’s profound taste now I’m back home.
This bar is super small but has a warm, cosy atmosphere. You’ll smell when you get near, as the scent of cheese crawls out into the streets every time the door opens. Inside, the walls are full of chalk boards, the counter lined with coloured tiles and topped with bundles of cheese, the racks behind it stuffed with wine. They have a good selection of (Spanish) craft beers, too.
Without a doubt my new favourite place in Madrid!
Almacén de Vinos
Calle Calatrava, 21
Shopping Art Supplies in Chueca
Aquarelle colours, sketchbooks, graphite, pencils or oil paint… There is no art supply you can’t find on Hortaleza street. It’s shops are an (aspiring) artists dream! My favourite tienda is Jer, a beautiful store with friendly staff and an endless, neatly arranged stock of paints. They sell the well known, high quality brands at reasonable prices and can dispense knowledgable advice, too.
Jer – Tienda Bellas Artes
Calle de Hortaleza, 72
I have a special connection to this statue, even though I never read a lot of Lorca’s work. I like the intense expression, the captured movement of the dove, the urging eyes of the writer.
During my first visits to Madrid, some ten years ago, Plaza Santa Ana quickly became one of my favourite places in the city. However these days I find it a little too touristy and surprisingly upmarket. The laid back feel of the old days has gone and so has my desire to spend an evening on it’s terraces. However the statue is still there, and whenever I walk back to the city centre from a time out in Retiro, I make sure to stroll by and say hello.
A real Spanish market
Not one for tourists. Not the kind you find next to the Ramblas and where you’re overcharged for every single thing you buy. A genuine food hall with genuine vendors and a local feel.
Head down to the Mercado de la Cebada in La Latina for grocery shopping, people watching and sampling wine and tapas at one of the many little bars. In the evening you can also watch the cool kids ride their skateboards on the square in front.
Mercado de la Cebada
Plaza de la Cebada
Museo del Jamón
Before you judge me for listing this place: yes I know, it is touristy. However don’t let that discourage you from popping your head in.
The Museos del Jamón (my favourite branch is the one listed below) do attract a lot of people who come to stare at the many hams hanging from the ceiling, or to buy vacuum wrapped meats to take home on the plane. But what’s wrong with that?
Once you position yourself at the counter, you’ll find yourself quickly surrounded by tourists and Spanish alike. There’s a friendly, low key atmosphere at any time of the day – whether you’re here for breakfast, a lunch menu or a drink and tapa at night – and the hectic buzz couldn’t get any more Spanish. It’s nice to watch the servers rush around, dispensing plates and cañas at high speed. It’s also nice to get a decent bocadillo with cheese or jamón for just 1 EUR, and a beer for no more than 90 cents!
Really, there’s no reason not to pop in when you pass by.
Museo del Jamón
Calle Mayor, 7
Other outlets include one on the Plaza Mayor and one on the other end of Puerta del Sol