Darren Loucaides matches the grandeur of the Spanish capital’s historic past with unexpected discoveries and the city’s latest hip hangouts.
With most of the city either crawling into bed or just waking up at this hour, there’s no better time to take on a few of Madrid’s busiest areas than before they fill with people. Start with a stroll past the grand Palacio Real (Calle Bailén, 91 454 8700), built in the 18th century. It is the official residence of the young King Felipe VI, who succeeded to the throne in 2014. Nearby is the sombre Almudena Cathedral (Calle Bailén, 91 542 2200), whose construction began back in the 16th century, but was only finished in 1993 – in time for the marriage of the then-Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia in 2004. Fuel your explorations with the ultimate in indulgent early morning pick-me-ups at Café El Riojano (Calle Mayor 10, 91 366 4482): it has been serving up traditional cups of wickedly thick hot chocolate since 1885. It’s best paired with a side of bizcochos de soletilla (ladyfingers), or else there’s their signature pine nut tart.
Pop around the corner to Madrid’s main square, Plaza Mayor with its 237 balconies, talented buskers and touristy restaurants. Walk south out of the square and you’ll enter the famous, bohemian district of La Latina, where terrace bars and cafés bustle in narrow, stepped streets beneath historic arches. If it happens to be a Sunday, visit the Rastro flea market. Near to La Latina is Barrio de Las Letras, whose streets are named after the Golden Age writers that inhabited them. A plaque on Calle Cervantes marks the place where Spain’s most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes, penned the second part of Don Quixote, before dying impoverished in 1616.
On the same street, Casa Museo Lope de Vega (Cervantes 11, 91 429 9216) was once the home of the illustrious playwright; today it contains a mix of his belongings and furniture, giving an insight into life during this era. The spirits of writers José Zorilla and Francisco de Quevedo live on too – look down and you’ll see extracts of their novels inscribed on the area’s pedestrianised streets. From here, hop on the metro to the Real Fábrica de Tapices (Calle de Fuenterrabía 2, 91 434 0550). Founded by Philip V in 1721, this factory produced pieces for the Spanish royal family. Three hundred years on, it continues to create refined works that represent Spain’s rich historical heritage. The Fábrica is also where Francisco Goya started his artistic career as a tapestry designer before moving on to work as court painter.
Travel out to the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, Gran Vía, an avenue originally built in the early 1900s as a means to cross the city. Traversing Gran Vía, head north along Fuencarral, which divides Madrid’s most bohemian neighbourhoods, Chueca and Malasaña. Along the pedestrian street, you can indulge in shopping from both well-known and not-so-well-known boutiques alike. Split off down Augusto Figueroa for a selection of specialty shoe shops. For an even more authentic Spanish shopping experience, break left into the Malasaña neighbourhood, setting your sights on Antigua Casa Crespo (Calle del Divino Pastor 29, 91 521 5654). The 150-year-old shop sells quintessentially Spanish alpargatas (espadrilles) at impressively low prices. Male fashionistas shouldn’t miss the chance to get suited and booted at trendy tailor Garcia Madrid (Corredera Baja de San Pablo 26, 91 522 0521). Polish off your shopping spree with a café con leche at local hotspots like the traditional-but-trendy Café Pepe Botella (Calle San Andrés 12, 91 522 4309) or quirky La Musa (Calle de Manuela Malasaña 18, 91 448 7558).
Do as the Madrileños do and stop off for pre-lunch vermouth. Bar El 2D (Calle Velarde 24, 91 448 6472) is a well-known spot, not only for its fresh-from-the-tap vermouth, but also for its time-honoured décor, complete with tiled bar and faux neoclassical pillars. After you’ve warmed up your taste buds, treat yourself to an innovative tasting menu devised by star chef Ferran Adrià. One of Madrid’s most beautiful restaurants, the Michelin-starred La Terraza del Casino (Calle de Alcalá 15, 91 532 1275), is, as the name suggests, on the top floor of Madrid’s opulent casino. For something a little more down-to-earth, try local favourite Casa Revuelta (Calle Latoneros 3, 91 366 3332) near Plaza Mayor, where the tapas such as torreznos (bite-size pieces of pork belly) and bacalao (breaded cod) are much prized.
