Madrid: The Essentials

Madrid offers something for everyone: it’s steeped in history yet impressively innovative; it’s incredibly laid-back yet there’s a lot going on; it’s layered with grandeur, Baroque boulevards and manicured parks, yet has benefited from regeneration of late.  That metamorphosis has been fuelled by the economic crisis and led by a new generation of Madrileños, determined to transform the Spanish capital.  Tradition and modernity thrive side-by-side: marvel at centuries-old masterpieces in the Prado before enjoying third wave coffee.

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For a city that feels authentically Spanish and yet to be tainted by tourist crowds – unlike its Spanish sibling, Barcelona – here’s a guide to some of my favourite spots.  Though, this is a city all about spontaneity and even the best-laid plans tend to get quickly forgotten.  If you abandon your cultural agenda, it just means you’re behaving like a true Madrileño.

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Where to stay

Totem: Located in quiet and chic Salamanca, the vibe at Totem is impeccably cool without being too try-hard – think avant-garde timelessness paired with contemporary furnishings in a palette of velvet blues and charcoals.  Housed in a grand 19th century period building, that has been carefully restored, its classic features and generously proportioned rooms have been brought back to life with bold design, rich colours and luxurious contemporary furnishings.

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There are five room types from classic doubles to suites.  The standard rooms are compact, but thanks to soaring ceilings, large windows and light décor, they feel spacious.

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The cocktail bar and the restaurant have just enough theatrical touches to create impact, whilst still conveying an elegance that’s in keeping with this 1800s building.  Breakfast is an added extra, which is good news as there are plenty of fantastic cafes to explore for a morning bite (on which, see below…).

What to see

Prado: Nearly 200 years old, the Prado is undoubtedly one of Spain’s (and the world’s) best museums and is emblematic of the tastes and wealth of the Spanish court over the centuries.  Dedicated to the works of Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Titian and Velázquez, the museum is enormous and can be somewhat intimidating.  Not to miss is Goya’s Black Gallery, home to a collection of dark works painted by Goya as he was becoming deaf.   For a whistle-stop tour of the highlights, I’d recommend booking a guide or for a DYI shortcut, consult the New York Times’ impressive 45-minute fast-track route (link here).  I’d also recommend visiting post-6pm, when entry is free, the crowds are less intense and when you’re looking to fill some time post-siesta and pre-tapas.

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Sofia Reine: Based in a former 18th-century hospital, the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofía – otherwise known as the Sofia Reina – is Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art.  Take the glass elevator up to any one of four floors and explore a world of modern masterpieces by the likes of Francis Bacon and Paul Klee.  Although you might not be able to see everything in one outing, don’t leave without seeing Picasso’s magnum opus and intense, “The Guernica“.  The work takes some time to contemplate so don’t worry if you’re looking at it for a while.  Luckily, the museum is also open late, with free entry post-7pm.

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Royal Palace: The Palacio Real is a must-see, even if only from its exterior.  The official residence of the Spanish Royal Family (although they actually reside in the Palacio de la Zarzuela, in the outskirts of the capital), it immediately reminds you of the centuries old Spanish royalty that was once here.  If you go in, enjoy the vast art collection and the beautiful Stradivarius housed in this majestic palace.  Also try and tie in a visit at 1pm when you’ll catch the changing of the guard outside.

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El Retiro: If you’re tired of the hustle and bustle of elegant Madrid, head to one of the city’s many beautiful parks.  My favourite is El Retiro.  A royal retreat until the 19th-century and a hunting ground for the Spanish royalty, the park is dotted with evidence of its princely origins, not least the Palacio de Cristal, a former greenhouse for rare species from the Philippines (now an art space curated by the Reina Sofía).  Today, locals gravitate for a dose of the outdoors.  In the early morning, it’s perfect for a peaceful run, particularly if you’re staying in nearby Salamanca.   Later in the day, the park bustles with visitors and offers numerous activities including outdoor Flamenco concerts, boat rides and a stroll around the rose garden.

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Templo de Deod: This Egyptian temple was gifted to Spain in 1968 and is located on a hilltop by Casa del Campo, not far from the Palacio Real.  With amazing views of the Palace and the Catedral de la Almudena on one side, and Casa del Campo and the mountains on the other, it’s worth stopping off post-Palace.

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Biblioteca Nationale: The National Library is a unique place to visit in Madrid.   Home to more than 30 million books in a 300 year-old building, you can take a guided tour and learn about the history of the building, how its books are preserved and visit its beautiful rooms.

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Shopping in Salamanca: Whether you’re looking to do serious shopping or some window-browsing, Salamanca is perfect for a leisurely stroll.  Chanel, Hermes, Christian Louboutin…all the usual suspects are here, but it’s the gorgeous buildings that house the goods that make this stretch so special.  In true European fashion, High Street standbys (Muji, H&M, and of course, Zara) are also well represented.  Don’t skip the side streets as that’s where you’ll find hidden gems and small local boutiques.

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Where to eat

Bar Tomate: This is one of my favourite dinner spots in the City, although it’s open around the clock, from 8:30am serving light breakfasts and excellent coffee, until midnight, when a DJ and an excellent cocktail menu make it one of the neighborhoods more well-attended bars.  The vibe is rustic and Mediterranean, with the emphasis on simple, fresh ingredients cooked well.  While the classic tapas are always reliable, their perfectly dough-ey wood-fired pizzas are not to miss and boast seasonal, local produce, including burrata and pumpkin on a charcoal base.

