Get Cultured: Madrid – Exploring the City Like a Local

Exploring local Madrid - Get Cultured, Photo of GranVia

Contributing writer Shawn Moksvold gives us the scoop on where to play, stay and shop — local style — in Madrid…

On your first day here, seeing this is a must: I suggest having a coffee or tinto de verano on a terrace near the Puerta de Alcala.  An impressive example of old-world charm mixed with modern cityscape, this monument represents the old gateway to the city, and is emblematic of Madrid’s attention to history.  While you’re there, basking in the sun, why not treat yourself to a couple of Spain’s most traditional tapas: Jamón Serrano and Manchego cheese?

Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… Go to an old café, preferably one with austere, elderly Galician barmen, and order a liquor de café. Usually kept under the counter in a plastic jug, this highly potent, (not exactly legal,) drink is a dying remnant of days gone by.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: The Madrid Metro. It’s one of Europe’s most dependable, extensive and cheap (€1.50 a ticket) underground subway systems, and it easily covers the center of Madrid and the surrounding area, making a car almost obsolete (a refreshing change for a Californian) and proving to be essential for the workforce of Spain’s largest economy, as well as for me.

Exploring local Madrid - Get Cultured, Photo of Plaza St. AnaI had my best night’s sleep at: When I first arrived here, I stayed in an adapted apartment complex, now called Hostal Delvi, tucked in the corner of Plaza Santa Ana, in the historic center of Madrid.  For generations, not much has changed in this building, with its uneven wooden staircase, ornate handrails and ancient tiled floors.  The windows are tall, with cozy little balconies, but built with thick shutters that are essential in blocking the incessant buzz of the city.  A good night’s sleep?  Probably not. But it’s a great place right in the center of the action in a perfect mix of antiquity and modernity.

The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: Saying you’ve had a paella in Spain is kind of like saying you’ve had a hamburger in the northern hemisphere””the diversity and levels of quality are mind-boggling.  But the restaurant La Barraca, near the locally famous street Gran Vía, gets it right, and the staff takes paella seriously.  Best shared with a group of friends, we always order our favorite, Paella Valenciana, with basic and traditional ingredients, like saffron, lemon, and slow roasted chicken and rabbit and scrap off the wonderful, slightly burnt and crunchy part at the bottom of the rice called socarrat.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts: The typical tourist draw is El Rastro, a sprawling flea market that takes over a section of the La Latina neighborhood every Sunday.  But if you want quality handmade handicrafts that truly reflect Spanish tradition, go to Objetos de Arte Toledano, on the Paseo del Prado.  Sure, there are your typical tourist trinkets and t-shirts, but here you will also find intricately designed jewelry, flatware, plates and ceramics, all made in the traditional damascene style from the historic town of Toledo. They’ll even point you in the right direction if you happen to be in the market for medieval armor or a good sword.

Exploring local Madrid - Get Cultured, Photo of Puerta del SolLocal celebration not to be missed: If you find yourself in the true center of Madrid, in Puerta del Sol, ringing in the New Year, you better do it right.  Hopefully you will have already filled yourself with a table full of shellfish from Galicia (a particular Madrid favorite are percebes, or gooseneck barnacles!) and plenty of Catalonian cava. Then, as you count down the minutes from the clock on the old city hall, you’ll fill your mouth with grapes””try one for each strike of the bell””and then give a big, celebratory kiss to a loved one (or a stranger).  And why not practice your Spanish with grapes in your mouth?  Try “Que tengas una buena entrada y salida de año!”  along with some more cava.  And remember, the night has just begun.

Favorite pastimes: Since I moved to Madrid, I’ve grown to appreciate a simpler, but often richer, life.  And many purely enjoyable activities are complemented with good food, drink and the company of friends. My ideal scenario? Relaxing on one of the thousands of terraces in Madrid in the afternoon sun, noshing on tapas, like pimientos de padrón (roasted peppers), mejillones (steamed mussels), gambas y carabineros a la plancha (grilled shrimp), olives, and a cold beer or glass (or two) of bubbly cava, chatting lightheartedly with a special someone or a group of friends.  I also like solo museum tours and taking photos while walking along the narrow streets of the center of the city.

