Madrid is an easy city to love. It’s clean, the people are friendly, and the climate is mild and sunny. Best of all, this world capital doesn’t feel crowded. During our spring visit, my husband, Peter, and I didn’t bump into any armies of camera-wielding sightseers. Sure, tour groups congregated in Plaza Major, one of the main squares, and plenty of folks streamed into El Prado, the city’s iconic art museum. But overall, Peter and I found it easy to blend into Madrid’s colorful neighborhoods and feel at home.
Everywhere we went friendly Madrileños welcomed us: from smiling waiters to the accordion player on the street corner. We saw random acts of kindness on the city’s modern metro system: a young man offered to switch seats so I could sit next to Peter, and three middle-aged men jumped up to advise someone looking at a map about which train to take. The distant, cold-shoulder vibe you might expect in a world-class city was conspicuously absent.
Over the course of four days, we explored a few of Madrid’s tourist attractions—El Prado, the royal palace, and the botanical gardens—but our favorite moments were spent walking along cozy streets, sitting on sunny terraces, and eating tasty tapas in local cafés. Finding a balance between must-see attractions and relaxing activities is essential when you travel, and Madrid has plenty of quiet spots to relax and just be.
Here’s a look at our favorite places off the beaten path in Madrid.
1. Hammam al Andalus
This underground network of baths invites you to immerse yourself in history. Situated on a centuries-old cistern built by Moors during their occupation of Spain, these coed, pool-sized baths offer a peaceful escape from the city streets. Tiled walls, stonework, and vaulted ceilings transport you to another time and place. Guests follow a route: warm bath followed by hot, then a splash in ice-cold water before the Turkish (steam) bath, after which you do the circuit in reverse. Add-ons include a bubbly scrub and massage. TIP: Bathing suits required. www.hammamalandalus.com/en/
2. Café Central
The friendly attendant at Hammam al Andalus suggested this cozy café when I told her we liked jazz. Located on the Plaza of the Angels, Café Central features a shady, outdoor terrace, where we enjoyed an afternoon glass of wine and complimentary tapas. Later we returned for a lively jazz performance inside, featuring the Maureen Choi Quartet. A violinist from the U.S., Maureen performs Latino-inspired, mostly high-energy tunes (think Jean Luc Ponti). Peter and I sat with a couple from Nantes, France, sharing wine and travel stories in between sets. TIP: Reservations recommended for shows. www.cafecentralmadrid.com
3. Tapas and Wine Tour
Taking a food tour is a perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine. As oenophiles, we chose one that featured Spanish wines as well. The three-hour tour included three restaurants and was led by Andres Jarabo, a local wine detective who knew the best places to go. At each stop, we sampled amazing cuisine—from Spanish tortillas (potato omelet) dripping in olive oil to tender, grilled octopus (my favorite) to medium rare pork loin (a common way to serve pork in Spain)—and more. We tasted different wines at each establishment—red vermouth on tap, oloroso sherry, a raisin wine from Malaga, and varietals from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Joining Peter and me were a young couple from California, a couple from Australia, and one from Florida. Getting to know the people on tour was half the fun. TIP: Wear comfortable walking shoes. www.walksofspain.com
4. Mercado San Anton
More than the average market selling meat, fish, and produce, this market in the chic Chueca shopping district aspires to be a destination and delivers. Of course, you’ll want to spend time roaming the main floor—past tidy displays of vegetables and fruit, glistening fish on ice, and mouth-watering cheeses. Then head upstairs to dine at communal tables on oysters and champagne, tapas, salads, and jamon. We sat at a large table next to a well-dressed couple. I immediately eyed their delicious tomato salad and told the waiter, “I’ll have what they’re having.” We added an order of calamari for the perfect-sized lunch and chatted with the British gentleman and his Spanish-born wife while we ate. TIP: Don’t miss changing art exhibits on the third floor. www.mercadosananton.com
5. Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro
Take a break from the city and head to El Retiro, perfect for walking, hiking, or cycling along shady lanes. We rented bikes a block from the park from a friendly fellow, who kept apologizing for his English (which was way better than my Spanish). In the park, we easily located the Crystal Palace, originally a glass greenhouse built in 1887 and now managed by the Reina Sofia Museum. Inside the palace, we found ourselves in the desert—or at least it felt that way. A colorful art installation called “Tuiza. The Cultures of the Bedouin Tent” by Federico Guzman was on display. It featured flowing fabrics made by Saharan refugee women, comfy cushions and pillows, and an exotic ambiance. TIP: Bring a blanket and a picnic and join the Madrileños sunbathing in the park. www.esmadrid.com/en/tourist-information/parque-del-retiro/
Going off the beaten path is the best way to get to know a city. Peter and I found these magical places in Madrid, but there are many more for you to discover.
If You Go
Getting There - Major airlines provide service to Madrid’s Barajas Airport. TIP: If you’re have time at the airport before your flight home, visit Esenza Spa in Terminal 4 for an on-the-go massage and a healthy smoothie. www.esenzabysha.com
Getting Around - Madrid’s airport is connected to the city by the metro, making it easy to visit Madrid without a car, and the metro system is clean, efficient, and safe. TIP: You’ll have to pay an airport supplement, but for trips in the city, save money by getting a 10-trip ticket, which can be used by more than one person, for about $14. www.metromadrid.es/en
Madrid Card - Get free entry and priority admission into museums and attractions plus discounts in restaurants and shops with a Madrid Card, available for 24, 48, 72, and 120-hour periods. www.madridcard.com
• We stayed in a stylish apartment in the suburbs close to the metro for $65 per night. Our friendly host, Willem, provided lots of helpful advice. Visit www.airbnb.com/rooms/797030
• Just a block from Plaza Mayor, Petit Palace Posada Del Peine is Madrid’s oldest hotel. It’s been refurbished, of course, and is now part of the Petit Palace chain of boutique hotels. Doubles from $80 per night. www.petitpalace.co.uk/hotel-posada-del-peine-from-madrid
• For a more upscale experience, head to ME Madrid, an urban-chic hotel that’s part of the Melia brand. Don’t miss the stunning view from the rooftop bar. Doubles from $225 per night. www.mebymelia.com
Tourist Information -