THE BEST OF MADRID IN FOUR DAYS
Iconic and Unique Shopping, Art and Culture
By Linda Kissam ‘Food, Wine & Shopping Diva’
Travel writer Linda Kissam “Food, Wine & Shopping Diva” talks about her adventures in Madrid, Spain, where she enjoyed four fabulous days of local cuisine, history and culture…and shopping on Big Blend Radio.
Experiencing the best of Madrid in 4 days is easy. There’s just a few rules and attitude adjustments to make. First Madrid is unlike many of the hot spots visited in Spain – like Valencia or Barcelona. Because it is located at the geographic center of the Iberian Peninsula there are no water related or port activities to schedule. Instead, Madrid is a bustling all urban town where tourists eat, drink, shop, walk, see museums… repeat. It is a lively capital city with many bars, diverse dining opportunities, coffee houses, grand and tiny boutique shopping areas, and parks.
Because of its central location and high altitude, the climate of Madrid is characterized by warm, dry summers and falls, and cool winters. When other European towns are cooling down rapidly in fall, Madrid is just hitting its stride. It’s a beautiful time to go…even with the many tourists present.
Madrid is a very walkable town. It is mostly flat or with slight inclines, seeing Madrid on foot, by taxi or the Hop-on-Hop Off bus works out for most people. On your first visit, pick a central hotel that bases you near the things you want to see. My suggestions include the Villa Real Hotel (older, local chain) or DoubleTree by Hilton Madrid-Prado (new boutique like).
Dress is casual. Expect to start your day after 10am. No early risers here. Do not rush through any of your experiences. Do not plan too much in any one day. Wear comfortable shoes, pack an umbrella if you go in the fall, and plan your daily trips by first mapping out where the things you want to see are. If you don’t, you’ll be a scattered mess. Probably my best tip is to use your handheld to navigate the streets. Cash is king, but credit cards are accepted everywhere.
Here are my suggestions for experiencing the best Madrid has to offer, within a 4-day time period. They’re meant to give you a rounded experience overall, but with an emphasis on shopping. Suggestions are centered around securing lodging near Plaza de las Cortes.
Hop-on Hop-off Madrid City Tour. Priced from $27.40. I love taking the Hop-on Hop-off sightseeing buses. I generally make this an all-day event. Hop-on Hop-off sightseeing is the best way to get to know and see many different parts of Madrid. With one ticket, tourists can spend all day along the route of their choice or change to another bus and route. Everything is at your own pace. All busses are clean and equipped with commentaries offered through a pretty good headphone audio system. When boarding the buses, riders are given a map of the city and discount coupons for different shops and restaurants in the city. Hop off at any stop. Hop back on at that exact stop or another one as you walk around. Hours vary by season. You can buy your ticket and get on at your first stop, just 5 minutes from the hotel. On your way you will find a Starbucks.
La Violeta. In the busy plaza of Canalejas, just outside the Puerta del Sol – the center of Madrid – and a 10 minute walk from the hotel, lies a tiny candy store selling the “flavor of Madrid” since 1915. La Violeta specializes in violet candies and natural violet flowers in crystallized form. It’s like stepping into a tea shop, but with delicate candies replacing the tea. A constant stream of locals and tourists pack into the store (only three shoppers at a time are allowed!) to buy the delicate candies. A PERFECT souvenir or gift. I think if you are looking for a “taste of the place” you’ve come to visit, try one this candy. Considered one of Madrid’s premiere souvenirs, these small flower shaped candies are flavored with violet essence. No one seems to know why they have become such a symbolic sweet of the city. Speculation is that Mariano Gil who opened the shop decided to try something different than the cakes his family baked. With so many violets in the mountains north of Madrid, he experimented with their fragrant essence. The candy is sold by weight and you can select exquisite specially made porcelain pieces to put the sweets in (each have a violet on them).
LA BARRACA I can’t help it. When I am in Spain, I want paella. Unfortunately great paella is hard to find in Madrid. That’s not to say you won’t be surrounded by signs advertising a variety of different paellas. Careful. What you’ll likely be served is a precooked, microwave meal that has nothing to do with the delicious rice dishes of Murcia and Valencia, the regions where paella evolved. Luckily with a bit of research, I found some of the best paella ever. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. You’ll pass the violet candy shop on your way to Calle de la Reina, 29, 28004 Madrid. La Barraca is tucked away just behind the busy Calle Gran Vía, on the fairly narrow and quiet Calle Reina. It’s a restaurant modeled after a traditional Valencian eatery and has been family run since 1935. When preparing their paellas the owners use only the finest rice varieties: Bomba, a highly sought after ‘Arroz de Valencia’, frequently referred to as the ‘King of Rices’; and Calasparra, cultivated in the Murcia region, in a mountainous town of the same name, which has been growing rice since the 14th century. Expect a refined, but casual and caring experience. Reservations are a must.
