A good way to get into the swing of this exhilarating city is to visit a few of its many markets. Madrileños still like to buy their fruit, vegetables, meat and fish at traditional covered markets, but shinier gourmet versions have been emerging all over town in recent years. In some cases these are revamps of existing food markets that were struggling in the face of the competition from supermarkets – such as the madly popular San Miguel near the Plaza Mayor – while others are totally new. Some mix conventional stalls with tapas bars, and others are more like gastronomic food courts, often with the involvement of a renowned chef or two, where people buy a plate of prawns from one stall and half a dozen oysters from another and then jostle for a space somewhere to eat their selections. MadrEat, which brings together a few dozen food trucks, has been a huge success since it started a year ago. It takes place once a month from spring to autumn but is likely to happen more often and at more locations in the near future. Some markets are not all about food either. The Rastro street market attracts huge crowds every Sunday and there are an increasing number of other interesting monthly markets in indoor and outdoor venues specialising in vintage clothes and furniture as well as original art and design.
San Antón, in the Chueca neighbourhood just off the Gran Vía, used to be a traditional market but was rebuilt with galleried floors to make room for tapas places and deli stalls too, slotting straight into the area’s hip vibe. This is still a market where locals can shop, although the tomatoes are now polished, the meat is organic, the shellfish arrangements could pass for artworks and the beans and lentils gleam like jewels in sacks. There is usually an exhibition on and there might be some sort of gastronomic event as well. At Murua you can try olive oils from all over Spain before deciding which ones you would like to take home with you – many come in handy small bottles. Stop off at 7 Delicatessen to taste the specialities and wines of the Canary Islands, or head to Delicious Coffee for a caffeine fix with a slab of homemade cake. And don’t miss the bull-tail burgers with crystal-like Payoyo cheese from Cádiz at the Volapié Andalusian tapas stall. But what you really need to know is that on the top floor there is a terrace with a rather groovy bar with views across the rooftops. Slip onto a stool for a cheeky afternoon cocktail.
This huge cinema has been transformed into a spectacular gastronomic hub on several levels where you can pick and choose from stalls that showcase foods from all over Spain and beyond. During the day, well-groomed customers take refuge from the designer boutiques on nearby Serrano Street to rest their feet while tucking into a salad from La Huerta de Merchina or a restorative bowl of lentil stew from De Cuchara. People pop in to pick up juices, smoothies and snacks at Gold Gourmet for a picnic in the Buen Retiro Park, or to grab a naughty cake from Mama Framboise. At night, it’s all about the cocktails at El Palco, accompanied by Ibérico ham, sushi, ceviche or tacos. Top Spanish chefs including Ramón Freixa, Paco Roncero, Marcos Morán and Pepe Solla are behind some of the outlets and there are often cooking demonstrations and food and wine tastings too, as well as exhibitions and performances. Later on, live music and DJs liven things up as the crowds pour in. Just as well there is plenty of room for dancing.
Antón Martín, between the Reina Sofía contemporary art museum and Plaza de Santa Ana, has been in business for 75 years and is still very much a proper local market – there is a stall specialising in offal – but it has an increasing selection of interesting gourmet stalls too, such as La Mar de Algas, which sells all sorts of seaweed products from Galicia. If you hear a distant clacking and stamping, it’s coming from the flamenco school on the top floor. Rather than just wandering around, get the insider experience on a tour of the market and the traditional shops in the streets around it with Devour Madrid. This means you can find out what those weird vegetables actually are, and if you are brave enough, let your guide talk you through those unidentifiable bits of animal and the rather scary fish on the slab. At Donde Sánchez, you can try wines from regions you might not know and pick up foodie gifts too. Near the market, Mantequeria Cabello is a family-run grocery store that has been in business since 1877, making it the oldest shop in Madrid. Colourful cans of tuna and jars of red peppers line the shelves behind the counter, where Ángel and Mario Cabello serve their many regular customers with a smile as they discuss the goings-on in the barrio. It’s as if supermarkets had never been invented.
What is the fascination with old keys? Who knows, but at the Rastro flea market there is always someone crouching on the pavement sifting through a pile of them with an earnest look on their face. Trawling around the sprawling street market looking at random tat has long been a favourite activity in Madrid – particularly if you haven’t actually made it to bed and are just merrily carrying on from Saturday night (which is standard rather than extreme behaviour in the Spanish capital, by the way). Head for the main drag on Ribera de Curtidores but veer off into the side streets and dive into tiny shops selling antiques, vintage clothes and old records. You will buy something you never knew you wanted. Along the way, pop into the frantic Cruz bar for some razor clams or Casa Amadeo around the corner, better known as Los Caracoles, for a steaming bowl of snails (it makes sense when you are there). Turn another corner and you are clamouring for a tantalising plate of fried sardines at Bar Santurce. Next door, people are queuing at Aceitunas Jiménez, which is packed with tubs of olives and pickled vegetables – try the baby aubergines. Meander downhill and you end up queuing again at El Capricho Extremeño for a hunk of bread topped with sizzling prawns in garlic. If you have been up all night, you should be recovering nicely by now.