Madrid became Spain’s capital simply by virtue of its geographical position at the heart of Iberia. When Felipe II moved the seat of government here in 1561, his aim was to create a symbol of the unification and centralization of the country, and a capital from which he could receive the fastest post and communication from every corner of the nation. The site itself had few natural advantages – it is 300km from the sea on a 650m-high plateau, freezing in winter, boiling in summer – and it was only the determination of successive rulers to promote a strong central capital that ensured Madrid’s survival and development.
Today, Madrid is a vast, predominantly modern city, with a population of some four million and growing. The journey in – through a stream of soulless suburbs and high-rise apartment blocks – isn’t pretty, but the streets at the heart of the city are a pleasant surprise, with pockets of medieval buildings and narrow, atmospheric alleys, dotted with the oddest of shops and bars, and interspersed with eighteenth-century Bourbon squares. Compared with the historic cities of Spain – Toledo, Salamanca, Seville, Granada – there may be few sights of great architectural interest, but the monarchs did acquire outstanding picture collections, which formed the basis of the Prado museum. This, together with the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, state-of-the-art homes to fabulous arrays of modern Spanish painting (including Picasso’s Guernica) and European and American masters, has made Madrid a top port-of-call on the European art tour.
Aside from these heavyweight cultural attractions, there is a host of smaller museums and palaces which can be almost as rewarding. Sports fans will inevitably be drawn to the Santiago Bernabéu, home to one of the most glamorous and successful clubs in world football, Real Madrid, while a scattering of parks and gardens provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
However, monuments and sights are not really what Madrid is about and as you get to grips with the place, you soon realize that it’s the lifestyle of the inhabitants – the madrileños – that is the capital’s key attraction: hanging out in traditional cafés or summer terrazas, packing the lanes of the Sunday Rastro flea market or playing hard and very late in a thousand bars, clubs, discos and tascas. Whatever Barcelona or San Sebastián might claim, the Madrid scene, immortalized in the movies of Pedro Almodóvar, remains the most vibrant and fun in the country.
The city centre is also now in better shape than for many years as a result of the impact of a series of urban rehabilitation programmes – funded jointly by the European Union and local government – in the city’s older barrios (districts). Improvements have been made to the transport network, with extensions to the metro, the construction of new ring roads, and the excavation of a series of road tunnels designed to bring relief to Madrid’s congested streets. The area around the River Manzanares, in particular, has been subject to an ambitious regeneration scheme aimed at turning the river into a focal point for leisure and recreation. The downside to all the redevelopment is that the city still appears to spend much of the time belly-up because of the interminable roadworks and civil-engineering projects.
Madrid’s history dates back to the ninth century when Muslims established a defensive outpost on the escarpment above the River Manzanares which later became known as “Mayrit” – the place of many springs.
It remained a relatively insignificant backwater until 1561 when Felipe II designated the city his imperial capital by virtue of its position at the heart of the recently unified Spain. The cramped street plan in the city centre provides a clue as to what the city would have been like at this time and the narrow alleys around the Plaza Mayor are still among Madrid’s liveliest and most atmospheric. With the Bourbons replacing the Habsburgs at the start of the eighteenth century, a touch of French style, including the sumptuous Palacio Real, was introduced into the capital by Felipe V.
It was the “King-Mayor” Carlos III, however, who tried to convert the city into a home worthy of the monarchy after he ascended to the throne in 1759, ordering the streets to be cleaned, sewers and lighting to be installed and work to begin on the Prado museum complex.
The early nineteenth century brought invasion and turmoil to Spain as Napoleon established his brother Joseph (or José to Spaniards) on the throne. Madrid, however, continued to flourish, gaining some very attractive buildings and squares, including the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Santa Ana. With the onset of the twentieth century, the capital became the hotbed of the political and intellectual discussions that divided the country; tertulias (political/philosophical discussion circles) sprang up in cafés across the city (some of them are still going) as the country entered the turbulent years of the end of the monarchy and the foundation of the Second Republic.
Madrid was a Republican stronghold during the Civil War, with fierce battles raging around the capital as Franco’s troops laid siege to the city, eventually taking control in 1939. The Civil War, of course, caused untold damage, and led to forty years of isolation. The city’s great spread to suburbia began during the Franco era and it has continued unabated ever since, with unbridled property speculation taking its toll on the green spaces that surround the capital. Franco also extended the city northwards along the spinal route of the Paseo de la Castellana, to accommodate his ministers and minions during development extravaganzas of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Spanish capital has changed immeasurably, however, in the three decades since Franco’s death, initially guided by a poet-mayor, the late Tierno Galván. His efforts – the creation of parks and renovation of public spaces and public life – left an enduring legacy, and were a vital ingredient of the movida madrileña “the happening Madrid” with which the city broke through in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, the centre-right Partido Popular has been in control, bringing with it a more restrictive attitude towards bar and club licensing. Unfortunately, there has also been a simultaneous tendency towards homogenization with the rest of Europe as franchised fast-food joints and coffee bars spring up all over the place. Nevertheless, in making the transition from provincial backwater to major European capital, Madrid has still managed to preserve its own stylish and quirky identity.
There are dozens of fiestas in Madrid, some of which involve the whole city, others just an individual barrio. The more important dates celebrated in the capital are listed below.
