Madrid is hard to love. Every time I visited, I left disappointed. Next to colorful Andalucía, captivating Basque Country and fascinating Barcelona, the capital seems industrial and plain. Sure, the city is home to some stunners like the Palacio Real and the Prado, but they somehow get lost in the shadow of commercial Gran Vía, touristy Plaza Mayor, and too many restaurants claiming to have the best paella in the peninsula.
Madrid seems to close itself off to visitors. Tourists run the risk of getting lost in the parts of the city made just for them. I know I did. In all honesty, I was terrified of having the same negative reaction I experienced both times I passed through before.
Third time’s the charm, it seems. I persevered, moved my life here, and the heart of Spain opened up its heart to me.
My secret? Well, I’ve walked down Gran Vía twice, have only gone to Plaza Mayor for five minutes, and avoid any restaurant with international flags on the menu like the plague.
Madrid is a city meant to be lived. It rewards you for going off the beaten path and into lesser-known neighborhoods with boutique galleries, artisan shops, avant-garde graffiti and every type of food you could ever want.
I spend my days here weaving my way through Chueca’s vibrant streets, people watching in the ultra chic Barrio Salamanca and discussing culture and politics with new friends over vino in outdoor cafés. I only go to the Centro and Sol at siesta time during the week, when I can really see how the locals live. I’ve found that the Palace is best seen just before sunset, when the sky sets itself on fire and the swarms of tourists stop in their tracks, and that the only way to do the Prado is an hour or two every other week.
The most important thing is to not let the capital overwhelm you. Stop for a big lunch and linger over café con leche. Browse in any shop that catches your eye. Don’t get bogged down with “must-do’s.” Instead, let the social atmosphere guide your plans, as it does for the city-dwellers. Go to a pincho bar where you can sample everything, or better yet, let an expert guide you. Check out Plaza Mayor for a moment, then head down to La Latina where you can see the real madrileño culture. All you need is a curious mind, adventurous spirit, good walking shoes, a tapa and a great bottle of wine at the end of the day, and you’re golden.
The remnants of Madrid of years passed are important, but it’s modern life that will capture your heart. That’s how it got a hold of mine.
If you visit Madrid, don’t get caught up in research and planning. Get caught up in moments. Moments of la vida madrileña, like the ones I leave you with below.