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If you’re looking for a city break that’s full of culture and oozing with European charm, look no further than Madrid. This Spanish capital is home to awe-inspiring architecture, mouth-watering food and an energetic nightlife scene, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or have been before, our insiders guide to Madrid will give you the lowdown on what to see and do during your stay. So read on and start planning your trip!
Madrid, where do I begin? In my mind, Madrid was going to be somewhere I didn’t like. I imagined it would be polluted, busy, hot, and an overly crowded commercial city without a heart; without a soul. I couldn’t have been more wrong. So wrong, to the point I returned back three times in a matter of four months after my first visit, and flash forward to present day, I’ve visited more times that I can count; I spent three months in Spain this past Spring 2022 and will be relocating there at the end of 2022. When I wrote this guide, I was just coming back, awestruck and on cloud nine over this amazing city. So, if you are going to Madrid, do allow five days.
Here’s why you need a minimum of 5-days in Madrid
Five days. That’s all I had in the bustling city of Madrid the first time around. Madrid captivated me so much, I returned back a few weeks later. And while I was personally able to make the most of it, hopping from museum to cafe to landmark to Jamón Ibérico stand to smoothie shop to cocktail bar to gastronomic experiences with reckless abandon, it was simply not enough time. So much so that I returned back a few weeks later; and flash forward a couple months later, here I am in the Spanish Capital once again — a third time in four months. Madrid swept me off my feet, and placed me in a love spell. There is an exiting buzz to this city, that one cannot explain without experiencing it all.
Like many other travelers to Spain, I overlooked the Spanish capital as a destination to visit. Madrid, often overshadowed by its northern coastal neighbor, beach-y Barcelona; there seems little reason for this, though. It’s a place with gratifying food fare, fantastic museum exhibitions, a vibrant nightlife, luxurious shopping, incredible sights, charming neighborhoods, and an up-and-coming coffee culture.
It’s a place where the weather is reminiscent of the West Coast — hot, dry summers, mild, balmy winters and sunny spring and autumn days with infrequent rainfall. It’s a place where even those that aren’t erudite in Spanish can get around; you’ll find that many people speak English. It’s a city, like many American metropolis is experiencing gentrification caused by the global economic downturn of 2008; yet so humble you feel like you are part of a community. It is as hipster if you will. So hipster it practically hurts and rightfully so comparable to Brooklynn, San Francisco and Portland. As a millennial, I despise the term, hipster, but for the sake of painting you a picture, it’ll do.
There have been plenty of times that I’ve chatted with other travelers that either loved or hated Madrid. There is no in between. I think this is due to the comparison to Barcelona. Barça, it is not. Far from it. It would be like visiting New York and expecting LA; two buzzing cities but completely different in every regard.
Spain is a country filled with plenty of rich history that has shaped a lot of the Americas and for me personally, who I am and my Latin heritage and roots. So, naturally, why wouldn’t I be attracted to this magical place?
Get excited yet again for that glorious feeling of teetering in the unknown; this time, by way of Madrid..
Madrid hosts many neighborhoods that offers up something for everyone. Here are my top 3 neighborhoods worth spending time in:
Barrio de las Letras
Also known as Huertas, this is a central neighborhood in Madrid with some of the best, trendiest bars and restaurants. Huertas was once home to many of Spain’s most famous literary figures. It is very close to Atocha, which is another boho-chic neighborhood. Come here for sightseeing or for its great nightlife.
Close to Chueca, Malasaña is also one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Madrid, well known for its counter-cultural scene. It was the hub of the movida movement in Madrid in the 1970s and 1980s and to this date it conserves its alternative atmosphere. The nightlife here is much less pretentious than elsewhere in Madrid, so if you are looking for a fun but relaxed night out this is the place to be. There are also many boutiques to be discovered in this area.
Chueca is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Madrid, and is known as the LGBTQ neighborhood. It’s home to the trendiest bars, restaurants and shops. Many of Madrid’s youth, LGBTQ or not, head to this neighborhood at night for its fun, relaxed, atmosphere and its chic establishments. Come here and enjoy the stylish atmosphere whilst sipping on some sangria on one of the many outdoor terraces.
Where to Eat in Madrid
First and foremost, most of my list of recommendations is credited to my friend and the cocktail master Diego Cabrera of Salmon Guru. Without his recommendations, I’m sure we’d be rambling aimlessly around Madrid using TripAdvisor, ending up sub-par, tourist-filled places. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but a local guide’s opinion takes priority, and bartenders tend to be “in the know.”(My tip? Always ask the bartender. They are always “in-the-know.”) You should know that Madrid has a plethora of traditional, authentic Spanish cuisine and world-class dining with a contrasting flair. A city that is making it’s mark in the global foodie scene, here are some of the must-try places to eat in Madrid:
Eat your heart out at Mercado de San Miguel. Sure, it’s a tourist-laden mercado, but an excellent way to get a quick intro to Madrid. The beautiful Mercado de San Miguel sits next to Plaza Mayor and serves a variety of pastries, snacks, and tapas. Locals and tourists alike flock here to sample fresh nibbles, and it’s a great way to see Madrid through the eyes of its natives. Yatai Market is the new kid on the foodie marketplace block. This is cute food market stands out with the whole concept and an ode to Asian street food. Here you’ll find plenty of stands from boa to ramen to sushi and poke bowls. Mercado San Antón and Mercado de Antón Martín are two others worth checking out.
