No one forgets Madrid. Whether discovering the city while studying abroad, when nights are filled with dancing followed by churros and hot chocolate at dawn, or enjoying its endless Rioja wine and jamón on a whirlwind European honeymoon, the Spanish capital offers experiences for all the senses — and plenty of surprises.
While Spain’s coastal cities entice with their rugged sun-bleached cliffs, seafood, archeological ruins and hedonistic beaches, Madrid holds a darker mystery, one of smoky, cave-like bars on winding alleys, and the famous poems, novels, political rebellions, flamenco ballads and romances created within.
Established by the Moorish caliph Muhammad I in the ninth century during centuries of Muslim rule, Madrid was from its birth an unlikely center for a nation that would eventually rule and plunder multiple continents a world away. Though the city is at the basin of the Manzanares river, Madrid is dry and unbearably hot in summer, and often cloaked in smog because of the lack of sea winds. But the mysterious pull unique to Madrid must have existed even for centuries as it was continually invaded by the Romans, Germanic Visigoths and French.
Following its glory years of conquering the New World, Spain was long cast aside as Europe’s poor, gregarious and anything-goes playground. Francisco Franco’s 39-year-long brutal dictatorship helped keep the capital locked in the past, missing its chance to modernize at the same pace as London, Paris and other cosmopolitan European cities. Once Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975, Madrid became a symbol for the country’s recovery. Now visitors are just as likely to encounter contemporary Spanish design boutiques as historical architectural treasures. This is Madrid’s charm: her history and present constantly blend into something novel and transfixing.
On a first visit to Madrid, hitting the highlights, including two of Europe’s finest art collections, is a must. The Museo Nacional del Prado was inaugurated in 1819 by King Ferdinand VII as a showcase for the royal art collection. The museum is home to works by Spanish greats Goya, Velázquez and El Greco, plus Renaissance religious scenes and 17th-century depictions of the conquest of South America by lesser-known Spanish painters. Fast-forward to the present at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, a post-Franco temple of 20th-century modernism in a converted 16th-century hospital, with classics by Dalí, Miró and Picasso, whose famous commentary on the Spanish Civil War, “Guernica,” is on the second floor. Despite the country’s multiple distinct regional languages, contemporary Spanish society is based on national cultural commonality. This camaraderie is on display in many of the outdoor cafes on the central Plaza Mayor. From the streets outside, the structures hiding the plaza don’t reveal their breathtaking interior: a trip back in time to the late 18th century under the Hapsburg dynasty, when the plaza was rebuilt after a series of fires, to a majestic square enclosed on four sides by red buildings topped with turrets, with hundreds of balconies looking out over passersby gathered below.
With a cold clara (beer with lemonade) on a warm night, the square is an ideal spot for reveling in Madrid’s history and a bit of contemporary people-watching — local families come for evening strolls, and throughout the year there are concerts, stamp shows and even celebrations of the city’s patron saint, San Isidro. For a bite afterward, the newly renovatedMercado de San Miguel,a public market for nearly 200 years, boasts dozens of tapas bars amidst stalls selling produce, fish and baked goods. This is an ideal place to get handfuls of Marcona almonds, slices of jamón and perfectly cooked mussels.
With newfound stamina, stroll a few blocks to the Puerta del Sol, which is at the center of Spain’s national road network, dubbed the “kilometer zero.” The plaza has been at the center of Madrid life for centuries, for everything from royal receptions to popular rebellions, and is the site of New Year’s Eve countdowns, which end with Spaniards stuffing twelve grapes into their mouths for good luck — a ritual invented in 1909 as a stroke of marketing genius by the country’s grape growers to boost sales after an unusually bountiful harvest. It is now a tradition across the Spanish-speaking world. On one corner is the quintessential national department store, El Corte Inglés, where everything from souvenirs to what may become a new favorite outfit or pair of boots can be purchased. Nightclubs nearby, such as Joy Eslava, heat up past midnight.
Madrid’s growing crop of design hotels translate the city’s present and past into unique accommodations. Hotel Urban pairs ultra-modern furniture with wood sculptures, and Vincci Vía 66 has a sleek minimalist aesthetic, all the way up to the rooftop bar with an expansive view over the city. A block from Vincci Vía 66 is the city’s self-proclaimed “most delicious museum:” the Museo del Jamón, an old-Madrid-style restaurant centered around Spain’s famous aged ham.
