Madrid Guide: from expat to traveler

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Madrid, Spain

I am so near the finish line. I have completed my second school year as an Auxiliar de Conversación and private English teacher in Madrid, Spain. Tomorrow I fly back to Florida, United States. Madrid filled me with aliveness, and will always hold a place in my heart.

I have written about Madrid before, and have recommended all my go-to places (of that time). Check out my older entry: My Madrid’s Can’t-Get-Enough-Of   🙂   Time and again that list gets edited. By May 2017, when my good friend Ariena visited me while on her Europe backpacking trip, I felt more than ready to show her all the things that would make her love this place! Recommendations and itineraries are ever changing according to my guest’s taste and time. But I can assure you that this city has something for everyone. Ariena spent one week roaming these streets, and I was happy to join her for some of the excursions.

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Madrid, Spain

With each friend I have hosted (Ariena was my third), I learned a little more about how to show off this place. Take what you will from my suggestions, and make them your own! Don’t go and do the thing you have to do here. Go and do the thing you want to do. Because even if you miss out on the Royal Palace tour, or the famous Prado museum, you can get so much more out of this city by making it yours. Madrid is here for you. I was pleased when Ariena loved it despite the warnings she got from people that it was not all that jazz. So here’s how I showed the other side of the coin!

1. Welcome to España!

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Plaza de España in December

When Ariena first arrived, I asked her to meet me at Plaza de España metro stop on Line 10 (dark blue). It is a five to ten minute walk from my home, and an impressive place to welcome my guests. The weather is usually sunny in Madrid, and if the fountain is on, Plaza de España will make the perfect gateway to your vacation. From it, you can eye the iconic Gran Vía, with all the musical theater and European brand stores. Gran Vía turns into Calle Princesa, which leads to more shopping and a variety of restaurants. This is my Madrid’s “here I am!” moment.

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Plaza de España during non-crowded hours.

On that shopping side note: my favorite stores in Madrid are Oysho and Parfois. Oysho is a Spanish brand that sells intimate clothing, including the best swim suits I have ever had! Parfois is a Portuguese store (with a French name) that sells incredible bags and trendy jewelry that look more expensive than they actually are.

2. Más Al Sur

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A great place for a birthday!

My friend and fellow blogger, Sarah – https://sarahrosekelly.wordpress.com/ , introduced me to this restaurant in Lavapiés neighborhood. Lavapiés is filled with delicious Indian and Senegalese restaurants. However, Taberna Más Al Sur is the perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine. If you go for lunch, you can get a Menú del Día, which is a full meal with drink, bread, and dessert included for a fixed price. My personal favorites on their menu are: huevos rotos con jamón ibérico, pimientos de padrón, Galician octopus, and the most beautiful sangría in Madrid. Another significant aspect to bringing my guests here for their first meal is…the waiters! Madrid is not particularly known for stellar customer service, but the waiters at Más Al Sur welcome you kindly and smile a lot. It is the atmosphere you will want upon arrival. Did I mention that they often offer free chupitos at the end of your meal? These are shots, but I find the alcohol tends to be on the softer side, more of a “digestive” drink.

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Ariena and I caught up on two years of our lives over this delicious meal.

Check them out at: Calle Santa Isabel 35, 28012 Madrid, España                                      Phone number: +34 910 24 99 36

3. Slaughter House turned Artistic

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Once we had caught up over a long and delicious lunch, we took the Lavapiés metro stop on Line 3 (yellow) to Legazpi stop. This is where you can find one of my favorite, non-touristy sites in the city: MATADERO. The name means “slaughterhouse”, and that is because it used to be! It was in use for most of the XX century, but in the past decade it has become a wonderful cultural space with changing art exhibits, food and drinks, a small movie theater for hipster documentaries, and a Sunday market. It is often lively with locals – families, couples, and young people. The river is close by, where many children love to ride their bikes and skate. It is particularly romantic at dusk.

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Check out their website for dates and times of exhibits, but don’t be afraid to just show up! The building itself is worth walking around! Their bar next to the CINETECA has a great backyard area to enjoy a tinto de verano, Madrid’s most popular summer drink made with red wine, lemon soda, and the most important thing: ICE! It is over 100°F here!

