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Travel Guide

Swashbuckling Madrid celebrates itself and life in general around the clock. A vibrant crossroads, Madrid—the Spanish capital since 1561—has an infectious appetite for art, music, and epicurean pleasure, and it’s turned into a cosmopolitan, modern urban center while fiercely preserving its traditions. The rapid political and economic development of Spain following the arrival of democracy in 1977, the integration of the country in the European Union a decade later, and the social upheaval brought in by the many immigrants settling here after the new millennium have put Madrid back on the world stage with an energy redolent of its 17th-century golden age, when painters and playwrights swarmed to the flame of Spain’s brilliant royal court.

The modern city spreads eastward into the 19th-century grid of the Barrio de Salamanca and sprawls northward through the neighborhoods of Chamberí and Chamartín. But the Madrid to explore thoroughly on foot is right in the center, in Madrid’s oldest quarters, between the Royal Palace and the midtown forest, the Parque del Buen Retiro. Wandering around the sprawling conglomeration of residential buildings with ancient red-tile rooftops punctuated by redbrick Mudejar churches and grand buildings with gray-slate roofs and spires left by the Hapsburg monarchs, you’re more likely to grasp what is probably the city’s major highlight: the hustle and bustle of a truly optimistic people who are elated when they’re outdoors.

And then there are the paintings, the artistic legacy of one of the greatest global empires ever assembled. King Carlos I (1500-58), who later became emperor Carlos V, made sure the early masters of all European schools found their way to Spain’s palaces. The collection was eventually placed in the Prado Museum. Among the Prado, the contemporary Reina Sofía museum, the eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, and Madrid’s smaller artistic repositories—the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, the Convento de las Descalzas Reales, the Sorolla Museum, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, and the CaixaForum—there are more paintings than anyone can hope to contemplate in a lifetime.

But the attractions go beyond the well-known baroque landmarks. Now in the middle of an expansion plan, Madrid has made sure some of the world’s best architects leave their imprint on the city. This is the case with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, both of whom are responsible for a new arts center, CaixaForum, opened in 2008 across from the Botanical Garden. Major renovations of the Museo del Prado and the Centro Reina Sofía are by Rafael Moneo and Jean Nouvel, respectively. Massive towers by Norman Foster and César Pelli have changed the city’s northern landscape. Other projects include the massive but stylish new airport terminal, which opened in early 2006, and the daring renovation project of the whole area of Paseo del Prado that’s been entrusted to Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza.

Madrid is also ideally placed for getaways to dozens of Castilian destinations—Toledo, Segovia, Alcalá de Henares, and El Escorial.

Madrid Sights

The real Madrid is not to be found along major arteries like the Gran Vía and the Paseo de la Castellana. To find the quiet, intimate streets and squares that give the city its true character, duck into the warren of villagelike byways in the downtown area that extends 2 km (1 mi) from the Royal Palace to the Parque del Buen Retiro and from Plaza de Lavapiés to the Glorieta de Bilbao. Broad avenidas, twisting medieval alleys, grand museums, stately gardens, and tiny, tile taverns are all jumbled together, creating an urban texture so rich that walking is really the only way to soak it in. Petty street crime is a serious problem in Madrid, and tourists are frequent targets. Be on your guard, and try to blend in by keeping cameras concealed, avoiding obvious map reading, and securing bags and purses, especially on buses and subway and outside restaurants.

Madrid is composed of 21 districts, each broken down into several neighborhoods. The most central district is called just that, Centro. It stretches from Recoletos and Paseo del Prado in the east to behind the Royal Palace in the west, and from Sagasta and Alberto Aguilera in the north to Ronda de Valencia and Ronda de Segovia in the south. Within this district you’ll find all of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: Palacio, Sol, La Latina, Lavapiés, Barrio de las Letras, Malasaña, and Chueca. Other well-known districts, which we’ll call neighborhoods in this chapter for the sake of convenience, are Salamanca, Retiro, Chamberí (north of Centro), Moncloa (east of Chamberí), and Chamartín.

Madrid Reviews

The current variety of food options and the riveting decor of some of the better restaurants in Madrid put the city on par with other European capitals when it comes to dining. Top Spanish chefs, who often team up with hotels, fearlessly borrow from other cuisines and reinvent traditional dishes. The younger crowd, as well as movie stars and artists, flock to the casual Malasaña, Chueca, and La Latina neighborhoods for the affordable restaurants and the tapas bars with truly scintillating small creations. When the modern gets tiresome seek out such local enclaves as Casa Ciriaco, Casa Botín, and Casa Paco for unpretentious and hearty home cooking.

Madrid Reviews

From the beginning of the new millennium, Madrid has added more than 17,000 new hotel rooms—meaning that in the last eight years the city has increased the number of hotel rooms by about 50%—and more are becoming available every year.

Plenty of the new arrivals are medium-price chain hotels that try to combine striking design with affordable prices. One step higher is the handful of new hotels that lure a good portion of the city’s hippest crowd with top-notch design and superb food and . These have caused quite a stir in the five-star range and forced some of the more traditional hotels long favored by dignitaries, star athletes, and artists to enhance their food and service. Meanwhile, hostals and small hotels have shown that low prices can walk hand in hand with good taste and friendly service.

Madrid Nightlife

As Madrid’s reputation as a vibrant, contemporary arts center has grown, artists and performers have been arriving in droves. Consult the weekly Guía del Ocio (published Friday) or the daily listings and Friday supplements in any of the leading newspapers—El País, El Mundo, or ABC, all of which are fairly easy to understand even if you don’t read much Spanish. The Festival de Otoño (Autumn Festival), from late September to late November, blankets the city with pop concerts, poetry readings, flamenco, and ballet and theater from world-renowned companies. Other annual events include outstanding bonanzas of film, contemporary art, and jazz, salsa, rock, and African music, all at reasonable prices.


Spain has become one of the world’s centers for design of every kind. You’ll have no trouble finding traditional crafts, such as ceramics, guitars, and leather goods, albeit not at countryside prices—at this point, the city is more like Rodeo Drive than the bargain bin. Known for contemporary furniture and decorative items as well as chic clothing, shoes, and jewelry, Spain’s capital has become stiff competition for Barcelona. Keep in mind that many shops, especially those that are small and family run, close during lunch hours, on Sunday, and on Saturday afternoon. Shops generally accept most major credit cards.

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