When you think of romantic European capital cities, Madrid is rarely the first to spring to mind. But it should be. The underlying authentic charm and laidback, understated vibe of Spain’s capital proved irresistible to me when I first arrived. It’s been home for eight years now and I’m still head over heels.
Madrid is a mix of new and old, locals refer to it as ‘El Gran Pueblo’ (the large village). It’s anything but small—with over 3 million inhabitants—but Madrid’s family-owned bars, local restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops dating back generations give the neighbourhoods here a charming village feel.
Madrid is walkable and it’s a pleasure to stroll through its lush public parks, bustling squares and pedestrian-friendly streets. On weekday mornings I go for a run in the Parque del Buen Retiro, once the King’s royal gardens. Afternoons are for the lively Gran Via street, where Spain’s elite come to shop and walk among wandering tourists. When walking won’t cut it, you still won’t need a car, because Madrid’s public transport system is state of the art, with buses, a bike system and metro. A trip typically costs around $2.50.
Madrid’s cultural scene is thriving. If you love art, you can’t miss museums like the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen. They’re brimming with stunning works of art from all the greats…Raphael…Dali…van Gogh…Picasso… Every time I visit them I discover something new. Outside of the galleries, I find artistic charm in everything here—the fountains in every plaza, striking baroque facades, towering historical monuments, even the autumn scents of street vendors roasting chestnuts on the corner.
On my way home I like to stop off in a welcoming tapas bar for a glass of delicious wine from Spain’s famed Rioja region. It costs just $3 and comes with a free tapa—perhaps a generous serving of seafood paella or some patatas bravas drizzled with a spicy alioli sauce.
Evenings are made for bar hopping in the vibrant La Latina and Malasana neighbourhoods, packed with traditional Spanish bars and restaurants. Madrilenos tend to socialise outside of their homes and you can’t help but adjust to the schedules here: long lunches, leisurely dinners and late evenings laughing with friends—the locals are a welcoming bunch. Life is laidback and moves at a slower pace.
Eating out here is seriously affordable. Even after all these years, I’m still shocked when the bill arrives after a night of drinks and tapas with friends, realising I’ve spent just $10 all evening.
When I’m in the mood to splash out, I’m spoilt for choice. My favourite spots include Amargo, which features live flamenco music in its candle-lit underground restaurant, Bar Galleta is cosy and charming with delicate vintage touches and Marieta offsets its industrial feel with plush seating and oversized plants. These are the places to go for Spanish fusion cuisine, like Asian-style fried rolls stuffed with manchego cheese and oxtail, or a mouthwatering sushi burger. A three-course meal, with wine, for two, will cost about $65.
But in Madrid, you can afford the odd splurge thanks to the low cost of living. A two-bedroom apartment in a central neighbourhood can be found for $1,000 a month, the prices go down for smaller properties and drop further still as you move out from the centre. Family-owned bakeries, fruterias and butcher shops offer amazing fresh and organic produce. Tasty fresh baguettes cost around 70 cents and you can enjoy a refreshing beer in a local bar for a dollar.
Most of all, Madrid is easy. People live simple, happy lives. A visitor once remarked to me, “Even the dogs seem happier here. They have a real spring in their step.” And it’s true, they do…
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