I recently spent five days in Madrid, meeting up with a group of friends from various far-flung points around the world (Washington, D.C., Casablanca, Moscow). It was my first foray into Espagne, so I was excited to add a new country to my travel repertoire! Following are some of my favorite – and least favorite things to do, eat, see and watch out for in this historic European capital.
Let me just say: it took me three days to rehydrate from the salt overload that came from inhaling ham daily (okay, sometimes twice daily, one day I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner – shut up).
So – handy tip for you: UP your water intake in this salty country! My top three restaurants include:
1. La Turuleta in La Latina neighborhood has top-quality tapas in a very cozy, but lively atmosphere. From fried potato strings with a broken fried egg on top to really good salads, everything we tried was amazing. Our party of seven arrived without a reservation at about 9:30 on a Saturday night and had one drink at the bar and were seated – fantastico! The service was great and they even treated us to a complimentary after-dinner liqueur.
2. Restaurant Botin – This historic restaurant has been in continuous service since 1725 (and they have a Guinness Book of World Records citation as “World’s Oldest Restaurant”). We thought at first of by-passing it (“Looks touristy.” “After being in business for 284 years, they’re probably just phoning it in, when it comes to the food.”), but don’t! Saturday was a crowded mess, but by lunch time on Tuesday, it was completely manageable. We sampled their famous roast suckling pig and it was AMAZING! Definitely worth the $60 (two course lunch with one glass of wine). Really fun to see the original wood stove and the service was great – they’re happy to show you around – it’s clear they’re really proud of the place after all these years.
3. Vinoteca Barbechera – this upscale wine bar on Plaza Santa Ana had great, modern tapas (oh, that foie gras on the crispy toast… heavenly) and interesting wines by the glass. Right at the corner of Plaza Santa Ana and Calle Prado (across the street from our hotel, Roommate Alicia) – we had a great, relaxed Sunday night here.
4. Art, art and more art – man, Madrid is overflowing with it! From the Prado to the Thyssen-Bornemisza to the Reina Sofia (contemporary art), you’ve got all your Spanish old masters (Velasquez, El Greco – eek, I don’t like his stuff, too ghosty-depressing looking – Goya, Ribera) plus Picasso and more! Space it out though, so you don’t get overwhelmed.
5. The Palacio Real – whoa! The royal palace blew us all away. I’d go so far as to put it on the same level of awe and interest as Versailles. It’s really well kept-up (the Spanish royal family still uses it for official events and what-not) and the audio tour is really interesting. There is a music room in that palace stuffed with half a dozen Stradivarious violins, violas and cellos, for cry eye! Amazing – totally worth it.
6. Toledo – it’s a 30-minute train trip to this cute, historic town. Handy tip: when you leave the train station in Toledo, head to your right, through the parking lot to the sidewalk – keep walking and you’ll see a bus stop. Bus No. 5 will come (1 Euro) and take you up to the town. You CAN walk but it is a lot of up-hill. We did walk down – there is a massive series of escalators that get you part-way down and then it’s a nice 15-minute walk back to the train station. The Cathedral is the big draw here, as well as the old fortress (which we never did get to.) The main plaza is charming, great place to stop for a coffee or glass of wine. Just meander the streets, check out the shops – you can do the whole town in 4 to 5 hours.
7. Mercado San Miguel – this indoor food market designed by Gustave Eiffel (pre Eiffel Tower) is all restored and re-done and great fun. Locals are there stocking up on fresh fish, cheeses, ham (of course), dried beans, olive oil, etc., and sharing tapas with friends. Amazing hot chocolate and churros was only 2 Euros.
8. Moulin Chocolat – oh my, we stumbled into this place because of the gorgeous display of macarons in the window (yes! those cute little French meringue sandwich cookies) and we were starving (caught in a restaurant wasteland) and while I’m buying macarons to bring home, Katy is buying two cups of the most amazing hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted – better, even than Angelina’s in Paris. It is like hot, melted, milk chocolate pudding. Thick, rich, silky, sweet – oh, I can still taste it. Shut up, and just get it. (And the macarons were pretty delectable, too!)
9. HOLD ON TO YOUR PURSE! My friend’s wallet was plucked out of her zipped and snapped backpack, which she was wearing on her side (not her back, per se) and she didn’t feel a thing. Apparently, Madrid is a real hot-bed for pick-pocketing, so BE AWARE.
10. WATCH OUT FOR CONSTRUCTION – My God, I’ve never seen so much construction in a city – whole boulevards and neighborhoods were shaking with jackhammers and back-hoes – kind of ruined some nice walking routes, so just know – you might have to reconnoiter to avoid.
Other than that – Madrid was a perfect five-day get-away with friends – good food, great history, awesome art and a relaxed vibe. Wonderful time – now I just have to return to get to Granada, Seville, Barcelona and the Costa del Sol! Viva Espagne, viva la ham!