7 Nights in Vibrant Madrid

La Torre del Oro

Pintxos, Tapas, City Treks and Late Nights

Don’t you love going back to a much admired city? You’re not in a hurry to see the Top 10 because you’ve already done that. This year our destination was Hungary, Austria and Germany but we started with award flights into Madrid and a week later a cheap flight out to Budapest. Tip: Getting that perfect Business Class award from San Diego to Europe can be tricky, think outside the box and check different cities to fly into. Madrid is a great choice with lots of low cost carriers to all over Europe from Madrid.

Best things about Madrid
Pintxos! Tapas!
Wandering around the city
Worst things about Madrid
The homeless in cardboard boxes in Plaza Major
Would I change anything?
Our flight changed and arrived at 8:00 am – I’d consider renting the apartment the night before.

Plaza Santa Ana

Plaza Santa Ana from the apartment

Madrid Map


7 nights in a luxurious 1 bedroom penthouse in Plaza Santa Ana. (Airbnb)

Plaza Santa Ana is a perfect location – it seemed that every direction we wanted to go was no more than a 15-20 minute walk away, and one direction we went to almost every night was toward Cava Baja – seeking out Basque-style pintxos. We didn’t have far to look. Cava Baja is well known for it’s tapas bars and Txirimiri at the southern end had some delicious specialties – PLUS our favorites, Solomillo and Foie Planche.
Tip: The Aeropuerto Expres (Airport Express shuttle bus) “Yellow Bus” is easy, comfortable, fast and cheap (5€) to get from Barajas T4 to Atocha Train Terminal. Free WIFI too. Look for it where all the buses stop and just pay the cash to the driver. From Atocha we walked to Plaza Santa Ana.

Txirimiri foie plancha and rioja

Txirimiri foie plancha and rioja

Walking Tour

Another city, another great Sandeman’s walking tour. Anytime there’s one of these “free” tours (you know it’s for tips, right?) – we’re there. You always learn a lot of history and go some surprising places you wouldn’t have known about on your own. On this tour you end up in the green Plaza de Oriente across from the Royal Palace. And not too far away is another Txirimiri – there are about 4 in Madrid, all serving the same delicious Basque-style pintxos.
Tip: Bring your umbrella! You never know what an April day in Madrid may bring.

Heavenly Cookies

Monasterio del Corpus Christi almond cookies

Monasterio del Corpus Christi almond cookies

We were walking back from Txirimiri and in the vicinity of the Monasterios de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of Barefoot Royals), I wanted to see the art inside (Rubens, Titian, Murillo) but like many others standing in line we didn’t get in. They’re only open for tours certain hours and the tours are limited to about 20.

So how about another convent? This one not for art but for the special cookies made by the nuns at the Convento de las Carboneros de Corpus Christi around the corner from Plaza Major. When you get there, check the sign on the wall next to the door to make sure you’re within their opening hours, ring the bell and someone tells you to enter. Follow the signs through small halls and a courtyard to the end where there’s turntable window with a box of cookies, not necessarily the cookies you want! You never see anyone, just a list of the cookies and box sizes on the wall. The real mystery is knowing how and what to order, when a nun spoke to us I didn’t quite understand what she said but asked for the almond “pastas de almendra, por favor”, put our 10€ on the turntable and whoosh the turntable spun around, then around again with our cookies. Quite an experience and the cookies were heavenly delicious!

Museums – but not the Big 3

Two of the 3 big museums in Madrid are my favorites – The Prado and Thyseen-Bornmisza – the Reina Sofia not so much. But last time in Madrid we spent a lot of time at The Prado, so this trip we sought out the smaller museums we’ve never been to. First, Museo Cerralbo – this museum was the Marquis Cerralbo’s palace complete with ballroom, art, all kinds of collections. A step back in time to the 19th century and the life of an aristocrat in Madrid.
Great Eats: Casa Mingo makes a great stop and isn’t too far from Museo Cerralbo. Famous for the Asturia style grilled chicken and cider and a nice change from tapas.

The Marquis Cerralbo ballroom

The Marquis Cerralbo ballroom

Some of the less known museums we visited on this trip are free all the time or have free days, if you can’t take advantage of that the admission price is only a few Euros.

Madrid’s metro system is terrific but we didn’t use it once this trip. Staying in a central location like Plaza Santa Ana made walking to anywhere easy, plus walking to your destination lets you see different parts of Madrid every day. Saturday was our day for the always free Municipal Museum in the Justicia district, with it’s huge scale model of the walled city of Madrid, and the free after 2pm Museo Arqueologico Nacional in the Salamanca. Sunday was the free day for the interesting Sorolla Museum in the Castellana district, the artist Joaquin Sorolla’s studio and home.
Great Eats: Always on the lookout for Basque style pintxos, a short walk from the Sorolla museum is Sagaretxe, a local place serving up some great pintxos with very little English.

