There was a polish to Madrid’s streets and stately ‘capital city-ness’, especially as I had the fortune of basically living right off Gran Via, the Fifth Avenue of Madrid. Even its dry versus humid heat felt distinctly different to Barcelona. Walk down Gran Via, past its 5 storey Primark, H&M and Zara stores standing like shining monoliths against the summer heat, and you feel like you’re stepping into airconditioned spaceships. But just off the main street, Madrid transforms into so many other things.
That is not to say, however, that Madrid didn’t have its share artful, small streets and intriguing shops and boutiques. Malasaña is one such district - apparently Madrid’s hippest neighbourhood - and was a stone’s throw away from my Airbnb. Some of my favourite memories from Spain was wandering through its quiet, hilly streets at 6AM in the morning, watching as shops began to open and ducking in while it was empty, and making note of them as I went.
Levadura Madre (Pez)
Lolo Polos Artesanos
In moss Madrid
Flamingos Vintage Kilo Madrid
Ojala - go for the most intriguing bathrooms in the world
Libros para un Mundo Mejor
If you go to no other bookstore your entire time in Europe, you must go to the most charming bookstore in the world, full of wall-to-ceiling white wooden shelves, with nooks and crannies and a low-ceilinged reading spaces, filled with everything from architectural coffee table books to authentic Don Quixote volumes to old Spanish-translated manga. It also boasts the black cat that serves as Libros’ mascot and the subject of all its in-store merchandise, who was lounging lazily around with her owner (spot her here).
Museo del Prado & Thyssen-Bornemisza
I only visited two of the three galleries in Madrid’s famous ‘Golden Triangle’ but I was - admittedly - rather ‘art gallery’d out’ by that point and two galleries in two afternoons was the perfect amount to keep myself engaged but not fed up. I definitely don’t recommend trying to line up for the free tickets issued in the last 2 hours of Museo del Prado’s opening unless you also happen to have 2hrs to spare to line up in advance before the tickets are issued (any later and no chance - this line snakes around the block because everyone loves free things).
Also, 2hrs is not nearly enough time to do an in-depth wander through Museo del Prado. This gallery did have the rare policy of not allowing cameras at all. Spontaneously, I decided to take my pencil and sketchbook instead and accidentally stumbled upon my new favourite way of visiting art galleries: by making quick pencil studies of paintings that caught my eye. I think this forced me to be truly ‘present’ in observing and studying the artwork, with the added bonus of making a bunch of other people curiously linger a bit longer.
There was the satisfaction of seeing a few more paintings that I had studied in art history at high school in the flesh: Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Goya’s The Third of May 1808 among them, but I was absolutely transfixed by Marià Fortuny’s Viejo desnudo al sol. The use of line to create this hyperrealistic yet stylised impression of flesh and bone…
Thyssen-Bornemisza was a confection of a gallery, like a small summer villa dotted with skylights, with walls that were painted the distinctive salmon-pink-and-orange contrasted against light marble accents that I was starting to associate with Madrid. It’s smaller and less intimidating than Museo del Prado, with a lovely collection of paintings.
Street art, architecture and food
Taking public transport to get around Madrid is a mistake if you have the time to wander. I don’t exaggerate when I say central Madrid has some of the most beautiful buildings and streets I’ve seen, particularly in Malasaña - even the street signs are hand-painted and illustrated tiles in areas around Calle de la Cruz, Calle de Atocha and Calle del Prado, all the maze of streets dotting the 1.4km walk from Plaza Major to Museo del Prado. Again, I had to resist photographing everything in sight.
Take it from me: you must go to Turrones Artesanos Vicens, a confectionary company famed for their nougat blocks but also for this delicate hazelnut/almond combination that I literally carried across 3 countries over 3 months to bring home, and it was worth it. I’d also recommend going to Los Artesanos 1902 Chocolate for their churros but I will be honest: I don’t understand how anyone can eat this for breakfast, it was way too rich for me, though delicious. I also earmarked The Intruder - Barrio de las Letras clothing store in the area, but there are so many. In afternoon golden hour, just wander.
Walking 4km to buy a Bocadillos de Calamares
By the time I had settled into my first night in Madrid and taken a preliminary wander around Gran Via, it was about 9PM and I was peckish. A quick Google search told me I needed to try Madrid’s famous Bocadillos de Calamares - and that the ‘best bocadillos de calamares’ in Madrid - La Ideal - was a 1km walk away. I set off, excited, only to realise La Ideal was closed for the summer (beware!). Luckily, Bar La Campana next door was open and also recommended. Unfortunately, spoiled by cardless Scandinavia, it hadn’t occurred to me until I got there that they would not accept my Mastercard for a 2.75euro purchase and I had found out the hard way in Madrid station earlier that I didn’t have a single euro on me because they wouldn’t let me use the bathroom. Cue frantic Google search about currency exchange places - the closest that was open was another 0.5km away. Okay… well. Still fine, the place closes 10PM.
I got there, only to then realise I had forgotten my wallet in my Airbnb. Another 15min dejected walk back to my Airbnb (total: 2.5km). The following day, I set out with my wallet double-checked, ready with English pounds to convert to Euros, and determined to get my damn calamares. Cue 1km walk to the ‘best currency exchange place’ in Madrid, as per Google.
“Can I get your passport please?” the lady asked.
My passport. Which was safely in my Airbnb. Which meant I couldn’t change currencies and so I still had zero cash.
I may have cried a bit.
Well, I was definitely not going back specifically for my passport so I spent the morning wandering around Plaza Mayor and the rest. When I eventually went back to Novacambios Exchange with my passport and money, the ladies remembered me from the morning and gave me a bunch of mints for coming back, bless them.
The truth about Madrid’s famous Bocadillos de Calamares is that the bread roll - cheap and shockingly sauceless - serves as an edible (or not-so-edible) container for the calamari, at least for the bocadillos I bought (which various Google articles agreed was ‘the best’).
The delicately fried, fresh calamari though? The calamari was worth it. All of it.