Few cities on earth can boast an artistic and historic pedigree quite as fascinating and rich as Madrid. The heady atmosphere, friendly daily life and legendary nights out make it one of the coolest cities on earth. Added to this is its reputation as culinary capital and an architectural cache that can rival Rome and Paris any day. So, what do you need to know about the one of the sunniest cities in Europe before you get here?
1. Dining schedules
To really experience the best of Madrid, one must adapt to the local culinary schedule. Similarly to rest of southern Europe, the Madrileños have their main meals at lunchtime and eat a light dinner later in the evening, around 10pm. Many restaurants offer a glorious menu del dia (day menu) which consists of at least three courses, and can take hours to complete. Perfect if you're entertaining and want to show clients the best Spanish cuisine Madrid has to offer. The city's numerous tapas bars are perfect in the evening and cater for all diets. The culture is now so well established in the city, that many locals treat tapas as their main evening meal.
(* The menú del día is one of the great culinary joys of Spain. They're lunchtime, fixed price meals that are traditional, filing and very reasonable. A good restaurant will charge you €10 including alcohol and an excellent restaurant €15. You can find out more here.)
Olives in Madrid, source: Flickr/Dieter Weinelt
2. Stay in the centre
As one of the most well maintained historic cities, Madrid's infrastructure wasn't exactly designed for the number of cars it now has. As such, the city is subject to lengthy traffic jams, parking nightmares and hefty fines if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. For this reason, leave your chauffeur at home and take a map. Although a large city, the best hotels, restaurants and meeting places are located in Madrid's central districts of Retiro, Salamanca and Chamartín and a stay here will see you within easy walking distance of the 'Golden Triangle', parks and shops.
Source: Flickr/Rick Ligthelm
3. Madrid's Golden Triangle
Madrid's Paseo del Arte is an avenue devoted entirely to the city's long-standing relationship with Renaissance art and literature. Consisting of the Prado, which has over four thousand works including Botticelli, Velazquez and Goya; The Reina Sofia, which houses 20th art, including countless Picassos, and Thyssen which features work by Renoir and Van Eyck. This area is locally known as the 'Golden Triangle' and is world famous for its collective possession of art. The museums are surrounded by designer shops and tree-lined streets, which are worth a stroll down if you don't have the time to see inside the museums. Private parties and tours can be organised at the galleries, which are also open late into the night in the summer.
4. Literary Madrid
Literary Madrid is fascinating place and, by meandering nonchalantly down some of the cobbled streets, one can sense the echoes of the prominent writers and artists who once walked these streets. The district of Barrio de Letras (Neighbourhood of Letters), is a patronage to the Spanish writers that lived in the quarter. Quotations from men of letters like Miguel de Cevantes, Francisco de Góngora and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer are inscribed on random pavements to remind you of the historic literary influences the city holds.
American writer Ernest Hemmingway is probably the most famous expat to have graced the street of Madrid, and at his favourite haunts you can find many tributes to his time here. Restaurant Sobrino de Botín is the certified as the oldest restaurant in the world and Hemmingway's favourite seat can be requested if you want too get a real feel for his experience here.
Restaurant Botin, source: Flickr/Bjørn Heidenstrøm
5. Learn some Spanish
Most professional Madrileños speak excellent English, however the level of the general public is one of the lowest in Europe. In the touristy places and galleries you'll be hard pushed to find someone who won't reply to you in English, however it's definitely worth learning some conversational Spanish to get by with the locals. It's really not that tricky to get by in a Latin language, and here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Spain:
Me gustaría un café, una cerveza, una copa de vino tinto
I would like one coffee, one beer, a glass of red wine.
Por favor / Muchas Gracias
Una mesa para dos
A table for two
La cuenta por favor
The bill please
How much is this?
¿Dónde está el metro?
Where is the metro?
Nightlife in Madrid: Flickr/Camilo Rueda López
6. Nights in Madrid are legendary
Madrid may be a cultural connoisseurs haven during the day, but after dark, the city takes on an entirely difference identity. Madrid has more bars than any city in Spain and perfecting the art of cocktails and wines has been in process for centuries. In his 1932 novel Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote "Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night. Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the café," and his words still ring true today.
The Madrileños are a social set, and the warm weather in the summer months means you'll often see people meeting in the local bars until the early hours, even on weekdays. Tapas, turns to cocktails, cocktails to clubs and before you know it you're wrapped up in the all-night fiesta that is Madrid after dark.
For pre-dinner drinks it is customary to have wine, cañas (half a pint of draft beer) or orvermut, (sweet vermouth). Wine accompanies most meals, and it's usual for children to be given some with water when out with their families.
Cocktails and mixed drinks are saved for after dinner, the amount of spirit used is often 50ml as opposed to 25ml in the USA or UK, so be warned before you order a double.
7. The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat
This phenomenon isn't unique to Madrid, but it's worth mentioning because it catches so visitors many off-guard. Spanish food rituals command that food (and people) take their time, so it's up to you to wave a waiter down and ask to order and also for the bill. This leisurely way of eating means no one will ask you to vacate a table after 90 minutes. The same relaxed attitude applies to tipping also.
8. In no place will you feel more Spanish than in the Museo del Jamon
Literally 'the ham museum' a Madrid chain specialising in Serranos, a dry-cured ham that is served thinly sliced, from all over the country. Get a ham and cheese croissant with café con leche for breakfast and start your day as you mean to go on.
9. Siestas are sacred
Spain's famous afternoon naps bring a sense of calm after a hectic morning or long day at school for children. Because Madrid gets so hot at midday, children go to school around 7am and people start work early, finishing around 2pm. Often families will have a big lunch, then everyone rests to prepare themselves for an evening of socialising.
While the siesta is lovely for locals, it can cause many foreign visitors frustration if they find themselves in need in the afternoon. Since there's simply no way around it, be organised and make sure to buy your newspaper and whatever else you might need before 2pm. If you make use of the expected napping time, you'll see the best of nightlife that doesn't really get going until midnight.
10. Get comfortable
People like proximity in Spain, personal space is a lot less reputed, even in a busy cosmopolitan city like Madrid. Handshakes in Spain are for business acquaintances only, both sexes kiss on each cheek on greeting. Much like their Italian neighbours, public displays of affection are normal and encouraged; this can be surprising to the more conservative, formal visitors but it's all part of the warm, romantic heart of the nation that makes it such a charming place to be.