Madrid is the capital and the imperial city of Spain. Elegant, luxury hotels speckle the charming streets in the company of monumental buildings like the Museo del Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza Collection, the El Real opera house, and the Royal Palace. Madrid is a cosmopolitan city and in its quarters like Chueca and Malasaña, you’ll find contemporary and stylish tendencies, like design hotels that are as hip as the cocktail bar on the corner. In the historic neighborhoods, like Centro and El Madrid de los Austrias, stroll long boulevards lined with boutique shops and restaurants, beaming with an old-world charm. Madrid is sprawling, so finding the perfect neighborhood for your stay might seem daunting at first.
Centro is the historical and geographical center of the city, and is classically old Spanish in its winding, cobbled streets and centuries-old architecture lining grand plazas. Widely considered as having one of the finest collections of European art in the world, you may even need to visit the Museo del Prado twice, so as to get the most out of the around 1,500 paintings on display. In between, head just a few steps over to El Retiro Park, a massive and wonderfully well-groomed green space boasting a glass palace, the oldest tree in the city, and the Grand Pond, where you can take out boats with the littles ones for an amazing view and a fun-filled afternoon. The hotels in Centro and right on Retiro Park are seriously luxurious, some in 19th-century villas, modern-equipped, and always just a stone’s throw from Madrid’s best landmarks and museums. Try a boutique or design hotel for an ambience that reflects the exciting energy you’ll find everywhere you turn in Centro.
Nights owls should head toward Malasaña. Not too far from Centro, all major attractions will be at your fingertips, but you’ll have the bonus of staying within Madrid’s bustling drinking scene. Here you’ll find top-notch art galleries and trendy bars, filled with artists young and old, and visitors and locals alike. Days are spent drinking coffee and eating delicious tapas on patios, tucked away on quiet side streets. If you’re looking for some fine Spanish fashion, the city’s hippest shopping area stretches from Calle Fuencarral to Gran Via. Those seeking something more up-to-date than what’s found at the Prada should look no further than the Museum of Contemporary Art in Malasaña, which boasts an extensive collection of mostly Spanish artists—many with an impressionistic focus on representing the Madrid cityscape. Apartment-style hotels are big in Madrid and especially in Malasaña; with all the equipment you need for cooking in a deluxe apartment space, self-catering has never been so glamorous—make sure to pick up some local produce from one of Malasaña’s bustling markets, like Mercado de San Ildefonso. At the southern border of Malasaña is the Gran Vía city-center strip. Hotels on this central street come with rooftop patios and sleek design concepts.
In the recent years, Chueca has become known as Madrid’s gay district, in all its bars, restaurants, and clubs. A small district with a big heart, Chueca is filled with fascinating art museums, the National Drama Center, and a myriad churches. If you’re feeling lucky on your trip to Spain, check out the Casino Gran Madrid, Spain’s first casino and a massive establishment with several parks and gardens, three restaurants, and much more. The hotels in Chueca are trendy, well-equipped, and well-located. Days begin with huge breakfast spreads, served all day in the chic dining room or on wonderful terraces. Narrow streets lined with old colonial buildings, many of them filled with pubs and cool restaurants, give the neighbor a unique flair. If you’re interested, try to plan your trip around the world-famous gay pride parties in June and July.
On the northwestern border of Centro, find the Literary Quarter, a neighborhood that bursts at the seams with literary references and a seldom-experienced old-world romanticism. This is Madrid’s “neighborhood that never sleeps.” With something going on in terms of nightlife and culture every day of the week, this quarter is considered almost to be a separate village within the city. Stop by a bodega any hour of the night for a cold cerveza, olives, and fried potatoes, and then head back to your trendy design hotel for a nightcap and a good night’s sleep. Around the Pontifical Basilica of St. Michael is the El Madrid de los Austrias, the old center of Madrid. Here you’ll find the Plaza Mayor, a wonderful square that exudes the spirit of 16th-century Spain’s Golden Age. A simple walk through this area is a destination in itself, surrounding you with colorful facades and monumental structures.
Getting there: Fly from London to Madrid Airport (MAD) in two and a half hours. From there, take the Airport Express bus for a 5-euro, 40-minute ride into the city center. Alternatively, hop on the line 8 metro to Nuevos Ministerios Metro station in the center of Madrid from terminals two or four for an only 12-minute ride for the same price. The city is generally well connected by public transportation and the city center is actually quite small, walkable even. Renting a car is not recommended unless you plan on taking a lot of day trips; traffic can be bad day or night in Madrid.