Madrileños are known to proclaim desde Madrid al cielo! (Madrid is the closest you'll get to heaven) about their hometown. Think what you will of the platitude, but there's no denying that the vivacious Spanish capital has a lot going for it, including some of Europe's top museums, best food, and most happening nightlife. Its longtime rival, the laid-back Catalan city of Barcelona, may have its Mediterranean and multiculti vibe – but Madrid alone is the soul of Spain. And now there's even more reason to visit this landlocked city in the middle of the Iberian peninsula: Recent years have seen new restaurants, hotels, and bars diversify the landscape, offering something for both hedonists and culture-vultures alike. Even the traditionally homogenous ethnic tapestry has been diversifying of late, thanks to a steady influx of immigrants from Africa, South America, and Asia. Yet, beneath all the newness, Madrid remains the quintessence of Spain, with its tapas bars, flamenco halls, and radiant energy.
Madrileños are a friendly and outgoing bunch, but speaking English is certainly not among their fortes. If in a communication bind, you’ll be better off approaching the younger crowd who are more likely to know a few words of English. The Spanish tend to be impressed by even the clumsiest attempts at gracias (thank you), hasta luego (see you later), and por favor (please); so brush up on the basics, pack a phrasebook and you're in for a fun time – prometemos (we promise)!
Madrid is officially divided into 21 barrios and the city center is remarkably compact and walkable. The key neighborhoods you'll want to explore lie on either side of Gran Vía, a boulevard on the scale of Broadway or Oxford Street, which forms the city's north-south divide. To the north spreads the trendy gay quarter of Chueca and the bohemian enclave of Malasaña, while the south finds Puerta del Sol, the city's primary transport hub and rendezvous point; charming Plaza Santa Ana, a tourist favorite; the stylish barrio of Huertas, with its cozy bars and cafés; old Madrid, with the Habsburg-era inspired Plaza Mayor as its centerpiece; the buzzing neighborhood of La Latina; and Lavapiés, a working-class immigrant enclave that's also home to Madrid's best flamenco spots. Paseo del Arte, where Madrid's three heavy-hitting museums are clustered and the expansive Parque del Retiro lie on the city center's eastern fringes. To the northeast of the center stretches chic Salamanca, Madrid's toniest neighborhood, choc-full of high-end restaurants, designer boutiques, and luxury apartment buildings.
You can get around easily on foot – or opt for the cheap and easily navigable metro and bus network. Affordable travel passes (available at all MetroMadrid stations; 3.80€) are a good investment if you plan on making heavy use of the subway system. Other options for seeing the city include guided tours – a good one is Madrid VISION (Calle Felipe IV; hours vary by season; 091/779-1888; 13.50€; www.madridvision.es) runs popular hop-on-hop-off bus tours.
If you plan on seeing a lot of sights, pick up a Madrid Card from the Municipal Tourist Office (Centro de Turismo de Madrid) at the main branch (Plaza Mayor 3; daily 9.30am-8.30pm; www.munimadrid.es/turismo). Available for periods of 24 hours (36€), 48 hours (46€) or 72 hours (56€), the Card includes unlimited journeys on Madrid VISION buses, free access to over 40 museums, guided tours, a booklet, and a map.
Madrid’s Golden Triangle and Parque del Retiro
No matter your level of interest in art, Paseo del Arte simply must be the first stop on your itinerary. Occupying the city's eastern corner, this leafy area is home to what some refer to as Madrid's "Golden Triangle," after the three world-class art museums that are found here: the Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Conveniently located within steps of one another, this superb trio holds such stellar artworks that skipping it would be akin to visiting Paris without seeing the Louvre. What's more, the collections are so diverse that you must take in all three – the Paseo del Arte Card, available at any of the three museums for 14.40€, covers admission to all of them – for less than you'd pay to visit each one independently.
