Until recently, I had never been to Spain. Whenever talking to someone about Spain,  I heard about the stunning architecture of Barcelona, the thrilling bull race of Pamplona, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the volcanic Canary Islands or the party nights on Mallorca and Ibiza. But hardly anybody ever mentions Madrid. Even though it is the Spanish capital, it is barely on people’s radar. Then an invitation to explore the city flew into the Travelettes HQ, and I got curious what there was to discover in Madrid. All I had were two and a half days, some nice company and a notebook filled with research – but soon I realised: Madrid is a city to wander and float.

madrid plaza de santa ana

Where to stay

Madrid is split into districts (barrios) that spread out from the center. Paseo del Prado, El Retiro and Los Austrias are home to the city’s most important monuments: the Royal Palace, the cathedral Nuestra Senora de Almudena, the Prado museum, and the glorious gardens of the Retiro park. Centro, Sol and Malasana are the place to go for the best Churros (Spanish donuts) and commercial shopping. Chueca is the vibrant heart of central Madrid, and La Latina magnet for the city’s nightlife.

All the central barrios lie within walking distance from each other, so wherever you stay you can have it all. The Only You Hotel in Chueca is a great choice as it is situated between Centro and Paseo del Prado. This barrio is as tolerant and progressive as Madrid can get, since in the last couple of years it has undergone a complete refurbishment mainly driven by the city’s LGBT community. Now open window sex bookshops, stylish bars and exclusive boutiques offering Spanish design line the narrow streets side by side.

madrid puerta del sol

The hotel lies on Calle Barquillo, a narrow, but lively street, with plenty of shops, bakeries and restaurants. It opened just last September. The renovation of the former apartment building from the 18th century was quite challenging, as parts of the original facade, the stairwell and the wooden roof frame had to be maintained. The result is a bright stylish town hotel, with tasteful decor and a soothing atmosphere. There are different categories of rooms, but the ones with balcony are definitely the highlight. They face out to Calle Barquillo and get plenty of sunshine. Most other rooms face the building’s inner courtyard and are darker. The rooms come with the usual amenities, but unusual details: complimenting clothes hangers, a playful bathroom wall and if you stay in one of the Junior Suites, even a complimentary portable WiFi router. That way you can stay connected all day and make your friends InstaJealous.

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I have rarely stayed at a city hotel, where choosing my favourite thing was so hard. First, I fell in love with the light-flooded lobby (the courtyard is covered by a glass roof), and the white-blue decor in the stairwell and reception. Madrid is far away from the sea, but these colors make it feel like a Mediterranean paradise. Second, the time at the hotel is absolutely fluent. Breakfast is available all day from 7am and includes seasonal milkshakes and coffee to go. Bookings works on a 24-hour basis: the time you check in is also the time you check out, without additional costs. Third, the hotel also houses a lounge bar with an overwhelming Gin Tonic menu. Did anybody say I had to leave the hotel?

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Oh right, I actually wanted to discover Madrid. Where should I begin?

The barrio Chueca

The area around the hotel is an alternative shopping paradise. Just around the corner is Calle de Augusto Figueroa, which is also known as Calle del Calzado, which basically means ‘shoe street’. And you guessed right – there are numerous shoe shops here! Calle Piamonte, del Almirante and Argensola house the best addresses for Spanish design and boutiques. Lotta Vintage  is a cute vintage store in Calle Hernán Cortés. Unfortunately it will close soon and reopen in Stockholm, the owner’s hometown. If you hurry, you might still catch the -50% clearing. Zoco de Chueca is a cool permanent pop-up location with designers changing on a daily basis. The area’s main commercial shopping street is Calle de Fuencarral, with national and international textile brands. The best places to enjoy a cup of coffee in the afternoon, tapas for dinner or drinks at night are the streets crossing C/ de Fuencarral, or the area around Plaza de Chueca.

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Visual pleasure

Central Madrid’s architecture is simultaneously adorable and imposing. Calle Gran Via, Calle de Alcala and Calle Mayor are seamed with highrising, monumental  towers like the Telefeonica Building or Casa de Correos, which houses the regional government. The narrow streets of the barrios are framed by multi-story townhouses with romantic balconies and candy-coloured facades.

