We knew we didn’t have any time to waste in Madrid. Having just visited Barcelona for 5 days in late May, we expected that the 4 days and 5 nights of our visit to Spain’s capital would be hectic and hard to manage. We left Barcelona feeling as though we didn’t schedule enough time to explore the city. Our stay in Madrid, the larger of the 2 Spanish metropolises, would be even shorter. On top of that, the weather was expected to be hot and our accommodations had no air conditioning. Our plan for Madrid was to seek out ways to explore the city for free, and we succeeded in doing so, but there was one aspect of Madrid on which we were eager to spend, its cuisine.
When we landed in the city, we didn’t even have Internet, but Yashy, as usual, was prepared. She had one particular dish in mind, the bocadillo de calamares (calamari sandwich), which is a Madrid specialty. Also on her itinerary was a visit to the Mercado de San Miguel, a food market located in the heart of the city that features 33 stalls of gastronomic delights. I also had a list of craft beer places to visit and so we woke up after our first night in the city and hit the pavement, walking all the way from the city’s Opañel area to the city centre, a 3.3 km uphill trek with two kids relaxing in our difficult to maneuver travel stroller, eager to explore Madrid and find good food and drink.
Day 1 – Food Discoveries Near the Plaza Mayor
We checked off the bocadillo de calamares right away. Two small eateries lay just south of the Plaza Mayor, on Calle Botoneras, that both offer the famous sandwich. We tried it at Bar La Campana on the first day. The bocadillo de calamares is simply a large bread roll filled with fried calamari rings, not even served with sauce yet pretty tasty. I am a big fried calamari fan and so is our Little Monkey, who has been eating the dish at restaurants since she was two years old. The sandwich might as well have been invented to serve her hunger. When we found ourselves back near the plaza the next day, I got myself another one, this time at the neighboring, La Ideal. You can’t go wrong with either place.
Later, we sought out the Fogg Bar, which specializes in craft beer but does not serve a wide variety of foods. We were starving when we arrived and so the mini hot dogs, a free tapas offering that came with the beer we ordered, were a welcome snack, as was the plate of cured meats and olives we ate to tide us over until dinner. Located in the vicinity of Fogg Bar was Cocao Restobar, a Venezuelan themed restaurant that is one of the top rated eateries in the city on TripAdvisor. From the outside, the place looks very small, but when we inquired about a table, we were taken to a large back room where we were able to relax after a long day.
At Cocoa, we ordered the patacones for the kids, which are fried plantain slices that they naturally enjoyed. I ordered the Pabellón, comprised of rice, beans, fried egg, plantains, and shredded beef, while Yashy had an impressively stacked arepa. The restaurant was a welcome surprise. We only noticed it while researching local places while sitting at the Fogg Bar. We certainly never expect to find a great Venezuelan meal in Madrid. This turned into more of a late night meal by this point and I am surprised the kids were still awake. Turns out, they just need the right food to keep them going.
Days 2 & 3 – Building up an Appetite
We participated in a three hour walking tour on our second day in the city. The tour was through SANDEMANs New Europe Tours and was a lot of fun. It’s definitely something I would recommend doing in Madrid, a city with a rich history. That afternoon in the sun left us pining for the comforts of our apartment and so we spent the rest of the day at home, where we made some of the great food we found at our local grocery store. The cheap cheese and wines in Spanish grocery stores are hard to resist.
On Day 3, we had hoped to visit Toga for a late lunch. The restaurant was the number 1 ranked place in Madrid at the time, but to our dismay, we discovered that we were 2 hours too early. Deciding to push the meal to the next day, we found a nearby Mexican eatery called Sahuaro for a quick snack. We enjoyed a great plate of nachos together with margaritas and smoothies on one of the hotter days we spent in the city. We had spent the afternoon at the Madrid Rio splash pad and so we spent the rest of the evening relaxing as we prepared for the food adventure we had planned the next day.
Day 4 – Indulging in Downtown Madrid
We started our day at the Mercado de San Miguel, where we found everything we were looking for in a food tasting experience. Comprised of dozens of stalls serving a range of drinks, desserts, and tapas, we made our way from stall to stall and let our eyes do all the decision making. I started with a crab burger at the very first stall we encountered, but definitely did not regret the impulsive choice. Yashy managed to hold out for a few more stalls before finding a generous plate of eggplant and olives to snack on. After finding a table in the busy seating area, I noticed a kiosk offering an empanada and drink special. We now had a table of empanadas, olives, and red wine, and we were pretty content.
At that point, we had only covered half of the stalls, spending much of the time distracting the kids from the heaps of dessert offerings. Eventually, we discovered the smoked salmon, cheese, and caviar vendor, and quickly forked over a few Euros for those delectable snacks. The kids must have been sneaking a few bites from a large piece of licorice we bought for them because they weren’t eating much, though they were pretty fascinated with the swordfish head on display near the door. We left the market feeling like we had found the best attraction in Madrid. If you have a stroller like we did, you will have to fold it up as the market was VERY busy.
After spending the rest of the day walking around the city, including stops at the great Museo Ceralbo and the brewpub, Fabrica Maravillas, we made our way to Toga, arriving early with the hope that we would be first in line. We were not but were lucky enough to secure a seat as the chefs sprung into action. Our meal at Toga was definitely one of the top dining experiences we had in Europe. The restaurant offers reasonably priced dishes in generous portions and we loved the range of options available.
We started with the beef tartare and a dish that contained a blend of chorizo, fried egg, and french fries. We all loved that one. For Round 2, we order the ceviche and the chivito, which is a bit like a Philly Cheesesteak, only it contains more ingredients. We know the food was good because the kids had no problem plowing through it. I was very impressed with the flavours. All the dishes were cooked to perfections and featured complimentary ingredients. Having missed the restaurant’s opening hours the day before, we were pretty happy that we decided to try a second time.
We had modest goals in Madrid. After finding a good calamari sandwich, visiting the Mercado de San Miguel, stopping in at some great craft beer places, and capping off the trip with a meal at Toga, we felt that we had given ourselves a great sampling of the food the city has to offer. Knowing how big the city is and how little time we had to explore allowed us to focus in on what we really wanted to do. I am pretty sure that we could happily spend at least a year sampling the cuisine of Madrid, but if you are looking for some great places to visit in a short period of time, the places listed above are worth checking out.