The first must-see, the Prado (Paseo del Prado; Tues-Sun 9am-8pm; 6€, free Sun; www.museoprado.es), is easily one of the world's most venerable art museums. Occupying a neoclassical structure originally intended to house a natural history museum, the grandiose building was inaugurated in 1819 as an art institution instead and today ranks as Madrid's top tourist attraction. The museum has a dedicated space to display rotating art, sculpture, and print exhibits, but it's the Prado’s 8600-strong collection of paintings from the Spanish royal family that's the real showstopper, boasting an incredible number of Spanish masterpieces, including Las Meninas by Velázquez, over 30 El Grecos, and Goya's celebrated Majas (two portraits of a woman, one clothed and one nude) and ominously captivating Black Paintings series. In addition to Spain's homegrown stars, you can also get a close-up look at over 80 Rubens, an impressive number of Titians, and noteworthy paintings by Breughel. This is one museum where you'll definitely benefit from taking the audio tour (3€). Southwest of the Prado, on the edge of the working-class neighborhood of Lavapiés, is Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Santa Isabel 52; Mon, Wed-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm; 6€, free Sat after 2.30pm and all day Sun; www.museoreinasofia.es), a contemporary art center housed in an airy former hospital. While the star attraction here is Picasso's haunting black-and-white Guernica – one of the world's best-known modern paintings – it's complemented by a remarkable permanent collection of 20th- to 21st-century Spanish art from the likes of Dalí and Miró hung alongside international heavyweights like Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder, and Max Ernst. Temporary shows are displayed in the new glass wing designed by the contemporary French architect Jean Nouvel. Don't leave without visiting the top floor, where stellar view of Madrid's rooftops await.
The final must-see on the art circuit is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado 8; Tues-Sun 10am-7pm; 6€; www.museothyssen.org), home to one of Europe's foremost international art collections. Acquired in the 1920s by the Swiss baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the collection was subsequently purchased by the Spanish government in 1993 for $350 million – a bid that exceeded even that of the Getty Foundation. The 1000 paintings shown inside the 19th-century Palacio de Villahermosa focus on masterpieces from the 13th to late-20th century, with Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Hopper, Mondrian, and Pollock figuring strongly. Start at the top floor and make your way down for a chronological lesson in art history, from Gothic painting to Russian Constructivism and Impressionism to Pop Art.
With the big three under your belt, head to the elegant Parque del Retiro, a 350-acre expanse of greenery to the east that once served as royal hunting grounds. Designed in the 1630s as a complex of royal buildings and formal gardens inspired by Versailles, it was opened to the public in the 1700s and became property of the municipality a century later. Today, it's a much-loved oasis for Madrileños, especially on Sunday afternoons, when locals from all walks of life converge here to stroll, cycle, boat on the lake (you can rent your own rowboat by the Alfonso XII monument), or watch the antics of pavement artists. The grounds sport several palaces, including Palacio de Velázquez, home to frequent art exhibits, and Palacio de Cristal, built in the late 1800s to showcase a garden of tropical plants; today it houses frequent, rotating modern art exhibits.
The heart of old Madrid is the cobblestone Plaza Mayor, first designed in 1619 and subsequently reconstructed in 1790 by Villanueva (the architect behind the Prado) after a series of fires. Theatrically enclosed by granite arches and anchored by a bronze equestrian statue of Felipe III, the square has been witness to bull fights, executions, markets, open-air theater, and even Carnival festivities over the years. These days, it is Madrid's most emblematic and photographed sight, as well as the perfect spot for a coffee break – while you will pay a premium to sit at one of the cafés that line the square, it's absolutely worth it for the experience of watching the world go by. If you're in the area come evening, head south to the labyrinthine streets of La Latina to find a number of authentic tapas bars, flamenco joints, and trendy hangout spots.
If you didn't know Spain was still a living monarchy, or just want to know more about the country's royal family, here's your chance. For a close look at the country's royal past, pay a visit to the commanding Palacio Real (Calle Bailén; Apr-Sept Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9am-3pm, Oct-March Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 9am-2pm; 8€; www.patrimonionacional.es), just a short walk northwest of Plaza Mayor. This onetime royal residence on the grounds of an old Muslim fortress (that was destroyed by a fire in 1734), is still occasionally used today for official ceremonies. Its opulent interiors contain no fewer than 3000 extravagantly decorated rooms complete with stucco ceilings, silk wall hangings, and countless artworks. About 50 of them are now open to the public, including the royal armory, where dozens of guns, swords, and shields are stored, and the 16th-century royal pharmacy, packed with ancient jars and mortars. If you want to catch the changing of the guard, arrive at noon on the first Wednesday of the month (Sept–Jun).
