I’ve recently compiled my favorite Historic Walks in Madrid in a book with eight historically themed tours. All are self-guided.
If I only had time for one walk in Madrid, I would make it the territory outlined in my Medieval Madrid tour.
It starts at the Puerta del Sol, meanders toward the Plaza Mayor, and then south of it into the heart of Madrid’s surviving medieval neighborhood. There, you can taste the centuries (9th to 11th) when Muslims occupied and made the town a major garrison site. You can see the medieval churches (11th to 15th centuries) some of which were once mosques. You can visit a quiet walled rose garden. And you’ll pass by the Royal Palace, which stands on the original grounds of the Muslim fortress. All along, under your feet are now dried up subterranean waterways. These water sources were the original reason Madrid was such an appealing place to inhabit: Though the Manzanares River flows through town, it was these underground water sources that guaranteed life’s most essential ingredient close at hand. Apparently, the water ran for many centuries and only dried up after 1850.
I often end my Medieval Madrid trek near the Plaza Mayor at the Mercado de San Miguel, a neighborhood covered market that was recently restored and converted into a gourmet covered market with several open-space tapas bars. The atmosphere is always vibrant and convivial and a mix of locals and visitors.
I have other favorite tours, too, depending on my mood. Sometimes I love the tour that walks in the footsteps of Madrid’s artists and writers. As a writer, I love to get a café con leche at the El Gran Café Gijón (Paseo de Recoletos, 21) and feel kinship with writers past and present (you’ll know who they are as they’re all nursing their one drink and scribbling away on a pad of paper before them—very old-fashioned!).
Other days, I love a good Madrid Mystery tour, complete with unsolved crimes and ghosts (including ones fabled to roam the halls of the famous Reina Sofia Museum). And yet other days, I like to follow the Historic Wine Taverns tour with a good appetite, enjoying places that have been serving up the same dishes since the 18th century.
And did you know that it was the 13th century king of Castile and León, Alfonso X, who imposed a law making tapas, little snacks, mandatory when people ordered alcoholic drinks at pubs and inns? The tradition has held to the present, which is why when you order a glass of wine or a beer, the bartender almost always includes a little plate of something to eat. Alfonso X was both concerned about public drunkenness as he was about people’s health and felt it was enhanced with something to eat with wine. It’s been a good tradition and a part of what makes Spanish public culture so appealing.