For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: Even in Spain’s largest city, it isn’t hard to get away from the noise and urban commotion. El Retiro Park is accessible and centrally located, complete with flower gardens, a lake filled with wooden boats, isolated trails, and plenty of grassy areas.  If I’m looking to take in some sun and do some writing in a quiet setting, I go there.

The art/music scene is alive and well here: Madrid’s museum scene is second to none.  The more than 200-year-old Prado Museum boasts a world-class collection of some of the most important paintings and sculptures (Goya, Dalí, Picasso, Velázquez, El Greco).  The Museo Reina Sofía contains many classics like the famous Guernica, by Picasso, but rotates relevant modern art collections from important artist from all over the world.  There are also many free art exhibitions funded by the government of Spain and sponsored by private companies.  They are easy to find and diverse.  The last one I went to was a collection of little-known charcoal and pencil drawings by Dalí and Goya.  Live jazz music always plays at Café Central and Populart, world-renowned DJ’s spin electronic music in Pacha and Kapital.  And I like to check out Madrid’s burgeoning Indie rock music scene in places like Sala Sol, Joy Eslava, Sirocco, and Sala Galileo Galilei.

Where the locals get tipsy: In the quirky, hip neighborhood of Malasaña, the bars abound.  La Vía Lactea is a local favorite, once a hang out of Pedro Almodóvar and locally famous figures of the 70’s and 80’s cultural movement in Spain, the Movida Madrileña.  This place has eclectic decor, lively patrons and stays open until the wee hours.

Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: Everyone loves bullfighting and dances Flamenco. While it is true, both the corridas and flamenco historically have been important to Spain’s culture and history, modern Spaniards often don’t necessarily find either relevant to their lives today. In fact, many are ambivalent at best, especially regarding bullfighting (it is non-existent in many parts of Spain, and outlawed altogether in Catalonia).  And to many Madrileños, flamenco is merely a beautiful, sentimental nod to the old world, and catnip for tourists.

Exploring local Madrid - Get Cultured, Photo of TapasIf I had only 24 hours to explore Madrid I would: After your morning coffee at the Puerta de Alcalá, I’d walk to the Cortes neighborhood and Gran Vía, an area with monumental architecture that is characteristic of old Madrid.  Then I suggest stopping at a terrace for a break from all the photo taking, for another round of wine or coffee.  After, shoot over to the Prado museum and make the express tour your own, at least to take in the big classics, like Goya, Velázquez, Picasso and Dalí. Next door is the Riena Sofía museum, where you should buy the 3 euro ticket to see Picasso’s most well known work, Guernica. After all the walking and intellectual pondering, it may be time for another glass of wine, in which case the Calle de Las Letras (or Huertas street), is a long narrow street beginning near the museums, and it is absolutely filled with restaurants, bars and cafés.  For lunch, stop by Taberna Maceiras, on Huertas, a Galician gem of a restaurant with a full menu of delicious seafood and classics from northwest Spain (order the Arroz Marineiro, Champiñones con Lacón and the cider). At this point, you may want to take a nap (in which case you’d be acting very traditional and Spanish). But from this neighborhood, walk to Puerta del Sol, the absolute center of Madrid, and take a left to the Plaza Mayor, where more photo opportunities wait. From there, take a five-minute taxi ride to the cable car pick up at Casa de Campo. For a couple of Euros, this tram takes you on a relaxed trip high above the green trails of Casa de Campo (the King’s old playground), and wonderful views of modern Madrid, the Royal Palace and the beautiful Almudena Cathedral.

I would then end the daylight hours watching the sunset over Madrid from the vantage point near the Egyptian Templo de Devod.  And if you’ve still got some energy, go to the hip, if not grungy neighborhood of Malasaña, down a couple cold gin and tonics at Bar Ave Fenix, and then dance the night away at Sala Sol to rock and pop classics.  Hey, you said 24 hours!


Exploring local Madrid - Get Cultured, Photo of ShawnAbout the Writer:

Shawn is a freelance writer with particular interests in travel, food and wine, and Spanish culture.  He graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, and currently teaches English to elementary school children. His work has also appeared in, and he writes for his blog, A Casual Notebook, and currently lives in Madrid, Spain. Follow Shawn on twitter @casualnotebook



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