Also well worth checking out are cultural festivals organized by the city council, in particular the Veranos de la Villa (July–Sept) and Festival de Otoño (Sept–Nov). Many events are free and, in the summer, often open air, taking place in the city’s parks and squares. Annual festivals for alternative theatre (Feb), flamenco (Feb), books (end May), dance (April & May), photography (mid-June to mid-July) and jazz (Nov) are also firmly established on the cultural agenda. Full programmes are published in the monthly what’s-on magazine esMadrid, free from any of the tourist offices and from the city’s tourist website (esmadrid.com).
5: Cabalgata de los Reyes To celebrate the arrival of the gift-bearing Three Kings there is a hugely popular evening procession through the city centre in which children are showered with sweets. It’s held on the evening before presents are traditionally exchanged in Spain.
Week before Lent: Carnaval An excuse for a lot of partying and fancy-dress parades, especially in the gay zone around Chueca. The end of Carnaval is marked by the bizarre and entertaining parade, El Entierro de la Sardina (The Burial of the Sardine), on the Paseo de la Florida.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Celebrated with a series of solemn processions around Madrid, although for a more impressive backdrop head for Toledo (routes and times of processions are available from tourist offices).
2: Fiesta del Dos de Mayo Held in Malasaña and elsewhere in Madrid. Bands and partying around the Plaza Dos de Mayo, though a bit low-key in recent years.
15: Fiestas de San Isidro Festivities to honour Madrid’s patron saint are spread a week either side of this date, and are among the country’s biggest festivals. The fiestas also herald the start of the bullfighting season.
End June/beginning July: La Semana del Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride Week) Week-long party throughout Chueca, culminating in a massive carnival-style parade that brings the city centre to a standstill.
6–15: Castizo (Traditional fiestas of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo and La Virgen de la Paloma) in La Latina and Lavapiés barrios. Much of the activity – processions, dancing and live music – takes place around Calle Toledo, the Plaza de la Paja and the Jardines de las Vistillas.
25: Navidad During Christmas, Plaza Mayor is filled with stalls selling festive decorations and displaying a large model of a Nativity scene. El Corte Inglés, at the bottom of c/Preciados, has an all-singing, all-dancing clockwork Christmas scene (Cortylandia), which plays at certain times of the day to the delight of assembled children.
31: Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve) is celebrated at bars, restaurants and parties all over the city. Puerta del Sol is the customary place to gather, waiting for the strokes of the clock – it is traditional to swallow a grape on each stroke to bring good luck in the coming year.
Business hotels apart, most of Madrid’s accommodation is pretty central. With increasing competition, many hostales and hotels have been busy upgrading their facilities and a new breed of stylish, design-conscious, medium-priced hotel has emerged. Many of the expensive hotels do special weekend offers, and prices drop substantially in August when temperatures soar towards 40°C (air-conditioning is usual and a welcome extra). You’ll notice that buildings in the more popular hotel/hostal areas often house two or three separate establishments, each on separate floors; these are generally independent of each other. One thing to bear in mind is noise; bars, clubs, traffic and roadworks all contribute to making Madrid a high-decibel city, so avoid rooms on the lower floors, or choose a place away from the nightlife if you want a bit of peace and quiet. Madrid has just one campsite, located well out of the centre, but there are two very handy backpackers’ hostels right in the heart of the city. There are accommodation services at the airport (Viajes Aira in T1, T2 and T4; 913 054 224; no fee), the Estación Sur de Autobuses, and Atocha and Chamartín train stations.
If you want to be at the heart of the old town, the areas around Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Santa Ana and Plaza Mayor are the ones to go for; if you’re into nightlife, Malasaña or Chueca may also appeal; for a quieter location and a bit of class, you should opt for the Paseo del Prado, Recoletos or Salamanca areas; if you have children the areas around the parks are good options.
The lack of historic monuments in Madrid is more than compensated for by the region around the capital. Within a radius of 100km – and within an hour’s travel by bus and train – are some of Spain’s greatest cities. Not least of these is Toledo, which preceded Madrid as the country’s capital. Immortalized by El Greco, who lived and worked there for most of his later career, the city is a living museum to the many cultures – Visigothic, Moorish, Jewish and Christian – which have shaped the destiny of Spain. If you have time for just one trip from Madrid, there is really no other choice.
That said, Segovia, with its stunning Roman aqueduct and irresistible Disney-prototype castle, puts up strong competition, while Felipe II’s vast palace-cum-mausoleum of El Escorial is a monument to out-monument all others. And there are smaller places, too, less known to foreign tourists: Aranjuez, an oasis in the parched Castilian plain, famed for its asparagus, strawberries and lavish Baroque palace and gardens; the beautiful walled city of Ávila, birthplace of St Teresa; and Cervantes’ home town, Alcalá de Henares, with its sixteenth-century university. For walkers, too, trails amid the sierras of Gredos and Guadarrama provide enticing escapes from the midsummer heat.
The food to be found in most of the areas around Madrid owes much to Castilian tradition with roast meats such as cochinillo (suckling pig) and cordero (roast lamb) providing the signature dishes in many restaurants. Cooked to perfection so the meat is deliciously tender and falling off the bone (in some restaurants they even cut the cochinillo with plates), meals are served with almost no side dishes, bar the odd chip or potato.
