Madrid: Tapas, Insomnia and the Oldest Restaurant in the World

We call New York “The city that never sleeps”, but really that title belongs to Madrid.  Mike and I are finally on our honeymoon in beautiful España, and our first stop was the bustling metropolis of Madrid in the eponymous province. We arrived midday at our tiny boutique hotel, overlooking the Puerta de Toldeo, and began to explore.

Unlike New York City, this insomniac city is a rabbit’s warren of tiny winding side streets, most of which are not labeled on your average tourist map, and seem impossibly narrow for the fearless automobiles to navigate.

Before we arrived, we knew that Spanish eating hours were rather different than what we were used to, with the largest meal of the day eaten between 2-5 pm, tapas, or light snacks, starting between 7-9 pm, and dinner served from 9:30 pm onwards. By 7pm we were starving, so we doubled back to a small strip of Cervecerias by our hotel and were promptly schooled in how not to order tapas by the delightful bartender who was in complete control of the densely packed  jarramania.  “No,” she shook her head at me kindly as I stood forlornly with a blank pad of paper in my hand.  “These?” She pointed at the ‘Montaditos’, “These are…um…sandwich? Ensalata salad. Sandwich and cerveza, cerveza uno Euro.”  Okay, so perhaps my appalingly poor Spanish won’t help me much on this trip, but “Beer for a Dollar” is practically universal.  At the Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, our first taste of Spain, we dined on tiny nibbles, delicious little simple sandwiches and chips with a couple pints of beer for less than €12.

For our first day of sightseeing, we wanted to hit the major attractions. First on the list was Museo del Prado.  The Prado is to Madrid what the Louvre is to France, and we wandered through sala after sala with appreciation for the Flemish masters, golden age Spanish art including works by Velásquez, Murillo and Zurbarán, and the astonishingly dramatic Pinturas Negras from Goya’s black period.

It takes a lot to give us museum fatigue, so we pressed onwards to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.  If the Prado is the Louvre, then Reina Sofia is undoubtably the Musée D’Orsay of Madrid. Touching and dramatic, with multi-media curation and an explosive exhibit of pop-art history of the Spanish civil war, this second fiddle museum was tops in our book.  This is absolutely an attraction that you must see in Madrid, and before you give all your museum energy to the Prado, I strongly encourage you to visit this relaxed and well articulated gem in the city center.  I should also mention that the Reina Sofia houses Picasso’s infamous Guernica, which Mike hilariously refers to as “…the art of 1000 binder covers.”  Needless to say, the Picasso Museum was not one of our first stops by the time we made it to Barcelona a week or so later.

You could easily spend hours museum hopping between the Prado, Reina Sofia, Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Caixa Forum, Contemporary Arts, and the plethora of other museums and galleries in Madrid’s city centre (most of which are included in the very worthwhile Madrid City Card), but it is important to also save time for the resplendent Palacio Real, Spain’s royal palace.  The overwhelming intracacies and detailing of each room, from gilded embroidery on the walls to the phenomenal plasterwork and ceramic walled room, provide a sense of thoughtful quiet that you are truly observing a part of history, a place where decisions were made and things happened, and you are honoured to be a guest.  Be warned that, sadly, you cannot take pictures of the majestic interior, but it is well worth a visit.

We could go on about the beauties of Madrid’s plazas (squares) and monuments until the Iberian pigs fly home, but the true majesty of Madrid is delighting in the unexpected pleasures and second choice excursions which end up being  your favorites. For example, we knew that we should visit Real Jardin Botanico, the Royal Botanical Gardens. We went, grudgingly, knowing that it was the right thing to do.  To our delight, the botanical gardens were a stunning encyclopedic maze of most boanical species that could grow in Spain.  Directly across from the Prado, the gardens were more like a natural gallery of foliage broken out into different environments, moments and themes, from orchards to succulents.  In particular, the irises (my favorite flower) were growing in abundance with a joyous effluence of colours and design.

Now then, as you can imagine, on any trip that we take the food is of paramount importance.  In Madrid, the variety is key.  You can have a phenomenal tapas tasting for less than 15 Euro, or you can splurge and go to what is widely regarded as the oldest restaurant in the world.  Let’s start with cocktail time, which is all the time in Madrid.  If you order a drink without food, you are often treated to a wee mini-tapas plate which could include anything from olives to fried sausages, small squares of tuna empanada skewered with a toothpick, or even potato chips with a topping of spicy and vinegary mussels escabeche.

The first meal of the day is often a light one, usually just a pastry and coffee beverage. A few hours later, amidst the pinchos (tiny bites on small baguette) and beer, people begin sampling the churros and chocolate as well.  For our first taste of this intensely Spanish treat, we went to the highly lauded Chocolateria de San Gines.  With barely elbow room from 11 am to 6 am, this landmark (just 2 minutes from Plaza Major) was understandably a favorite.  The churros, which were dropped into the fryer in a long snake coil before being hand snipped by the diligent counter staff, were crispy outside with a soft and light interior.  Dipped into the hot chocolate beverage, which was thick, dark, rich and not to sweet, this was decadence of the highest order.  I am ashamed to admit that, possibly for the first time in my life, a cup of steaming hot chocolate was actually too luxe for me to finish.  Mike, gentleman that he is, happily mopped up what he could with the remaining churros before lapping up the remains of my small mug.  Worse yet, as catatonically decadent as quality churros and chocolate may be, I think that given a second chance at this luxurious treat I still may not be able to make it through. It is clear why this is a favorite of the late night club-goers to soak up the alcohol with one last excess.

