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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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People watch the sunset from the hills of Tío Pío Park.
People watch the sunset from the hills of Tío Pío Park.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Madrid

People watch the sunset from the hills of Tío Pío Park.
People watch the sunset from the hills of Tío Pío Park.
  • By Almudena Ávalos
  • Photos by Guillermo Gutierrez
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It’s easy to feel like a local in Madrid. If you go to the same place twice here, you’ll be greeted like an old friend.

The city’s streets are alive, but it hasn’t yet been slammed by mass tourism. There are plenty of mom-and-pop stores to be found, and a new generation of artists and artisans has emerged. It’s also closely connected: In five short subway stops, you can be transported from the swankiest of districts to working-class neighborhoods.

Throughout the city, you’ll find young people enjoying a drink or a bite to eat at a sidewalk cafe, a child with her two mothers playing with her friends from around the globe, or an elderly man on his way home from the market, sitting on a bench and exchanging gossip with other locals. Rather than as a busy world capital, Madrid can better be described as a collection of villages, united by the prospect of progress, the joy of day-to-day interactions and its big, blue sky.

Meet Almudena Ávalos

Few people can say they are grandchildren of true Madrileños, but Almudena is one of them. She travels the world now as a food and culture writer, but she always returns to Madrid to discover hidden gems to share.

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IN THE ACTION
Barrio de las Letras
This neighborhood, once home to great authors such as Miguel de Cervantes, is aptly named the Literary Quarter. Quiet by day, it comes to life at night, bolstered by its proximity to Madrid’s historical center and the city’s most important museums. Lose yourself in the narrow streets and discover its wide and distinctive offerings: poetry written directly on the pavement, terrace bars and restaurants, majestic doorways, stunning balconies, after-hours clubs and a convent for cloistered nuns. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Conde Duque
This residential area has preserved its old charm well. You’ll find artisan bakeries, a co-op of Spanish cheese producers, clothing stores promoting independent international designers, an active cultural center, and squares packed with outdoor tables where you can enjoy a glass of wine. While not a neighborhood unto itself (it’s part of the Universidad district), Conde Duque is the common moniker for the area within the triangle formed by San Bernardo, Princesa and Alberto Aguilera streets. Look for one of the many affordable Airbnb options. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

Explore more of Madrid

Eat

BREAKFAST
Toma Cafe
This small hipster hot spot, which roasts its own beans, was one of the first places in Madrid to take specialty coffee seriously. Decorated in white tile and brick, with wooden benches and plants in every corner, the cafe generally offers three types of coffee, plus homemade cakes, pastries and delicious toast made with tomatoes, olive oil and Iberian ham.
BTW: The little table by the window is the ideal place for viewing the local fauna inside. Toma has another location, too, next to Plaza de Olavide.
39, calle de la Palma, Madrid, 28004
BREAKFAST
Ibiza 74
If you want to try Madrid’s most sumptuous porras and churros — Spain’s quintessential fried breakfast sweets — this is the place to go. From 7 a.m. to noon, you’ll find locals dipping their churros in thick hot chocolate that could easily be eaten with a spoon. If you’re in a hurry, get your churros to go, but the ideal experience is to sit and enjoy your breakfast like a Madrileño, in the same chairs that have stood here since 1985.
BTW: Grab a place at the end of the bar to see how the churros and porras are made.
74, calle de Ibiza, Madrid, 28009
LUNCH
Sala de Despiece
This trendy gastronomical spot is unusually themed after an abattoir, a slaughterhouse The walls are clad with meatpacking boxes and a chopping block doubles as a lunch counter, where you can peek at what everyone else is eating and place your order based on what you think looks best. Due to the current situation, reservations are accepted for the first time in its history.
BTW: One prime recommendation: the chuletón cenital, a finely sliced strip steak that you can roll up right at your table.
11, calle de Ponzano, Madrid, 28011
LUNCH
Casa Salvador
Step inside a dle of typical Madrileño cuisine, with its ideal setting for classic Spanish cooking: checked tablecloths and walls covered with bullfighting photos, old posters and memorabilia from Las Ventas Plaza de Toros. Order the batter-fried hake or the oxtail, two of the restaurant’s specialties since 1941.
BTW: The latest addition is an autograph from Anthony Bourdain in the corner where he had dinner in 2010.
12, calle de Barbieri, Madrid, 28004
DINNER
StreetXO
For avant-garde cuisine at a reasonable price, StreetXO should be your first stop. This restaurant, located in the penthouse of El Corte Inglés Serrano department store, is run by Dabiz Muñoz, the only Madrid native with three Michelin stars (awarded for his masterpiece DiverXO). StreetXO doesn’t take reservations, and there’s always a line. The secret? Get there an hour before it opens and ask for a seat at the bar. You can watch the chefs slice and dice as they prepare your Madrid-Asian fusion meal to the frenzied musical beat.
BTW: Be sure to try the “Hong Kong Madrid” stew and the Pekingese dumplings.
52, calle Serrano, Madrid, 28001
DINNER
Cuenllas
When Cuenllas first opened its doors, in 1939, it was one of the few places to offer French fare, and its clientele was limited to the privileged wealthy few. Nowadays the restaurant is more accessible, its bar often packed with lovers of bone marrow and fans of ensaladilla rusa, a potato salad made with carrots, peas, prawns and mayo. Pair your meal with one of the wines from the extensive cellar.
BTW: The bar starts to fill up around 8:30 p.m., but if you go before then, you might have the place to yourself.
5, calle de Ferraz, Madrid, 28008
LATE-NIGHT
Celso y Manolo
The success of this tavern comes from several sources, the most prominent being its meticulous decor: vintage Spanish travel posters, artisan crafts and the original 1950s counter, paired with 1920s bar stools. But its surprising and original tapas menu is another reason. You’ll be amazed by the fabulous fried calamari and the spectacular tomatoes, which peep over the edge of the bar.
BTW: The kitchen closes at 12:30 a.m., so get your orders in before that. Better to book by phone in advance, too; the restaurant is quite small.
1, calle de la Libertad, Madrid, 28004
LATE-NIGHT
Salmon Guru
You may just be tempted to try all 30 of Salmon Guru’s crazy cocktails, mixed under the glow of neon arrows. Low lighting and excellent acoustics make this the ideal place for an intimate chat. Every cocktail is a work of art, but if you feel it going to your head, an order of different gyozas may help. They take reservations.
BTW: Tell the barista what flavors you like and let him recommend something. He’ll always hit the nail on the head.
21, calle de Echegaray, Madrid, 28014
(David Milan for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Madrileños like to talk to people visiting their city. Don’t be afraid to ask them a question, especially if you are at a bar. You may just make a friend that feels lifelong, even if it’s only for one night.
  2. You’ll find yourself wanting sunglasses. The sun is out year-round, even in winter, which is why the locals are accustomed to spending time out and about.
  3. Most places will offer you a tapa with every drink you order. There’s no rule about it, but it’s a welcome perk.
(David Milan for The Washington Post)

