Madrid Travel Guide

Madrid Travel Guide

Jessica Benavides Canepa

On the surface, her stately neoclassical façade and business-centric reputation might convince first-timers that Madrid is resigned to her fate as glamorous Barcelona’s spinster older sister. Nothing has ever been further from the truth. Spain’s vibrant capital is eternally generous with her offerings; from first-rate museums to culinary excellence and legendary nightlife that never quits, Madrid is all that and a bag of patatas.

Always on scene, right where the action is, lively Madrid routinely innovates with unforgettable experiences for all wants and tastes. Wondering what to do in Madrid? Take a stroll along the majestic Paseo del Prado then stop and greet the Greek gods at El Retiro Park. Shop smart in the tony Salamanca district, enjoy the bohemian vibe of Chueca, the tapa terraces of La Latina and Malasaña’s creative counterculture – every one of these a hearty piece of a rich cultural pie.

The best hotels in Madrid

Built on the renovated heart of a 17th-century edifice, the 76-room, The Principal, oozes classic design with masterful measure of contemporary edge. Rooms feature a distinct neutral palette with all the creature comforts and the ritzy resto, Ático, is run by Michelin-star master chef Ramon Freixa. But the true stars in this boutique beauty are the outdoor spaces; the intimate dining atrium and the breath-taking, red-adorned roof terrace where delectable cocktails are prepared to the sounds of live music on sultry summer nights.

A short distance from the lively Chueca district, this former palace turned hotel and spa is a majestic retreat for all senses. Rooms at Hotel Urso are the perfect embodiment of refined modern elegance, some with four poster beds and bespoke touches reminding guests of the building’s regal past. The spa continues the elegant design aesthetic with floor-to-ceiling wood panelling, vintage wallpaper and ambiance lighting. The bar and dining areas are equally stylish, but the sky-roofed attic conservatory is an opulent dream featuring Asian-inspired tapestries, vertical greenery and a golden-hued décor.

For the modern man whose design ethos includes a splash of vibrant colour, Only You combines clean design with a bevy of blues and bolds throughout. In this posh boutique destination, the core attraction is the all-day colonial-turned-contempo lounge and bar complete with plush leather seating, a roaring fireplace and eccentric décor including a silver-tainted rhino’s head alongside more classical artwork. Here, well-heeled guests and residents congregate for inventive after-work events or chill music moments every day of the week.

Urso Hotel

Urso Hotel

Where to eat in Madrid

A culinary melting pot since the turn of the 17th-century, Madrid expertly meshes regional Spanish dishes with international cuisine. A confirmed foodie destination, just about the only thing visitors have trouble swallowing are the late dining hours; lunch typically starts at 2:00 p.m. while 10:00 p.m. suppers are the norm.

Food is a way of life in this bustling city; al fresco eateries fill up nightly with the sound of feasting and gabbing Madrileños. Here, hearty traditional fare is just as popular as the upscale menus of the latest star chef. To find your favourite eats it’s wise to go out –often– and embrace the mishmash of gourmet delights found at many a tempting table.

With a whimsically eclectic décor of “weathered” furnishings, a friendly, laid back scene and a tasty tapas tradition, Circo de las Tapas attracts a like-minded crowd of about-towners on the go. Artistic genius, wacky interiors and Asian fusion come together brilliantly at the three Michelin-star Diverxo—a virtual adventure on a plate.

The newest on trend Mediterranean kitchen with influences from the East and a minimalist, industrial look is Bacira, the crafty brainchild of a trio of on the rise Spanish chefs. And for a real gem hiding in plain sight at the edge of Chueca right off Gran Via, head to Angelita, a cosy wine bar cum restaurant run by the Villalón brothers. Take you pick from the tasty tapas menu that changes with the seasons, and have the knowledgeable, friendly staff recommend delightful wine pairings from Spain and beyond.

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

And for your drinking pleasure, 1862 Dry Bar is a classic cocktail bar, a modern-day throwback to a time when cocktails were skilfully concocted by baristas with artisan flair. If gin is your poison, make a stop at the saucy Bristol Bar, a Brit-inspired venue with over 100 gins at your disposal. And for a one-stop night to remember, enjoy artwork followed by dining, drinking and later dancing at the lofty Arts Club Madrid in the heart of tree-lined Salamanca.