But one of the chief pleasures of eating in the areas around the Spanish capital is that local specialities still remain. In Toledo, for example, many of the more traditional restaurants offer carcamusa – a meat in a spicy tomato sauce, and game such as partridge (perdiz), pheasant (faisán) and quail (cordoniz). In Segovia Castilian roasts are to the fore, while in nearby La Granja the rather healthier judiones (large white beans) are on offer. Like La Granja, Ávila is also renowned for its beans, this time haricot beans with sausage (judias del barco), as well as its delicious, and massive, T-bone steaks (chuletón de Ávila), and for the most sickly sweet of desserts, the yemas de Santa Teresa (candied egg yolks). If all that proves too much, head for the oasis of Aranjuez where vegetables (in particular asparagus) and fresh strawberries are the local speciality.
First Sunday in February: Santa Agueda Women’s Festival Married women take over city administration, and parade and celebrate in traditional costume.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Formal processions in Toledo and a Passion play on Saturday in the Plaza Mayor at Chinchón.
Mid-April: Fiesta del Anís y del Vino, Chinchón Ample tastings of these two local products.
Thursday after Trinity, possibly in June: Corpus Christi Solemn, costumed religious procession in Toledo when the Catedral’s magnificent sixteenth-century custodia is paraded around.
24–29 June: San Juan y San Pedro Lively procession with floats and music in Segovia.
15 August: Virgen de la Asunción Chinchón’s celebrations include an encierro, with bulls running through the street.
15 August: Virgen del Sagrario Amazing fireworks display in Toledo.
17–25 August: Entertaining fiestas in La Granja, (near Segovia) Parades, bullfighting, fireworks and the fountains in full flow, and in Orgaz (near Toledo) which honours its patron saint with further celebrations.
Last week in August: Spectacular parades of giant puppets, and theatre, music and dance in Alcalá de Henares.
First weekend in September: Motín de Aranjuez Re-enactment of the Mutiny of Aranjuez in Aranjuez.
27 September: La Virgen de la Fuencisla The image of Segovia’s patron saint is carried from the sanctuary in the Eresma valley to the cathedral.
25 October: San Frutos Fiestas, Segovia Concerts, celebrations and parades in honour of the city’s patron saint.
A short train journey from Madrid is Aranjuez, a little oasis at the confluence of the Tajo and Jarama rivers on the southern edge of the province of Madrid, where the eighteenth-century Bourbon rulers set up a spring and autumn retreat. The beauty of Aranjuez is its greenery – it’s easy to forget just how dry and dusty most of central Spain is until you come upon this town, with its lavish palaces and luxuriant gardens, which inspired the composer Joaquín Rodrigo to write the famous Concierto de Aranjuez. Famed for its summer strawberries (served with cream – fresas con nata – at roadside stalls) and asparagus, Aranjuez functions principally as a weekend escape from Madrid and most people come out for the day, or stop en route to or from Toledo.
CHINCHÓN, 45km southeast of Madrid, is an enchanting little place, with a fifteenth-century castle and a picture-postcard Plaza Mayor, encircled by whitewashed buildings festooned with wooden balconies. Providing the backdrop to the Plaza Mayor is the Neoclassical Iglesia de la Asunción which houses Goya’s depiction of the Assumption. The town is best-known for being the home of anís – a mainstay of breakfast drinkers across Spain. Your best bet for a sample of the spirit is one of the local bars or the Alcoholera de Chinchón, a shop on the Plaza Mayor. The Museo Etnológico (Tues–Fri 11am–2pm & 4–8pm, Sat & Sun 11am–3pm & 4–8pm; free), at c/Morata 5, off the Plaza Mayor; has some of the traditional anís-making machines on display.
If you’re visiting over Easter, you’ll be treated to the townsfolk’s own enactment of the Passion of Christ, though be aware that the small town becomes packed with visitors at this time. Every year in mid-April, the town holds the Fiesta del Anís y del Vino, an orgy of anís- and wine-tasting. An older annual tradition takes place on July 25, when the feast of St James (Santiago in Spanish) is celebrated with a bullfight in the Plaza Mayor, with further corridas in the August fiestas (usually Aug 13–18).
The Sierra de Gredos continues the line of the Sierra de Guadarrama, enclosing Madrid to the north and west. A major mountain range, with peaks in excess of 2500m, Gredos offers the best trekking in central Spain, including high-level routes across the passes, as well as more casual walks around the villages.
By bus, the easiest access to this spectacular region is from Madrid to Arenas de San Pedro, from where you can explore the range, and then move on west into the valley of La Vera in Extremadura. If you have your own transport, you could head into the range south from Ávila along the N502. Stop at any one of the villages on the north side of the range, along the Tormes valley, such as Hoyos del Espino or Navarredonda and explore the spectacular circular walks from there.
The two classic walks in the Gredos mountains are best approached from the so-called Plataforma, at the end of a twelve-kilometre stretch of paved road running from the village of Hoyos del Espino, where you can purchase detailed maps of the area. You could also reach this point by walking up from El Hornillo or El Arenal on the southern side of the range, although it makes for a tougher challenge. A functional pamphlet of the area can be obtained from the tourist office on the Plaza de San Pedro, in Arenas de San Pedro (Mon–Fri 10am–1pm & 4–7pm, Sat 10am–1pm; t920 372 368, arenasdesanpedro.es).
