Word of Mouth: Madrid

Don't skip the classics, but be sure to visit these lesser known bars, stores and restaurants

Tapas and flamenco dancing aside, Madrid is full of essential experiences for visitors—from tucked-away galleries to dimly lit cocktail bars, open rooftop venues, sprawling parks and minimal design stores. While taking in Spanish traditions is vital, this capital city is ever-evolving, full of energy and oozing with influences from all over the world; creating a delightful fusion of styles and tastes that will dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. We recently ate and drank our way across the city, and found its history to be as beguiling as its present. Here are some jumping-off points for enjoying the Spanish capital.

Do Design

This concept store in Chueca is also a cafe and sometimes gallery. It has a delightfully laid-back atmosphere—despite being meticulously kept. With tables available for you to drink your coffee and read a magazine, Do Design is also full of covetable homewares, stationery, apparel and accessories. From fold-out fans to desk gadgets by HAY and minimal pieces by Juan Ruiz-Rivas, everything available is beautifully presented. Thanks to the helpful (but not overbearing) staff and a treasure trove of goodies and publications to pore over, you can spend plenty of time here.

Bocadillo de Jamón y Champán

While it’s technically a chain now (with three locations in Madrid) Bocadillo de Jamón y Champán feels like a small, friendly operation. Serving several bocata de Jamón Ibérico and champagne, this venue’s name is quite literal, but it’s so much more impressive than a ham sammie and wine. Using only the highest quality acorn-fed Iberico ham (aka not the cheap serrano version), chewy-meets-crunchy pan de cristal (similar to ciabatta) and fresh produce, these are well above ordinary. (We recommend sharing as many as possible, but certainly the Paez.) The choices of champagne, cava and wine are broad and, of course, have all been chosen to complement the fare. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and the staff will make you feel just as comfortable spending the entire afternoon there as if you were grabbing a quick late-night bite.

Cannibal Raw Bar

This bright, glossy space looks a little ritzy at first, but the delightful staff and casual approach to good food makes a meal at Cannibal Raw Bar a sublime experience. On the ground level, the restaurant boasts a bistro style—with black and white tiles, shiny bentwood hairpin-style chairs and lots of greenery. But downstairs is entirely different. Head down the stone staircase and you’ll not only find the bathrooms (with a very dimly lit, shared sink) but also a cavernous, dark bar, which comes into its own around cocktail hour. Upstairs however, whether eating lunch or dinner, we recommend the butterfish carpaccio with paprika and red onion, and, even if you think you can’t fit dessert, try.

Galería Juana de Aizpuru

Known for showcasing contemporary art (installations, sculpture, painting, photography and more) from all over the world, Galería Juana de Aizpuru is hidden away in an apartment building—behind an unassuming entryway that you have to be looking for. Up a dimly lit staircase, the gallery opens up into a bright, airy and vast space. While we were visiting, a show by Spain-born, Mexico-based photographer Cristina de Middel was on display and her large, blue-hued images of workers in India were haunting—in the best way. Of course the main event is the art, but the converted home means that there are plenty of Juliet balconies to peer out. Anybody who suffers from art fatigue can take a break and get some fresh air while taking a look down onto the street.

Only YOU Boutique Hotel

The sister hotel to Only YOU Atocha, the boutique location (on Calle Barquillo between the Chueca and Salesas neighborhoods) is a little less social—for those who want a more intimate vibe. There are 125 rooms in this former palace, they are sophisticated and comfortable—with beds framed by navy blue, studded leather walls. With a stunning dining room (with walls covered in blue and white porcelain plates), a cozy lounge room (complete with fireplace), warm bar, and a sun-drenched restaurant and garden seating at the back, the spaces to share with guests and locals are also aplenty. If you can afford it, and if it’s available, the Only YOU Secret room is extra-large, has the only bathtub in the hotel and a huge, unobscured terrace.

Rooftop at Círculo de Bellas Artes

The Rooftop at Círculo de Bellas Artes won’t be the ritziest cocktails you have during your stay in Madrid, but the service is great and the wine list is solid. Most importantly here though is the incredible, almost 360-degree view of the city. The rest of the CBA is made up of galleries, theater, cinema, and spaces for workshops. It costs about €5 to enter the building (but worth it to support the arts) and if you’re planning on seeing a sunset, be sure to plan accordingly as you might wait in a queue downstairs for anywhere between five and 30 minutes. A short walk from Museo Nacional del Prado, it’s a great post-art vibe.

1862 Dry Bar

The sophistication of this craft cocktail bar is delightfully balanced by its dimly lit cellar downstairs—complete with a caged-in area which has a decidedly dungeon vibe. On Calle del Pez, 1862 Dry Bar serves up carefully made cocktails with serious charm, and the bustling, standing-room only weekends reflect that. Get there early to snag a table downstairs. Depending on the time, a midnight snack at one of the Bocadillo de Jamón y Champán locations (right across the street) could also be in order—but this venue is surrounded by even more eateries and bars for you to explore.

Cannibal Raw Bar and 1862 Dry Bar images courtesy of venues, all others by Cool Hunting