The Plaza de Santa Ana, together with the nearby small streets make up the Huertas district. It is one of Madrid’s most lively and pulsating areas, with hundreds of tapas bars, terrace cafes, pubs, restaurants and shopping all within a relatively small area. The square itself is located just a short 5 minute walk from the hotel. Best to drape yourself in an outdoor plaza chair. Several restaurants are intertwined throughout the plaza. Waiters will come to you. It is a wonderful place to just sit and people watch, order some tapas with a glass of wine. The square is particularly popular on Sunday mornings, when Spanish families come out in droves to take a short stroll, socialize and dine with family and friends. During the summer months, the Plaza is packed from early evening to late at night.
Designer Shopping on Calle de Serrano. When you’re ready to do some high-end, tax-free, shopping stroll down Calle de Serrano. Located in the heart of Madrid’s Salamanca district, it’s a 30 minute walk from the hotel. You’ll find luxury designer goods, top international boutiques and the best porcelain housewares from leading Spanish brands. This is genuine heart-stopping shopping in Madrid. This section was developed in the mid-nineteenth century and named after the Marquis of Salamanca. Broad streets and buildings oozing sophistication are considered additional attractions that complement the many elegant stores.
Tekoe. We know Spaniards enjoy their coffee, but in recent years tea has had a surge in popularity, which is a good thing for me, as I love tea. Tekoe tea shop is just a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It’s dedication to serving high quality, ethically sourced teas from around the world makes it both a locals and tourist favorite. If you’re lucky you’ll be there when the tea room also holds tea tasting sessions.
The National Archaeological Museum of Spain. Nationally known as the Museo Archeologico Nacional, it was built in the latter half of the 19th century to showcase the wide variety of unique and iconic facades of ornamental artistry and archaeological finds from Spain. Among the numerous collections of different centuries, the Museum preserves the excavations of Egyptian, Iberian, Greek, Roman, and medieval origin. The main permanent exhibits of the Museum are the scaled model of the cave of Altamira, the Lady of Baza, Lady of Elx, Balazote’s Bliche, Guarrazar’s Treasure and the Crucifix of Ferdinand and Sancha. It is a 30 minute walk from the hotel. You will pass the designer shopping on Calle de Serrano.
Takos Al Pastor. This SoCal girl loves tacos. Searching for a great taco brought me to Takos Al Pastor, an unexpected little Mexican joint in the heart of the city, about 20 minutes from the hotel. It’s where you’ll find all the locals. This place is so good the line is always out the door and what’s even better it is cheap (one euro per taco) AND offers delicious eats… can’t get any better than that! Try the iconic Pastor. It’s the original “tako” made with slow-cooked pulled-pork, raw onions, cilantro, slices of pineapple, and a splash of lime.
Chocolatería San Ginés. It’s hard to beat the classic combo of hot chocolate with churros. The best place to do that in Madrid is just off the Calle Arenal’s pedestrian zone west of the Puerta del Sol, and a 15 minute walk from your hotel. San Ginés has been around since 1894, and it looks about the same as it must have appeared on its opening day more than a century ago. Have cups of thick, sweet chocolate at the marble bar or at small tables amid the green wood paneling and mirrors of the 19th Century café. Churros arrive through a kitchen portal as long spirals of quickly-fried dough that the waitresses cut to length with scissors before serving. Magnificent mid-day or late night pick-me-up.
The Jamon Museum. Not your everyday type of museum. Think unique culinary museum where you can taste and buy the exhibits. Local citizens frequently visit here to buy some jamons (Spanish word for Ham) for lunch and dinner. For travelers this place introduces you to traditional Spanish ham, for local people this is a butcher’s shop. It has an amazing amount of different kinds of jamon. There is an abundance of whole and dried jamons hanging everywhere. Cooks in humorous hats tell the story of their national product and tempt you to give it a taste. In the restaurant on the second floor, you can taste many of the products and drink a glass of red wine.
This big European city provides visitors with an authentic Spanish experience. From tea to jamons, and shopping to culture, it has everything a traveler could want to taste and experience in four days.
Linda Kissam ‘Food, Wine & Shopping Diva’ is a professional travel, food, and wine writer based out of Southern California, who specializes in easy, breezy destination stories sharing her favorite things about the places she visits. Visit www.AllInGoodTaste.info.