THE BLOG
07/19/2011 02:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

A Student's Guide To Backpacking: Madrid

A city with a storied past, Madrid has played host to royalty and dictators alike. Now - decades after the fall of Franco's regime - Madrilenos have begun to make up for lost time by, well. losing time. Experiencing Madrid is about experiencing the art of relaxation, enjoying life one siesta at a time.

However, that is not to say that the people of Madrid are lazy. When they're not working day jobs, thousands can be found working the streets until the late hours of the night, sampling tapas and sharing a few laughs with friends. I've lived in New York City for the last couple of years but, after this foray into the heart of Spain, I'm beginning to wonder who truly deserves the title of "The City That Never Sleeps".

Food & Drink
Casa Botin - The oldest restaurant in the world and the haunt of many a celebrity, Casa Botin is a piece of living history in the middle of a city that exudes culture. Described by name by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, Botin features traditional Spanish fare and service, their specialty being a roast suckling pig. While it is certainly not the cheapest dinner option in Madrid, Botin is certainly not the most expensive and - considering the history of the restaurant - the cost is worth the experience. And, let me say, that the suckling pig is delicious. (Cost: €20/person)

Mercat de San Miguel - Mercat de San Miguel, while considerably smaller that 'Boqueria' in Barcelona, makes up for it's stature with high-quality produce and meats. Enclosed in glass and air conditioned, while walking through the market you'll believe that you've never seen fruit so bright. Sampling the glistening cured Spanish ham that hangs from the ceiling is a must-do for any one that is not a vegetarian. And you vegetarians may want to consider taking a break for a few minutes to try some yourselves.

Sights
La Tabacalera - La Tabacalera is an enigma that can only be described as... a Spanish, hipster version of your local YMCA. But better. Because I hate hipsters. All joking aside, La Tabacalera is a partially renovated, yet slightly derelict, former tobacco factory that was turned into a social haven for Madrid's young free-thinkers. Walls are covered with amateur murals, halls are graced with sculptures, all of which could grace galleries at the most pretentious of Manhattan art auctions. Tabacalera lacks pomp and circumstance and regulars often advertise and host classes in art, music and dance for the general public. The thriving artistic scene, coupled with frequent outdoor film screenings and it's own pub, make La Tabacalera a social hub of one of Madrid's most progressive neighborhoods.

Reina Sofia - Contemporary art often lacks the mass appeal that other forms of art generally garner. I, myself, don't much care for post-19th century work but - with that in mind - I still say that Madrid's Reina Sofia is not to be missed. The cornerstone of their collection is Picasso's Guernica, a reaction to the German bombing of the piece's namesake during the Spanish Civil War. While I personally don't care for Picasso's style, seeing the emotion of Guernica in person - in the brushstrokes and the grotesquely distorted face of the people depicted - is an especially moving experience. Everyone knows about the Prado, but make sure that you have the Reina Sofia down as a "must-see".

El Rastro - Flea markets are a backpacker's paradise and, as such, El Rastro is not to be missed. As flea markets go, it's rather large and is the perfect place to pick up a spare shirt, belt or souvenir to hold on to or send home. Keep in mind, though, that if you see something early on in the market, you will typically see the same exact product for a couple Euro cheaper farther down the market.

Want more Madrid? Check out Mike Yarbrough's (travel) blog: The Long Way Home.