The Circo de Laguna Grande is the centrepiece of the Gredos range, with its highest peak, Almanzor (2593m) surrounded by pinnacles sculpted into utterly improbable shapes. The path begins at the car park at the end of the road coming from Hoyos and climbs towards the high Pozas meadow. From there you can reach the large glacial lake at the end of the valley, a spectacular two-hour walk that winds its way down the slopes on a well-defined path. The route is best done in late spring, summer or early autumn, as snow makes it a treacherous walk in winter.
For a tougher and much longer route – the Circo de las Cinco Lagunas – you can continue on from the Laguna Grande, where there is a refugio and camping area, to the Cinco Lagunas (allow 8hr from the Plataforma). Take the signposted path to the right just before the lake, which follows an old hunting route used by Alfonso XIII, up to the Portilla del Rey pass. From there you will be able to look down on the lakes – which are reached along a sharp, scree-laden descent. The drop is amply rewarded by virtual solitude, even in midsummer, and sightings of Capra pyrenaica victoriae, the graceful (and almost tame) Gredos mountain goat. There are also species of salamander and toad found only in the area. It is another four to five hours on to the village of Navalperal de Tormes, which is 14km west of Hoyos del Espino.
The Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso was built by the reluctant first Bourbon king of Spain, Felipe V, no doubt homesick for the luxuries of Versailles. Its glories are the mountain setting and the extravagant wooded grounds and gardens, but it’s also worth casting an eye over the palace. Though destroyed in parts and damaged throughout by a fire in 1918, much has been well restored and is home to a superlative collection of sixteenth-century tapestries, one of the most valuable in the world. Everything is furnished in plush French imperial style, but it’s almost all of Spanish origin; the majority of the huge chandeliers, for example, were made in the glass factory in the village of San Ildefonso (Tues–Fri 10am–3pm, Sat 10am–6pm, Sun & hols 10am–3pm; €4). Here you can visit an exhibition on the history of the craft and still see the glass being blown and decorated in the traditional manner.
The highlight of the gardens is its series of fountains, which culminates in the fifteen-metre-high jet of La Fama. They’re fantastic and really not to be missed, which means timing your visit for 5.30pm on Wednesdays, weekends and holidays (€3.40) when some are switched on (they may not be switched on during periods of water shortage, so it’s best to check on t921 470 019 or the website beforehand). Only on three saints’ days in the year – normally May 30 (San Fernando), July 25 (Santiago) and August 25 (San Luís) – are all of the fountains set to work, with accompanying crowds to watch. The enormous monumental fountain known as the Baños de Diana operates on Saturday nights in summer (10.30–11.30pm July 17–Sept 4; 1€) and is illuminated together with the palace facade.
El Valle de los Caídos is probably the most controversial and emotive physical expression of the Francoist dictatorship that still remains in present-day Spain. Partly built by Popular Front prisoners in the 1940s and 50s, this pharaonic memorial to the fascist triumph in the Civil War towers over a valley that conceals tens of thousands of corpses moved there under Franco’s orders. After the burial of the founder of the Falange Party José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Franco himself, the mausoleum became a place of homage for neo-fascists who continued to commemorate the dictator’s death every November 20 by parading their fascist paraphernalia at the site. But the future of the monument has finally been exposed to official scrutiny following the decision of the socialist government to set up a committee to decide how to turn the site into a monument to reconciliation.
The removal of Franco’s remains is one option, but the destruction of the giant cross appears to have been dismissed as has the possibility of evicting the Benedictine monks who inhabit the site. The most likely outcome is the establishment of a museum or interpretation centre which will put the monument in its context and use it as a reminder of the horrors that resulted from the Civil War. But the debate has shown how raw feelings remain in Spain and how problematic the country has found the experience of coming to terms with its traumatic past.
It was not until 2007, over thirty years after the death of the dictator, that the socialist government introduced what became known as the “historical memory” law, which recognised victims of the Franco regime, prohibited political events at the Valle de los Caídos and provided some state help for the identification and eventual exhumation of the victims of Francoist repression whose corpses still lie in over two thousand mass graves scattered across Spain. Even that step was resisted by government opponents who preferred to turn a blind eye to the deep wounds left by the Civil War and its aftermath. But grassroots campaigns, often led by relatives of the victims, to dig up the mass graves forced the government to break its silence and confront the issue.
At last there is the prospect that Spain may finally try to come to terms with matters that have been swept under the carpet for so many years. As Catalan photographer Francesc Torres, one of the leading lights in the movement to shed light on Spain’s obscure past, has said: “History is resilient. You can cover it, but it’s not going away.”
Arguably Spain’s most influential filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar emerged as part of the movida madrileña, the thriving alternative cultural scene in Madrid that developed following the death of Franco. He made his feature-film debut in 1980 with the cheap and transgressive Pepi, Lucy, Bom and a Whole Load of Other Girls. His prodigious output during the 1980s included Matador (1986), a dark thriller linking sexual excitement with the violence of the bullfight; The Law of Desire (1987), a story involving a gay film director, his transsexual brother/sister, murder and incest; as well as the internationally successful Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Madrid was used as the backdrop to many of his films, which reflected the spirit of liberation that reigned in the Spanish capital in the 1980s.