Prepare to get your mind blown at David Muñoz’s more casual Asian-fusion StreetXO. This is a dining experience you’ll never forget. A visit here requires zero reservation but DO early arrive. Get here 30 minutes before it opens at 8:30 pm without having to wait 2 hours. And above all, try and snag a spot at the bar. It is all part of the dining experience here–dinner is basically a show!
Sala de Despiece is a must on your Madrid foodie to-do list. They don’t take reservations; you’ll just need to be patient and hope spots open up quickly. All the dishes are in some way, shape or form traditional Spanish cuisine with modern and artful influences. A must order is the Rolex, a flavorful and rich dish bacon wrapped foie gras and rich yolk. The server comes to you and melts the bacon with a torch, enhancing the visual experience. Nothing is left unimagined here.
The red prawns, in particular, are worth a visit at TriCiclo; an elegant but unassuming at the same time kinda place.
Angelita will not disappoint. The tomato salad, possibly the best tomatoes I have ever eaten, dressed to shine in EVOO and sea salt. And a must order dish is the Pork–so tender and yet so rich with fat and yet still cooked to a medium level. After dinner head downstairs and enjoy a cocktail in their cocktail bar.
GoFio is an excellent place for Canaria cuisine. The food is traditional but with a modern interpretation. The price is really good for the quality of food and experience. Make sure to have reservations for dinner as it tends to get busy most nights.
Subtle, refined, tasteful and tasty, that’s what you’ll find at Bistronomica. The restaurant has an intimate and relaxed vibe, making it a perfect dinner escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The food is a modern take on Spanish cuisine with simple flavors with a few standouts being the raw fish preparations.
Very nice, modern dining room of La Malaje is a quite unexpected Andalusian restaurant in Madrid’s old city. Try the tortilla on gazpacho with an Andalusian wine; you won’t be disappointed.
For really good Northern Europe cuisine with a menu that changes daily,Fismuler is a place you’ll enjoy. Taberna el Sur for really good Spanish food in a casual environment.
Taste the sea at Glass Mar. Located inside the Hotel Urban, Glass Mar will excite your sense. Order the tasting menu and you won’t be disappointed.
Founded in 1725, Sobrino de Botin is one of the oldest restaurants continuously operating in the world, the oldest being Ma Yu Ching’s Bucket Chicken House.
Health Eats in Madrid
There is no denying that Madrid is full of amazing place to eat. But what happens when you just can’t eat any more jamon, cheese, and vermut? It’s time to head to one of Madrid’s healthy spots, juice bars, and eco-friendly cafes. Thanks to vegan foodie and insta-friend Steffana, I was able to find a balance!
Honest Greens is beautiful, yet casual restaurant is in the financial district of Madrid so gets quite busy during lunch times. You can get warm entree plates or amazing entree salads. They also serve a range of juices that they make on site (and bottle) that are delicious. Absolutely delicious vegetarian food, lovely place and great service, Level Bistro is a great place for a plant-based lunch. Located in Malasana, Super Chulo is a twist on asian fusion but with a vegetarian flair remains to be a favorite. Frutas Prohibidas is a really good lunch spot with a great menu offering of items like avocado toast, salads, acai bowls, smoothies, juices and nut milks. While their original location in Chueca might not have survived the pandemic, their second location is much larger and serving up plenty of insta-worthy eats. Fit Food is another good smoothie spot offering juices, acai bowls and nut milks with various locations around Madrid.
And, a trip anywhere wouldn’t be complete without coffee, and as a self-proclaimed coffee snob, you know my search for the best was on. The coffee culture in Madrid is thriving, and you’ll find plenty of great places serving up single origin beans in any form from flat white, americano and single drip. Toma Cafe is an institute for being the trailblazer in the coffee scene in Madrid. ,HanSo Cafe is great for that uber hip coffee spot with breakfast items like Avocado Toast and Matcha waffles. They also make a really good matcha latte if coffee isn’t your thing. Coffee and Kicks and ZeroPoint are also great spots to stop for a good cup of coffee. Minimalism at it’s best is East Crema where the coffee is excellent coffee as are the tasty small sweet bites. Here you can enjoy an Oatly-brand latte at one of their few locations around Madrid. Religion Coffee is another great place that is vibe-y and has a great food menu filled with light bites, smoothie bowls, smoothies, and bowls.