A welcome respite from Madrid's frenetic urban buzz awaits a ten-minute walk northeast of Plaza Mayor, at Convento de Las Descalzas Reales (Plaza de las Descalzas; Tues-Thurs & Sat 10.30am-12.30pm & 4-5.30pm, Fri 10.30am-12.30pm, Sun 11am-1.30pm; 5€ guided tour in Spanish only; www.patrimonionacional.es), a working convent founded in 1557 by Juana de Austria, the daughter of Emperor Carlos V; her tomb is found inside the church. Built for Franciscan nuns of aristocratic background (hence the name which, in English, means Monastery of Barefoot Royals), the convent's mystical ambiance is as alluring as the remarkable tapestries, woodcarvings, frescoes, silverware, sculptures, and paintings on display inside – many of them donated by the nuns' wealthy families. As you enter, note the beautifully executed portrait of the royal family by the grand staircase.
Madrid may have taken awhile to catch up to the diverse hotel scene of its European counterparts, but finally, it has. You can now stay in a converted 17th-century convent – the luxurious El Antiguo Convento (Calle De Las Monjas; 091/632-2220; www.elconvento.net); take in the fantasies of big-name architects like Jean Nouvel, David Chipperfield, and Zaha Hadid at quirky Hotel Puerta America (Avenida de América 41; 091/744-5400; www.hotelpuertamerica.com); or overnight at a former brothel, the cozy Hostal Greco (Calle Infantas 3; 091/522-4632; www.hostalgreco.com). If you want to be at the heart of action and don't mind the noise, choose one of the hotels around the Gran Vía, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. The well-heeled barrio of Salamanca and the leafy area around Paseo del Prado are better picks for travelers seeking more greenery and a bit of quiet. To help you pick the right hotel, we've outlined our favorites in luxury, midrange, and budget categories.
New designer properties may have tried to overthrow the king of Madrid luxury hotels, but The Ritz (Plaza de la Lealtad 5; 091/701-6767; www.ritzmadrid.com) still reigns as the city's most prestigious overnight address, where A-list celebrities and dignitaries have rested their heads for almost 100 years. Its main rival, AC Santo Mauro (Calle Zurbano 36; 091/319-6900; www.ac-hotels.com), a French-inspired hideaway set in the Spanish Marquis of Santo Mauro's former pied-à-terre in the verdant Chamberí district, has 51 slick rooms, a walled garden, an indoor pool, and a gourmet restaurant set in an old library. A more recent newcomer, the Hotel Adler (Calle Velázquez 33; 091/426-3220; www.lesein.es/adler) seamlessly blends contemporary five-star comfort with 19th-century grandeur in the heart of swanky Salamanca.
In the moderate category, Hotel Quo (Calle Sevilla 4; 091/532-9049; www.hotelesquo.com) provides great value, a top location just a stone's throw from Puerta del Sol, and 62 ultra-stylish black-and-white guestrooms. Slightly less expensive, but also less chic, is Hotel Suecia (Marqués de Casa Riera 4; 091/531-6900; www.hotelsuecia.com), a comfortable and dependable three-star option most notable for having hosted Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s. In posh Salamanca, the small, elegant Hotel Galiano (Calle Alcalá Galiano 6, 091/319-2000; www.hotelgaliano.com) occupies what was once a nobleman's residence; rooms showcase antiques, modern conveniences like TVs, and an unpretentious ambience – all at affordable rates.
If you don't have cash to splash, you'll nonetheless find several worthy budget hotels in the city center and beyond. Our favorite, Hotel Mora (Paseo del Prado 32; 091/420-1569; www.hotelmora.com), is highly recommended for museum lovers – this friendly 62-room establishment is located just steps from the Golden Triangle and some rooms even offer leafy views of the Paseo del Prado. Cheaper still, and close to Puerta del Sol, is Hostal Aguilar (Carrera de San Jerónimo 32; 091/429-5926; www.hostalaguilar.com), a no-frills but airy and pleasant guesthouse. Also near Puerta del Sol, Hotel Plaza d'Ort (Plaza del Ángel 13; 091/429-9041; www.plazadort.com) exceeds its one-star rating with well-equipped units and even a few suites with hydro-massage bathtubs.