His productions have benefited from the performances of actors such as Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Rossy de Palma and Antonio Banderas, and over time they have gained in narrative coherence and production values while retaining the capacity to offend – notably with Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1990). One of the very few directors able to attract audiences across the globe with films in a language other than English, Almodóvar’s 1995 Flower of My Secret pushed him more into the mainstream, while All About My Mother (1999), which marked a return to his trademark obsession with transsexuals, won him an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Talk to Her (2002) was if anything even more successful, and won Almodóvar another Oscar, this time for Best Screenplay – perhaps marking Spanish cinema’s escape from the “foreign films” ghetto. In Bad Education (2004), he explored Franco-era religious schooling and the issue of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy, while in the well-received Volver (Returning) (2006), which starred Penélope Cruz, he looked to his own childhood in La Mancha and to his sisters and late mother for inspiration. He revisited many of his favourite themes in the romantic thriller Los Abrazos Rotos (2009), which also starred Cruz, and although the film did not reach the heights of some of his previous work, it still served to strengthen his reputation as Spain’s leading director.
The “Galactico” era may be over following the departure of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luís Figo, but Real Madrid remains one of the most glamorous teams in club football with an ample quota of superstars. The nine-time winners of the European Cup and thirty-one-time Spanish champions play at the Bernabéu, venue of the 1982 World Cup final and a ground that ranks as one of the world’s most fabled sporting arenas.
Tickets to games – which have become more difficult to get hold of in recent years – cost from €40 up to €300 for big matches and usually go on sale in the week before a game; Real runs a telephone and online booking service (t902 324 324, realmadrid.com). They can be purchased by credit card on the ticket line or online for all but the biggest matches. If you don’t get lucky, you can still catch a glimpse of the hallowed turf by taking the stadium tour.
The capital is also home to another of the country’s biggest teams, Atlético Madrid (t902 530 500, clubatleticodemadrid.com; tickets from around €30), who play at the Estadio Vicente Calderón in the south of the city.
The more modest Getafe (t916 959 771, getafecf.com; tickets from around €30 available via entradas.com) and Rayo Vallecano (t914 782 253, rayovallecano.es) are both based in working-class suburbs of the city.
Madrid de los Austrias (Habsburg Madrid) was a mix of formal planning – at its most impressive in the expansive and theatrical Plaza Mayor – and areas of shanty town development, thrown up as the new capital gained an urban population. The central area of old Madrid still reflects both characteristics, with its twisting grid of streets, alleyways and steps, and its Flemish-inspired architecture of red brick and grey stone, slate-tiled towers and Renaissance doorways.
To get a feel for what the old city might have been like when it was first designated Spanish capital in the sixteenth century take a stroll around the area known as Madrid de los Austrias.
Start off at Plaza de la Villa, probably the oldest square in the city and home to some of its most ancient buildings, including the fifteenth-century Torre de los Lujanes. Then take the narrow, elbow-shaped Calle del Codo out of the northeastern corner of the plaza, passing the Convento de los Carboneras where the nuns still sell traditional cakes and biscuits, continuing downhill to the tranquil backstreet Calle San Justo. If you bear left past the splendid Baroque Basílica de San Miguel you will emerge on to bustling Calle Segovia, one of the ancient entrances into the old city. From here wander down Cava Baja with its succession of traditional tascas, former coaching inns and stylish tapas bars. You will end up in Plaza Humilladeros, buzzing with people sitting at the terrace bar in the middle of the square and flanked by the elegant Iglesia de San Andrés and the mansion that is now home to the Museo de los Orígenes. Walk past the splendid domed church and turn right into Plaza de la Paja, one of the old market squares that once littered the medieval city. Wealthy families would have lived in the mansions that line the square, each with a small garden similar to the peaceful Jardín de Anglona situated at the bottom of the plaza.
Take a left along Calle Príncipe de Anglona and shady Calle Nuncio to rejoin Calle Segovia and bear left up Calle Cuchilleros, named after the knife-makers who once plied their trade on the street. Here you will pass the renowned restaurant Botín, a madrileño institution that lays claim to be the oldest eating establishment in the world, followed by a string of cellar bars offering flamenco and traditional tapas. Don’t miss the beautiful wrought-iron work of the Mercado de San Miguel before finishing up with a circuit of the arcaded splendour of the Plaza Mayor.
The areas south of Plaza Mayor have traditionally been tough, working-class districts, with tenement buildings thrown up to accommodate the expansion of the population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In many places, these old houses survive, huddled together in narrow streets, but the character of La Latina and Lavapiés has changed as their inhabitants, and the districts themselves, have become younger, more fashionable and more cosmopolitan. The streets of Cava Baja and Cava Alta in La Latina, for example, include some of the city’s most popular bars and restaurants. These are attractive barrios to explore, particularly for bar-hopping or during the Sunday-morning flea market, El Rastro, which takes place along and around the Ribera de Curtidores (La Latina/Tirso de Molina).
Madrid’s flea market, El Rastro, is as much a part of the city’s weekend ritual as a Mass or a paseo. This gargantuan, thriving shambles of a street market sprawls south from Metro La Latina to the Ronda de Toledo, especially along Ribera de Curtidores. Through it, crowds flood between 10am and 3pm every Sunday – and increasingly on Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays, too. On offer is just about anything you might – or more likely might not – need, from secondhand clothes and military-surplus items to caged birds and antiques.
Some of the goods – broken telephone dials, plastic shampoo bottles half-full of something that may or may not be the original contents – are so far gone that you can’t imagine any of them ever selling. Other items may be quite valuable, but on the whole it’s the stuff of markets around the world you’ll find here: pseudo-designer clothes, bags and T-shirts. Don’t expect to find fabulous bargains, or the hidden Old Masters of popular myth: the serious antique trade has mostly moved off the streets and into the surrounding shops, while the real junk is now found only on the fringes. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of El Rastro is always enjoyable, and the bars around these streets are as good as any in the city. One warning: keep a close eye on your bags, pockets, cameras (best left at the hotel) and jewellery. The Rastro rings up a fair percentage of Madrid’s tourist thefts.