Our second favorite breakfast option was the gourmet market, Mercado de San Miguel.  This upscale indoor market had stalls with freshly shucked oysters and barnacles knocking elbows with patisseries in a sea of spun sugar and high quality meats, sausages and sandwiches.  We developed a habit of amassing a collection of small bites from several vendors, including marinated olives with braised octopus, selections of local cheeses, and various canapes or croquettes, and washing them down with a glass of Vermouth on ice.  Which was served on tap.  Every time I think of those tapped casks with sweet, medium and dry Vermouth, getting drained at 11 am, I start to get weak in the knees for more reasons than one.

The biggest meal of the day in Spain is usually lunch, served between 1:30 – 4:00 pm, but after a heavy `breakfast` and some early afternoon cocktails, we didn`t really settle into the lifestyle until after we left the city. However, we did enjoy hearty and regular tapas.  Between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm, tapas is king in Spain.  Small portions of delicious food, or raciones (full plates) of the same, the variety was almost overwhelming and each neighborhood eatery had their own specialties.  From patates bravas (fried potatoes in a mildly spicy tomato sauce) to croquettas (croquettes are small fried dumplings with various fillings from ham to salt cod and everything in between), anchoa (marinated anchovy) to tortilla (Spanish omelet, often heavily laden with potato but also with fillings like spinach, ham, chorizo or salt cod), and, of course, the ubiquitous mini-sandwiches, tapas held the promise of everything that you crave from salty to sweet and bitter to fatty.  The best tapas in Madrid is said to be in the medieval La Latina neighborhood, which is where we enjoyed many culinary delights.

We had two truly memorable dinners in Madrid, but only one would I recommend.  The less effusive recommendation would be for the lacklustre Cafe de Chinitas, close to the Royal Palace and Music Hall.  The venue itself was enticingly well aged with rich brocade and heavy woods, but spare yourself the trauma of an overpriced and very pedestrian dinner (asparagus from a can for $20? Seriously?) and just enjoy drinks with the show, which is one of the best in Madrid.  For real flamenco, the place to be is Seville or Grenada, but if you have limited time then at least you can experience a fair proximity here.

The true jaw-dropper, however, was the amazing rustic fare at Restaurante Botin, the oldest restaurant in the city and, if the Guinness Book of World Records is to be believed, the world.  With rumours that the restaurant has been around in various iterations since 1000 a.d., and cornerstones of the ‘modern’ building which were laid in 1725, this little piece of history still maintains it’s traditional wood fired ovens from several centuries ago and combines that with generations of charm.  The house specialties are succulent slow roasted cochinillo (suckling pig) and cordero asado (roasted lamb). In addition to the lamb, which was so meltingly tender that you could coax the meat apart with a spoon, we had the jamon scented artichokes, meaty local mushrooms sauteed with jamon, and the house’s special mussels in a robust and flavorful broth.

The simplicity of the dishes, well prepared with exceptional ingredients, are the main draw of this venerable establishment. Oh, an sitting at a tiny table underneath a letter of  praise that Nancy Reagan sent after lunching with Queen Isabella doesn’t hurt either.

If you’re planning  a trip to Spain, you owe yourself the opportunity to enjoyo Madrid.  The city is a series of experiences that you need only be open to explore. Despite the many venerated venues, large or small, famous or infamous, you often still feel like you’re the one discovering them for the first time.  From the well curated Reine Sofia gallery to wandering down an alley to find yourself watching the sun set on a terraza, overlooking a Basilica drenched in sunlight and shadows, Madrid has something for everyone.  This may be Spain’s second largest city, but with a sturdy pair of sensible footwear (ugh, true, but necessary) and a breakfast cervesa to pull body and spirit together, you can easily walk from one side of the inner city to the other over the course of the day, with a world of exploration and entertainment in between.

Next stop on the travelometer:  heartwarming and flavorful Seville, with the scent of orange blossoms and jasmine to beckon you inside.

  • Amy

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying Spain! My husband and I hit Seville and Madrid (with a day trip to Cordoba) on our honeymoon and have been plotting to get back ever since. On the wall of my office I’ve blown up a picture of the inside of my favorite tapas bar…which may be a bit odd, but the tapas were amazing and sitting and people-watching there was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

  • Lauren

    The churros and chocolate is making my mouth water!!

  • elenalee

    nice article. made me want to go

  • Jonny

    So happy I stopped by – long time no see – especially to wish you congratulations and a long and happy married life together! Fabulous news.

    As for Madrid, well, you spoke to so many of the things that makes it a special place for us. It’s a shame Mike is indisposed towards Picasso, but I totally agree, the Reina Sofia really is the museum to visit in Madrid, as much as I’m borderline obsessed with the way Zurburan showed light and texture on the robes of the priests he painted. Did you stop by the Atocha Station after Reina Sofia? It’s got a magnificent indoor garden, unique for a station, and some of best fried seafood in one of its bars.

    We didn’t make it to Botin having planned to but gotten waylaid at the museo del jamon and over indulged, so very jealous (but therein lies a reason to return!). Totally hear you on the chocolate being too rich – clearly we didn’t drink enough beforehand either!

    Anyway, congratulations again on your wedding and for choosing spain as your honeymoon destination!

  • siba-rita

    I’ve just discovered your page and I love it!
    I love this post about Madrid :). It reflects well the spirit of the city. I’m with you that Madrid should have the title of “the city that never sleeps” as, no matter what time you hang around, you find loads of people.
    ¿Didn’t you go to El Rastro? It’s not that much because of the bargains you can find, but you’ve got a lot of local places to have tapas. And, by the way, one of Madrids best Bocadillo de calamares (Squid sandwich) you can find it just beside the Reina Sofía Museum, at el Brillante.
    Just one but, Madrid (as far as I’m concerned) is Spains largest city.