Know the city like a local
After hitting the traditional hotspots, get to know Madrid like a local. Start by adopting a barrio, such as bohemian Malasaña, a mix ofentrenched and newly transplanted residents, including thriving gay and immigrant shopkeeper communities. Named for Manuela Malasaña, a young seamstress executed under French rule in 1808 for carrying a weapon — her scissors —to an uprising of madrileños, the neighborhood was the epicenter of the la movida counterculture movement in the late 1970s and 1980s after Franco’s death, bringing to the world the creative talents of musicians, artists and filmmakers (including Pedro Almodóvar) who could finally express themselves.
Meander Malasaña’s narrow cobblestoned streets, stopping at specialized mom-and-pop shops such as comics trove Elektra. Fill up on a hearty meat-and-potatoes lunch at Taberna de Pez alongside businesspeople downing red wine mixed with soda, or spend the evening at a table on a plaza savoring spinach pizza topped with pine nuts, feta and raisins at Lamucca. Tiny new boutiques also abound in Malasaña; Wanda, which is full of avant-garde Spanish designs for men and women, is a highlight. But beware: No matter how modern Madrid becomes, many shops still close for a siesta from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
If all the walking, shopping and eating becomes exhausting, discover Madrid’s most relaxing secret. Make sure to make a reservation at Medina Mayrit, an Arab bathhouse invoking Spain’s Moorish legacy, just a short walk from the main train station. For 90 minutes, and just 38 euros, take your pick of warm, cold or hot baths, topped off with a visit to the sauna, a 15-minute massage and sweet mint tea streaming from a spigot in the wall. To prolong the escape, stay for lunch or dinner at the restaurant onsite, specializing in fusion of Middle Eastern and Spanish flavors, such as tajines with couscous, with belly dancers for entertainment. Pick up music from the medina at Mayrit’s bazaar, which also sells soaps and tea.
The best way to eke out a few last Madrid moments is by spending a Sunday outside. In the morning, check out the Rastro, a blocks-long flea market in the neighborhood where madrileños have been hawking leather and used clothes for centuries. (The market’s name, Spanish for ‘trail,’ comes from the trails of blood flowing onto the streets from local slaughterhouses as far back as the late 1400s.) Ogle and barter for everything from art to used clothing, but keep wallets hidden, as the Rastro is known for its pickpocket problem.
Finally, devote the afternoon to the Parque del Buen Retiro. The royal family gifted the enormous park to city residents in the 19th century, and in addition to manicured gardens and sculptures, now there are paddleboats, street performers, ice-cream vendors, and — on summer Sundays at lunchtime — free classical music concerts by the Banda Sinfónica de Madrid. But the most enjoyable way to experience the park is a lo madrileño: a few hours with a picnic, blanket and Sunday paper under the shade of the perfect tree.
Lygia Navarro is a radio and print reporter, and a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review.
If You Go...
What to See, Do & Eat
Museo Nacional del Prado, Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, +34-91-330-2800, 12 euros, open seven days a week
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Calle Santa Isabel 52, +34-91-774-1000, 6 euros or free with valid college ID, closed on TuesdayPlaza Mayor, near the intersection of Calle Mayor and Calle de Bordadores
Mercado de San Miguel, Calle Cava de San Miguel, accessible from the west exit of the Plaza,
Puerta del Sol, where Calle Mayor meets Calle de las Carretas
El Corte Inglés, Calle Preciados 1, +34-91-379-8000
Joy Eslava, Calle del Arenal 11, +34-91-366-3733
Taberna de Pez, Calle Pez 36, +34-91-521-0448
, Plaza Carlos Cambronero 4, +34-91-521-0000
Elektra, Calle de San Bernardo 20, +34-91-521-3975
Wanda, Calle de Manuela Malasaña 23, +34-91-593-1735
Medina Mayrit, Calle Atocha 14, +34-90-233-3334
Rastro, Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, 8am to 3pm, Sundays and holidays
Parque del Buen Retiro, numerous entrances, including one at the Plaza de la Independencia
Museo del Jamón, Gran Via 72, +34-91-431-7296
Where to Stay