The Plaza de Santa Ana/Huertas area lies at the heart of a triangle, bordered to the east by the Paseo del Prado, to the north by c/Alcalá and along the south by c/Atocha, with the Puerta del Sol at the western tip. The city reached this district after expanding beyond the Palacio Real and the Plaza Mayor, so the buildings date predominantly from the nineteenth century. Many of them have literary associations: there are streets named after Cervantes and Lope de Vega (where one lived and the other died), and the barrio is host to the Atheneum club, Círculo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Institute), Teatro Español and the Congreso de los Diputados (parliament). Just to the north, there is also an important museum, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.
For most visitors, though, the major attraction is that this district holds some of the best and most beautiful bars and tascas in the city. They are concentrated particularly around Plaza de Santa Ana, which – following a rather seedy period – has been smartened up by the council.
When you get tired of sightseeing, Madrid’s many parks are great places to escape for a few hours. The most central and most popular of them is El Retiro, a delightful mix of formal gardens and wider open spaces. Nearby, in addition to the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía galleries, are a number of the city’s smaller museums, plus the startlingly peaceful Jardines Botánicos.
The Gran Vía, Madrid’s great thoroughfare, runs from Plaza de Cibeles to Plaza de España, effectively dividing the old city to the south from the newer parts northwards. Permanently jammed with traffic and crowded with shoppers and sightseers, it’s the commercial heart of the city, and – if you spare the time to look up – quite a monument in its own right, with its early twentieth-century, palace-like banks, offices and cinemas. Look out for the Edificio Metrópolis (1905–11) on the corner of c/Alcalá, complete with cylindrical facade, white stone sculptures, zinc-tiled roof and gold garlands, and the towering Telefónica building which was the chief observation post for the Republican artillery during the Civil War, when the Nationalist front line stretched across the Casa de Campo to the west.
North of the Telefónica building, c/Fuencarral heads north to the Glorieta de Bilbao. To either side of this street are two of Madrid’s most characterful barrios: Chueca, to the east, and Malasaña, to the west. Their chief appeal lies in an amazing concentration of bars, restaurants and, especially, nightlife. However, there are a few reasons – cafés included – to wander around here by day.
Plaza de España provides a breathing space from the densely packed streets to the east. Beyond the square lies a mixture of leafy suburbia, university campus and parkland, including the green swathes of Parque del Oeste and Casa de Campo. Sights include some fascinating minor museums and, further out, the royal palace of El Pardo. The airy terrazas along Paseo del Pintor Rosales provide ample opportunity for refreshment.
Salamanca, the area north of the Parque del Retiro, is a smart address for apartments and, even more so, for shops. The barrio is the haunt of pijos – universally denigrated rich kids – and the grid of streets between c/Goya and c/José Ortega y Gasset contains most of the city’s designer emporiums. Most of the buildings are modern and undistinguished, though there are some elegant nineteenth-century mansions and apartment blocks. There is a scattering of museums, galleries and exhibition spaces to tempt you up here, too, in particular the Sorolla and the Lázaro Galdiano museums, two little gems that are often ignored by visitors.
Top image: Cibeles fountain © dimbar76/Shutterstock
Madrid nightlife is a pretty serious phenomenon. This is one of the few cities in Europe where you can get caught in traffic jams in the early hours of the morning when the clubbers are either going home or moving on to the dance-past-dawn discos. As with everything madrileño, there is a bewildering variety of nightlife venues. Most common are the discobares – bars of all musical and sexual persuasions, whose unifying feature is background (occasionally live) pop, rock, dance or salsa music. These get going from around 11pm and stay open routinely until 2am, as will the few quieter cocktail bars and pubs.
For discotecas, entry charges are quite common (€5–18), but tend to cover you for a first drink. Free passes can often be picked up from public relations personnel who hang around in the streets outside, in tourist offices or bars. Be aware that many discotecas are fairly ephemeral institutions and frequently only last a season before opening up somewhere else under a different name, so it’s a good idea to consult listing magazines La Guía del Ocio, Metrópoli, esMadrid or the website clubbingspain.com for the very latest information.
Much of Madrid’s nightlife has a big gay input and gay men especially will feel at home in most of the listings in our “Discotecas” section. However, Plaza Chueca and the surrounding streets, especially c/Pelayo, harbour at least a dozen exclusively gay bars and clubs, as well as a café that’s traditionally gay – the Café Figueroa at c/Augusto Figueroa 17. Wandering about, be aware that the area just north of Gran Vía is a red-light and drug centre, so taxis are best late at night. The lesbian scene is more disparate.
The main gay organization in Madrid is Coordinadora Gay de Madrid, c/Puebla 9 (Mon–Fri 10am–2pm & 5–8pm; Aug from 7pm; t915 230 070, wcogam.org; mGran Vía), which can give information on health, leisure and gay rights. Feminist and lesbian groups are based at the Centro de la Mujer, c/Barquillo 44, 1° izda. t913 193 689. For a good one-stop shop with lots of info on the gay scene, try Berkana Bookshop, c/Hortaleza 64 (Mon-Sat 10.30am–9pm, Sun noon–2pm & 5–9pm; wlibreriaberkana.com; Chueca).
