Three Warm, Beautiful Nights In Madrid, Spain
It had been an oppressively hot day, the type of hot that weighs like a stone on your chest and burns the back of your eyes.
I’d been out early to take advantage of what little cool there was in the morning, but then the heat had gotten to me and I simply couldn’t take it any longer. So I was holed up in my teeny little Hostel room with a sputtering air con that was just barely keeping up.
I was just going to veg here, siesta style until the sun started to set, and then maybe I’d think about heading out again. I could hit happy hour if I went out before 9pm, probably have a bit to eat if I could find somewhere that was open that early and then wonder around the streets until midnight.
Sounded like a plan, right?
I’ve Become A Siesta Lover (And A Night Owl)
I’d only been in Madrid for 12 hours. Just time enough to drop off kitty for her I-131 treatment south of town and head into the city. It had taken me that long, a mere half-day, to figure out that taking siesta and going out late was the only thing that made any sense. It wasn’t that the city wasn’t happening during the day. I mean there was plenty going on with museums, and shopping and such. It’s just that it was so darn hot, and for the sake of my delicate Nordic constitution (and my sanity) I simply had to stay indoors until things cooled down.
Back in the day this had real application.
Workers in the fields took siesta in order to shelter from the mid-day heat. The break allowed them to rest during the hottest part of the day, and then work the fields later into the evening, when temps were cooler and more manageable. Life has modernized of course, so siesta isn’t what it used to be (the actual napping part isn’t really done anymore), but the tradition of the late afternoon break is still very much a cultural norm. So the schedule of business revolves around it, and in turn regular life does too.
In Madrid, it’s still common for everything to operate late, at least compared to what you and I are used to. The mornings are a time of complete quiet and almost fully deserted streets. It’s kind of eerie really, but a lovely time to walk around town and enjoy the architecture. Shops typically start opening around 10AM. They close for siesta around 2PM (restaurants close later at ~4PM), open again at 4PM and finally shut their doors at around 8 or 9PM. This naturally pushes out the night-time schedule too. So bars don’t really open for happy hour until around 8PM, restaurants don’t really start to fill up until 10PM and everything else follows.
It’s truly a late-night culture and if you want to fully experience Madrid, you’ve simply got to adjust to it.
The Night-Time Is Glorious
Night is the best time to be out too. Once the sun sets and the heat of the day dissipates into a warm breeze, Madrid comes alive. Its when stuff really starts to happen and that makes it a glorious place to be.
Families and kids who were holed up all day spill into the plazas to mingle and play. Workers who were locked inside offices stream into open tapas bars and sidewalk restaurants to chat and laugh. Night hawkers line the curbs with their wares, music fills the streets, performers dance & charm, chatter fills the air and the old buildings glow in a million ethereal lights. Literally everyone is out and the city simply bursts with life and activity.
As a visitor you can spend hours sitting at a street-side cafe watching the world go by, or you can walk the streets and allow yourself be be swept up in the heartbeat of the city, your skin breathing in the night breeze, your body rocking to the street music, your mind alight with the buzz of lights and people. Madrid is like a rare flower that blooms at night and it’s truly an awesome thing to experience it.
But there’s more to it too…
Boutique Hostels Are The Way To Go
I’d planned my 3 night in Madrid in the very center of town to maximize my explorations and night-time wanderings.
Kitty was being treated in Leganés just south of town, and I was flying solo (Paul was with the rest of the paws at home), so I didn’t need anything fancy. I briefly looked at “regular” Hotels, but they were pricey and mostly in the spots I didn’t want to be. Hostels (or Hostal as they’re called locally) however were everywhere and super cheap!
Now Hostels in Madrid can run the gamut from fairly run-down to pretty nice, but most of them are akin to “boutique hotels” located in regular-looking residential apartment buildings scattered all across town.
They’re small and functional, often only 20-30 rooms or so on the single level of a building. Rooms can be either shared (bunk-bed type) or private, amenities are basic (maybe just a communal kitchen or some vending machines) and there are usually no extra “frills”. But they’re generally clean and welcoming and they’re definitely the way to go if you’re on a budget. For a mere ~EUR 20-45 a night you’ll be comfortable and right smack in the center of town.
I chose Hostal Astoria, one of four Hostels in the same residential building on Carrera de San Jerónimo, a main drag downtown. I had a bit of trouble finding it at first (nothing but a sign on the outside of the building to identify it, and I needed a “buzz-in” to get past the front door), but once I got up to the 5th floor and oriented it was fine. My room was about the size of my arms spread out, with perhaps a smidgen of extra space to do a little side-step, and my bed was European “slim-size” the kind I might not want to roll around in too much if I didn’t want to end up on the floor. But I had a private bathroom, air-conditioning, free WiFi and access to all of central Madrid within 5 mins of my door. Honestly, it was perfect!