Tapas is one of Madrid's top draws, and no visit would be complete without spending at least an evening bar hopping while sampling small-plate delicacies. Otherwise, the city's gastronomy is quite varied and your dining experiences here can extend to high-end restaurants, affordable neighborhood joints, taverns offering substantial regional cuisine, and eateries with internationally-flavored menus. The most important meal of the day here, as elsewhere in Spain, is lunch, which traditionally served between 2pm and 4pm and, of course, followed by a siesta. Look out for the great-value menús del día (set menus), served in most restaurants for lunch and sometimes dinner. Dinner, generally a less-important affair, is served late – if you want to blend in with the locals, don't show up at a restaurant before 9pm. Below is our selection of Madrid's favorite and famous dining spots.
Our favorite picks among the city's most expensive restaurants all require reservations (unless, of course, you want to dine at 8pm). Dating back to 1725, Botín (Calle Cuchilleros 17; 091/366-4217), near Puerta del Sol, is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest restaurant in the world; its succulent roast suckling pig was favored by Hemingway back in his day. Some of Madrid's most applauded gastronomic concoctions can be had at Michelin-rated La Terraza Restaurant (Calle Alcalá 15; 091/532-1275; www.casinodemadrid.com) where mouthwatering culinary combos and a regularly-changing menu are concocted in the strict-dress-code setting of the grand Casino de Madrid. Ritzy Club 31 (Calle Alcalá 58; 091/531-0092; www.club31.net), in the elegant Retiro district, is one of Madrid's top restaurants, with beautifully executed classics like steak tartar and Crepes Suzette presented with an innovative touch and unparalleled service. Worth a taxi ride to the Chamartín area is the award-winning El Chaflán (Avenida Pío XII 34; 091/350-6193; www.elchaflan.com) where Mediterranean-inspired fare is prepared with fresh market goods and served in a chic, sky-lit space.
But you can also eat well in Madrid on a moderate budget. If you're willing to wait in line for a Mediterranean feast at mild prices, head to La Finca de Susana (Calle Arlaban 4; 091/369-3557). For flavorful and healthy food, make your way to one of two branches of Fast Good (Calle Padre Damián 23; 091/343-0655; Juan Bravo 3c, 091/577-4151; www.fast-good.com). Both locales of La Musa Latina (Manuela de Malasaña 18; 091/448-7558; Costanilla de San Andrés 12; 091/354-0255; www.lamusalatina.com) are immensely popular for their imaginative tapas-inspired meals and trendy settings. Home-cooking from Spain's province of Castilla y Leon is best sampled at atmospheric Viuda de Vacas (Calle Cava Alta 23; 091/366-5847) where we dare you to try their specialty – bull's tail – served on wooden tables amidst azulejo tiles.
For the best traditional tapas, the standing-room-only La Casa del Abuelo (Calle Victoria 12; 091/521-2319) is your best bet, especially for its ambience and wonderful shrimp (order it a la plancha – grilled - or al ajillo – fried in garlic and oil). Also a must are the cod croquettes (bacalao) at Casa Labra (Calle Tetúan 12; 091/532-1405; www.casalabra.es) which also offers more substantial sit-down Madrileño meals in its backroom restaurant. Carnivores will delight in the delicious ham served up at the restaurant chain known as Museo del Jamón (091/431-7296; www.museodeljamon.es); even the hordes of tourists at the so-called "museum of ham" won't detract from the chorizo and Serrano ham. For Basque tapas like chipirones en su tinta (baby squid in their own ink), don't miss Carmencita in Chueca (Calle Libertad 16; 091/531-6612).
