The Spanish capital’s unique blend of easy-going charm and cutting-edge cool makes it the perfect escape.
Madrid may not possess the Modernista masterpieces that Barcelona boasts or inspire quite the same jaw-dropping first impression as Paris or Rome, but there is a quiet elegance to the Spanish capital that seeps under your skin.
It’s a city that instantly puts you at ease, with its expansive boulevards, manicured parks and Belle Époque architecture. Made for insouciant strolling, central Madrid is compact and easily explored on foot, but don’t slow down too much, as there are stacks of galleries, stylish shops and tasty eats to discover – not to mention a nightlife that pulses until dawn, if you’re so inclined.
There are few better places to base yourself in the city than in the understated penthouse perfection that is The Principal Hotel (below). Accessed by a (teeny, two-person) lift, this intimate hotel is secreted away in the top floors of a grand 1920s building, boasting a refined restaurant, sumptuous terrace bar and rooftop sun deck. Plus, sweeping views over the Gran Vía, the city’s beating heart.
From the Gran Vía, it’s only a stroll north to the vibrant hub of Chueca, Madrid’s colourful gay district, where you’ll find narrow streets crammed with interesting independent stores, hip cafés and plenty of places worth a poke around. Mestizo is the star here for contemporary furniture and homeware.
For a more pared-back Scandi-vibe, head to concept store Do Design (below), in the neighbouring Salamanca district, for fab fashion, furniture, art and textiles. This chi-chi grid of shopping streets is where you’ll find all the big name designer brands. For antiques and mid-century furniture finds, Bakelita, in the nearby Retiro district, offers a beautifully curated collection.
The Retiro area of the city, named after the lush Buen Retiro Park, is not to be missed, as this is where you’ll find the city’s famous Art Triangle, which boasts no less than three of Europe’s leading museums.
If you fancy gawping at Goyas, Velázquez, Titians and Bosches, head for the Prado; for more modern masterpieces, including Dalí, Miró and Picasso’s famously vast Guernica, make for the Reina Sofia; or find an interesting mix of all periods in the private collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the largest private collections in the world.
With all this culture-vulturing around the place, you’ll be getting hungry. First stop on any foodie tour, has to be the Mercado de San Miguel, located near the Plaza Mayor. This beautiful glass-sided, covered market offers a tastebud-titillating array of tapas stalls.
Leave yourself at least an hour to work your way around, propping up at various points for bites as you go – to start, maybe a plate of just-shucked oysters, followed by a cone of paper-thin Bellota ham and roasted Padrón peppers, washed down with chilled Cava, and a glorious chocolate-drenched churro to finish you off – edible Elysium.
Another iconic eating place in the city is Sobrino de Botín. Founded in 1725, it’s hailed as the oldest restaurant continuously operating in the world; Goya worked there as a waiter. The centuries-old, low-ceilinged interior is full of curious nooks and crannies to explore, and their roast suckling pig is the stuff of legend.
To take things up a notch, when night falls, opt for a bit of high-octane glamour with a late table at Tatel (below). Part owned by Rafael Nadal, it’s super-fashionable and buzzy, with food living up to the hype. For a more subdued, but equally stylish setting to enjoy stellar Argentinian-Asian food with standout cocktails, try Sudestada – the house caipirinha is worth travelling for alone.
If there’s one thing you’ll never be short of in this vibrant city, it’s a decent drink. With more bars per capita than any other city in Europe, the locals have elevated cocktail-sipping to competitive sport level. From teeny old-world sherry bars (La Venencia) to über-glam rooftop terraces (The Roof at ME), there’s a tipple for every type – all served in true Madrileño style, with passion and panache. Salud!
WORDS Lizzie Gore-Grimes
PHOTOGRAPHY Mark Duggan
FEATURED IMAGE Igor Ovsyannykov