Here is that link for details: http://www.mataderomadrid.org

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4. A Walk Through Parque del Buen Retiro

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Rose garden

So perhaps this park is the most touristy place I will highly recommend to you. Though I prefer Retiro Park on weekday mornings when the crowd is small, you can go any time you need a break. Not only is it walking distance from big museums like El Prado, Thyssen, and Reina Sofia, but it is also near the Puerta de Alcalá and the beautiful government building called Palacio de Cibeles. Considering all this, you can spend a whole day in this general area avoiding the chaotic city center.

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Autumn in Retiro

In Retiro Park, you can find visually pleasing pathways, but my favorite thing has to be the Palacio de Cristal – literally, a crystal palace. It was built in 1887 to house exotic flora and fauna. It is now used for modern art exhibits that are organized through the Reina Sofia museum.

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Palacio de Cristal

This park also houses a beautiful rose garden that will make you feel like Alice in Wonderland (if the roses are in full bloom). Near the rose garden you can also find one of the most beautiful statues I have seen: The Fallen Angel. It is odd to find a statue of “the devil” but depicted in its human form, this statue gives a strange feeling. It makes me reflect on our humanness, mortality, and most importantly mistakes or misjudgments. “Everyone messes up,” is what this work of art makes me ponder on.

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The Fallen Angel

Another little piece of advice for your Retiro day: as cheesy as the row boats may look in the big pond, they are a lot of fun! You can rent one for 45 minutes for 6€. I have only done this once in two years, with my mother, and it made for one of the nicest moments of her vacation here. Be sure to do this when it is not too hot! Madrid’s summer temperatures can be dangerously high. But don’t be skeptical to rent one and do a little photo shoot like this:

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My mom clearly had the time of her life trying to row these boats across the pond.

5. El Buo in Chueca (with a peeking stop at Mercado de San Antón)

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Another great birthday spot!

After all that walking around, we were in need of fuel! So we went to eat one of the most traditional things in Spain: tortilla de patatas. This is an omelette style dish with potatoes and eggs. But, every now and then, restaurants get fancy and they add all kinds of things inside a tortilla. In such cases, my go-to is tortilla filled with goat cheese and caramelized onions from Taberna El Buo. “Buo” means “owl” in Spanish, and they have four locations in Madrid. Two locations are in the Chueca neighborhood and two in La Latina neighborhood. Next to El Buo, you will find La Buah, which is also “owl” but for female.

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El Buo’s tortilla is insaaaneee. This one was filled with goat cheese and caramelized onions.

I prefer the La Latina location, but to make the most of Ariena’s time in Madrid, I took a chance on their Chueca place. Chueca is the gay pride neighborhood in Madrid, and you know it is a VERY PROUD neighborhood from the moment you get off the metro stop (also named Chueca) on the lime green line 5. The rainbow flag is painted on the tunnel walls from top to bottom, and the advertisements show off the gay clubs and sexy shows in Madrid. So you see, coming here is an experience! They also have the best shoe stores in town, but that’s for another day with a lot more money.

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Tapas at the Mercado de San Antón in Chueca. This place makes for a fun date location!

Before eating at El Buo, we quickly dropped by Mercado de San Antón. I was recently told about it, and have only been a few times. Their terrace is chic, and worth it for a glass of wine! I also believe the tapas will give you a better run for your money than the more touristy Mercado de San Miguel in the city center.

Now, back to El Buo. I prefer the one in La Latina because I think the service is a little better. But again, while in Madrid, remember that this city is not known for stellar customer service. The food here is amazing, though! A 10€ tortilla and a tapa (that comes with your drink) can comfortably feed five! No joke, I have done this with my friends.

Here are the addresses for all Madrid locations:

Taberna El Buo Chueca – calle Gravina, 4, phone number : 91 521 74 98      

Taberna La Buha Chueca – calle Gravina, 6, phone number: 91 795 99 77                      

Taberna El Buo La Latina – calle Humilladero, 4, phone number: 91 354 69 03

La Buha La Latina – Plaza La Cebada, 10, phone number: 91 366 11 60                                                                      

6. Dos de Mayo – A Malasaña party night

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Once we had our stomachs full, we walked to the hipster, next door neighborhood: Malasaña. Lucky for Ariena, it was a big holiday in Madrid! The historical part of it is not as important as the party. We went to the popular Dos de Mayo square and sat at a bar until after midnight. Night life in Madrid is unlike any place I have been! You can imagine this if I tell you that their normal dinner time is 10pm. Often, restaurants won’t even take people in until 9pm. No, seriously, even children eat this late and go to bed around midnight. So if you want to experience the true heart of this city, you must do a late night in the city center. Malasaña happens to be my favorite neighborhood, but don’t be afraid to venture out into Chueca, La Latina, and Las Letras neighborhoods. Do keep in mind, that no matter how many people you see drinking in the street or smoking pot, Madrid does have open container laws! Many times, cops will look the other way, and simply keep the crowds under control. However, this year I have heard of two acquaintances that got 600€ fines for drinking a beer in the street, just like all the other locals do. Exceptions may apply to specific, outdoor, festivals, organized by the community. Get crazy if you want, but keep it discrete and casual. They never fine anyone until they fine you. On another late night note: check out metro closing times and night bus schedules. Transportation (or lack of it) gives many people a reason to stay out until dawn.

7. Holy Spirit

Continuing on in Malasaña, this neighborhood is just as fun and lively during daylight! My favorite street in all of Madrid is Calle del Espíritu Santo, or Holy Spirit Street. It is packed with cutsie, hipster, innovative, chic cafés, restaurants, bars, stores, and bakeries. Even the way locals dress is interesting. I will let you make your choice of where you spend your money here, but let me leave the info for some of my favorite businesses, in case you need some direction. When Ariena came, I made sure to take her out for coffee and a popsicle on this peculiar street.

Happy Day Bakery – super cute 2€ cupcakes.                                                                                Calle del Espíritu Santo, 11

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Happy Day

Lolina – chic, vintage decor café.                                                                                                         Calle del Espíritu Santo, 9

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Lolina

Ojalá – eat downstairs and pretend you are at the beach! No, really,  there is a beach downstairs.                                                                                                                                                     Calle de San Andés, 1

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Don’t miss that sand downstairs, though!

Lolo Polos – cool off with artisan popsicles. They have lactose free options, too.                    Calle del Espíritu Santo, 16

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For the searing hot days in Madrid

J&J’s Books – have a glass of wine and browse through their used books library downstairs.                                                                                                                                                      Calle del Espíritu Santo, 47

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It has been a while since I go to J&J’s but I will always recommend it to the book worm friends!

8. All The Views You Can Get.

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Madrid only has 4 skyscrapers! This photo was taken from the Chamartín metro station. Believe it or not, you could easily come to this city and not see its iconic four towers!

For great views of the city, which include Las Cuatro Torres (the four lonesome skyscrapers of Madrid), ride the cable cart, Teleférico, or go up to the Mirador de Moncloa.

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Riding the cable cart is exciting!
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Mirador de Moncloa – but this is only part of the view…

This is how you get to the cable cart: http://teleferico.com/en/how-get And this is the address for the Mirador de Moncloa, if the cable cart freaks you out: Avenida de la Memoria, 2. The closest metro for the Mirador is Moncloa, at the end of the yellow line 3. I believe Ariena chose to ride the cable cart, and returned home with a thumbs up that evening!

9. Sunset at the Temple of Debod                                                                                                        Calle Ferraz, 1

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Need I say more?

Closest metro stop is Ventura Rodriguez on the yellow line 3. This is where I live, and the Templo de Debod is a great hangout spot for both locals and tourists! Don’t miss out on the sunset, the view, and the chance to have a picnic with your favorite people. The Temple itself was donated by the Egyptian government, and it is from the II century. This is where I introduced Ariena to some of my closest friends. Something about this place brings people together. My mom also loved it, and my boyfriend and I have had a few picnic dates here.

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Meet with friends, exercise, have a date, or sunbathe in summer! You can do it all here!

10. Did someone say music?! Dinner in Amargo

Though I have not been here in a while, this was my favorite spot the first year living in Madrid. This restaurant offers free concerts downstairs, which you can enjoy during your dinner and drinks. Make sure to make a reservation (910-847-990) and request a downstairs table, as well as asking for show times and music style. I used to frequent shows on Thursdays and Sundays when they had great hits covers by very soulful singers. During Ariena’s visit, I did not go with her, but made sure to send her off to enjoy some live music, and she loved it! There is something about Amargo’s candle lit, wooden tables, and fancy looking food that makes you feel like you must be living someone else’s life from a TV show. A la HBO.

