Panoramic aerial view of Gran Via, main shopping street in Madrid, Spain.

If I had to describe my recent long weekend in Madrid with one word, I would choose the word “feast.” Not only did I eat and drink to my heart’s content, but the city also fed my soul and senses. In this multicultural city, bright squares, energetic streets, tantalizing aromas, and laughing voices followed me everywhere I went. In Madrid, there is no shortage of places to go, architecture to see, or mouthwatering bites to sink your teeth into.

There is simply more to appreciate than can be covered in one weekend; but if you only have a few days in Spain’s capital, be sure to experience a few key features. This short list has a handful of options to get you started.

 

Food

No trip to Spain is complete without dabbling in the cuisine. While a weekend isn’t much time to try all that the city has to offer, it is enough to get a feel for the cocina Madrileña, a blend from each Spanish region, creating a culinary melting pot in the heart of the country.

First things first: There are ways to eat for free. Yes, with each caña (a small draft beer) or glass of vino, restaurants and bars usually give you a complimentary tapa to snack on. These can be anything from nuts and french fries to rabo de toro (stewed bull’s tail), stuffed shellfish, or croquetas (croquettes) filled with either seafood or meat.

Tapas are a nice way to sample variety without poring over a menu (especially if you’re not a picky eater).

When it comes to street food, a step up from tapas are tostas, and the dish sizes are slightly larger. Literally called toasts, a tosta is a thick, long toasted bread layered with a variety of toppings. Some venues keep their tostas simple with pureed tomato, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, or shavings of jamon (dry-cured ham). Others offer a bit more creativity, like a healthy spread of Spanish blue cheese topped with honey and nuts. You can even order toasts topped with seafood like pulpo gallego (cooked octopus, flavored with a base of olive oil and paprika) or gulas (small silvery-white fish that resemble baby eels, cooked in olive oil and spices). While I walked through the streets around El Rastro market, it seemed like one out of three people were snacking on tostas de gulas during their shopping breaks.

Octopus on toast

Octopus on toast | Photo: Nina Santos

In dish size, after tostas are raciones, traditional items on medium-sized plates. Popular choices include huevos rotos (“broken eggs” cooked with potatoes and chorizo, Spanish sausage), patatas ali oli (potatoes in garlic mayonnaise), patatas bravas (fried, cubed potatoes served with spicy tomato-based dipping sauce), and a variety of seafood (especially grilled octopus and squid).

Sandwiches, or bocadillos, are also popular choices among bars and restaurants.

Of course, the city is a great place to find a wide range of other typical Spanish dishes, besides street food. I love meals that mix seafood with chicken, pork and red meat, so paella was a no-brainer that I enjoyed the day I arrived. Cocido Madrileño (pork stew, slowly simmered for hours with vegetables, beans and chorizo) and tortilla (Spanish omelet, cooked with potatoes and olive oil in addition to eggs) are two more must-try dishes.

sardines in lemon sauce

Sardines in lemon sauce

And as for sweets, my recommendation if you like fried dough is not to leave until you’ve taken a bite (or two or three) of churros that have been dipped in hot chocolate. The creamy chocolate pairs so nicely with crispy fried dough that this will be the only way I eat churros moving forward. (Adiós, cinnamon.)

 

Markets

It is entirely reasonable to dedicate an entire weekend to exploring the city’s food and flea and street markets, and no one would blame you if you did. Depending on where you are at the moment, these are your one-stop-shops for anything you can imagine, with fresh produce, local wines, and cultural ornaments being the tip of the iceberg.

 

Mercado de San Miguel

This small but popular hot spot, near the renowned city square Plaza Mayor de Madrid, is a gastronomy-lover’s dream and is well worth the time wading through busy crowds. There seems to be no end to the rows of shelves selling varieties of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, hams, tapas, entrees, and spirits, that together represent the cuisine from different regions throughout Spain. Sample olives infused with a myriad of spices, sip on sweet vermouth, try arroz negro (“black rice” cooked with octopus ink), or indulge your sweet tooth with a pudding or cake of your choice. Muy delicioso!

Cornets at San Miguel Market-2

Cornets at San Miguel Market | Photo: Nina Santos

In the middle of the market are counters and tables where you can set down your plates and snack with ease, but space isn’t always available due to the droves of visitors. Either way, in a city where cuisine is revered, a food market of this caliber should not be missed.