Gastro markets are all the rage in Madrid. Note-worthy standouts include the hip Ildefonso Market with its gourmet goodies, the three-tiered contemporary San Anton Market and the tried and true, wrought iron encased delights of the Mercado de San Miguel.

Café culture is alive and kicking in Madrid, with trendsetting hotspots springing up in casual corners all around town. Toma Café is a shabby-chic expresso dream house boasting savvy baristas and savoury cakes. Named after a small town in Australia, Federal Café offers fresh dairy (from the owner’s backyard garden) in a cheery albeit minimalist venue. Cozy comfort and street art displayed in a hip urban setting keeps La Bicicleta Café’s patrons happy. Excellent coffee and rustic interior with a light touch of industrial-style are not the only features that pack ‘em into Mür Café; another standout is the cocktail menu available for all-day lounging.

San Miguel Market

San Miguel Market

Things to do in Madrid

The city’s Golden Triangle, including the world-famous Prado Museum, is one of the leading Madrid points of interest. And it’s this very dedication that keeps it at the forefront of creative innovation and buzzing activity.

To experience art through new mediums – or at least get a fresh interpretation – go off the tracks and explore the lesser-knowns. The Casa Encendida is a multimedia centre offering vanguard art projects and social science workshops dealing with the environment. The Museo del Traje by contrast deals with the historical development of fashion through the ages. For an intriguing time capsule glance at a nobleman’s world, the Museo Cerralbo displays the 17th Marquis de Cerralbo’s possessions, art collection and historical memorabilia at his one-time residence-turned-museum.

Shopping in Madrid

Spain in general (and Madrid in particular), has a long-standing tradition of manufacturing quality artisan goods and textiles. Add to the mix a multi-cultural point of reference and desire to impress – and you’re left with exceptional shopping options to treasure.

Standouts in the garb department include Garcia Madrid, creators of custom-fit kitschy clothes for fashion-conscious men of the moment and Sportivo, a fashion collective that unites evocative under-the-radar European menswear designers. And to accessorise your great finds, pop into Steve Mono to bag yourself a lovely man-bag (by appointment only).

Madrid’s home design shops inspire everything from timely retouches to complete style makeovers. The ultra-modern Espacio Brut creates artistic pieces that work as functional furnishings, Modernario complement their contemporary creations with a funky collection of lighting fixtures. If time is of the essence, drop by La Fabrica, a crafty urban design space that serves as a gallery, shop and café. And while you’re there, pop over to Pinar, which stocks rugged menswear and accessories from established brands such as Nudie, Wrangler and Herschel alongside up and coming labels like Spanish shoe maker Maians and Portuguese Flannel. And finally, for an original gift made in Spain, drop by Xoan Viqueira in the heart of Chueca for fabulous, gay-themed ceramics, prints and textiles.

Caixa Forum | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Caixa Forum | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Madrid nightlife

Once the sun goes down, the city’s denizens engage in a score of social scenarios, often ending in an unspoken ritual to see the first signs of light or alternately securing plans for future mayhem. Truth be told, Madrileños are insatiable socials creatures of habit and often find it as important to meet friends for a quick drink at a favoured haunt, as it is to seek out new venues to frequent.

It’s no secret that gin-tonic has long been the cocktail of choice for many a local. Luckily for the rest of us, coctelerias serving a new take on classic cocktails are currently enjoying a renaissance, resulting in amazing mixology choices in eye-pleasing venues. For gents with a penchant for creative cocktails and designer digs without ostentation, Tatel provides the perfect balance. V. Manneken doubles as an antique shop and a hush-hush speakeasy bar serving the classics on a marble countertop, surrounded by vintage paintings and books.

Live music lovers get a special treat at the visually stunning Teatro Real. Not only are the opera performances first-rate, dance and classical music concerts are also performed on the regular. Not your bag? Jazz aficionados take heart; the ritzy Café Central hosts some of the best international talents in the business.

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