Madrid Getaway Guide: Eating Well and Playing Hard in Spain’s Buzzy Capital

Spain's largest city is a hotbed of fun, from experimental tapas and craft cocktails to avante garde art and live music

Credit: Taraneh Ghajar Jerven

La Latina neighbourhood in Madrid is home to many new school tapas bars

Spain’s largest city is a hotbed of fun, from experimental tapas and craft cocktails to avante garde art and live music

Hemingway once said Madrid was “the most Spanish of all cities,” and later titled a short story set in Madrid “The Capital of the World.” With 7 million residents from every region of Spain, it’s easy to agree with Don Ernesto. My husband and I dropped by the sizzling 35°C urban hub for a spot of real of summer. Our goals? To eat well, play hard and soak up a bit of culture, along with the grease from croquetas. Here’s what we found out along the way.

First: Food Spanish is not sufficient. Starting with the taxi ride from Madrid-Barajas Airport, we found ourselves flipping frantically in the guide book, wishing we’d focused more on verbs than particulars of jamon Iberico vs. jamon serrano.

Second: While the Spanish wine industry deserves recognition, locals prefer a caña (small glass of beer) with tapas. For the anti-beer crowd, Sangria is another rookie move. Instead, try tinto de verano, a classier “summer red wine” diluted with carbonated lemonade with a rum or vermouth kick.

Third: The lines for the Prado are no joke. Rather than perish of purgatorial heatstroke, go early or late.

Fourth: All late night carousing must end with a visit to one of the city’s many 24-hour chocolaterias.

More on eating well and playing hard below.

Eat: Madrid’s Cocina Creativa

Albondigas (meatballs) tempura con salsa de tomate e perejil. (Image: Taraneh Ghajar Jerven) 

When it comes to cuisine, Madrid is on tapa the world. Hardy harr. Spain has consistently stolen the lion’s share of spots on the World’s Best Restaurant list. In Madrid, you’ll find a concentration of tempting new school tapas bars in La Latina, where the chefs play with traditional tapas staples. The ubiquitous patatas bravas, boquerones, ventresca con tomates and croquetas de jamon are replaced by adventurous, experimental dishes.

Txirimiri (Humilladero, 6) is a Basque-style den of molecular gastronomy. Hamburguesa “Unai,” the kitchen’s signature warm tapa, consists of two mini hamburgers coated in tempura batter and served with a rich boletus mushroom salsa.

Casa Lucas (Cava Baja, 30) is another must-visit in La Latina. Voted one of the top 50 bars in Spain by Metrópoli magazine, Casa Lucas serves recognizable tapas mainstays with crative twists. Calamir, for example, benefits from bacon and quid ink mousse. Tuna belly is enhanced by shallots and a puree of sweet almonds, as opposed to the basic “con tomates” approach.

For another La Latina tapas adventure, don’t miss Almendro 13 (Almendro, 13) which stands out from the crowd by specializing in roscas (baked bread rings filled with chorizo, ham, cheese, etc.) and sherry.

See: The Prado and Matadero Madrid

The entry line for the Prado already snakes around the corner at 9 am. (Image: Taraneh Ghajar Jerven)

The Prado (Paseo del Prado; 34-91-330-2800) is Madrid’s most well-known institution and, other than the lines, it won’t disappoint. Admission is 12 euros during daytime and free on certain evenings (see the website for details). Traipse dutifully through the El Grecos, Velázquezes, Goyas and Bosches. But don’t stop there. Treat the experience like the luxurious sensory immersion it is with a contemplative repast. Cafe Prado on the ground floor is a great place to have a pastry and a coffee. The Cafe Prado Terrace, an outdoor patio by the Jerónimos Entrance, is a perfect spot for a pitcher of tinto de verano.

For a hipper, alternative art space, head over to Matadero Madrid (Paseo de la Chopera, 14), once the city’s slaughterhouse complex and a favourite of Hemingway’s. The multidisciplinary creative space has a constantly evolving roster of theatre, installations, exhibitions and lectures from Spain’s up-and-coming talents.

Late Night: Live music, Booze and Chocolaterias

Chocolate con churros at 4 am at Chocolateria San Gines. (Image: Taraneh Gahajr Jerven)

For late night live music and drinks, nothing beats Café Central (Plaza del Ángel, 10). Venture behind the crimson facade to find wild live jazz from international bands. In summer, the terrace is unbeatable and drinks run super cheap at a mere €2.

For a closer look at Madrid’s burgeoning cocktail scene, try cocktail bar Del Diego (Calle Reina, 12). You’ll see solid evidence that Spain is indeed among the world’s largest consumers of gin. The classic gin and tonic and fun gin fizz are perfectly executed with top shelf labels. Settle into a leather armchair and wait for an appearance by regular Javier Bardem.

Extend the night at one of the city’s many 24-hour chocolaterias. The picturesque Chocolateria San Gines (Pasadizo de San Ginés), complete with marbletop tables and bow-tied staff, is packed from 3 am to 5 am with revelers daintily dipping piping hot, crispy churros into a darkly decadent cuppa liquid chocolate. Your day won’t have been short, but the ending sure will be sweet. And there’s always time for a siesta tomorrow.