Spain’s capital city, in superlatives

Hello world, @DiegosDaughter here. This week we’re coming in hot with a post on Madrid… the land of tapas, Goya and flamenco.

Madrid’s blue-skied, cheery demeanor has its Mediterranean coordinates to thank, and its people are equal parts fiercely passionate and easygoing. Its buildings are austere yet elegant, and the city’s broad expanse of winding streets and hilly terrain somehow don’t add up with how easily walkable its limits are (in one day in fact, if you’re booking it).

These paradoxical traits loan themselves to the versatility this city has to offer its visitors, and if you enjoy walking, museums, seafood, and sunshine, Madrid is absolutely worth passing through for at least a day or two. So let’s pay homage to our high school yearbook-signing days and take a look at some of Madrid’s “best”s and “most”s that make this city worthy of a spot on your travel bucket list.

Most spirited: We’re not talking pep rallies or cheerleaders here, but Madrileños.

Madrid’s denizens have a palpable ardor for life. How they live, their appreciation for art, their taste in (and pickiness for) high-quality food and wine, and their social outlook (be it politics or Real Madrid) are all deeply rooted in passion. Madrileños are straight shooters to an almost unprecedented degree. They don’t enjoy pleasantries or rambling and can, as a result, come off as dry and insensitive. They are quick to put you in your place or ask that you get to the point; they aren’t loud-mouthed but they sure as hell are strong-minded. However, funny enough they’re also incredibly low-key. They start the day very late, eat lunch late, eat dinner late, and go to bed even later. On a weekend it’s common to see Madrileños enjoying a glass of wine (very commonly consumed with lunch, on any day of the week), basking in the sun, and chatting with friends and family for hours on end in the city’s many outdoor cafes. 

  • Where to lounge outoors like a local: Plaza Santa Ana, scattered with loads of outdoor cafes but still tucked away from the bustle of the city.

Most artistic: Madrid wins in this superlative because of its multitude of art museums. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Prado Museum, and the Reina Sophia National Art Museum are situated within a half-mile radius of one another and nicknamed the “Golden Triangle of Art”. These thrilling three are among the most iconic art museums in the world.

  • The Thyssen is home to a variety of late 20th-century paintings from masters of impressionism and expressionism from all around Europe (namely Dutch, English and German)
  • The Prado houses European art from the 12th-19th centuries, mostly of Spanish origin, lots of artform variety aside from paintings (sculpture, tapestries, etc.)
  • The Reina Sophia has a wide range of mainly Spanish 20th-century art.

How to be artsy like a local:

  • Even on its busiest day the Prado will not see the masses of humans that congest the Louvre (it’s about a third of the size) however, planning an early morning visit is never a bad idea.
  • Tickets to all three museums range from 10 to 15 Euros.
  • Other museums not to miss: The Royal Academy of Arts in San Fernando (a gallery of fine art from the 15th-20th centuries) and the National Archaeological Museum (if you’re into fossils, or are one ☺️).

Best city look-alike: With a population of around 3.2 million (and double that when you count its surrounding metro area) Madrid is the largest European city in the EU after London and Berlin. It’s double the size of Manhattan, but sneakily so. Tourists flock to Madrid in droves but it’s unlikely you’ll so much as lightly brush elbows with anyone else when you’re walking down the street, even in the most bustling part of the city. Not sure how this metropolis is able to pull this off, but the fact that Madrid exudes very little stress and chaos upon its visitors makes it an ideal place for urban aficionados and agoraphobics alike.  

Most likely to cheer you up: Madrileños commonly greet others (be they friends or strangers) with “¡Hola guapa!” or “¡Hola guapo!” which literally means “Hey good looking!” This endearing insta-ego booster combined with ubiquitous sunshine are sure to put a pep in your step as you saunter the city’s streets.

Most economical: Spain’s recession and long-standing economic challenges have driven costs of goods down without compromising on the quality workmanship they’re known for. Thus, Madrid is a cosmopolitan haven for those seeking retail therapy. Leather goods, especially jackets and shoes, are favorably priced and impeccably crafted. So go on and make it rain.

How to shop like a local but reap the benefits of a tourist:

  • OMG shoes: There are millions of leather goods stores around Puerta del Sol, one of the main downtown areas of Madrid. On Calle Preciados and Calle Arenal (“calle” means “street” by the way) you’ll find shoe stores with high-quality leather shoes in all different styles. Corte Ingles is Madrid’s Harrods equivalent, and they also have a nice selection of footwear albeit on the higher price end. Calle Agusto Figueroa is lined with leather good shops too.
  • Sunday markets: If you’re a flea market or street market junkie visit El Rastro on Sundays for trinket and oddball items (every now and then you can find some leather goods there too).
  • Clothes:
    • Mosey around Calle Serrano and Calle Fuencarral for independent boutiques.
    • Don’t. short-change. Zara. The fashion behemoth considers Spain it’s birthplace and its clothing is unmatched in price, quality and style variability and uniqueness compared to its stateside equivalents
    • Zara’s sister stores Massimo Dutti and Mango are worth a visit, too. The former is a more luxury end retailer with workwear and classic pieces appealing to 30- 40-somethings, and the latter is inferior to Massimo Dutti in quality but better in price point, boasting edgy styles inspired by the latest trends hot off the backs of Europe’s en vogue fashion bloggers.  
  • Don’t forget to reclaim your VAT tax. If you’re a non-EU resident and spend over 90 euros at any single retailer in Spain you get the amount you paid in VAT (taxes), refunded when you exit the country (drop us a note below if you want more deets).

Most surprising: So there are several contenders for winner of this category:

  • When I stepped outside of the Madrid-Barajas Airport and rode into the city I was immediately struck by how desert-like Madrid’s terrain is. Visible dry earth crept through whatever was green and growing out of the ground, and it was vaguely reminiscent of the arid dryness you’d see in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • I mentioned earlier the city’s streets, were striking; zig-zagged as if scribbled by a toddler cartographer. These streets often run into one another and dead end haphazardly (GoogleMaps is your friend here, download the Madrid offline map before you arrive if you’re going to be sans service) and are surprisingly hilly, though you’d never know it until you’re wondering why you’re out of breath.
  • Uber is definitely not your friend here. Madrid’s taxi system is highly functional and safe, Madrileños will be first to tell you that. The rollout of Uber or any ride share services is a point of contention in this fair city, so don’t call one unless you want to be scoffed at.
  • Madrid’s eats are world-class. And I was surprised to find so many fish-based dishes despite Madrid being nowhere near the ocean. Also, plain potato chips (Lays-like) are served with everything, as if it was bread before a meal.
    • For the best eats, don’t miss Mercado San Miguel in the center of town by Plaza Mayor (which you should also visit). It’s a traditional marketplace and the apex of culinary craft through which city-dwellers and tourists stroll around and nosh on bite-sized delicacies. Oh, there’s a Mozzarella bar… I’ll go ahead and drop the mic right here.
    • For a similar market vibe with a more local feel, check out the Mercado de la Reina on Calle Gran Via (only open on the weekends).

And lastly, I leave you with some of the best street corners in the city, mostly snapped in the Cortes district where Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote’s author) lived.

¡Adios, guapos!

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