Hostel Booking Tip: Search engines like Google, Expedia or TripAdvisor are great for narrowing down your options on places to stay. Everything is laid-out on a map so you can scan prices and lookup reviews with ease. Once you decide on a particular Hostel however, you’ll typically get EUR 5-10 cheaper if you book your room directly through the Hostel website. Lastly, be aware that the cheapest advertised prices at Hostels are usually for shared rooms, so if you want a private room you’ll have to check the price for that when you book.
Use PrePaid Parking (And Then Walk It!)
One thing I knew I DIDN’T want to do in Madrid however was drive around. I’d survived the 8 hour drive from France to Spain just fine, but I wasn’t crazy enough to take on inner city driving in Madrid proper. I had chosen to stay downtown specifically so I could walk everywhere, and since I was staying at a budget Hostel with no parking I needed to find a safe place to store the car while I was roaming around.
Welcome to Parclick
Much like many big cities, Madrid has adapted to the mess of cars and overfull parking garages with the invention of websites were you can reserve prepaid, guaranteed parking sites. There are several sites that operate in Madrid, but Parclick is IMO one of the biggest and easiest to use.
With just a few clicks you can reserve a spot in a secure garage for as little or as long as you like. Sites are booked for a specific arrival time, prices are typically discounted (especially multi-day bookings) and it’s a huge stress-reliever. There’s no need to drive around looking for a place to park. You simply show up at your allocated time, show the gate your reservation (or scan in the barcode on your app) and you’re good to go! I got a superbly spacious spot at a covered garage (Fray Luis De León) just 20 mins walk from my Hostel for only EUR 11 per day. It couldn’t have been easier!
From there I originally planned to either Uber around, take the Metro (only EUR 1.50 per trip) or maybe even rent a bicycle from of the many easy bike rental stations around town, but I actually ended up just walking. Madrid is the perfect walking city and it was so easy to enjoy that way….as long as I stayed out of that afternoon heat of course…
Parclick Booking Tip: When booking a space on Parclick pay attention to fine-print details such as opening hours and whether your parking is covered or uncovered, and includes unlimited entries & exits (in case you want to take out your car while you’re there). The garage I chose was covered with 24-hour gated access (with a barcode on my phone app) and unlimited ins/outs.
Plazas, Museums, Palaces & Churches
I spent mornings and late afternoons doing the “tourist thing”, and in Madrid there is plenty of that around.
One of the first things you notice about Madrid when you get into town are the grandiose buildings. They’re fine, old things, often adorned with elaborate trimmings & statues, a living testament to the what was one of the largest empires in history. They’re bounded by wide roads, elaborate plazas and a seemingly endless array of old churches. And of course since Madrid is a modern city, it’s all intermixed with modern art, sculpture and trendy shops.
You can spend days walking the streets and just admiring these contrasts.
There’s Palicio Real, the splendidly over-the-top Royal Palace (only used for state functions these days) that spans 135,000 square meters, contains 3,418 rooms and displays an astonishing collection of history, wealth, marble and gold. There’s Plaza Mayor, the main plaza in Madrid that was first built during Philip III’s reign. It’s a dramatic panorama of red brick and spires, and one of the best people-watching spots in town. There’s Almudena Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid that boast over 400 columns and the most impressive dedication to the Virgin of Almuden that you’ll ever see. Oh, and of course you can’t forget Museo Del Prado, an impressive building in and of itself which houses one of the world’s finest collections of European art in the world. Plus there’s a multitude of smaller, yet still equally impressive museums and churches scattered all through town.
I didn’t really do any of the big tours, but I did walk to all the main plazas & squares and enjoyed a fabulous exhibit of dada and surrealist art at The Palace of Gaviria. There was plenty more I could have seen, but I was happy just roaming around.
Museum & Palace Visit Tips: The museums & palaces can get a tad crazy during the tourist season, so it’s worth a little prep if you don’t want to spend a ton of time waiting in lines. Morning is a great time to go (less people), plus most of the big museums sell tickets online which will save you significant time from waiting once you get to the entrance. Oh, and if you’re on a super-budget Museo Del Prado does have FREE admission from 6 pm to 8 pm on Mondays through Saturdays, and 5 pm to 7 pm on Sundays and holidays. Lines will be crazy, but it is free….
Mercados, Craft Gin, And Cured Ham
Although I didn’t play “tourist” as much as I could have while I was in Madrid (partly due to the daytime heat), in typical Nina style I DID dedicate myself to searching out the best food and drink.
