In Blog, Europe, Featured, Hints and Tips, Locations, Spain by Ryan & Erin2 Comments

5€ per pint of Guinness
*3.50€ per pint of local beer (Mahou)

Having (not so thoroughly) seen but thoroughly loved Barcelona, it was now time to see Barcelona’s big rival city: Madrid. The rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona stretches back a good 500 years into their mutual histories (and that of Spain) and continues with plenty of gusto today – just think about the Barcelona FC – Real Madrid FC football rivalry… The rivalry between the cities has a bit more to it than the classic Australian city stoush between Sydney and Melbourne contesting for who should be Australia’s (cultural) capital. But it’s more than I am sufficiently learned about to go into here. Instead we’ll share our thoughts on Madrid and at the end try to come to the decision of which city we preferred more: Barcelona or Madrid?

You will get some great views sitting on the terraces in Madrid

Madrid certainly looks a little different to Barcelona. At times its city skyline features the odd building over the usual European norm of five-six stories high. It lacks an extensive old town warren of narrow streets too, and many of its buildings were built (finished) by the mid 1800s. After Napoleon had his brother Joseph Bonaparte crowned as monarch of Spain in the early 1800s Joseph came to Madrid to live and set about ruling. His biggest contribution (in our opinion) to the city still visible today is what he took away from it… namely he had a number of buildings and streets removed to create large squares throughout the city centre. Probably a good thing too as Madrid is very busy! If the streets were narrow you’d feel far too crowded, and at any hour of the day too. Having secured accommodation five floors above the main street of the city centre (on the Gran Via) we had two very sleepless nights in Madrid due to the sounds below of the nightly parade of drunks, then cleaning crews and then one morning at 5am a square full of people viewing and cheering what seemed to be a televised football match… and this was a Sunday and Monday night by the way…

No matter what the time – Madrid is always busy!

As to food, there is so much typical food to try in Madrid, Spain’s wide avenued capital. The history of this city has taken influences into its food culture from its original settlers, through Roman, Visigoth and Moorish occupations to it’s European melting pot of Renaissance kings. We learnt a little of this on a walking tour we took, but ultimately our tour guide just urged us to get out and do as the Madrileños do, which apparently is eat, drink and sit in the many alfresco bars around the city’s lovely large squares (plazas). Unfortunately a lot of this food culture is based on offal cuts, unfortunate because as an ex-vegetarian I just didn’t have the guts (pun intended!) to try it. I don’t know what meat-eating hubby’s excuse was though. Typical delights not tried included “oreja a la plancha” (fried pig’s ear pieces) and “callos a la madrileña” a stew of chorizo, blood sausage and tripe. We did however try and love the “cocido madrileño” a stew of vegetables, chickpeas and meat falling off the bone including also some chorizo and what looked like some blood sausage… damn they snuck some in! Hubby said it (the blood sausage) was delicious. This stew is served uniquely in its separate parts, i.e. soup is separated out, veggies and chickpeas come on their own plate and then the meat has its own plate too, although you can recombine the elements back into its stew form at your table if you please.

It may not look appealing, but traditional cocido madrileño is actually quite tasty – and filling!

With so much “offal food” how were we to do as the Madrileños do? Well, somebody pass me my stretchy pants because here we learned about a new eating and drinking culture: tapeando. Tapeando is the Spanish term for spending one’s night bar hopping to drink and eat tapas the whole night long. In Madrid there is much more of a stand up culture in tapas joints, perhaps due to the popularity of the tapeando practise. As a serial sitter the hubby would’ve preferred this were not the case, but the drinks soon help you stop thinking about your sore feet, and the constant comings and goings keep the atmosphere of these small bars very lively.

Bars in Madrid are usually packed, and you’ll have to stand to eat!

Madrid has its most well-known and commonly available beer of course being Mahou (our fave was the red labelled Cinco Estrellas), another weather appropriate pilsner lager style. We also came across Cruzcampo a lot, which is also a pilsner lager style beer. But being a big city, in fact the third biggest city in the EU after London and Berlin respectively, there was of course plenty of other options available. We found a very Irish looking pub with excellent Guinness on tap and entirely Spanish ownership and patronage which made for a cool cultural melting pot scene. There is now also a burgeoning craft beer scene in bustling, big city Madrid. But at most terraces on the squares just ask for a caña of cerveza to do as the locals do. Caña means half-pint, which when the weather is hot and you’re outdoors is the perfect serving size.

Make sure you explore away from the main streets, you’ll find many a small bar serving some delicious craft beers

Beer, we learned is what most Spanish drink with their tapas, not wine or sangria. But another contender for tapeando beverage of choice is cider (sidra). Cider was not a drink we had associated with Spain, until now, but it turns out it has a fairly long traditional history and place in Spanish tapas culture also. In the big smoke of Madrid we only tasted stock standard tap ciders, sweet and carbonated apple cider. But apparently in the North of Spain (think Basque region) the traditional ciders are sour, tart, cloudy and non-carbonated ie Scrumpy cider (my favourite!) So next time you’re cruising for tapas (estas tapeando) look out for cider as another choice accompaniment.

