The 2008 global financial crisis hit Madrid hard, and for years Spain’s capital seemed to settle into its reputation as a cast-in-amber relic of bygone grandeur. But that just might have saved the magnificent metropolis from the overtourism woes of other European destinations.
Now Madrid has re-emerged with fresh energy. Its barrios buzz with trendy new restaurants, pop-up design fairs draw arty crowds, and greening projects—including new bike paths—promise to make the city more accessible and enjoyable.
Manuela Carmena, Madrid’s second consecutive female mayor, even wrote a book about social change titled Why Things Can Be Different. It’s one more sign of a city on the upswing.
But Madrid retains a respect for history. It may be the only city in the world where you can visit an ancient Egyptian temple, a crystal palace, and the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant in the same afternoon—all under a sun that shines 300 days a year.
Established in the 16th century just beyond Madrid’s medieval town walls, Lavapiés has a long history as an outlier. But now this multicultural neighbourhood is gaining insider status. Immigrants from Africa and Asia, as well as young Spaniards drawn by the relatively cheap rents, have created a vibrant melting pot where travellers can find Senegalese restaurants, Arabic teahouses, and traditional tapas bars within blocks of one another. Colourful murals along the narrow, winding streets are the main attraction for graffiti tours like those given by Madrid Street Art Project’s Safaris Urbanos. A former tobacco factory has been transformed into a community centre, La Tabacalera, hosting exhibitions, lectures, and debates, while the National Film Institute (Filmoteca Española) offers screenings at the gorgeous 1923 Cine Doré movie theatre. A burgeoning café culture includes institutions such as the 116-year-old art nouveau Café Barbieri and trendier upstarts like Plántate. Either makes an excellent refuelling stop before browsing the wares at Spain’s largest flea market, El Rastro, on Sundays.
Located in an industrial-chic 19th-century building in the once gritty area near Madrid’s central train station, this boutique hotel is a top choice for travellers in transit. Don’t miss Sunday brunch or evening cocktails with city views at Sép7ima, the popular rooftop restaurant. onlyyouhotels.com
Undergoing a $121 million renovation, this belle époque icon operated by Mandarin Oriental has hosted a wealth of celebrities over its 108-year history, including Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí, and Ava Gardner. When it reopens later this year, expect a glass roof that brightens the heart of the hotel and a “Royal Suite” overlooking the Prado. mandarinoriental.com
The original Gran Hotel Inglés dates to 1886, but its reincarnation debuted in 2018. The landmark property near the Puerta del Sol now features an art deco-inspired makeover by the architecture firm Rockwell Group. In its 48 rooms and suites, leather panels, bronze accents, and custom-designed fabrics give a luxe nod to an earlier era. Head to Restaurant LOBO 8 for Iberian ham croquettes paired with vermouth. There’s also a glam bar, and the Égoïste Spa offers a “Jetlag Cure.” Think Jacuzzi, facial, and massage. granhotelingles.com
These savoury snacks are a Madrid must, and at many bars they come free with a drink. Asturianos has been a neighbourhood staple in Vallehermoso for more than 50 years, serving small plates such as potatoes with Cabrales cheese and sardines with tomatoes and olive oil. At La Venencia in the Barrio de las Letras, the sole sip is sherry. Pair it with salt-cured tuna, Campo Real olives, and Marcona almonds. For Basque-style pintxos, try Juana La Loca in lively La Latina, one of the city’s oldest areas.
Madrid’s most exciting young chefs are reimagining Spanish cuisine. Thanks to David Muñoz’s wildly creative dishes mixing Iberian and Asian influences, DiverXO has earned three Michelin stars. If you can’t score a dinner reservation at Ramón Freixa, order the lunchtime “short menu” for seasonal specialities in the namesake chef’s avant-garde preparations. A pop-up turned permanent, Enklima pleases palates with Agustín González’s Nordic-inspired dishes on two tasting menus.
In this food-crazed city, markets rank as landmarks. The most famous is the 1916 Mercado San Miguel, where stalls brim with produce and typically Spanish fare like percebes (gooseneck barnacles). The modern Mercado de San Antón rises three storeys and has a kitchen that will cook your purchases. Prepared dishes are the focus of the 20 vendors at Mercado de San Ildefonso, while Platea offers international tastes and live shows in a historic movie theatre on Plaza de Colón.
Spain’s iconic flavours get their due in eateries that specialize in just one or two of them. Start your day like a local with hot chocolate and churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been sweetening mornings since 1894. Then bite into the omelette-like tortilla española at Casa Dani in the Salamanca neighbourhood, or pick up some jamón ibérico at Julián Becerro, before popping into Poncelet Cheese Bar for its selection of Manchego and more than 150 other varieties.
Those masterpieces you’ve admired in books or online? Many of them can be found in this city of museum marvels. Dating back nearly 200 years, the Museo Nacional del Prado displays works by Goya, Velázquez, and Bosch. Across the boulevard in Villahermosa Palace, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza features pieces by Rembrandt and Chagall. Picasso’s “Guernica” stars at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
The resplendence of Spain’s monarchy endures today in sites around the city. Visit the Palacio Real Madrid, Western Europe’s largest functioning royal palace, with its own notable art cache. Just outside Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo sits in a beautiful forest. Day-trippers can explore the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, a baroque jewel box ringed by exquisite classical gardens, and the more monastic El Escorial, with its huge library.
Though you’ll find the international fashion brands here, Madrid is still home to indie shops filled with artisanal items. The 195-year-old boutique Casa de Diego peddles handmade fans, walking sticks, shawls, and umbrellas, while Casa Hernanz has been the source for handcrafted espadrilles (for both men and women) since 1845. Lay your hands on one-of-a-kind leather gloves at Guantes Luque or stop by Taller Puntera for more leather goods.
Green spaces galore include the formerly royal Parque del Buen Retiro, featuring a rose garden and a lake with rentable rowboats. In Real Jardín Botánico, some 30,000 plants thrive. Madrid’s largest park, the Casa de Campo, draws visitors with a zoo, an amusement park, and cable car. The newer Madrid Río Park replaced a stretch of riverside highway with a cultural centre, cafés, paths, and a summertime urban beach.