Madrid is one of my favourite European cities and so I was thrilled to return last month to put together a list of foodie recommendations for a trip for you.
I lived in Madrid a decade ago, which was an extremely happy time for me. I have very fond memories of Madrid, but I was interested to return and see if it lived up to expectations, no longer having a direct connection to the city.
We headed off to Madrid at the end of last month for a long weekend and left very reluctantly. Madrid was even better than I remember, with many interesting developments on the food scene. It’s not a capital city that offers a long list of landmark attractions, but it’s relaxed atmosphere, elegant buildings and rich culture make it a wonderful weekend destination.
Madrid is a great year-round destination for a city break. The winters are cold (comparatively), as Madrid is a high-altitude city surrounded by mountains, but it enjoys glorious sunshine and blue skies, even if it’s cold outside. We found this greatly uplifting, and even sat in short sleeves in the sunshine to have an alfresco picnic in the park on 1st December. Summers are hot – I recall August being unbearable – so I’d suggest avoiding July and August for a visit, as it will probably be 45 degrees Celsius plus.
The food scene in Madrid has improved greatly over the last decade. The best of Spanish food is celebrated, and the opening of new, sophisticated food markets has made a great addition to the city. Whilst there is a great range of cuisines on offer in Madrid’s restaurant scene, we found ourselves returning to Spanish food. I really like traditional Spanish food. When the ingredients are first-rate, it really is excellent. Gastronomically, it’s not the most varied or refined cuisine, but when it’s good, it’s very good indeed, and as it is so difficult to find really good Spanish food out of Spain, I never miss the opportunity to make the most of it when I’m there.
Where to eat
One of the most famous restaurants in Madrid is Casa Lucio. It’s a celebrity favourite and has been visited by anyone who’s anyone in Madrid. We sat next to some very famous diners on the next table. This is a traditional Spanish restaurant, both in terms of menu and experience. A very discreet entrance leads to a bar, above which rows of seriously amazing quality hams hang. You need to book well in advance to get a table, and your name is carefully checked against the list before leading you round to the dining room.
The house speciality is huevos rotos to start – a plate of chips topped with fried eggs. Order some jamón on the side for the most authentic accompaniment. I had never tried egg and chips before – it was never something I would have eaten at home or have made, but it was delectable. It’s a must-try. Moving on to the main course, the suckling pig is a house speciality. It’s sweet and tender with thick, crispy skin. Expensive, but a lovely experience. A great wine list, too.
El Ñeru is an Asturian restaurant just a few steps away from the Plaza Major and the Opera House. I first visited a decade ago, on the recommendation of a family friend based in Madrid. It’s a very traditional restaurant again, serving super traditional dishes, but the food is delicious and the service is lovely. You must try the Asturian cider to drink. The tortilla and chorizo en sidra make a gorgeous starter. For the main, the fabada is a must; a bean and pork stew, served with crusty white bread to dip into the flavourful sauce. The fish is also lovely. I chose the merluza a la plancha, or grilled hake and it was superb.
For a traditional and delicious tapas, great wines and beer, then try La Dolores on Plaza de Jesús. I first visited with my parents years ago, and it was just as good when we returned on this trip. The bar is packed out, and there are a small number of cosy tables at the back. The tapas are lovely, especially the crisps (yes, crisps), jamón, and queso, which is an aged manchego. We spent an excellent evening sat in the window, nibbling away on delicious tapas and enjoying an excellent Ribera del Duero 2010.
The Mercado San Miguel is a fairly newly restored wrought iron and class market just next to the Plaza Mayor. It’s full of interesting stands selling wines, beers and a very wide range of Spanish food, from meat to seafood, to bocadillos, tapas, croquetas and montaditos. It is an absolute must visit for any foodie, even for a look. It gets very busy at weekends, but do try and stop for a drink and something to eat. The cava and croquetas de jamón are to die for.
Madrileños have a sweet tooth. The most traditional cake shop in town is La Mallorquina in the Puerta del Sol. I first visited with Spanish friends around 12 years ago, and this was my first visit back. It’s a traditional family owned cake shop, selling takeaway Spanish cakes and sweets, with a bar downstairs and tables and waiter service upstairs. I imagine it’s hardly changed since the 1950s but in terms of Spanish cakes, this is as good as it gets. Try a coffee – which has to be a café con leche (always made with hot, UHT milk – you get used to it) and a napoletana de crema, which is a sort of pain au chocolat type pastry, filled with custard. Spanish cakes lack the refinement of French pâtisserie, but some are very nice indeed, and a stop off here gives you a glimpse of real life Madrid, which you don’t get at San Ginés, the famous chocolate con churros establishment nearby.
And to drink, try typical Spanish drinks, such as some excellent Spanish cava, red wines which are most commonly Rioja or Ribera del Duero, a lager, such as Mahou, or a tinto de verano, which is a light drink made from red wine and Fanta limon. It sounds atrocious, but it’s actually really rather good.
Where to stay
Our hotel was the NH Paseo del Prado. NH is an upmarket hotel chain, which has very recently refurbished this 5* hotel. The location is absolutely amazing, right on the Paseo del Prado, and very close to all the superb museums and galleries in Madrid. It’s also in walking distance of the city centre. We walked for miles, but the Royal Palace, which is probably the furthest point in the city centre from here is only about 30 minutes walk from the hotel. We only took public transport to and from the airport, as we were able walk everywhere we wanted to go comfortably.
The service in the NH Paseo del Prado was really excellent. The welcome was incredibly warm and staff couldn’t do enough to help us, especially Raul on Reception, who willingly rang round and made restaurant reservations for me each night. Rooms are on the small side, as is the way with city centre hotels, but very comfortable and clean. The marble bathrooms were nice, too. Breakfast was a highlight. The choice was just amazing, the quality of items on offer was really excellent, and the staff, charming and helpful. An excellent base, and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.
What to do
Madrid really is a capital city to be explored on foot. Whilst walking around, you can really appreciate the lovely squares and shady streets in the heart of the city. You’ll find many sunny spots along the way to stop for coffee or a beer in the sunshine. Plaza Santa Ana, Plaza Mayor and El Palacio Real are all must-see places.
Art and culture are real highlights in Madrid. The Prado Museum is simply world class. Half a day is enough to touch the surface there, for me. The Spanish Old Master collection is exquisite. The Thyssen Museum is also very, very interesting and contains a really broad collection of pieces.
The Retiro park is an absolutely lovely spot for a walk, a coffee in the sunshine, or even a row around the lake. The Crystal Palace often houses temporary art exhibitions.
How to get there
Madrid is reasonably well-served by airlines operating from all over the UK. We flew from Gatwick with Easyjet, which was a fairly miserable experience, but the flights are quite regular and we paid around £80 per head for a return.
Once you arrive in Madrid, you can take the Metro into the city centre very easily and inexpensively, at 5 EUR per adult. It should take around 30-45 minutes, depending on your destination. Trains are every 5-6 minutes. There are plenty of taxis available too, which cost around 35 EUR for a single journey into the city centre.