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Bump Green: this restaurant in Calle Velázquez promises an immersion in quality, healthy cooking, carefully prepared, down to the tiniest detail.  Run by chefs, David Ariza and Jordi Bresó, and the nutritional coach, María Kindelán, it offers an extensive menu in which each dish is made combining traditional recipes with an innovative style.  Vegetarian/vegan breakfasts and afternoon teas which are gluten, sugar and lactose free are available, through to nutri-bowls, pastas and rice, ceviches and veggie plates later in the day.  The menu is varied, seasonal and very well-thought out, and the presentation beautiful.

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Lobo 8 Restaurant: relatively under-the-radar, Lobo 8 restaurant, which is attached to the luxurious Gran Hotel Ingles, is classy, neat and upscale.  Beautiful decor, a refined menu and high-end seating, this place is sure to become well known amongst locals and tourists alike.  The team is professional, well trained and welcoming: as soon as you’re seated and shown to the best table available, a stand for your bag is brought… the pampering continues when the waiter drops a slice of lemon in your glass of sparkling water.  The plates are also beautiful, imprinted with a blue wolf (Lobo).  Whether you choose to have the set menu or go a-la-carte, the produce here is the main feature.  Homemade bread, produce sourced from the region and inventive chefs create magic.  The food is also a wonderfully unique fusion of Asian meets Spanish flavours.  On my visit, the chef prepared a vegan tasting menu featuring some very tasty plates, including a beetroot tartare with a green rice crisp and a desert of pineapple with tamarind.  This place is definitely worth of a Michelin star.

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Olivia te Cuida: Meaning, “Olivia looks after you”, this haunt lives up to its name.  Laid out like a home kitchen, with customers sitting side-by-side at large vintage tables, the food here is wholesome, eco-friendly and all very tempting.  Luckily, at lunchtime you can choose three dishes for €18 from a menu divided into salads, grains, vegetables and meats.  Try the corn, cumin fritters: you’ll love it!

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Mercados: Madrid is home to a number of excellent and very smart night markets, open until late.  Particularly well-reputed are Mercado San Miguel and Mercado de Pax where you can hop around from stall to stall, tapas style.

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Where to brunch & caffeinate

Madrid has definitely seen the third-wave coffee scene hit the capital, with an array of artisan coffee spots open in every neighbourhood.  Not only are top-quality beans increasingly available in coffee shops across the city, but entrepreneurs are roasting their own beans (and—take note, pastry fiends—making their own croissants by hand).  But Madrid’s coffee scene isn’t all Chemexes and coldbrew: there are still plenty of neighborhood haunts where you can sip cafés con leche and gobble down baskets of churros without anyone batting an eyelid.  Here’s a lowdown on some of my discoveries.

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Colectiva Café: La Colectiva is owned and run by Juan Ignacio Gomez who offers an extensive coffee and tea menu, accompanied by a purely vegan selection of savoury and sweet dishes.  Their Instagram is deliciously tempting and their coffee superb.  As well as their tempting and daily-changing brunch salad, their toast toppings are not to miss.  Particularly creative is the soya “cream cheese” paired with seasonal roasted fruit and crunchy nuts and seeds.  It’s an inspiring menu.

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Chocolatería San Ginés: Madrid’s most famous chocolate shop, San Gines, serves one of the city’s most popular breakfast combinations: chocolate and churros.  The building dates back to 1890, when it was originally built as a restaurant and inn, but in 1894, San Gines began serving their chocolate combination.  Decorated in green panels with lots of mirrors, green chairs and old-fashioned tables, San Gines feels authentic.  The hot chocolate is served the authentic Spanish way: thick and steaming, perfect for dipping churros into.  Though their serving of this rich chocolate is generous, you’ll end up finishing the cup by the spoon.

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Federal: Often touted as one of the best brunch spots in the city, the light-filled, Aussie-inspired café draws the crowds by the drove come the weekend.  Don’t expect traditional Spanish fare of croissants and churros; the hearty menu contains all the Australian classics: think baked eggs with spinach, syrup-laden pancakes and Aussie-quality coffee.

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Hanso: This spot is super friendly and makes brilliant speciality coffees, rounded off with some simple but tasty breakfast and lunch dishes. The place is always buzzing.  Grab one of their iced coffees in the hotter months for an absolute treat.

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Honest Greens: A great place to go for a quick healthy lunch or dinner, where you can choose from a variety of vegan and vegetarian options.  Organic coffee is also available.

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Plántate Café: The founders of this café are fully dedicated to spreading specialty coffee culture and are proud of the relationships they have with their suppliers.  Originally from Canada, founder Kevin moved to Lavapiés in 2008 and would commute daily all the way to Malasaña just to find a good cup of coffee.  Then, Plántate Café was born.  Kevin and Plántate’s baristas have trained with the top roasters at London’s Square Mile and house espressos are sourced from three top roasters: Puchero, from Valladolid; Right Side, from Barcelona; and Square Mile, from the UK.  True to their name, they sell plants including cacti and orchids to liven up the environment and their vibe is truly laid-back: sit where you like, move around freely and pay any time.  The shop’s name is a play on words: planta meaning, unsurprisingly, plants and plántate, meaning to stick around for a while. It’s definitely a nice spot to linger.

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Rawcoco Green Bar: a stone’s throw away from Totem, this spot is perfect for a Californian-style healthy breakfast.

Toma Café: Remote workers and digital nomads make a daily pilgrimage to Toma Café for their caffeine fix. The coffee is rich and intense, with beans coming from Brazil, Ethiopia and Guatemala.  Order a cortado and settle in among students, couples and freelancers on the stripped-back community table.

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Waycup: This well-named spot is perfect for a cup on the go, at any time of day – they’re conveniently open until 8pm.  They care greatly about their coffee and also pair their hot drinks with generously-sized homemade cookies that are full of flavour.  Combined with one of your favourite brews, it’s an absolute treat.  An all-round perfect coffee shop.

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