An insider’s guide to Sol: avoid the tourist traps and beat the Christmas crowds

Photo courtesy of Tom Borton

Madrid is a fantastic place to be at Christmas and nowhere is more festive, and more popular, than the area around Puerta del Sol, Ópera and Plaza Mayor. As well as the usual hordes of foreign tourists, Spaniards from all over Madrid and beyond flock to the city centre to see the Christmas lights, queue up at Doña Manolita for their lottery tickets, shop for nativity supplies in Plaza Mayor and take in the spectacle of Cortylandia. If you plan on doing any of these things, my top piece of advice would be avoid going at the weekends, as the whole centre is utter chaos. During last year’s December puente they even had to temporarily suspend metro services to Sol and make people get off at neighbouring stations, due to the sheer volume of people already in the plaza and surrounding streets.

Whatever day you embark upon your festive jaunt, you’ll no doubt be in need of a break and some refreshment after a while. Christmas shopping can be thirsty work! Many of the bars and restaurants around Puerta del Sol are incredibly touristy or incredibly busy (or both!), so how do you find a decent spot? Read on for our insider’s guide to the hidden gems of the Madrid’s centre.

If you want breakfast…

Churros for breakfast at San Ginés

You’ll need a decent desayuno to set you up for a busy day of shopping and sightseeing, and in time-honoured tradition you might head to San Ginés (Pasadizo de San Ginés 5) or Valor (Calle Postigo de San Martín 7) for some chocolate con churros. Go early if you do, and certainly don’t visit at merienda time as the queues are out of the door. Alternatively, you could try one of these lesser-known spots for breakfast:

Ferpal (Calle Arenal 7)

Many tourists eye up the delicious meats, cheeses and other treats in the windows of this top-quailty delicatessan, but few realise there’s also a bar inside. They serve delicious coffee, croissants, bocatas and sandwiches, all for only a couple of euros. Kill two birds with one stone and pick up a few tasty Christmas presents while you’re here. They normally close on Sundays but will be open over the festive season.

El Riojano (Calle Mayor 10)

El Riojano
Ok, so it’s not exactly a hidden gem, but did you know that this famous pastry shop has a secret tea room in the back? If you have a sweet tooth and you fancy a more relaxing experience than the scrum at La Mallorquina (another must-see, although perhaps at a quieter time of year!), then this is most definitely your place. Read Laura’s more detailed post on El Riojano here.

If you fancy a drink…

Battling your way to the front of the Cortylandia crowd on a Saturday afternoon is enough to make anyone need an alcoholic beverage! (If you’ve never heard of Cortylandia I won’t go into details other than that it’s one of those Spanish traditions that you probably need to see for yourselves. Oh, and this year, it’s penguins.) Here are a couple of my favourite places:

La Torre del Oro (Plaza Mayor 26)

La Torre del Oro
If you’ve been shopping for your Christmas tree or the moss for your nativity, then this bar is extremely handy for a quick beer. The terraza outside is like any other, you need to go inside for the decor that makes this bar special. The waiters are all extremely jolly and dish out tasty tapas with every drink. An Andalusian classic hidden slap-bang in the centre of Madrid.

Matador (Calle de la Cruz 39)

Another bull-themed bar with interesting stuff on the walls, I love this place for its cosy atmosphere, great-value drinks and generous tapas. Its cave-like interior is pretty small so it can get crowded, but if you’re lucky enough to grab a stool you might end up forgetting the shopping and spending all afternoon here!

If you’re hungry…

There are times when tapas just won’t do and you need something more substantial. Try one of these spots for some tasty grub:

El Ñeru (Calle Bordadores 5)

El cachopo. Image from

Cachopo at El Ñeru. Image from El Ñeru’s Facebook

There are plenty of Asturian restaurants around this area but this one is my favourite. You can stand at the bar upstairs and gorge yourself on free tapas (try the cabrales cheese one) and dishes such as their magnificent cachopo, or you can take the weight off your feet and dine in the cavernous restaurant downstairs. It isn’t the cheapest but it’s worth it for the exquisite (and extremely filling!) food and excellent service.

Bar Lambuzo (Calle de las Conchas 9)

Image from

Image from Lambuzo’s Web

If you fancy something a little lighter, stop by this delightful restaurant run by a family from Cadiz. From salmorejo to croquetas to a whole array of pescadito frito, everything on the menu is absolutely delicious, extremely reasonably-priced and will inject a little ray of Andalusian sunshine into even the darkest winter day. Check out Daphne’s post for more information on Bar Lambuzo.

If you need to get away from it all…

Even for the most die-hard Christmas fans, the crowds can sometimes get a bit much. All of these bars are just a short walk from Puerta del Sol and each provides a much-needed oasis of tranquility away from the masses.

Anticafe (Calle Unión 2)

Tucked away on a quiet street near Ópera, Anticafe is a great place to chill out with a coffee, caña or cocktail. The music is great and the decor wonderfully quirky, so just sink into one of their mismatched armchairs, put your feet up and forget all about your festive to-do list.

Casa Pueblo (Calle León 3)

This cosy bar is the perfect antidote to the madness of the Christmas crowds. Let the friendly staff whip you up one of their delicious mojitos or order a tasty slice of cake if you’re in need of some sugar. If you’re lucky you might catch one of their live jazz sessions too.

Plaza Menor (Calle Gómez de Mora 3)

Plaza Menor
Head to this fantastic little drinking den nestled right behind Plaza Mayor for a cocktail, a copa or just a cup of tea. The interior is a maze of low-roofed caves so grab a spot and maybe some of their yummy carrot cake and lose yourself for a couple of hours.
Naked Madrid

Looking for more things to do in Madrid at Christmas time? Check out: