As an expat living in Barcelona, I’ve got pretty much everything I need from a city: great food, gorgeous architecture, interesting neighborhoods and shops, and plenty of cultural and historical attractions. But as a former New Yorker, I sometimes crave all these things on a much bigger scale. Fortunately, Madrid, Spain’s capital and its largest city, is just a 2.5-hour high-speed train ride away.
Like most European capitals, Madrid was built to impress, with wide boulevards, magnificent Baroque and Art Deco buildings, enormous plazas, sprawling parks, important museums, and churches and palaces galore, including the massive Royal Palace (the biggest in Europe, it measures over 1.4 million square feet).
But the city is also a wonderful jumble of barrios (neighborhoods), whose narrow, winding streets and cobbled lanes are dotted with small boutiques, cozy tapas joints, and local bars and cafes.
My favorite way to experience Madrid is by hitting a couple of major sites — the Prado Museum and Retiro Park are musts — then simply wandering the barrios, discovering independent shops and markets and, of course, fueling up with wine and tapas along the way.
Autumn is the perfect time to visit, when the scorching summer heat gives way to pleasant temps and Madrileños take the place of tourists. I’ve rounded up some of my top picks for shopping, dining, and drinking in the capital and included a few tips so you can make the most of your trip.
Where to Eat and Drink
Antón Martín Market
Calle de Santa Isabel, 5; no phone
Madrid has a huge number of markets — every barrio has its own — but this one in Lavapiés strikes the perfect balance between authentic market (where locals shop for fresh produce, meat, and fish) and trendy food hall. Spread across two levels are stalls serving all kinds of regional and international cuisine, from empanadas and tacos to sushi and freshly shucked oysters, plus vermouth, wine, and cocktails. Most have a few tables where you can sit, but you can also get it to go and stroll around until you find your next snack.
Calle de Sevilla, 3; +34 913 30 6210
This smart rooftop brasserie is part of the new Centro Canalejas complex, a combination of seven historical buildings in the city center that house the Four Seasons Hotel Madrid and a soon-to-open upscale shopping arcade. Three-Michelin-starred chef Dani García consulted on the menu, which features Andalusian specialties like salmorejo (a traditional bread-and-tomato soup) and Spanish rice with razor clams and morcilla (blood sausage), as well as brasserie favorites like steaks and burgers topped with foie gras. The food is quite good, but the real reason to come is for the fantastic views of the city from the wraparound terrace. If you’re coming for dinner, be sure to book an outdoor table in advance.
Yes, it’s touristy — and there’s a reason: This beautiful, portico-lined central square has been one of Madrid’s main public gathering spots for more than 400 years. Grab a seat at any of the café terraces for a drink — but definitely dine elsewhere, as the food here is mediocre and overpriced — and admire the stately red facades and frescoes of the surrounding buildings. It’s especially atmospheric on a summer evening, when the skies stay light until 10 p.m. and buskers serenade the crowds.
Calle del Dr Cortezo, 10; no phone
If you want a break from tapas, head to this hip, industrial-style food hall in Lavapiés which offers a sort of greatest hits tour of East Asian street food. Colorful neon signs beckon you to its stalls — around a dozen at last count — where you can sample a bit of everything, including ramen, sushi, poke bowls, dim sum, stuffed bao buns, and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, plus Asian beers and Asian-influenced cocktails. Weekends have a party vibe, with DJs spinning beneath the glass-covered deck.
Where to Shop
Casa de Diego
Puerta del Sol, 12; +3- 915-22-6643
For more than 150 years, this family-owned shop in the Puerta del Sol has been selling handcrafted fans and umbrellas made in their own Madrid factory. Its wraparound windows are like a museum showcase, displaying fans in a huge variety of colors, patterns, and materials. With prices that start at around 30€ — they make for an affordable, easily packable souvenir.
C. de la Montera, 37; +34-915-31-0260
The well-known Madrid leathermaker has several outposts across the city, but my favorite is this one, a short walk from Puerta del Sol. It’s packed top to bottom — over five floors — with men’s and women’s leather accessories (purses, wallets, suitcases, belts) in a vast range of colors, sizes, and styles. The men’s wallet selection alone will floor you; it took me over an hour to decide on the right one for my father. There are also several restaurants in this location, including a lovely plant-filled terrace bistro on the top level.
Calle de Don Felipe to Calle de Velarde, Malasaña
In the scruffy-chic Malasaña neighborhood is a sort of mini-village of vintage shopping, stretching over roughly four blocks off Calle de Fuencarral, near the Tribunal Metro stop. You’ll find a multitude of stores selling second-hand clothing and accessories from the modern era, and at very affordable price points. I like Columbus Vintage Clothes (Calle de Palma, 3) for old-school men’s sports jerseys, Magpie Vintage (Calle de Velarde, 3) for great dresses from every decade, and El Templo de Susu (Calle del Espiritu Santo, 1) for perfectly broken-in leather jackets.
Where to Stay
Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid
Plaza de la Lealtad, 5, +34-917-01-6767
The city’s first luxury hotel, the Ritz, opened in 1910 in a beautiful Belle Époque building, with a prime location right next to the Prado. After a three-year, multi-million-euro renovation, it reopened in April as the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid. Many original details were restored by Spanish architect Rafael de La-Hoz, notably the lobby’s Palm Court, whose glass-canopied roof was recreated from hotelier César Ritz’s original plans. Rooms are wonderfully elegant, with wood floors, high ceilings, tall windows, and lots of crown molding, plus huge marble bathrooms with freestanding soaking tubs. If a stay here isn’t in your budget — even the least-expensive rooms average a couple hundred euro per night — soak in the luxe vibe with a cocktail in its lush garden bistro or in Pictura bar.
Carrera de S. Jerónimo, 34; +34-917-87-7770
The sleek, modern façade of this upscale design hotel stands out from the Centro’s typical 19th-century classic architecture, while the contemporary interiors — including the rooms — feature a fantastic array of antique Chinese, Polynesian, and Hindu objets d’art from its private collection. Rooms may be on the smaller side, but they are smartly designed, especially the duplex rooms which have living and sleeping areas on separate levels. The location is outstanding, a short walk from both Puerta del Sol and the Prado.
Smart Travel Tips
Glancing at a map of Madrid, it may seem like many of the main attractions are within walking distance. But the city is seriously hilly, so if you’re planning to travel on foot, wear comfortable shoes. You can also hop on the well-connected Metro, and taxis are relatively inexpensive.
Speaking of distances, although Madrid’s three major art institutions (Prado Museum, Reina Sofía Art Center and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum) are close together, don’t try to do them all the in one day. The Prado alone has over 27,000 paintings by greats like Titian, Goya, Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch, and El Greco. Also, while you’ll save money, watch out for more crowded conditions during the museums’ free hours.
Madrileños are extremely well-dressed; if you’re going to fancier restaurants or staying at luxury hotels, be sure to pack your finest to fit in with the fashionable locals.