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The highlight | Madrid, Spain

Eating and drinking through Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel.
 (Photograph: Ra�l Aguilar)
Photograph: Ra�l AguilarMercado San Miguel
 (Photograph: Lisa Shames)
Photograph: Lisa ShamesPoncelet Cheese Bar
 (Photograph: Lisa Shames)
Photograph: Lisa ShamesAlicia Hotel
 (Photograph: Lisa Shames)
Photograph: Lisa ShamesLa Venencia
By Lisa Shames |

The last time I walked through the Mercado de San Miguel, one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid, the beautiful Beaux Arts building was empty apart from a few sparsely stocked vegetable kiosks and some misguided pigeons flying near its soaring iron-and-wood ceiling. I sadly chalked up its neglect to one of the side effects of being located in a city lousy with architectural wonders.

But a few years later, after an extensive restoration, it’s a much different story. The only grief I feel now meandering among the 33 vendors—who offer paella, vermouth on tap, croquetas, bocadillos of pata negra (the coveted cured ham from black-hoofed, acorn-fed pigs), marinated olives and even cookbooks, plus raw products like seafood and produce—is that it wasn’t like this when I lived in Madrid.

And that it’s three deep at La Casa del Bacalao, where I’m frantically trying to get the attention of one of the workers standing behind the glass display cases so I can order a tapa of marinated bacalao (cod). Or maybe it’s the tuna belly–topped toast that I want. No, wait, it’s definitely the octopus, slick with olive oil and dotted with pimentón (smoked paprika). Oh, heck, at a euro apiece (about $1.30), I can get all three.

That’s a scenario I find myself repeating over and over again at this Spanish-food amusement park, where each stall is more enticing than the next. Best-case scenario: Make multiple trips, as I do.

It’s not just tourists fresh from visiting neighboring Plaza Mayor, the iconic city square, who are packing into the Mercado until 10pm (2am Thursday–Sunday); locals, too, have warmed up to this mix of old and new, where dishes from all over Spain—think oysters from Galicia, salt-kissed potatoes with mojo sauce from the Canary Islands—are represented.

When it was built in 1916, the Mercado, with its iron-and-glass facade, was a monument to modernism. But by the ’90s, its once-bustling aisles of shoppers on the hunt for ingredients for that day’s meals were mostly abandoned, as I saw in 2006. In 2003, a group of private investors bought the building and six years later it reopened with its new focus on prepared food.

Fans of Barcelona’s scruffy-by-comparison La Boqueria market—myself included—might find fault with Mercado de San Miguel’s hip double-M logo and pristine interior, complete with white tiles, high-top tables and, during the sweltering summer months, a cooling system that bathes shoppers in a mist of micro-rain. But frankly, I’m too busy plotting my next food fix to care.

I squeeze past the crowds lining up for paper cones filled with bite-size dried sausages and cured meats—brilliant idea!—and decide that a glass of the house rioja from Pinkleton & Wine is what I need to accompany my search. I linger at one of the pastry vendors, admiring the brightly colored macarons and mantecados, cookies made with pork fat, but decide I still haven’t had enough savory items yet. Caviar with a shot of chilled Russian vodka, perhaps?

Toward the corner of the market, I find one booth I managed to miss on my previous laps. I get closer and peer inside the glass case: sushi. While the beautifully made rolls look tasty, I pass. After all, I can find supermarket sushi back home.

GET THERE Nonstop June flights to Madrid (about nine hours) average $1,100–$1,400.

More to do

Where to eat
lovers have a friend in Poncelet Cheese Bar, a stylish restaurant—check out the 300-square-foot wall of plants—that features some 146 cheeses and a slew of cheese-centric dishes.

Where to stay
Alicia, one of four Spanish-owned, hip Room Mate Hotels ($130/night and up) in Madrid, has brightly colored rooms and is located spitting distance from Plaza de Santa Ana and its abundance of tapas bars.

Where to drink
La Venencia
(Echegaray, 7) is all about Spanish sherries and a no-frills atmosphere. And forget about having to ask to see la cuenta: Your bill is tallied in chalk on the worn wood bar.

More to explore