Work off lunch with a stomp around El Retiro Park. As one of the city’s biggest parks, and having once belonged to the royal family, it’s hardly a hidden gem and is packed with tourists on the weekend. But, its beautiful lake and monument-strewn gardens make it an essential stop. A stone’s throw away is the Prado, home to one of the world’s most stunning art collections. If you fancy getting off the tourist trail, hop on the metro and make your way to Legazpi and the incredible Madrid Rio Park. This extraordinary green space has rejuvenated a neglected area along the Manzanares River, which used to be dominated by a highway that separated several neighbourhoods from the city centre. The highlight of this reborn zone has to be Mataderos Madrid (Plaza de Legazpi 8, 91 517 7309), a former slaughterhouse that’s been converted into a contemporary art centre. There’s a recording studio and concert hall, a micro-cinema showing non-fiction films, a design centre and a performing arts space.
An Ancient Egyptian temple in Madrid? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. As a thanks to Spain for helping build the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, Egypt gave the country an almighty gift in the Temple of Debod, which was dismantled, shipped to Madrid and rebuilt. Dating back to the second century, the aged stone edifice stands above a pretty lake in the midst of Parque Oueste. Meanwhile, on the edge of the park lies the spectacular Museo de Cerralbo (Calle Ventura Rodríguez 17, 91 547 3646), an 18th-century palace that once housed the Marquis of Cerralbo, who died in 1922. Beautiful paintings from across the centuries adorn the singular politician and shrewd collector’s many rooms, along with ancient artefacts and countless curiosities.
Finish up your day by visiting Barrio de Salamanca – famous as being the city’s poshest neighbourhood. Browse high-end boutiques on Calle Claudio Coello just before they close, then head to Harina (Plaza de la Independencia 10, 91 522 8785), where you can prepare for your late Spanish dinner while enjoying views of Puerta de Alcalá and El Retiro Park. Copy the locals by ordering a clara con limón (beer with lemon soda) or a tinto de verano (red wine with lemon soda, served over ice).Finish up your day by visiting Barrio de Salamanca – famous as being the city’s poshest neighbourhood. Browse high-end boutiques on Calle Claudio Coello just before they close, then head to Harina (Plaza de la Independencia 10, 91 522 8785), where you can prepare for your late Spanish dinner while enjoying views of Puerta de Alcalá and El Retiro Park. Copy the locals by ordering a clara con limón (beer with lemon soda) or a tinto de verano (red wine with lemon soda, served over ice).Finish up your day by visiting Barrio de Salamanca – famous as being the city’s poshest neighbourhood. Browse high-end boutiques on Calle Claudio Coello just before they close, then head to Harina (Plaza de la Independencia 10, 91 522 8785), where you can prepare for your late Spanish dinner while enjoying views of Puerta de Alcalá and El Retiro Park. Copy the locals by ordering a clara con limón (beer with lemon soda) or a tinto de verano (red wine with lemon soda, served over ice).
The night might go two ways. You could install yourself at the bar area of modern fusion restaurant Ten con Ten (Calle Ayala 6, 91 575 9254) for an aperitif, before dining on strawberry gazpacho and roasted black bacalao with truffles, followed by cocktails at the Philippe Starck-designed Ramses (Plaza de la Independencia 4, 91 435 1666). Or, you could slum it at Madrid’s latest hip mecca, Lavapiés. Home to many different immigrant communities and boasting its own Brick Lane-esque ‘curry mile’, the trendsetting district is full of cool, edgy bars. For dinner, Gau&Café (Edificio Escuelas Pias, 91 528 2594) is a bold, modern restaurant with a rooftop terrace offering terrific views of the city. After, why not head to a feet-stomping flamenco show at the authentic Casa Patas (Calle de los Cañizares 10, 91 369 0496).