A Few Days In

Forget Paris. Madrid Should Be Your Favorite European City

by Sally Kohn
Restaurante Restaurante Tándem. Photo courtesy of El Triciclo.

Searching for a European city under the tourist radar? Follow CNN's Sally Kohn to Spain's capital city — a diamond in the rough.

MADRID — Here’s my problem as a traveler: I have champagne tastes and a Bud Light budget. Okay, maybe that’s overstating it. Let’s say, I have a local craft brew budget: I want top experiences, but don’t want to pay top price.

Madrid is the perfect city for me. It’s like Paris, only more manageable in every way.

There’s a second reason I love Madrid. As a human who has had the privilege of traveling much of the world for work and pleasure, I feel a bit guilty “just going to Europe” on vacation. At the same time, my partner and I have a ten-year-old, and while we definitely like to take her on more far-flung and adventuresome trips, there’s no question that traveling in Europe is relatively easy in terms of planning and effort. Yet we want experiences that are different enough from daily life to feel enriching for our spawn. Again, enter Madrid.

Madrid is a world-class city that still feels like a hidden gem. A place where you can go to some of the greatest art museums on the planet — and then wander around little back alleys and stumble on small, independent, affordable boutiques. Furthermore, the food is great, the weather is temperate, and the Madrileños are lovely in every way. And while I won’t pretend it’s undiscovered, it’s a mystery to me why Madrid isn’t yet considered a European destination on par with Paris, Venice, and Amsterdam, Just get yourself to Madrid pronto before the rest of the world gets there, too. Here are five highlights that will make for a perfect trip.

TÓTEM Madrid Lobby.
Photos courtesy of TÓTEM Madrid.

1. The Hotel

The hotel TÓTEM Madrid could not be a better home base. Its mid-century modern aesthetic of dark woods and luscious fabrics starts in the lobby and sunlit restaurant and crawls up the most delightful hotel staircase I’ve ever experienced and into the guest rooms, which are standard sized for Europe but take advantage of creative layouts that make them feel spacious. We were traveling with our daughter, and our C-shaped room had a twin bed in the entrance nook and a king in the main part of the room. It was only a studio, but felt like a two-bedroom. Impressive!

2. The Museum

The museums in Madrid are extraordinary. The Prado was everything I hoped, as was the Reina Sofia. Both are amazing art collections made even more amazing by their gorgeous buildings as backdrops. But I was also impressed with Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Spain’s natural history museum, at which my daughter and I ended up spontaneously spending a few hours. Again, not only an impressive museum but a visually stunning setting, which made the experience even more enjoyable.

3. The Casual Eatery

For food, Restaurante Tándem is such a gem that we did something we never do on vacation — went there twice in one visit. Part of the Triciclo restaurant group, the namesake Triciclo also being a lovely choice, but Tándem is more down-to-earth and less well known so a bit easier to get into. We ate all sorts of meat and cheese tapas, of course, but also several beautiful salads, which can be hard to find in Spain.

Diver XO, Madrid.
Photo courtesy of Diver XO.

4. The Avant-Garde Meal

For a more high-end experience, by far one of the most delicious and creative meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life was at DiverXO. Chef David Muñoz has rocketed to fame, earning three Michelin stars in record time with this theatrical enterprise. In one course, a tower of Chinese dumpling containers was served with dry ice steaming around it. Our the task was to find, somewhere in the many containers, the actual dumplings. Another course was served in a custom dish made to look like Pink Panther’s coiled tail. Throughout the meal, we were encouraged to play with our food, eat with our hands, and generally have a good time. And we did. Not incidentally, the food was divine. It’s nice to see a fancy restaurant not take itself to seriously — and still deliver seriously extraordinary bites.

5. The Shop

For shopping, run, don’t walk, to Helena Rohner. The jewelry designer has a single storefront in Madrid, which you would never notice if you weren’t looking for it. Inside, you will find her simple, modern jewelry — especially stunning rings, necklaces, and earrings made of painted porcelain, which is as delicately beautiful as it sounds. Her prices are incredibly reasonable, especially considering the craft and care that go into each piece.

Atocha Train Station.
Photo by Mindaugas Petrutis/Unsplash

6. The Touristy But Terrific Attraction

Here's something that I did — and hope we can all do again one day. The story goes that, once upon a time, someone put a couple of tiny pet turtles in the fountain in the Atocha train station. And they multiplied. A lot. So much so that they became a very popular attraction, and drew the attention of authorities who finally and recently, after years of threatening to do so, removed the still-breeding-like-crazy population late one night. They claim it was better for the animals' health, and, in fact, the little guys have been transferred to the José Peña Wildlife Center in Navas del Rey, where you can visit them for €8. 

But the next time I'm in Madrid, I'm going to the train station and look for them anyways. Because I suspect a few hearty hatchlings survived and/or that the authority-resenting Madrileños will put new ones there.

Either way once you’re at the station, you can hop a high-speed train to most anywhere in Europe, making Madrid the perfect starting point for a wider European adventure.

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