Museum’ed Out? Nah

Coffee Break at the Cafe de Circulo Des Bellas Artes

Coffee Break at the Cafe de Circulo Des Bellas Artes

Visiting the little museums is a treat, they don’t take long which leaves plenty of time for pintxos, chocolat con churros, and café breaks. Not having anything else going on we decided to go to the Thyssen-Bornemisza after the Sorrola. Tip: The Thyssen-Bornemisza is free on Mondays between 12:00 and 16:00. Hmmm, didn’t plan that one.

Late Nights in Madrid

Where else do you find traffic jams at 2:00 am? That was our first experience of the nightlife in Madrid, way back in 1996. We loved Madrid for that, the architecture, the world class museums and of course – the FOOD!

Cava Baja at midnight

Cava Baja at midnight

This was our 4th time in Madrid and we still love it. Spain and Madrillenos really have a terrific social lifestyle, and with a 9 hour time difference between the Pacific Coast and Central Europe, we were late night non-stop with them at our favorite tapas bars.

Leaving Madrid

First time on Ryanair (the world’s most hated airline!) from Madrid Barajas to Budapest – a 3.25 hour flight. The fastest way to get to Barajas from Plaza Santa Ana was a cab for 30€, a good decision after that last late night. The cabs queue up right outside the ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel, the beautiful lit up facade you admire every night from the apartment.
Tip: Ryanair procedure at the airport is confusing. You MUST FIRST go to a window right next to the security entrance to get your boarding pass stamped, THEN you wait in the long line for the counter agent where you check your bags. When through with those two lines, go to the line at the security entrance next to where you got your boarding pass stamped.

After you’re through security you’ll queue up again in the Priority boarding line if you paid for and selected your seat online (a Premium seat). I think everyone paid for a Premium seat!

Tip: From reading how strict Ryanair was about carry-on bags, I’d paid to check our 2 rolling carry-ons as we were also packing our BIG laptop bags. Lots of people had 2 big carry-ons and breezed right through, but I’m told Ryanair can be a lot stricter at other airports. Even paying to check bags the total was only $196 for the flight for both of us.

Ryanair flight FR8368 Madrid to Budapest

Ryanair flight FR8368 Madrid to Budapest

Tip: Make sure you book your flight with a credit card that doesn’t charge transaction fees and select the option NOT to convert Euros to Dollars – the conversion rate Ryanair charges is much higher, and that’s on top of the credit card processing fee.


The Ryanair agents, attendants, and flight were all fine, the seats are narrow and seat backs don’t recline on this no-frills flight but it was only a little over 3 hours and a terrific way to get quickly and cheaply from Madrid to Budapest.

Favorite Pintxos and Tapas Bars

We dropped in at lots of tapas bars in the evenings, a pintxo and a vino here and there – these are our favorites:

Favorite tapas in Madrid

Favorite tapas in Madrid

  • Txirimiri (Basque-“Light Drizzle”) Solomillo and Foie Planche. Calle del Humilladero at the end of Cava Baja, and Calle Ferraz 38.  Other locations but we didn’t get to them.
  • Meson del Champinon – Mushrooms. A classic. Always a good time standing at the bar, never know who’ll you meet.
  • Casa Revuelta – You’ve never had cod like this before. If they’re open – get some!
  • Museo del Jamon – Jamon Iberico. Elbow to elbow – strike up a conversation! The location off of Calle Major (Calle Postas), not the one in Plaza Major.

Madrid Handy Resource List

Madrid Map

  • Sandeman’s Madrid Free Tour
  • National Archeological Museum (Museo Arqueologico Nacional) – free after 2 on Saturdays and Sunday mornings, or €3 each. Tues-Sat 9:30-8. Sun & Holidays 9:30-3. Closed Mondays, some holidays.
  • Sorolla Museum free after 2 on Saturdays and all day Sunday – or €3. Tues-Sat 9:30-8. Sun & Holidays 9:30-3. Closed Mondays, some holidays. Audioguide. Metro: Iglesia (Línea 1), Rubén Darío (Línea 5), Gregorio Marañón (Líneas 7 y 10)
  • Museo Cerralbo – Tues-Sat 9:30-3:00, Thu 5:00-8:00, Sun & holidays 10:00-3:00. Free Sat after 2, all day Sunday, or €3. Spanish life 120 years ago (Marquis Cerralbo)
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Old Masters, Impressionists, North American artists. Closed Tue & holidays. Mon, Wed-Sat 10:00-21:00, Sun 10:00-19:00. €10, Free entry to the Permanent Collections on Mondays between 12.00 and 16.00
  • Reina Sofia Contemporary art. Closed Tue & holidays. Mon, Wed-Sat 10:00-21:00, Sun 10:00-19:00. €8
  • Mapfre Interesting exhibitions. Mondays from 2 pm to 8 pm
    Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am to 8 pm. Sundays/holidays from 11 am to 7 pm. Free.
  • Monasterios de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of Barefoot Royals) – Art: Rubens, Titian, Murillo, more – Closed Mondays. Tue-Sat 10:30-12:45, 16:00-17:45. Fri 10:30-12:45. Sun & holidays 11:00-13:45. Tour limited to about 20. 1.5-2 hr. €7.
  • Google Map: Self Guided Tapas Tour for Barhoppers – Tapas bars in each district, Map by Revulgo.

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