Alas, the days in London are shrinking yet again. But just because summer is over does not mean you have to put your passport back in the draw!
The shoulder season that follows a European summer is perhaps my favourite time to travel. Pick the destination right and the weather can still be warm, plus the kids are back at school and prices are considerably lower than their extortionate summer peak.
While it’s hard to pass up one last beach holiday in September, as the weather becomes more unreliable and the days dim in October and November, it becomes easier to trade in the sand and surf for one of Europe’s inland metropolises.
I think Madrid is one of those cities that’s perfect to visit at this time of year. Spain’s capital may divide some people (its appeal isn’t as immediately apparent as Barcelona’s), but once you get under its skin, you’re rewarded with an astonishing breadth of food, culture and nightlife that will keep you more than occupied, no matter what the weather decides to do.
Here are five reasons why I think autumn is a great time to visit Madrid:
1. You can make the most of summer’s dying breath
Madrid melts in the height of summer. It has no qualms hitting 40 degrees on a regular basis, and being an inland city with a bias for concrete over greenery, it’s pretty hard to escape the heat during the day. It all makes the prospect of sightseeing, or simply moving, a rather nauseating affair.
However, September through November is much more pleasant. On my recent trip in late October, the days were low- to mid-20’s; and even the nights were milder that I had anticipated. It makes getting out and exploring the city a much more manageable affair at this time of year.
Use it as an opportunity to explore Madrid by foot – particularly around the majestic Gran Via or the baroque Royal Palace. Or do as the Madrileños do and enjoy an aimless stroll through the tranquil Buen Retiro Park on a Sunday when most shops are closed.
2. There’s plenty to do indoors
If the weather does take a nasty turn, Madrid has plenty of options for spending the day indoors – in particular, some world-renown galleries.
The Prado is Spain’s national gallery and definitely worth a visit to see classics from the European Masters. But every time I go to Madrid, I’m drawn to Reina Sofía, which is dedicated to 20th century Spanish art. Its main drawcard is Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, which depicts the suffering inflicted during the Spanish civil war. It’s sombre and brutal, and makes an emotional impact that few other Picasso paintings manage to accomplish (but what do I know? I find Geordie Shore entertaining).
For a newer addition to the cultural scene, check out the Palacio de Cibeles. This stunning building used to house Madrid’s post office, and will leave you gasping “THAT used to be a post office?!” Since 2011 it’s become a public space, housing temporary exhibitions and concerts, and also boasts an observation deck overlooking the city.
3. You can focus on eating like a local
Madrid is one of the gastronomic centres of Europe – I’d say up there with Paris and London. From hearty traditional fare (think stews and suckling pig) to Michelin-starred restaurants, it has it all. The sights of Madrid you can see in a day, but exploring its food scene will take you much longer.
I’m not even going to pretend I know the best places to eat in Madrid – I’ve barely scratched the surface. But here are some places that stood out on my recent trip:
Juana La Loca (in the La Lantina neighbourhood)
Juana La Loca is a modern pinxtos bar serving up some creative concoctions. As well as more traditional pinxtos, the menu includes whole sections of ‘fanciful pintxos’ (think smoked eel and hazelnut gratin millefeuilles) and ‘intense pintxos’ (such as roast beef, foie gras and baked apple).
I loved the truffled seabass, and the sirloin fillet with quail egg pintxos. But despite all the creativity and exotic ingredients, the humble tortilla still managed to be the standout.
Sala de despieces (Chamberi neighbourhood)
If you like your dinner served with a side of theatrics, Sala de Despieces is for you. It’s very much a concept restaurant, but still serves up some outstanding food.
Sala de Despeices means the cutting room, which is apt given the place has a strong resemblance to a butcher’s. To add to the effect, each course is served by waiters who mould, combine or torch the dishes as they’re presented at the table. I loved the Aztec-style beef ‘tacos’, served in cactus leaf instead of a traditional taco shell.
You can only reserve seats at the communal table, which is in a separate room that’s reminiscent of a commercial freezer (or Dexter’s kill room). While it’s cool (don’t worry, not literally), the main room offers a better vibe – just get there early or be prepared to wait.
KultO (Retiro neighbourhood)
After you’ve spent some time exploring Retiro park, venture east to KultO on Calle Ibiza.
KultO may be a tapas restaurant, but it takes inspiration from across the globe, particularly Asia and Mexico. The standout here was their tuna dishes. The deconstructed tuna taco in particular may have looked nothing like a taco, but was absolutely packed with flavour.
KultO is set over two levels – upstairs takes reservations but is more formal. Try your luck at scoring a spot in the bustling ground level restaurant, which is very popular with the locals.
Coffee in Madrid
Coffee in Europe is more often hit than miss (I’m not referring to you Italy). But Spain has a marvellous little invention called the cortado, which is similar to an espresso macchiato but with equal parts coffee and milk. It’s very hard to get wrong, so you can safely get your caffeine fix almost anywhere in Madrid.
If you’re still hankering for a flat white, try Federal Café. It’s an Aussie-inspired café, so you can be confident in the knowledge that you’re going to get some top-notch coffee! (Thanks to Bella and Zoe for the recommendation!)
4. It’s perfectly fine to spend the whole day in Mercardo de San Miguel
As the days cool, I can’t think of anything I like to do more than graze the day away. Mercado de San Miguel is a foodie heaven, and my absolute favourite way to spend a day in Madrid.
The wrought iron and glass market sits right beside Plaza Mayor, but it’s a far cry from the tourist traps nearby. It’s a culinary delight, filled with stalls selling freshly made pinxtos and tapas, not to mention a healthy selection of beers, cava and wine. Find a table, grab a bottle and just spend the day sampling everything that’s on offer.
5. Madrid’s night game is strong year-round
Recovering Having a lie-in is a less guilty affair when the weather isn’t amazing. Which is a good thing, because Madrileños like to party hard, and long into the night next day.
Like its food scene, Madrid has something to offer everyone when it comes to nightlife – it’s said to have the most bars per capita in Europe. I particularly appreciate the city’s appreciation of gin. When the house gin of the dodgiest bar is Tanqueray, you know that it’s taken seriously. Gin here is served in a fishbowl, with proportions that will knock your socks off.
To kick off your night, try a cocktail at Del Diego in Chueca. Don’t be fooled by the muted décor; this one’s all about classic cocktails, expertly done. Or check out one of Madrid’s many rooftop bars, which can still be enjoyed at this time of year. Try Radio bar at the ME hotel if you’re looking to impress, or for something more casual, the Mercado de San Anton in Chueca also has a decent roof terrace.
Beyond that, it’s up to you. Just remember, what happens in Madrid, stays in Madrid.
Quick tips when travelling to Madrid