Café Acuarela c/Gravina 10; mChueca. Comfortable café, with kitsch Baroque-style decor. The perfect place for a quiet drink, and popular with a mixed crowd. Daily from about 11am–2am.
Cool c/Isabel la Católica 6; mSanto Domingo. Futuristic, style-conscious mixed club with a large gay following. Expect to pay €10–15 entry fee, and don’t arrive until late. Thurs–Sat midnight–6am, Sun 9pm–2am.
La Lupe c/Torrecilla del Leal 12; mAntón Martín. A mixed gay, lesbian and alternative bar. Good music, cheap drinks and occasional cabaret.
Medea c/Cabeza 33; mTirso de Molina/Antón Martín. A women-only disco with a huge dancefloor and wide-ranging selection of music. Gets going from about 1am.
El Mojito c/Olmo 6; mTirso de Molina. Friendly Lavapiés cocktail bar with a mixed gay and lesbian clientele. Daily 9pm–2.30am.
Ricks c/Clavel 8; mGran Vía. A varied-clientele discobar that gets packed at weekends when every available space is used for dancing. Open and light, with a friendly atmosphere – but drinks are pricey. Daily 11.30pm–5.30am.
Stars Dance Café c/Marqués de Valdeiglesias 5; mGran Vía. Quiet and low-key during the day, gradually livening up as the night goes on. It’s a popular meeting point for the gay community but the clientele is mixed. Daily 10am–2am.
Truco c/Gravina 10; mChueca. A long-established women’s bar with a popular summer terraza that spills out onto Chueca’s main plaza. Mon–Thurs 5pm–3am, Fri & Sat noon–3am.
If you stay up through a Madrid night, then you must try one of the city’s great institutions – the Chocolatería San Ginés (daily 9.30am–7am) on Pasadizo de San Ginés, off c/Arenal between the Puerta del Sol and Teatro Real. Established in 1894, this serves chocolate con churros to perfection – just the thing after a night’s excess. There’s an almost mythical madrileño custom of winding up at San Ginés after the clubs close (not that they do any longer), before heading home for a shower and then off to work. And why not?
With the introduction of a new law banning smoking inside bars and restaurants, terrazas have become more popular than ever in Madrid and many places now have at least a few tables set up on the city pavements year-round.
In summer many more bars migrate on to the streets, especially the trendy designer ones that lie along Paseo de Recoletos and its continuation, Paseo de la Castellana. Beyond Plaza de Colón and up to the Bernabéu more fashionable terrazas with music, a posey clientele and higher prices often appear in the summer. Be aware, however, that many of the terrazas run by clubs vary their sites year by year as they fall foul of the increasingly strict licensing and noise regulations.
Atenas Parque de Atenas (just off c/Segovia). Lively summer terraza set in the park down by the river and not far from the bars and clubs of La Latina.
Jardines Las Vistillas c/Bailén (on the south side of the viaduct). This popular terraza is good for a relaxing drink while enjoying the vistillas (“little vistas”) over towards the Almudena cathedral and the Guadarrama mountains to the northwest.
Paseo del Pintor Rosales There is a clutch of terrazas catering for all tastes and popular with families along this avenue on the edge of the Parque del Oeste.
Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo de la Castellana On the nearer reaches of Paseo de Recoletos is the refined garden terraza at the Casa de América (no. 2) and those of the old-style cafés Gijón (no. 21) and Espejo (no. 31), popular meeting points for madrileños of all kinds.
Plaza de Comendadoras One of the city’s few traffic-free squares, this has a couple of very popular terrazas – attached to the Café Moderno and to the Mexican restaurant next door.
Plaza Dos de Mayo The terraza on Malasaña’s main square is always a lively affair, favoured by a grungy teenage crowd.
Plaza de Oriente The Café de Oriente terraza is a station of Madrid nightlife and enjoys a marvellous location next to the opera house, gazing across the plaza to the Palacio Real.
Plaza de la Paja One of the most pleasant terrazas in the heart of old Madrid in this former market square in La Latina.
Plaza San Andrés Just the other side of the church of San Andrés a host of bars spills out onto this atmospheric plaza. The place is buzzing in the summer, and makes a great meeting place before a bar crawl around the area.
Plaza de Santa Ana Several of the cervecerías here have outside seating, and there’s a chiringuito (a makeshift bar) in the middle of the square throughout the summer.
The Barcelona sound – mestiza – is a cross-cultural musical fusion whose heartland is the immigrant melting-pot of the Raval. The local postcode – 08001 – lends a name to the sound’s hippest flagbearers, while also typically “Raval” is the collective called Cheb Balowski, an Algerian-Catalan fusion band. The biggest star on the scene is the Parisian-born, Barcelona-resident Manu Chao, whose infectious, multi-million-selling album Clandestino (1998) kick-started the whole genre. He’s widely known abroad, and influenced many Barcelona bands, including the world music festival favourites Ojos de Brujo (Eyes of the Wizard), who present a fusion reinvention of flamenco and Catalan rumba. Other hot sounds come from the Latin American dub and reggae band GoLem System, and the fusion-freestyle merchants LA Kinky Beat.
