Madrid is packed with amazing art museums, world-renowned wine, centuries-old markets and perfectly manicured parks. It is also packed with tourists, 8 million of them in 2011 them to be exact. And that means a day of sight seeing in Madrid often means long lines, crowded bars and packed plazas.
Without a doubt, many of Madrid’s main attractions are absolutely worth battling the masses. But beyond El Prado museum and San Gines’ churros, there is a plethora of places packed with culture, beauty and, of course, spectacular food, if you only know where to look. So ditch the travel book, toss the tourist map, and come explore Madrid off the beaten path with this list of things to do in Madrid.
Dive into history at the Tapestry Museum instead of El Prado
While Madrid’s premier art museum is, of course, a must-see sight in the city, at the Royal Tapestry Factory, art comes to life, literally. Tour the working factory and watch expert weavers at work creating spectacular tapestries, learn about the factory’s nearly 300-year history and gaze upon fantastically preserved tapestries from masters like Juan Gris. Be sure to schedule your English tour in advance by emailing the museum at email@example.com. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Calle Fuenterrabía, 2 near the metro stop Atocha
Eat your way through the San Fernando Market instead of San Miguel
Mercado de San Fernando, in the immigrant influenced neighborhood of Lavapiés, is the locals-only version of the hugely-touristy Mercado San Miguel. At this smaller, more intimate market you’ll hear kids playing, adults chatting, glasses chinking and butchers chopping. We highly recommend tasting a craft beer from La Buena Pinta stall or a local wine from La Siempre Llena stall while snacking on tasty tapas from one of the many cafés and restaurants throughout the market. Don’t forget to grab a bag of organic Spanish dried apricots (100 g for 1 euro!) from La Monda fruit and vegetable stand for a healthy snack while strolling the city.
Calle Embajadores, 41
Relax in Parque del Capricho instead of Parque Retiro
As if the name wasn’t enticing enough (Parque del Capricho means “The Park of the Whim”), the bright flowerbeds, bubbling fountains and children’s playground complete with a moat and cannons will undoubtably make the trek to Parque del Capricho well worth the metro ride. The park was created in 1784 as an artistic reprieve from city life for one of Madrid’s most powerful families, the Duke of Osuna. Hope on the green Line 5 metro to El Capricho Park and stroll through this secluded oasis on Saturday or Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the winter months (October to March) or until 9:00 p.m. during the summer (April to September).
Paseo de la Alameda de Osuna
Hit up a flea market at Mercado de Motores instead of El Rastro
If the sprawling neighborhood-wide Sunday flea market of El Rastro seems a tad overwhelming, the smaller, mostly indoor Mercado de Motores is the ideal place to pass your Sunday morning in Madrid. Located in the Railway Museum near the Delicias metro stop, the Mercado de Motores packs stalls of antiques, recycled object crafts, second-hand clothes and more between old locomotives and metro cars. Check out the market on the second weekend of each month from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Paseo de las Delicias, 61
Savor some chocolate with a bizcocho de soletillo at El Riojano instead of churros at San Gines
Everyone loves a serving of piping hot chocolate con churros (who can resist crispy fried dough dipped in chocolate?) but few know about another true Madrid classic, the bizcocho de soletillo. This light sponge cake is served at one of Madrid’s oldest pastry shops, El Riojano, and was once brought as a gift to pregnant women because it was nice and light (and therefore recommended at the time). Order one of these and a cup of El Riojano’s famous hot chocolate and you’ll never look back!
Calle Mayor, 10
Dine downtown at a local Madrid restaurant instead of tourist-centered spots
Finding fantastic, authentic food within an easy walking distance of Madrid’s main plaza Sol can be a challenge. Lining the plaza are streets that are packed with restaurants catering primarily to tourists. We suggest skipping many of these less-than-stellar options and instead make the short five-minute walk to El Zagal, a simple restaurant with home cooking. Here you can feast on scrumptious raciones of pan-seared mushrooms with cured ham bits or homemade croquetas. They also offer a 3-course lunch featuring Spanish favorites like salmorejo (cold tomato soup), grilled trout and beef steaks for 10.50 €.
Calle Trujillos, 7
Get great city views from the Circulo de Bellas Artes rooftop instead of a hotel terrace
Looking for a spectacular view of the Spain’s capital city? Don’t follow your travel guide book’s advice and pay and arm and a leg to get to the top of a hotel terrace! Head instead to the Circulo de Bellas Artes museum, where a mere 3 euro buys you access to the impressive Azotea rooftop terrace which overlooks some of the most spectacular buildings in the city. On the rooftop you can lounge on outdoor sofas while sipping an ice cold cocktail and gazing out over the twinkling city of Madrid. We definitely recommend timing your visit to watch the sunset. Can you say espectacular?
Calle de Alcalá, 42
Cool down with tinto de verano instead of sangria
Here’s Spain’s worst kept secret: sangria really isn’t very Spanish. Yes, it was technically invented here, but you won’t find it flowing freely from behind every bar in town. In fact, much of Madrid’s sangria is usually found in restaurants and bars that cater to tourists (although there are exceptions to this rule!). Instead, most Madrileños opt for tinto de verano, red wine mixed with lemon soda, which quenches their thirst while lounging on the sunny terraces of summertime Spain.
Feast on cocido Madrileño instead of paella
When in Madrid you must do as the Madrileños do, and that means ditching cast-iron pans of paella for ceramic bowls of cocido Madrileño. Paella (which is actually from Valencia, a city about 200 miles east of Madrid) may have the international fame, but cocido – a stew of pork, beef, chicken, chorizo sausage, vegetables and garbanzos – is definitely the home favorite. During the winter months, restaurants across the city brew up big pots of cocido to warm the bellies of Spaniards and visitors alike.
Day Trip to Alcala de Henares instead of Toledo
If Don Quixote is more your style than Don Juan, then swap the swords of Toledo for the birthplace of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. In the cozy town of Alcalá de Henares, located an easy 30 minute train ride from Madrid, you’ll find a gorgeous university, a beautifully manicured plaza featuring Cervantes’ statue, tours of the house in which Cervantes was born and an array of delicious pastries perfected over the centuries by Alcalá’s traditional bakers.