A foodie weekend in Madrid: how to eat and drink like a local

<span>‘Gran Vía could easily take its place beside Fifth Avenue in terms of scale and elegance’. </span><span>Photograph: Sean Pavone/Alamy</span>
‘Gran Vía could easily take its place beside Fifth Avenue in terms of scale and elegance’. Photograph: Sean Pavone/Alamy

Freshly fried churros, golden and crisp; a cup of velvety hot chocolate alongside; circles of aubergine striped from the griddle; mushrooms silky with chorizo; a jumble of potatoes smothered in spicy sauce; handmade crisps, crunchy and salty; slivers of jamón serrano; plump Nocera olives; and crumbly, herby morcilla … By the end of our first day in Madrid, my sister Penny and I have eaten all these things. A touch indulgent, maybe, but when you’re staying in a city that runs on its stomach, it seems rude not to go with the flow.

Madrileños are famous for eating late, mostly because that mid-evening supper is the last of five meals

Madrileños are famous for eating late, mostly because that mid-evening supper is the last of five meals, starting with a light breakfast – often coffee and a pastry on the fly, before an early lunchtime snack (almuerzo), a full sit-down lunch, usually between 2 and 4pm (comida), then coffee and cake (merienda) and finally supper. Once you understand this, Madrid really starts to make sense: a city of centuries-old pasticceria, hole-in-the-wall tapas bars, neighbourhood markets and dimly-lit bodegas, all crammed with diners. Someone is always eating somewhere. During our visit, it was usually us.

Things begin well with the discovery that Los Artesanos 1902 (chocolateria1902.com) – arguably the city’s best-loved churreria – is just around the corner from our hotel. History and tradition are a big part of Madrid’s foodie culture, with many eateries run by the same family for generations. The churros we devour – dipped in rich chocolate the colour of mahogany – are made by the grandsons of the original proprietor; they are fried to perfection and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Around us, everyone from groups of teenagers to elderly couples is eating and drinking exactly the same thing.

Restaurants specialising in one dish are common in the city, from chorizo-stuffed mushrooms at Mesón del Champiñón (mesondelchampinon.com), to finger-singeing bowls of gambas al ajillo at La Casa del Abuelo (lacasadelabuelo.es) – another Madrid institution, owned by the same family since 1906. Evening get-togethers tend to be convivial rambles between bars, each selected for one particular dish. We learn all this on a four-hour Devour Madrid food tour (devourtours.com) that wraps 2,000 years of Spanish history around four tapas stops, fuelled by tinto de verano – the city’s simplified version of sangria, red wine topped up with a mild lemonade (unusual, but oddly drinkable).

I’m not always sure about foodie tours – you can end up eating a peculiar selection of things – but this was a winner. Our guide, Ana, whisked us through Moorish skirmishes, Habsburg domination and the harsh realities of Franco-era Spain, leaving us with full stomachs, a new appreciation of Spain’s volatile past and the strong impression that although the city has a cutting-edge culinary scene (currently it has 26 Michelin-star restaurants), it’s in the markets, bodegas and tapas bars where you really eat like a local.

The churros – dipped in chocolate the colour of mahogany – are fried to perfection and dusted with sugar and cinnamon

With this in mind, we set out the next morning to explore the city. Madrid is a grand sprawl of a capital; Gran Vía could easily take its place beside Fifth Avenue in terms of scale and elegance, while Retiro Park unfolds around the sweeping colonnade of the Monument to Alfonso XII – a spectacular backdrop to the shimmering lake. It’s too cold for the boats to be out, but warm enough to sit with a thimble of thick black coffee while we pore over maps and decide which market to visit for lunch.

We settle on the Mercado de San Fernando (mercadodesanfernando.es) in the hip Lavapies district. Every neighbourhood has a market – the most famous, the Mercado de San Miguel, now draws more visitors than the Prado gallery. San Fernando is more under the radar; a nondescript building containing a ramshackle maze of market stalls sells everything from meat and cheese to books and electrical appliances. We settle in among the patchwork of micro-breweries and food stalls at El Colmado, where the counter holds enormous empanadas the size of A4 notepads, waiting to be cut into chunks and warmed. I go for bacon and chorizo, the light, buttery pastry delicious against the spicy meat, and wash it down with a caña, the city’s sensibly small beer, served in 200ml glasses. Later, wandering back to the hotel, we dip into Mercado de San Miguel, but it feels rather like Selfridges food hall and we don’t stop.

In between the eating, we find time to see some of the city’s fantastic art, opting for the more manageable Thyssen-Bornemisza over the gargantuan Prado – one of the world’s most extraordinary private collections, encompassing works by everyone from Titian and Tintoretto to Warhol and Pollock. But the real joy is the Sorolla Museum, the former home and exquisite garden of Joaquín Sorolla, kept much as it was when he lived there and filled with dozens of his works. The paintings are a lesson in Spanish history as well as art; he was commissioned by various organisations, including the Hispanic Society of America, to travel the country and paint everywhere from Andalucía to the Valencian coast, giving an insight into rural life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From the museum, we stroll to the leafy Salamanca district, famous for its designer boutiques and high-end restaurants, for our final lunch. Even here, there is a market to discover: Mercado de la Paz (mercadodelapaz.com), although every seat is taken at the bar counters that slot between the food stalls. Instead, we snap up an outdoor table at Jurucha (jurucha.com), a simple tapas bar where a couple of cañas and a selection of croquetas and pinchos gratinados (baguette slices topped with béchamel and melted cheese) costs less than €20 (£17).

At the ned of our stay, we reflect that in spite of our best efforts, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this foodiest of cities. We didn’t try el cocido, the city’s iconic stew, where the broth is served first and the stewed meat and vegetables as a main course, or huevos rotos, fried eggs served on chips and ham. But happily, that can only mean one thing. We’ll have to go back for second helpings.

A five-night stay, including hotels and travel by Eurostar and rail via Barcelona, plus a Madrid food and drink tasting tour, starts from £1,486pp with Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com)