If you like to go out and stay out late, Madrid might be the closest you'll ever get to nightlife nirvana. With over 4000 places to drink, not to mention dozens of clubs and flamenco spots, Spain's capital is easily one of Europe's leading cities for fabulous nightlife. The Spanish are known for their love of la marcha – a term used frequently in Spain to describe nocturnal fun and partying – so get ready for some serious action: Once the clock strikes midnight, the city transforms into one giant fiesta. For current nightlife hotspots and cultural happenings, pick up the weekly entertainment guide Guía del Ocio (Spanish only; www.guiadelocio.com) or the monthly InMadrid (English; www.in-madrid.com).
Madrid's different barrios each possess their own personality and style after dark. If you're looking for cool trendy hangouts, head to leafy La Latina or the gay enclave of Chueca. To find Madrid as seen in the films of Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodóvar, alternative Malasaña is the place to go – it gave rise to the movers and shakers of Movida Madrileña, an art and lifestyle movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s after the collapse of Franco's dictatorship. To brush shoulders with Madrid's rich and beautiful, dress up and head to stylish Salamanca. If you're visiting during warm-weather days, make sure to partake in Madrileños' favorite evening pastime – whiling the evening away with a drink on an outside café or bar terrazza.
No matter where your evenings take you, three renowned cocktail bars, all within a stone's throw of each another, are an absolute must. Museo Chicote (Gran Vía 12; 091/532-6737; www.museo-chicote.com) the pioneer of them all, is an Art Deco classic that's hosted luminaries like Hemingway, Bette Davis, and Frank Sinatra since its 1931 opening. At Del Diego (Calle de la Reina 12; 091/523-3106), you can enjoy over 50 varieties of terrific cocktails, including their coveted dry martinis, in an intimate wood-and-steel interior. For a quieter retreat, head to El Cock (Calle de la Reina 16; 091/532-2826), a cozy spot whose name is intended to evoke a private English club.
A visit to Madrid wouldn't be complete without a night in one of its flamenco clubs – also known as tablaos. The most reliable spot to experience the fiery music and dance from the south of Spain is Casa Patas (Calle Cañizares 10; 091/369-0496; www.casapatas.com), an institution that features big-name performers six nights a week. If you want to try dancing, playing, or singing flamenco yourself, the Flamenco Conservatory (Calle de Cañizares 10; 091/429-8471; www.conservatorioflamenco.org) offers classes. Younger crowds and up-and-coming performers descend on the intimate Las Carboneras (Plaza del Conde de Miranda 1; 091/542-8677; www.tablaolascarboneras.com), a well-rated tablao with two performances six nights a week.
If clubbing is your idea of fun, Madrid has two classics: Pacha (Calle Barceló 11; 091/447-0128; www.pacha-madrid.com), where house and techno pump on weekend nights inside an old theater and the visually stunning Palacio Gaviria (Calle Arenal 9; 091/526-6069; www.palaciogaviria.com), inside an Italianate palace with lots of nooks and crannies and DJs spinning everything from house to salsa.
For a different kid of vibe, jazz lovers should beeline for Café Central (Plaza del Angel 10; 091/369-4143; www.cafecentralmadrid.com), an excellent club that's still going strong after 20 years. When the night is over, finish it off in typical Madrileño tradition: with delightfully decadent chocolate con churros (thick hot chocolate with deep-fried pastry) at Chocolatería San Ginés (Pasadizo de San Ginés, entrance at Calle Arenal 11; 091/365-6546) – it closes at 7am.
When it comes to consumer pursuits, Madrid certainly vies for attention with other European cities like London and Paris. You'll find everything from designer outlets to small boutiques and flea markets to major department stores. Most shops stay open through the afternoon siesta, especially around the major shopping areas like the Gran Vía, but some independent businesses do traditionally close for lunch between 2 and 5pm.
A Sunday-morning wander around the around El Rastro flea market (Sun 9am-3pm; www.esmadrid.com) should rank almost as high on your to-do list as a visit to the Prado. Spread over the pedestrian-only area around Calle Ribera de Curtidores, in the Lavapiés district, this famed market throngs with tourists, pickpockets (do watch your valuables here!), and seemingly endless stalls selling cheap bric-a-brac ranging from CDs to flip-flops and watches to antique furniture. Much of the merchandise is likely to be junk, but eagle-eyed connoisseurs may spot some bargains.
