How To Be A Local Madrid Explorer

Where to eat, photograph, and get your culture on in Spain’s capital

By Leah Pattem, Travel Writer

Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge on today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off-the-beaten-path.

Felicity, having lived in Madrid for years now, my fondness for this city only continues to grow. Since you love art and food and only have a few days here to explore, I’ll take you on a little pre-tour! Here’s what to do…

Under the first ray of sunlight, Madrid’s bars are already ushering in an entire city of early risers in search of strong coffee and a hearty breakfast. Join them up on the stools at Bar Cruz, and watch as the owner grinds coffee beans with one hand and tosses a tortilla with the other. Order the pan con tomate (bread with tomatoes), a simple toasted baguette with freshly grated tomato spooned on top; as you can see in my photo, you put it together yourself, so the baguette stays crisp until the moment you take a bite.

Overhead shot of Spanish breakfast
Photo: Leah Pattem

This beautiful, bright, no-frills corner bar overlooks the busy square in front. As you eat your breakfast, watch as the sunlight begins creeping over the terrace—just beyond it is where we’re headed next.

A minute away lies a secret courtyard with four stunning 19th century apartment buildings. It’s not always open but, if it is, you’re welcome to step inside and take a peek.

Woman walking on second story balcony of yellow building in Spain
Photo: Leah Pattem

Now that you’ve seen a bit of El Rastro (the streets of which, FYI, transform into Europe’s biggest flea market every Sunday), I want to show you my local market, where you’re about to witness what I can only describe as a seafood festival!

Every Saturday in Mercado de la Cebada, the little seafood stalls band together to create bustling aisles of pop-up seafood restaurants. So how does it all work? First, order a few plates of seafood by weight, which the fishmonger will season liberally with salt, olive oil, and paprika before handing them to you with a spork (spoon/fork). Next, take your goodies over to a makeshift table made up of beer crates piled up with a paper table cloth on top. Finally, balance your no-frills foodie odyssey with a delicate albariño from one of the chic wine bars nearby. It’s so much fun—everyone has a whale of a time packed together like sardines (puns intended!), so muck in, tuck in, and enjoy every moment of the Madrid madness.

People crowded in seafood market
Photo: Leah Pattem

After your wonderfully chaotic lunch, stick around at the market to explore dozens of gorgeous retro signs. Snap away or do as I do, which is to sit down and sketch some of your favorites.

Woman holding drawing of vintage Spanish sign  Photo: Leah Pattem

The second floor of the market will also give you a cool bird’s-eye view of the crowd tucking into their Mediterranean lunch.

Man and woman snacking on plate of seafood in market
Photo: Leah Pattem

In the afternoon, it’s time to take you for a slow stroll through the winding, candy-colored streets of Lavapiés—a working-class neighborhood with a rich history that’s juxtaposed with modernity.

View of Spanish street with colorful pastel buildings
Photo: Leah Pattem

Here you’ll be welcomed to La Tabacalera, Madrid’s old cigarette factory built over 200 years ago. This huge industrial building is now a local community space with resident painters, craftsmen, and musicians occupying every nook and cranny. All the walls are covered in street art, and you’ll even spot a few famous graffiti writers if you look closely.

The space has two levels: on the upper is where you’ll find live music—often reggae blasting from speakers twice your height—as well as tiny stalls selling handmade jewellery, purses, and West-African garments. Downstairs there are local artists painting, bands practising, dancers rehearsing, and graffiti writers spraying new works of art onto the curved walls.

Concrete arches in graffiti-covered old factory
Photo: Leah Pattem

If you’re after an iconic picture of yourself in Madrid, the underground labyrinthine tunnels make for a sweet selfie. Even better—ask someone else to take the photo and they’ll be more than happy to do so. There’s something special about the atmosphere inside this anarchistic community space; La Tabacalera is friendly, open, and everyone is welcome. It’s a kind of magic—you’ll see what I mean when you get there.

For dinner, I want to take you to a charming, 99-year-old bodega just fifteen minutes by foot from the old factory: Bodegas Rosell.

Exterior view of red, white, and blue Spanish bodega
Photo: Leah Pattem

Walk into this iconic restaurant and take your pick from their vast selection of local Spanish wines. There might be a free table in the front, but book ahead for a pretty white marble-topped table in the informal dining area behind the bar.

Order their croquettes and melt-in-your-mouth bacalao (salted cod). Oh, and their octopus too. Honestly, they make some of the best Spanish food you’ll find in Madrid, so everything on their menu is delicious; it’s no wonder that this old bodega is so popular with local Madrileños.

Fancy some post-dinner live jazz? I’ve got the perfect place in mind. Welcome to this erstwhile Lavapiés institution with bands playing every single night of the week. Don’t be shy about going in—those hermetic voile curtains are partly meant to preserve Café El Despertar’s clandestine atmosphere, but also to deter the naive walk-in customer. The owner, a steely older gentleman, is only interested in clientele who’ve come specifically for the jazz music, which is exactly why I’ve brought you here.

Exterior and interior of Spanish jazz club

Photo: Leah Pattem

Order a drink at the splendid marble bar and take your time admiring the turn-of-the-century surroundings. Café El Despertar sits among the creative greats of Madrid’s post-dictatorship era, and playing a gig here remains a rite of passage for many local jazz musicians, just as it has been since its founding in 1981.

I suspect that if you follow my explorer’s footsteps, which will take you to my favorite no-frills breakfast spot, that crazy seafood festival, the cigarette factory full of street art, a classic bodega, and our-little-secret jazz club, you might find yourself falling for Madrid just as hard as I did.

Have fun!

Leah

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Leah is a 33-year-old English girl living in Madrid’s multicultural neighborhood of Lavapiés. When she was 20, she came to Madrid for a long weekend to visit local friends she’d met at university, and that’s when the seed for moving to Spain was planted. That long weekend of blue skies, purple sunsets, steep winding streets, and bustling bars continued to circle in her head, until she finally bought a one-way ticket here six years ago. Now she’d like to show you the Madrid she fell for so long ago—the one she’s still in love with today.

Bright courtyard of Spanish hotel with green plants

Villa Magna

Paseo de la Castellana, 22, Madrid, Spain

  • Early check-in upon availability
  • Late check-out upon availability
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • High-Speed/Enhanced Wi-Fi
Restaurant with wall of windows overlooking Madrid

The Principal Madrid

Calle Marques de Valdeiglesias,1, Madrid, Spain

  • Complimentary Buffet breakfast for two daily
  • Early check-in upon availability
  • Late check-out upon availability
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • Basic Wi-Fi
Interior courtyard of white hotel with large colourful abstract art

ME Madrid Reina Victoria

Plaza de Santa Ana, 14, Madrid, Spain

  • Complimentary Buffet breakfast for two daily
  • Early check-in upon availability
  • Late check-out upon availability
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • Basic Wi-Fi

Inspired to visit Spain? Connect with one of our expert travel agents.

Contact UsFIND AN AGENT