Olives and Cheese at San Miguel Mercado

Olives and Cheese at San Miguel Mercado | Photo: Nina Santos

 

Mercado de Motores

Everything about this flea market is random, from the  vendors who showcase their artwork and artisan collectibles to vintage clothing stalls and sweets. Its location in the Madrid Railway Museum (Museo del Ferrocarril de Madrid) is also unique. The building is an antique must-see, built in the 19th century and filled with historic steam and passenger trains.

Plan accordingly as the market is only open the second weekend of each month. During those Saturdays and Sundays, the trains occupy the center of the building while vendors set up shop around the perimeter. And after making your rounds, exit through the back of the museum to a “backyard” filled with food, snacks, and beverage vendors.

 

El Rastro

El Rastro, the oldest and largest outdoor flea market in the city with up to 3500 stands, spreads through multiple streets every Sunday from 9AM to 3PM, and on public holidays. Also located near the city center, it attracts the attention of locals and tourists alike and caters to a multitude of personalities. Do you enjoy searching for antiques? What about hand-crafted jewelry? At El Rastro, will see see these items and more (old books, video games, furniture, rugs, and second hand clothing).

View of El Rastro flea market in Madrid Spain

View of El Rastro flea market in Madrid, Spain. Boris-B / Shutterstock.com

Since it spans more than a couple city blocks, there are many little bars and restaurants all around where you can press pause on shopping to enjoy some beer, wine and other traditional tastes of Madrid.

 

Mercado de la Cebada

Take note, the Mercado de la Cebada is one of the best places for cheap seafood on Saturday evenings. If you wander the stalls as they prepare to close for the day you can purchase octopus, shrimp, and mussels for around 15 euros.

octopus at madrid market

During the day, produce, deli items and seafood are just a few items sold at this site, which is located a short walk down the street from the La Latina metro stop.

 

Cityscapes

As you begin to walk from calle to calle (or street to street) your vision will be pleasantly assaulted by picturesque squares, beautifully manicured parks, modern shopping centers, and romantically historic buildings.

While venturing on foot, do not miss the famous Gran Via, an avenue nicknamed “The Spanish Broadway.” Just about every Google search on Madrid will bring up picture upon picture of this large road that pulsates with life. Not only is it one of the top streets for nightlife in Europe but it’s also a zone overflowing with dining choices, hotels, stores, and theaters.

Panoramic aerial view of Gran Via, main shopping street in Madrid, Spain.

Panoramic aerial view of Gran Via, main shopping street in Madrid, Spain.

Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) is another gorgeous spot aptly named for its perfectly situated location that captures the sun’s rays on a bright day. This square is always packed with people, serves as a perfect location for hosting concerts, and is surrounded by important buildings, including the old Post Office which currently holds the President of Madrid’s office. Historically, it was once the eastern gate of the city. Now it is a meeting place for friends, an attraction for tourists, and the location of the city’s clock (which attracts a lot of attention on New Years Eve). It is also home of the city’s symbolic statue El Oso y El Madroño, which is a bear eating the fruit from a strawberry tree (a symbol that represents Madrid’s coat of arms), and the famous neon Tio Pepe sign.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol Vlad Teodor / Shutterstock.com

Lavapies is the place to go for cultural diversity and bohemian vibes. This neighborhood is home to immigrants of many different nationalities, and there are a number of ethnically-diverse restaurants sandwiched between the traditional Spanish bars, a vision that reflects its multiculturalism.

Diversity extends past Lavapies to Chueca, Madrid’s gay district. This neighborhood is home to the summertime Gay Pride Parties which attract members of the LGBT community from around the world in late June and early July. In Chueca, there is a mix of old world Spain, visible in traditional streets and buildings, and a new, modern and open-minded culture where restaurants, bars and stores focus their attentions on the progressive local community.

Crystal Palace

And the city isn’t all buildings, restaurants and stores either. Parque del Retiro (Buen Retiro Park) is a lovely sanctuary smack in the middle of Madrid. What once belonged to the Spanish Royalty is now a public park. This exquisite, large expanse of nature encompasses a number of statues (including the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, the only known public statue in the world that depicts Satan), many small gardens including the Rosaleda rose garden, a large pond, and the famous Crystal Palace.

 

These are my recommendations for a quick visit, and checking off each tip will certainly leave you exhausted after three days of exploring. The vibrant colors and sounds, the rich culture full of scents and tastes, and the many different people and multicultural influences will grab your attention from the moment you arrive until the time to bid hasta luego.