Lonely Planet Local Cassandra Gambill moved to Madrid in 2010 to make her millions teaching English. Instead, she discovered a golden city that is vibrant, good-humoured, and fast-paced yet leisurely; one in which you can just as easily while away your time sampling blood sausage in a traditional taberna as you can taking a boat out on the lake at Parque del Buen Retiro. For Cassandra, the combination of sunny weather and work-life balance makes Madrid a true gem.
Cassandra loves to relax at Madrid's famous green space, Parque del Buen Retiro © Alex Segre / 500px
I could wax poetic about Madrid’s… many different barrios, or neighbourhoods. Each one has a different history and personality, so there is always something to explore. From historic Sol to stately Retiro to trendy Malasaña, there is an area for everyone. A related perk is that central Madrid is incredibly easy to navigate on foot. More areas have become pedestrianised in recent years, making it even more pleasant to get from one barrio to another. I highly recommend walking the straight line between the metro stations Alonso Martinez and Goya for a look at how life plays out in the city.
Sol is one of Cassandra's favourite Madrid barrios © SOMATUSCANI / Getty Images
When I have friends in town… I do my best to give them a glimpse of local life while visiting the city’s main attractions. An easy way to do this is by sampling traditional food and drink. Shopping for olive oil somewhere like Patrimonio Comunal Olivarero makes for a memorable experience, while the more adventurous will be game for ordering callos (tripe) or morcilla (blood sausage) in a traditional taberna such as Antonio Sánchez. I encourage all visitors to try on-tap vermouth, a traditional drink that is still popular with madrileños.
For art exhibits in Madrid… I recommend Caixa Forum, Matadero Madrid, and the recently reopened Palacio Gaviria. Don’t skip Madrid’s world-famous art collections, but if you have time, check out these three museums for a different slant on Spanish and international art.
The foliage-clad Caixa Forum is one of Cassandra's favourite arts spaces in Madrid © JJFarq / Shutterstock
I’m mystified by the hype behind… the El Rastro flea market. If you invite me to join, I will politely decline because I find this Sunday market simultaneously overwhelming (the crowds!) and underwhelming (the junk!) However, I know others who love this outdoor bazaar, so try it out and let me know what treasures you unearth.
For the best photo ops… I’ve got two tips for you. For iconic shots of Madrid, take the elevator up to the rooftop terrace at the Círculo de Bellas Artes with its fantastic views of the Madrid skyline. For a different view of Madrid, head to Templo de Debod (an Egyptian temple) at sunset.
Cassandra loves the view from the roof of Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes © Cassandra Gambill / Lonely Planet
If you come in summer… make sure to have a water bottle with you at all times. When Madrid heats up, shade and breeze quickly become luxuries. Pro tip: locals are quick to whip out fans, so consider purchasing a Spanish fan at Casa de Diego for a combination of personalised cooling system and souvenir.
On a typical weekend in Madrid… you’ll find me out and about. If I want to shop for clothes or gifts, I head to the shopping district around Calle Fuencarral, a long street filled with fashion retailers ranging from the affordable to the splurge-worthy. I swing by edgy-but-sweet women’s clothing store Kling when I want to shake things up with striking patterns and bold colours. For more relaxing activities such as reading or picnicking, I’ll visit one of Madrid’s parks; I’m especially fond of Parque del Buen Retiro and the lesser-known Parque de Berlín, which contains pieces of the Berlin wall. I also love to check out new restaurants or revisit old favourites such as Baco y Beto and La Pescadería. Finally, a weekend would not be complete without a glass of red wine from one of Madrid’s many bodegas and wine bars.
Madrid has plenty of places to enjoy a glass of red wine © Cassandra Gambill / Lonely Planet
One thing that still surprises me about Madrid… is the decibel level. Madrileños plough over one another as they talk faster and louder, and what appear to be heated arguments will often dissolve into laughter. Being a passionate participant is a key part of the culture, but it can be hard to become accustomed to as a newcomer.
For cheap eats, I recommend… Pizza al Cuadrado, a pizzeria which serves up savoury and sweet rectangles with unexpected toppings. They specialise in intriguing combinations such as broccoli and butifarra, a Catalan sausage. My standby is the spicy cherry tomato pizza; while deceptively plain-looking, it packs a lot of zing. You’ll find the restaurant on the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles at Gourmet Experience, which provides a bird’s-eye view of the Gran Vía.
For a cheap eat, Cassandra swears by Pizza al Cuadrado © Cassandra Gambill / Lonely Planet
When I want to get out of the city… I organise a weekend getaway to another corner of Spain. An amazing benefit of Madrid being in the geographical centre of the country is that all regions vie to become your next travel destination.
You know you’re an honorary local when… you automatically lisp when saying "Gracias", you have a strong opinion about how tortilla should be cooked, an invitation to a 10pm dinner is normal, you know how to navigate Madrid’s metro like a pro, and you wouldn’t be caught in Madrid in August (when residents leave en masse to escape the heat).
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