Find your center. Madrid became Spain’s de facto capital in 1561, when Philip II, eager to consolidate the fractious, barely unified kingdom he inherited from his dad, chose a location for his court that was smack dab in the middle of the country (you can see the plaque marking the physical center of the country in the Puerta del Sol). Over time, the centralizing grew as political as it was geographical. These days, ‘Madrid’ is shorthand for the Spanish government, especially as it opposes the efforts of regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country to gain greater autonomy or even full independence. This is true on a cultural level as well: for 40 years, the Franco dictatorship imposed its Madrid-based version of “Spanish” culture on the rest of the nation, a tactic that has had lasting effects.
Look beyond Spanish clichés. After almost two decades of immigration, Madrid is a much more diverse place than it once was, and over 11 percent of the population is not Spanish-born. That means you can now eat decent Chinese food in a makeshift restaurant underneath the Plaza de España, join Ecuadoreans in raucous outdoor picnics on Sundays in the Casa de Campo, dance to Senegalese hiphop at the Kilimanjaro nightclub, or attend the largest mosque in Europe.
Dinner service at StreetXo, a Korean-Vietnamese-Thai-Spanish mash-up from David Muñoz, part of Madrid’s cliche-defying restaurant scene. Photo by: Michael Magers
Talk about food. Almost everyone else is. Listen in on the conversations of the madrileños around you, and you’ll realize that 70-80 percent are about who ate what for dinner last night, and what they will eat tonight. There are discussions of which granja cures the best ham; arguments over whether or not to add cumin to the gazpacho; discourses on the ideal degree of runniness in a tortilla de patata, the iconic dish of potatoes and eggs. These are a madrileño’s “How ‘bout them Mets?” Need a conversation opener? Start with an analysis of the cocido—the meat-and-chickpea stew that is one of Madrid’s few contributions to Spanish cuisine—you ate for lunch yesterday.
Tapear. Luckily, local eating customs makes it easy to do a lot of food research in a short period of time. Tapas may not have been born in Madrid (urban legend points to a fly-ridden bar in Cadiz), but they have reached their apotheosis there, with something like a total of 15,000 bars, or one for every 400 inhabitants. And every single one of those 15,000 serves snacks that can be as simple as an almond-stuffed olive or as complicated as a spider-crab-and-goat-cheese tatin. Good tapas bars can be found at all ends of spectrum, from the upscale Albora, to hip newcomer Angelita, to the diviest of dives, Cervecería Cruz. But none of them, it must be emphasized, are the “small plate concepts” you’ve experienced in Boston or Minneapolis. To properly tapear requires moving from place to place: sidle up to the bar, order a snack and a small glass of wine or beer, consume while standing, then move on to the next place. Rinse, repeat.
Slicing jamón in Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, one of the city’s most popular spots for drinks and tapas. Photo by: Michael Magers
Stick to the classics. There is no shortage of hot, new cocktail bars pouring cleverly-named drinks made from craft gin and juniper syrup (see: Macera Taller). But considering that Madrid does old-school better than anyplace else, it’s worth getting a martini from the jacketed waiters at (not-what-you-think it is) Bar Cock, or a perfect gin fizz at neighboring Del Diego, or a small glass of sherry at La Venencia, a tiny hole in the wall so out of touch they don’t even allow selfies.
Be prepared for a long night. Even for a country of night owls, madrileños keep late hours. Dinner doesn’t really get going until 10 p.m., no one would think of going to a club before 2 a.m, and the line for churros at San Gines—the perfect alcohol-absorbing food—gets really long at 5 a.m. There are traffic jams at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and they are definitely not caused by people going to church. The days of the siesta are numbered in most corners of the country, but if it is still hanging on here in the 21st century, it’s at least in part because how the hell else are you going to get through the day?