Where to drink
It is said that Madrid has more bars per capita than anywhere else in the world. If you want to ditch the beers and sip on something a little more elegant, there are plenty of cocktail bars not to be missed.
Your first stop? Salmón Gurú, the latest venture from Diego Cabrera. This quirky, dimly-lit cocktail bar with an eclectic speakeasy feel, is serving up some of the best drinks I’ve had. Creative and dressed to impress. If there is a line (which there will be) it’s worth the wait. You can also check out Guru Lab, the more innovative lab-like spot right down the street or flashback in time at Viva Madrid. DPickle in Justicia is also worth checking out for a more edgy rock n roll theme. One thing is for certain, any establishment from Diego Cabrara will not leave you disappointed. Hungry? The lite bites don’t stand far behind from the cocktails served at all of his places.
Located in the super cool and über hip neighborhood of Malasaña is 1862 Dry Bar which brings a dash of old glamour and vintage cocktail classics. Located under Angelita’s is Bar Americano offers a hint of a speakeasy vibe, down-right delicious cocktails, and an impressive collection of rare spirits. Filled with antique and restored furniture, V Manneken is another great place for classics. The Bar at Ten Con Ten for a G&T. Madrid’s favorite cocktail is the gin and tonic—and there’s no better one than at Ten Con Ten. This chic bar is hugely popular with upscale Madrileños and celebrities. The eclectic menu also includes queen scallops, roasted octopus, Asturian beans with quail, and monkfish hamburger. Be sure to reserve your spot well in advance!
It’s all about location, location, location. And, the Hotel Urban 5*GL is sitting in the center of it all, with high-end and high-street boutiques all within a short stroll, and some more bohemian hipster-neighborhood-feel atmosphere kind of shops within steps of the hotel. The Urban Hotel is precisely what a five-star hotel should be, where not one detail is left undone.
High-roller and feeling fancy? Hotel Ritz, Madrid is your place. Built in 1910, this beautiful Belle Époque hotel offers excellent restaurants and an intimate cocktail bar. Don’t miss the luxury spa wellness center, which offers premium massage treatments and facials. The Four Seasons, which just recently opened up to welcome a post-pandemic renaissance, is another hotel worth the splurge. The Hotel Orfila is a stunning boutique with cream-color walls, a flowered patio, and a rooftop terrace. Built-in 1886, the hotel feels more like an art gallery with its period furniture and marble décor. Single, double, family, and panorama rooms all with Wi-Fi are available at La Pepa Chic. La Pepa Chic, a modest B&B in the historic center, is close to the Atocha train station and has an Art Nouveau feel.
What to do in Madrid
As a lively capital city, full of history and culture, beautiful parks, and exciting nightlife, Madrid envelops everything a traveler could ever want — world-class museums, spas, and culture.
Flamenco Dinner is a must. One of the most iconic forms of dance, Flamenco originated in Spain and still plays an important role in the culture. Madrid has a range of venues that offer Flamenco shows with a traditional Spanish dinner—a lively and fantastic way to spend the evening. Be sure to check out Villa Rosa or Corral de la Morería.
Catch a fútbol Match. Fútbol (aka soccer) fan or not, catch a Real Madrid match at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Not into the sport? It’s a great way to get a peak into another side of the culture here. Taking a tour of this goliath stadium is also a great experience.
Marvel at Palacio de Cristal. Located inside of Retiro Park, the Palacio de Cristal was built in 1887 and is made almost entirely of glass set in an iron framework. It is set in a 130-hectare park alongside a large lake where there is a variety of flora and more than 15,000 trees to discover on a sunny Spanish afternoon.
Visit the Catedral de la Almudena. This ornate cathedral is one of the largest in Europe and blends a neo-Gothic style with modern statues and pop art décor. Construction took more than a century and the cathedral was only consecrated in 1993.
Shop till you drop. Madrid offers plenty of shopping with your typical run-of-the-mill shops from Gucci to Zara. But, if that isn’t your thing for the obvious reasons, and then head to Malasana, Chuca and Barrio de las Letras. A few of my favorite must visit shops have been: Typographia for screen printed tee’s, Trakabarraka and Kling for vibrant mod fashion, and . Vintage and second-hand shops, check out Magpie Vintage, The The Storage, and Flamingos Vintage Kilo. Nomada Market is a pretty rad place for shopping that brings together creative designers and dozens of shops. If you’re into vinyl head to El Almacén de Discos and Recycled Music Centre.
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This article was first published March 2017 and updated by our editors June 2022.
I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), offering guidance to high achievers in aligning their lifestyle with well-being through daily wellness and self-care routines, promoting balance and harmony. Join me at Wellness Bum for tips on living well, and consider subscribing to my newsletter or booking a coaching session.