By Jim Ferri
I returned to Madrid two weeks ago after not having been there for many years, and was shocked by what I found — not in a bad way, but in a very positive one.
Madrid has transformed itself into one of the great cities of Europe. It’s full of vitality and energy, the food scene is incredible, the shopping is great and there are tons of things to do. It’s also exceptionally clean, with hardly any graffiti to be seen anywhere, unlike many other European cities. It’s a great walking city and the Metro is comfortable, safe and efficient, once you get the hang of reading the route map and transferring at different stations.
Here are five interesting things to do in the Spanish capital.
Lunch at the Mercado San Miguel
Tapas are small hors d’oeuvres-type food you find in many Spanish bars and they’re quite varied and delicious. It was right outside the Plaza Mayor where we stumbled upon the Mercado San Miguel, a great Beaux-Arts building inside which were dozens of tapas bars, pastry shops and paella shops. The crowd was a good mix of tourists and locals, which was great.
San Miguel proved to be a luncheon gold mine, where you can have little meat, fish, cheese and vegetable tapas, washing them down with countless varieties of beers and wines. I heard it was great in the evening, as well. Bring your appetite.
Shop and Dine in Barrio Salamanca
The city’s attractive Salamanca district up near the National Archeological Museum, is an upscale shopping and dining area. We wound up going back there many times for dinner since our hotel was nearby. Two of the best restaurants we found were Sula, which specializes in pork dishes (dinner was €101 including a good bottle of wine) and Alkalde, a popular Basque restaurant where we had a huge dinner with wine for €168.
Serrano is it’s most famous shopping street and when we were there a month-long shopping promotion was heralded by giant high-heeled shoes, brightly painted by different artists, all along the street. In one little courtyard on a side street we discovered a little flea market hosted by a few small shops. The little market had an upscale twist —as we wandered about we were offered complimentary glasses of good French champagne. How does one say ooh la la en español?
See the Royal Palace / Have Dinner in the Royal Theater
No matter how inexpensively you try to vacation you should always have one night you say “the budget the damned.” Dinner in the posh Royal Theater (in the Opera House) will help you do just that.
Its decor is opulent, the food and wine excellent and you need to make reservations since the place is so popular. Try to kick things off royally before dinner by taking a tour of the Royal Palace (only a two-minute walk away) or, as we did, just stroll around the large plaza that separates the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral across from it. It’s a great place to stroll in the evening.
Stroll Along Paseo de Recoletos
For a nice afternoon walk stroll along the Paseo de Recoletos, a 100-yard-wide boulevard lined with wide ornate walkways and beautiful pools and fountains. Relax on one of the benches or have a coffee or afternoon drink in one of the outdoor cafés.
You can also walk along the Paseo del Prado, an extension of Recoletos to the south (or maybe it’s the other way around) but that’s a bit more commercial unless you go into the botanical gardens adjacent to the Prado Museum.
The Prado used to be one of my favorite museums in Europe — an Old-World building I often wandered into right in off the street, with no crowds, no lines, no hassel. Now there are long lines for tickets, they’ve modernized everything with a new addition and even relocated the entrance. I had been looking forward to returning here but despite the great art was so turned off by the overall experience that we left after only a short time.
Choose An Area and Get Lost
One of the best mornings I had was “getting lost,” something I often do in many cities. I choose an area where there are few tourists, go there and then wander back towards a central location. In Madrid I chose the La Latina area, and found myself in a quiet little neighborhood where the sidewalks were dappled with shade and merchants had goods out in front of the shops. I wandered into several antique shops, finding junk in two and better things in two others.
Continuing along up a slight hill I could hear church bells pealing in the distance, and then came across a little plaza with a statue of a soldier in the center. A sign told me this was the Plaza de Cascsorro, and I saw the statue was of Eloy Gonzalo, a local soldier who lost his life in the Spanish-American war in Cuba. I remember reading about people who say buenos dias to Eloy every morning to bring good luck.
I said hello to Eloy and continued on up the street, passing many outdoor cafés and bars where people were still enjoying their late-morning coffees. Up ahead I could see one of the large arches leading into the Plaza Mayor, my destination.
If you go:
Madrid Visitors & Convention Bureau