Do

Sunset in Cerro del Tío Pío Park
Scenes at overlooks from historical buildings and hotel rooftops are all the rage these days. But locals in Madrid favor the view from this hilly park in the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas, where they can sit to enjoy the sunset and bid a fond “till tomorrow” to the city. A tip for the evening: BYOB. There’s not much nearby in the way of stores or restaurants.
BTW: Wear comfortable shoes. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Buenos Aires subway stop, grassy hill included.
2, calle de Benjamín Palencia, Madrid, 28038
Spend Sunday at the Rastro
Unable to accept the weekend’s conclusion, Madrileños stretch it out by heading outside. You can get a taste of this pleasure-seeking philosophy by taking a Sunday-morning stroll around the plaza de Cascorro, where the streets will be closed to traffic and they set up the Rastro, an open-air flea market. The stalls sell everything from T-shirts to bamboo furniture to antique doorknobs. Walk through the labyrinth of streets until you reach Plaza de la Paja.
BTW: Look for Calle de los Mancebos. Find the remains of the medieval wall and sit under the palm tree to have a beer and watch the Madrileños.
1, Plaza de Cascorro, Madrid, 28005
Real Fábrica Española
Founder-owner Rocío Muñoz has traveled throughout the country picking traditional handicrafts with interesting historical backgrounds. In this store, you’ll find hundreds of objects that were standard in the homes of every Spanish grandmother: earthenware pitchers, enamelware serving sets, linen tablecloths, homemade soap and more. The reasonable prices and lovely vintage packaging will make it hard to leave empty-handed.
BTW: The mohair blankets from the village Ezcaray, in the La Rioja region, are pure indulgence, and the same company also makes products for luxury brands such as Loewe and Hermès.
9, calle de Cervantes, Madrid, 28014
Tabacalera murals
If you want to check out the local urban art scene, take a stroll by the walls of this old tobacco-factory building. The Madrid Street Art Project group selects 25 urban artists and sets them up with a theme and a bit of wall for their project. The theme of the latest edition is Chance, and there’s a map that shows who has done what and where.
BTW: Don’t limit yourself to the outside of the building. The inside of Tabacalera Promoción del Arte also deserves inspection.
82, calle del Mesón de Paredes, Madrid, 28012
La Casa Encendida cultural center
This cultural center attracts people of all ages to its free exhibitions and its reasonably priced (and frequent) performing arts festivals. Almost all the activities here draw on culture, solidarity, environment and education. In any given week, you might stumble across the exhibit of an internationally renowned painter, a showing by budding Spanish artists, performance art or an electronic-music concert.
BTW: Their store, run by an NGO, sells fair-trade goods, books related to the center’s events and bags made by local design firm Peseta.
2, Ronda de Valencia, Madrid, 28012
San Antonio de la Florida Chapel
This small, unassuming church is graced with an awe-inspiring work of art. Step inside and look up, and you will see the frescoes that Francisco Goya painted with full and absolute freedom in 1789, 30 years before his famous Black Paintings, which are on permanent exhibit in the Prado Museum. If you go to the chapel around 9:30 in the morning, you may find yourself in intimate company with the painter’s work and his tomb, which is also in this chapel.
BTW: Leaflets in English explaining all of the frescoes in detail are available for 1 euro. It will be money well spent.
5, Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid, 28008
Almudena Ávalos
Few people can say they are grandchildren of true Madrileños, but Almudena is one of them. She travels the world now as a food and culture writer, but she always returns to Madrid to discover hidden gems to share.
Guillermo Gutierrez
Guillermo is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Madrid.
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CITY GUIDES