The old Madrid town hall, an example of some of the old Bourbon architecture in the city – the roofs were designed so that snow would not lie on them…. in Madrid… go figure…

So other than gaining a little weight what else is there to do in Madrid? Well there’s plenty of shopping including all the big name shops and the countless bars and terraces as mentioned above. Below we share a few of our top picks for Madrid. Until next time ensure you have a glass of cider to hand (una caña de sidra) to mull over the result of our verdict for Barcelona vs Madrid… Ultimately it came out a tie: I voted Barcelona for favourite and hubby voted Madrid… the rivalry continues! If you have any other tips we missed or would like to share your vote for Madrid vs Barcelona please leave your comments below.

Cheers, (Salud!) Erin and Ryan

Our top picks

With limited time, and to keep things fair between the two contenders for favourite big Spanish city, we once again took a walking tour to get a crash course of the main sights and the city’s history. This time we went with the company Free Walking Tours Madrid. We would very strongly recommend these guys, our tour guide was absolutely brilliant and the company itself is eco-friendly doing zero print advertising. So find them online or in purple t-shirts in Madrid’s “Times Square” – Plaza del Callao. Our guide ensured we saw the most beautiful sights Madrid has to offer including the massive and beautiful Plaza Mayor and the sweet statue at the Puerta del Sol: el Oso y el Madroño – which translates to the bear and strawberry tree, but your guide will explain that this is a pretty poor translation.

The bear is the symbol of the city of Madrid due to the night sky being very visible. Ursa Minor (The Little Bear) is one of the most prominent constellations.

And sample it in style… There is a bar called (surprise) el Madroño which offers patrons the chance to sample the fruit of the madroño tree in the very best format possible: as a liqueur! They serve this liqueur in a small edible ice cream cone. Unfortunately you can only savour this treat at the bar/ take away unless you wish to have dinner too: the terrace is for dining customers only, although the menu looks good so why not? There are quite a few good terraces/bars and restaurants around this area for a night of tapeando.
As the capital of Spain of course it was to be expected that Madrid would be home to a number of national treasures. What was unexpected was that the main holders of these treasures are so well known that they’ve even garnered their own geographically based nickname and Wikipedia page! I am talking about the Golden Triangle of Art of course: this being Madrid’s three main art museums that happen to be located walking distance from each other in a triangular formation.

The Paseo del Prado is the national museum for pre 20th century art. It was by far the busiest of the three museums too and in my opinion the one most worth visiting, housing Goya’s “Black Paintings”. The Reina Sofia is the national museum for 20th century modern art and is well known for housing Picasso’s “Guernica” a moving piece in response to the Spanish Civil War. Rounding out the triangle (hmmm that seems geometrically inconsistent but we’ll go with it) is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which is a private collection museum containing pieces from artists from the 20th century and prior, with pieces by all the notable names to be found in the the other two museums.

On the day we visited (Monday) the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is free. All three museums are free in the last 2 hours before closing time each day. We did this for the Reina Sofia and the line was not too long and moved quickly. We saw the free entry line at the Paseo del Prado and it looked formidable. We had paid our entry there at a cost of 15 Euro each. If you are not keen to chance the crowds and line up for free entry, the cheapest way to see all three museums is the “Paseo del Arte” which costs 29.60 Euro from any of the three museum ticket offices but is not well signed; you have to ask for it.

Museums and art galleries in Madrid are free for the last two hours, but you can end up in quite a queue!

Stop showing off Madrid! You’re not going to change my mind… Yes in addition to Madrid’s awesome everything they can also claim the fame of being home to the world’s official (Guinness Book of Records official) oldest restaurant! Founded in 1725, by the 1800s the famous Spanish artist Goya worked there as a youth and then in the 1900s Hemingway was to be found drinking there. We tried to do as Hemingway did and go there to drink but current policy is that it is a place for dining – ie no drinking without being seated for a meal. Damn! Hopefully you’ll keep this in mind when you’re next in Madrid and be sure to phone up and make a dinner reservation worth keeping at Restaurante Sobrino de Botín.

The world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant is in Madrid – verified by the Guinness Book of Records!

Have you been to Madrid and Barcelona? Which one is your favourite? Leave us a comment and let’s settle the debate!

Want to know specifics?
If you’d like to read more about any of the places we have stayed, ate, drank or partied, check out the Reviews link in the main menu at the top of the screen.

Ryan & Erin
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Ryan & Erin

Founders at Downbubble Travels
Erin Hardie and Ryan Platten are teachers, travel writers and photographers/web admins from Perth Western Australia. A mutual love of travel and trying new flavours brought them together (til death do they part!). They have created this blog after having each travelled to over fifteen countries individually before joining forces. They now seek to bring a little taste of the places they go to the walls of others (please pin us!) and to share information with other travel lovers!
Ryan & Erin
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There is so much to see and learn about in this incredible historic city. Read our guide to get inspired and to add a few cool bar spots to your tapeando (literally bar crawling to eat tapas and drink) itinerary list!