Of course I went to a number of the more famous Mercados (indoor food markets), a kind of “must do” in Madrid and a great place to sample a variety of foods and drinks in a cool and chic setting. But my specific goal involved finding the best gin & tonic, and the best cured ham. Both are rather famous in Madrid, and once the afternoon heat started to fade it became a nightly ritual of sorts to hunt them down.
Good gins were the easiest to find.
The craft gin scene has exploded in interest in Madrid over the past few years. Gin has become a “thing” and it’s gently taken over the more traditional Sangria as the trendy beverage of choice for an evening aperitif. Every single restaurant offers it, but only a few of them have extended offerings, pairing craft gins with an array of tonics in a manner that true cocktail aficionados will appreciate.
I can’t declare to have found the best gin bars in Madrid, but I did do my best and my modest efforts yielded a superb offering at a small side-restaurant on Plaza Mayor (sorry, can’t recall the name of the place), plus a most delicious craft creation at the Gin Club (which is dog friendly too, by the way!) I was keen to try more, but sadly my liver could only take one head-sized gin a night so I had to limit my research there. If you’re a fellow gin enthusiast, you’ll find more great offerings HERE.
Hunting down the best ham however, required a bit more doing….
Jamón ibérico (cured ham) is not just something you put in a sandwich in Spain. It’s something you enjoy as a delicacy, to taste and appreciate as a tapas (small dish) and accompany your beverage of choice. The tradition of making it dates back over 2000 years and the BEST versions are incredibly expensive, but also beyond-this-world delicious. There’s a definite ranking to them and it takes some research to understand the details*. Plus there are hundreds (literally hundreds) of shops that sell them. So how do you sort through them all?
One of the biggest, and most prolific ham chains in Madrid is Museo del Jamón. They were featured on Rick Steve’s popular travel show a few years ago, so of course they’ve become insanely popular. You’ll find a shop on almost every corner, packed to the brim with tourists and bursting with rows upon rows of delicious-looking cured ham legs. They were the first place I tried and they were OK, but sadly I found the ham to be somewhat disappointing. It was over-hyped and definitely not what I was looking for.
On the opposite side of the coin there are a ton of super small, super specialized Jamón shops locked away in the corners and back alleys of Madrid. They haven’t got the draw of Museo del Jamón, but they’ve got the history and the goods, and IMO these are the places you want to go. For my prime choice I went to the oldest shop in Madrid, López Pascual which opened it’s doors in 1919 and has since been served by three generations fully devoted to ham ever since. It was small and unassuming, tucked away in a quieter part of town, but it was AM-A-ZING! Not only was the owner superbly knowledgeable, but the ham I bought here was literally the best I have ever tasted in my entire life. Ham goal achieved!
Jamon Buying Tips: Jamón ibérico has very definite ranking system which depends on the type of pig, the way it’s raised and what it’s fed during its lifetime. THIS article from Food Lover Tour gives an excellent overview of all the various types and how to make your selection at a store.
A Final Sunset On A Rooftop Terrace
My last goal in Madrid was to enjoy sunset on a rooftop terrace.
There are several well-known rooftop bars** that range from chic and fancy, to relaxed and cozy, and they’re perfect place to enjoy an evening beverage while overlooking the beautiful buildings of the city. For two nights in a row I tried to get into the most famous of the lot, the rooftop terrace at Circulo de Bellas Artes, but it was booked for a “private function” every single night I went (really?!). So on my last night I decided to try elsewhere. I wanted that final memory, a final shot of Madrid from the rooftops, and on the cozy, green terrace of El Viajero I found my spot.
It was a warm evening, but the breeze was pleasant and the last gold of the day was stretching its arms across the city. The old buildings lined the road like a cubist sculpture, framing a gorgeous cathedral, it’s red-ochre color glowing fiercely in the late sun. I was reflecting on my 3 nights in Madrid. The days had been hot, and musty and crazy and I’d spent every afternoon holed up in my hostel room bingeing on Netflix, something I could have done literally anywhere. But the days were contrasted with the cool wild of the evenings, the majestic plazas and historic buildings, the bustling street life and rare moments of serenity caught in small back-alley cafes. I hadn’t really explored the city, not really. I mean you can’t really understand a place in only 3 days. But I’d tasted it and it had been both fiery and sweet, both delectably fine and deliciously complex. It had filled me up, yet also left me thirsty for more.
Next time I’ll bring Paul, and all the paws and we’ll go exploring and discover all the little back-alley gems that I know I’ve missed. Either way it was an awesome visit. Madrid, estoy segura que voy a regresar!
**Rooftop Bars: The best guide that I found on rooftops in Madrid is THIS article from The Local. Excellent, detailed article with pics from each place.