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Spring is especially beautiful in Madrid, as there are many cherry trees in the streets, blossoming in all shades of pink. Also, in spring the sun is not unbearably hot as in summer, and lounging on one of Madrid’s lively squares makes for the perfect siesta. The central Plaza de la Puerta del Sol along Calle Mayor, the hidden calmness of Plaza de San Martin in Sol and the cultural centre at Plaza de Santa Ana in Huertas were my favourites for a sunny break. All are great spots to bring your own lunch and take a little time-out from exploring.

madrid callao

The most beautiful view of a city is always from above – that is why Madrid’s rooftop terraces are the place to go. There are several hotels with rooftop bars, for example the Hotel Ada Palace on Calle Gran Via. But the most beautiful of it all is on top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes, the building of fine arts. Admission is €3, but the spectacular views over Madrid are worth it – especially at night when the surrounding buildings are lit up. The terrace bar Tartán Roof has a variety of cocktails and long drinks – I can recommend a Gin Tonic with Brockman’s gin and strawberries.

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Treats for the Belly, Treats for the Soul

Like other capital cities often are in their respective countries, Madrid is a conglomerate of native Madrilenos and people from the rest of Spain. Hence, any Spanish culinary tradition can be found here – from pinxos to churros and paella. Generally, eating and dining take up a great part of the Spanish culture. The day starts with a light breakfast, maybe some toasted bread with tomatoes and olive oil or some churros. Lunch begins about 2pm and can easily take 2-3 hours, and dinner rarely starts before 9pm. Eating turns onto a celebration of life, often shared with friends and family. Sometimes restaurants even serve complimentary tapas with any ordered drink. It is this relaxed attitude towards food, that makes every meal into something special. And not to forget the numerous Spanish delicacies.

madrid food with friends

Tapas & Pinxos
What we non-Spaniards generally call tapas, can actually be distinguished between fingerfood-sized dishes on bread (pinxos) or without (tapas). They are served individually or on plates to share (ración). Patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce) are among the most popular in Madrid. Although there is hardly a street without a tapas bar, and most of them are good, I’d recommend visiting the Mercado de San Miguel. This old market with its metal construction was renovated a couple of years ago, and turned into a busy deli-market, which booths selling everything from mouth-watering Mozzarella pinxos, to grilled calamari and excellent Spanish wine. There is a shortage of tables and they are hard to get, but people make up for that eating at the counters, or directly from hand to mouth.

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El Abuelo
The El Abuelo is a real Madrid institution. The original restaurant is a family business since four generations, and was opened in 1906. But their food is so popular that they opened three other venues. While Abuelo 1 exclusively serves a choice of four prawn tapas, the others have a bigger menu to choose from. Three of them are within walking distance from each other, so that a visit to two of them is easily manageable. We started our lunch tour with prawns on one of the bistro tables at Abuelo 1. By the way, it is common to through the shells of the prawns and your used napkins on the floor, which is swept  every now and then. The family’s speciality are Gambas Al Ajillo, prawns fried in garlic oil and served boiling hot, prawn-filled croquetas and a sweet, homemade red wine, Vino del Abuelo. We then went onto Abuelo 3 to sit down for more tapas and wine. Here we also learnt to always ask for the waiter’s recommendations and were surprised with sweet violet ice cream, which was otherwise not mentioned in the menu.

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Chocolate con Churros
Churros are also called Spanish doughnuts, which pretty much explains what they are: fried pastry. They are served with a cup of thick, liquid chocolate, and eaten with the hands. Traditionally they are served for breakfast. Madrid’s most famous place for churros is Chocolatería de San Ginés close to Puerta del Sol. The café is open 24 hours and a popular spot to enjoy a sweet treat before heading home to end a long night out. Another great café is Chocolateria Valor just north of Pl/ San Martin. Valor runs two venues in Madrid, but this one is more central. Like tapas churros are available in most cafés and restaurants, but these two are on top of any list, whether you ask your travel guide, or a random local on the street.

madrid chocolate con churros

City of Love

To be honest, I have never been to Paris. But I can not imagine a more romantic city than Madrid. First of all, it’s an underdog, a secret – and sharing a secret is quite romantic to begin with. With its numerous parks and dimly lit squares it isn’t hard to find a spot for a dreamy date and an intimate snog on a bench. Couples start the day with a stroll through Retiro park and a picnic in a rowing boat on the park’s lake. After an aperitif at a rooftop terrace and a playful dinner at the market, they either head to Plaza del Oriente to enjoy the view of the Royal Palace and surrounding park, or to the Tempel de Debod in Montana park a little further uphill. Both places are dipped into the golden light of the sunset and offer stunning views over Madrid’s biggest park Casa de Campo. Made to make out.

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Getting lost and falling in love with Madrid happens quickly – food from heaven, picturesque streets, romantic benches in parks. It seduced me into promising to come back one day. Then I hope to find more time to visit the world-famous museums, like Del Prado or Reina Sofia; or take a Spanish cooking class; or dance the night away and eat churros before going to bed in the morning. Luckily, you always meet twice.

A big thank you to the Spanish Tourism Board in Germany oranising this trip, and especially Vanessa introducing us to beautiful Madrid.