To pick up mementos of Madrid, head to Casa Jiménez (Calle Preciados 42; 091/548-0526) for gorgeous shawls and capes, or to El Arco de Cuchilleros (Plaza Mayor 9; 091/365-2680) for souvenir items like botas de vino (leather wine containers), azulejo tiles, and handicrafts. Flamenco paraphernalia can be found at Flamenco Vive (Calle Conde de Lemos 7; 091/547- 3917; www.elflamencovive.es), an excellent specialty shop selling everything from rare music to colorful dresses and castanets.
For upscale shopping, head to where Madrid's high society does: Calle Serrano and Ortega y Gasset in the Salamanca district. This is where you'll find the latest in high-end designer goods by big international names like Armani and Gucci as well as high-profile Spanish designers such as Adolfo Domínguez (Calle Serrano 18 and 96; 091/576-7053 or 091/577-8280 ; www.adolfo-dominguez.com) and Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (Calle Serrano 27; 091/319-0501; www.agatharuizdelaprada.com).
Madrid's department stores range from the books and music outlet of FNAC (Calle Preciados 28; 091/595-6129; www.fnac.es) to El Corte Ingles (www.elcorteingles.es), Spain's leading emporium with over 20 branches around the city. Spain's internationally renowned chain stores, like Zara and Mango, line Gran Vía and Calle Fuencarral, on the edge of the Chueca neighborhood, where you'll also find trendy streetwear shops like Diesel. For offbeat clothes and assorted funky items, browse the one-off boutiques of Malasaña.
When To Go
Landlocked Madrid has a climate with four distinct seasons. High season is spring (mid-March to mid-June) and fall (September-October), when temperatures are at their most pleasant and street life bustles. If you can deal with soaring temperatures, summer will get you the best bang for your buck in terms of hotel costs, with one caveat: most locals leave the city and many restaurants and bars shut down, especially in August. On the plus side, you won't have to queue at attractions and fight to grab a table on a terraza. Winter holidays are a popular time to visit, especially during the famous New Year's grape-eating-at-midnight and fireworks ceremony at Puerta del Sol. After the holidays, low season gets underway between January and mid-March, when Madrid is cold, gloomy and without street action.
If you visit between March and October, you can catch one of the corridas (bullfights) during the official bullfighting season at La Plaza de Toros (Calle Alcalá 237; www.las-ventas.com), typically taking place on Sundays. The season peaks in the spring, particularly during the annual Fiesta de San Isidro, a weeklong celebration of Madrid's patron saint on May 15, when bullfights can be seen every day.
mid-March through mid-June & September through October
January through mid-March
Best bang for your buck
July & August
All international and domestic flights arrive to Barajas Airport (MAD), 10 miles northeast of the city center. It's the main hub for Iberia (www.iberia.com), Spain's national airline, which offers non-stop flights from New York. Major US carriers like Delta (www.delta.com), American Airlines (www.aa.com) and Continental (www.continental.com) also fly non-stop to Madrid. Count on flight time of about seven hours from New York and 12-13 hours from Los Angeles, with a stop on the East Coast.
If you're coming by train from Europe or elsewhere in Spain, you'll arrive either to Chamartín station in the north of the city (from France and northern Spain) or Atocha station in the south (from Portugal and southern Spain).
Purchasing airfare and hotel together can often save you a bundle, and you should check for package deals on Expedia (http://www.expedia.com), Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) and Travelocity (http://www.travelocity). Better-priced packages can also often be scored through Europe-focused providers like Gate1Travel (www.gate1travel), EuropeASAP (www.europeasap.com), and European Destinations (www.europeandestinations.com).
Getting into Madrid
Reaching the city center from Barajas Airport is fairly simple. Certainly the cheapest way is by Metro, which runs from Terminal 2 and takes 30 to 45 minutes (1€). Catching a taxi into the city center is the easiest but also priciest option; the 30-minute journey will cost you 20€-25€. For more detailed information and schedules of buses from and to the airport, see the Airport and Air Navigation Network website for Spain (www.aena.es).