It’s stupid o’clock in the morning and you’ve just landed at Madrid–Barajas Airport. Puffy and miserable and strewn with crumbs from a half-eaten croissant, you’re torn between seizing the day and succumbing to a plush hotel bed. Trust us—in Madrid, it’s worth soldiering on. Just-swept cobblestone streets glow with buttery light. Breakfast counters brim with fresh, hot churros. Coffee cups clink onto saucers and newspapers crinkle between fingers. Museums and parks are crowdless and invite quiet contemplation: Being awake this early is like having a VIP pass to the city’s top sites—for the paltry price of a few yawns. Madrid may be known for its nightlife, but its mornings are just as magical. Here are our favorite ways to make the most of Madrid before noon.
Caffeinate, Spanish style
Throughout Spain, cheap, over-toasted beans and cartoned UHT milk are the standard café con leche ingredients, so if you know your pour-overs from your coldbrews, it pays to know where the coffee geeks go to caffeinate. In Madrid, Hola Coffee and Misión Café epitomize the city’s third-wave coffee renaissance: Opened in the last year or so, these sister coffee shops pull complex, fruity brews from single-origin beans that they roast themselves. (Attention, brunchers: Misión’s internationally inflected menu punches well above its weight.) They have a new competitor in Acid Café, a Nordic-style outpost steps from the Reina Sofía Museum with polished concrete walls, minimalist décor, and a health-conscious food menu.
Of course, all of Madrid’s cafés aren’t Brooklynized hipster hangouts. There’s no shortage of snug European charm at Café de la Luz, whose elbow-worn wood, floral motifs, and mismatched furniture will make you want to stay awhile.
Pound the pavement
Exercising might be the last thing you want to do after a long flight, but your stiff, knotty legs will thank you later. Lace up your trainers and head to the Parque del Buen Retiro (“Reti” to locals), where perennially packed paths are happily devoid of slow walkers. Bring your phone along to snap pics of the Palacio de Cristal, a fairytale-like glass greenhouse built in 1887, and the Estanque, a man-made lake hemmed in by stone promenades and a sprawling bronze-and-marble colonnade memorializing King Alfonso XII. If three miles—the distance of the Retiro’s perimeter—won’t cut it, explore the labyrinthine trails of Casa de Campo, Madrid’s largest and wildest park clocking in at six times the size of Central Park, or run along Madrid Río, whose 30 kilometers (19 miles) of newly laid esplanade take you past the 18th-century Toledo Bridge and early-baroque Ermita de la Virgen del Puerto, a defunct hermitage.
Indulge in chocolate-dipped churros
One of Madrid’s great hedonistic pleasures, chocolate con churros is an unbeatable breakfast worth its caloric punch. Chocolatería San Ginés is the unrivaled fan favorite, Madrid’s answer to New Orleans’ Café du Monde, and its master churreros have been plating the slender Spanish doughnuts by the dozen since 1894. But there’s a hitch—though we love San Ginés’s shatteringly crisp churros, its dipping chocolate is blander than Ovaltine. If you’re a discerning chocoholic, make a beeline instead for Chocolat, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall whose thick, bittersweet chocolate caliente cuts no corners on quality.
Have a museum (mostly) to yourself
Madrid is a museum-goer’s paradise, and its famed Golden Triangle of art—bounded by the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums—draws tourists by the thousands day in and day out. Being first in line means you’ll have a window of quiet time to take in the Picassos, Goyas, and Velázquezes before the high schoolers and tourbus crowds arrive mid-morning. Lesser-known museums such as the Museo Sorolla, housed in the eponymous painter’s mansion, and Museo Cerralbo, a lavishly appointed marquis’s palace, feel especially intimate at this hour.
Learn the art of the almuerzo
Spaniards traditionally eat five meals a day, and the almuerzo, or second breakfast, is a ritual worth defending. When mid-morning hunger strikes, locals flock to bars and coffee shops for a light snack and mid-morning coffee (or vermouth, if it’s the weekend). A fat slice of tortilla española, Spain’s ubiquitous potato omelet, is classic almuerzo fare; tuck into one of the city’s best renditions at Casa Dani, a no-frills abuelo bar hidden in the back corner of Mercado de la Paz, a neighborhood market that, unlike Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado de San Antón, hasn’t succumbed to yuppification. For a true-blue Madrid experience, order your tortilla con callos, heaped with spicy stewed tripe.
Explore a new neighborhood
First it was Malasaña, then it was Conde Duque, and now it’s Lavapiés: Madrid’s trendiest barrio seems to change overnight. As the city’s most culturally diverse neighborhood, Lavapiés has an edgy, fresh energy that makes it stand out against the staid, conservative districts to its north. After sipping a leisurely cup of coffee at Hola (see above), wander over to Plaza de la Corrala, a square named for the communal housing style that used to be omnipresent in Madrid; the apartment block on the east side of the plaza is one of the city’s last surviving examples. Then head south on Calle de Embajadores to the Tabacalera, a tobacco-factory-turned-art-squat whose interior walls pop with thought-provoking graffiti. (The adjacent museum sharing the same name is known for its eclectic art displays.) Round out your self-guided tour with a caña—Madrid slang for a half-pint—and a tapa at Taberna de Antonio Sánchez, a dusty old tavern founded in 1786, under the gaze of taxidermied bulls’ heads.
The Spanish saying A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda (“God helps the early riser”) rings true at the Rastro, the rough-and-ready flea market that takes place every Sunday in the La Latina neighborhood. The best spoils—from antique watches to painted ceramics to Franco-era stamps and coins—go to those who arrive first. Vendors can spot foreigners from a mile away, so be ready to bargain for whatever you buy. You can uncover vintage treasures every other day of the week at nearby shops such as La Recova (mid-century furniture), La Casquería (books priced by the pound), Fotocasión (collectible cameras and rare film types), and Morgan Surplus (second-hand clothes, costume jewelry, and army uniforms).