Calle del Pez, 2. 

 

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That unique Amargo ambiance, though.

11. Biking down the river (Wait, there’s a river?!)

 

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Part of my birthday fun this year!

 

I have only done this twice because there is simply too much to do in Madrid and not enough weekends! I am hesitant to recommend this because one time I went, and it was an outstanding experience, however, the second time I went my bike got a flat tire and I lost 15 minutes of rental time. Still, the experience of biking along the beautiful river with views of the Royal Palace and the Cathedral is worth taking a chance on. I used MI BIKE RÍO on Calle de Aniceto Marinas, 26. They have very cheap prices, and discounts for groups. Again, it is a 50/50 recommendation because of my two very different experiences. But even walking along the river with a popsicle or iced drink during summer will lift your spirits and give you a little break from the city center.

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12. BAOBAB with a touch of Cava Baja.

 

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This may just be the thing I miss most when I am gone.

 

Anyone that knows me here, knows I love BAOBAB. This place introduced me to my favorite cuisine, Senegalese. I cannot even imagine my life without one of their top dishes: MAFE. If there is anything I am going to crave in this city, I am going to crave MAFE. It consists of white rice and a peanut based, curry like sauce with potatoes, meat and carrots. A hearty meal I can eat up in winter, spring, summer or fall. But let me warn you that eating in Lavapiés is not for everyone. It is the seedier neighborhood in Madrid. My understanding is that it is not as dangerous as it used to be, but if you are an adventurous traveler that is not attached to luxury, then lavapiés will be a fantastic cultural experience for you! Filled with Indian, Senegalese, and Arabic restaurants, it does not feel like you are in Europe. Lavapiés is its own little country, where my favorite, hole-in-the-wall restaurant happens to be. I have written about Baobab before (  “Tired” is not who I am anymore. ) , and it is simply because time and again, it takes the number one spot in my heart…and in my stomach…yes!

 

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Baobab does a good tinto de verano, too.

 

Once Ariena and I had devoured our heavy, Senegalese dinner, we needed a walk for digestion. Fortunately, La Latina is walking distance from Lavapiés, and I knew there was something important about this walk: Cava Baja. This is the tapas bars street! If you wish to bar hop, go to Cava Baja! I do not have a favorite bar here because every time I go, we choose a different spot. Also, I tend to always end up going to bars closer to my home in Malasaña.

 

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La Latina looks just like the Madrid I imagined before living here.

 

 

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Churros at San Ginés

Save a day for the MUST-DO’s if you must: Sol area with the Plaza Mayor, Mercado de San Miguel, and eating churros with hot chocolate in Chocolatería San Ginés! Or a shopping day down Gran Vía and Calle de Fuencarral. There is also tons of hiking in the mountains with simple one hour bus-rides. If you are a museum person, Madrid can and will keep you busy for days!!! My personal favorite is the Sorolla Museum, which used to be the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla‘s house. His work transports you to a time of carefree living. The museum also has a ton of free-hours on Saturdays and Sundays  –  http://www.mecd.gob.es/msorolla/en/inicio.html . Oh, but what am I saying! I haven’t even mentioned El Rastro market on Sundays in La Latina, the micro-theaters in Malasaña, the Mercado de Motores in Delicias, or the infamous KAPITAL (which I do not like, but serves you well for a dance night).

 

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Mercado de San Miguel – a popular tourist spot

 

 

As you can see, Madrid can easily book up your schedule morning ’til night. Or should I say, morning ’til morning! When coming for a limited time, the best advice I can give you is to split up your days into neighborhoods. Notice the grafitti in each one, the way people are dressed, the aesthetic of shops and cafés around you. If you split it up into barrios: Malasaña, La Latina, Chueca, Lavapiés, Argüelles, Sol, then you’ll get to understand Madrid. It is in the heart of each unique neighborhood that you’ll feel the city’s character, and hopefully you’ll come to love it, too.

 

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Royal Palace – free hours on Thursdays 😉

 

Thank you for two unforgettable years, Madrid! This time will always stand out in my memories. Now wish me luck as I attempt to do another couple years of teaching English abroad. This time, I am looking at you, Latin America.

Hasta luego! xoxo

 

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