There’s a vibrant local gay and lesbian crowd in Barcelona, not to mention the lure of nearby Sitges, mainland Spain’s biggest gay resort. There’s a particular concentration of bars, restaurants and clubs in the so-called Gaixample, the “Gay Eixample”, an area of a few square blocks just northwest of the main university in the Eixample. The biggest event of the year is Carnival in Sitges, while the main city bash is Barcelona’s annual LGBT Pride festival (wpridebarcelona.org), which has events running over ten days each June, from street parades to Tibidabo fun-fair parties.
There’s a lesbian and gay city telephone hotline on t900 601 601 (daily 6–10pm). Aside from the weekly bar and club listings in Guía del Ocio and Time Out Barcelona, there’s also a good free magazine called Nois which carries an up-to-date review of the scene.
Madrid’s range of eating establishments is legion, and includes tapas bars, cafés, marisquerías (seafood bars) and restaurantes. At almost any of our recommendations you could happily eat your fill – money permitting – though at bars, madrileños usually eat just a tapa or share a ración of the house speciality, then move on to repeat the procedure down the road. While cafés do serve food, they are much more places to drink coffee, have a copa or caña, or read the papers. Some also act as a meeting place for the semi-formal tertulia – a kind of discussion/drinking group, popular among Madrid intellectuals of the past and revived in the 1980s.
Thanks to its status as Spanish capital, Madrid has long provided a home to almost every regional style of Spanish cooking from Castilian roasts, Galician seafood and Andalucian fried fish, to Asturian stews, Valencian paellas and Basque nueva cocina.
The city also has its own range of home-spun dishes with the famous cocido madrileño, a three-course stew of various cuts of meat, chorizo, chickpea and vegetables, topping the list. Other traditional favourites include callos (tripe in a spicy tomato sauce), oreja (pig’s ears), caracoles (snails) and a range of offal-based dishes.
But Madrid is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and dozens of foreign cuisines have appeared on the scene in recent years. There are some good Peruvian, Argentinian, Middle Eastern and Italian places and a growing number of oriental-influenced restaurants with some inventive fusion-style cuisine.
Aside from the burgeoning international cuisine scene in Madrid, further good news for gastronomes is that several of the country’s top chefs have established flagship restaurants in the capital.
Sergi Arola has set up his Gastro at c/Zurbano 31 t913 102 169, sergiarola.es; Alonso Martínez. This Michelin-starred restaurant offers a constantly changing range of fixed courses on a set menu ranging from €95–160.
Ramón Freixa’s exquisite creations are showcased at Freixa Madrid in the Selenza Hotel.
Óscar Velasco runs the Michelin-starred Santceloni in the Hotel Hespería Paseo de la Castellana 57 (t912 108 840, restaurantesantceloni.com; Gregorio Marañon), with stunning, but hugely expensive menus at €132 and €165.
Ángel Palacios is head chef at La Broche at the Hotel Miguel Ángel (c/Miguel Ángel 29 t913 993 437; Gregorio Marañon), which provides a more accessible set of options ranging from the lunchtime-only Ejecutive menú at €28 to the taster menu at €80 and the Gran Festival at €108.
The minimalist, food-as-chemistry approach, pioneered by Catalan super-chef Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli fame), has Barcelona in a vice-like grip. The best local chefs continue to reinterpret classic Catalan dishes in innovative ways, and while prices in these gastro-temples are high there’s a trend towards more economic, bistro-style dining even by the hottest chefs. Current fad is the fusion of Mediterranean and Asian flavours – a so-called “Mediterrasian” cuisine – that combines local, market-fresh ingredients with more exotic tastes. It rears its head especially in the world of tapas, since although there are still plenty of traditional tapas bars (particularly in the Barri Gòtic, along c/Ample, c/de la Mercè, and their offshoots), there’s also a real sense of adventure in new-wave places that are deadly serious about their food – you’re as likely to get shrimp tempura or a yucca chip as a garlic mushroom in Barcelona these days.
Shopping districts in Madrid are pretty defined. The biggest range of stores is along the Gran Vía and the streets running north out of Puerta del Sol, which is where the department stores – such as El Corte Inglés – have their main branches. For fashion (moda), the smartest addresses are calles Serrano, Goya, Ortega y Gasset and Velázquez in the Salamanca barrio, while more alternative designers are in Malasaña and Chueca (c/Almirante, especially). For street fashion, there’s plenty on offer around c/Fuencarral. The antiques trade is centred towards the Rastro, on and around c/Ribera de Curtidores, while for general weirdness, it’s hard to beat the shops just off Pl. Mayor, where luminous saints rub shoulders with surgical supports and Fascist memorabilia. If you want international shops or chain stores, head for Madrid 2, a large shopping centre next to Barrio de Pilar. There is a smaller, more upmarket mall at ABC Serrano, with entrances at c/Serrano 61 and Paseo de la Castellana 34 (Rubén Darío).
Most areas of the city have their own mercados del barrio – indoor markets, devoted mainly to food. Among the best are the refurbished Mercado de San Miguel (just west of Pl. Mayor) and Mercado de San Antón in Chueca (Chueca), while there are more traditional markets in the Pl. de la Cebada (La Latina) and c/Santa Isabel (Antón Martín). The city’s biggest market is, of course, El Rastro – the flea market – which takes place on Sundays in La Latina, south of Plaza. Other specialized markets include the secondhand book stalls on Cuesta del Moyano, near Estación de Atocha, and the stamp and coin markets in Pl. Mayor on Sundays.