Guide to: Madrid

Madrid might lack Barcelona’s beaches and gaudy Gaudí finery, but this mature, cultured city is a highly satisfying visit; its terraces are packed, its theatres throbbing, its marketplaces vibey to the max and its Pride as proud as any in the world. As well as the high culture of its Royal Palace, opera and museums (Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Reina Sofia), there’s the fun of lively gay district Chueca, the diverse party barrios of Lavapiés and Malasaña and the bustling Sundays of El Rastro flea market. Plus, contemporary culture institutions such as La Casa Encendida and the Matadero (in a vast old slaughterhouse) and word-of-mouth art openings and parties show a city moving with the times. Madrid is an easy-access, always-on, super-sociable capital city that is perfect if you’re looking for a reinvigorating blast

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Madrid is full of casual-looking cafés, terraces and bars, but it can be hard to get coffee and food on the go. If you’ve got a packed day seeing the city, you might want a quick breakfast stop, so head to Acid Bakehouse in Lavapiés for quality coffees, cardamom buns and house sourdough baked in the open kitchen at the back. For lunch, go contemporary or classic. If you’re feeling the former, head to La Manduca de Azagra on one of the big avenues between Bilbao and Alonso Martinez. The avant-garde decor by architect Francisco Mangado seems austere at first, but as you relax into it, you realise it’s a masterclass in formal indulgence. The cooking is inspired by the north-eastern Navarre region of Spain, which also accounts for the super-friendly service. The heart of the menu revolves around seasonal regional vegetables like artichokes, chicory and leeks eaten with fresh fish and prime meat. A killer wine list too. But if you want some serious Madrid tradition, bounce over to La Bola, a classic Madrid taberna that’s tucked away near the opera house and royal palace. This is the place to try cocido madrileño, a stew of chickpeas, vegetables and multiple meats (pork, chorizo, chicken). This cute corner spot has been one of the best Castilian kitchens ever since it opened in 1870. Four generations of slow cooking later and it’s still got it.

Acid Bakehouse

Eat Early

Relatively new to the Madrid scene is the impressive theatre-turned-restaurant, El Imparcial. Walk in through the foyer (which doubles up as one of the best magazine and book shops in town), head up the grand staircase and enter the buzzy, beautiful room. The menu is full of favourites like croquetas, huevos rotos and chipirones, all with a house spin. It’s a great weekend spot – somewhere to get dressed up for. On the other end of the spectrum is Los Chuchis, a tiny restaurant arranged around a horseshoe bar down the hill in Lavapíes. Sacrilegious though it may be for a guide to the capital of Spain to include a restaurant run by an Englishman (kudos to Scott Preston for daring to introduce madrileños to shepherd’s pie), this place serves up some of the best food in town, including an unmissable spicy fish stew. A million miles from this kind of cosiness is Sala de Despiece, a corrugated iron-clad shop-front restaurant that looks part-lab, part-production line inside. The clinical vision is stunning and brilliantly at odds with the nose-to-tail eating inside. The genius, highly logical, itemised menu offers small plates, from simple tomatoes to suckling pig and veal tripe to Basque truffle. 

Sala de Despiece


Madrid has a multitude of impressive grand museums (Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen-Bornemisza), but the small Sorolla Museum in Chamberi is as charming as it gets. Set in the house where the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla lived until his death, it’s a delight of a space that showcases his work, framing and paintbrushes, but also his immaculate taste in gardens and interiors. Even if you’ve not heard of him, or don’t class yourself a huge fan, this place will captivate you. From there you can head to Retiro Park, one of the most beautiful formal public gardens in the world, especially on a blazing hot, sunny day, when you can take shade under the trees. Go beyond the touristy lake area and stroll the paths until you get to the Glass (or Crystal) Palace, which has a rotating exhibition of works scheduled by the Reina Sofia Museum. If you’re feeling fit, this is also a place for running, tennis, rollerblading and pop-up CrossFit sessions. For full local flavour, go hang out at the Mercado de San Fernando, especially on Sundays when the whole area is buzzing off the back of El Rastro flea market. 

Monument to Alfonso XII, Retiro Park


With the colour palette and kitsch appeal of an Almodóvar film, La Esperanza in Lavapiés is the perfect place to prop up the bar with a doble and a bowl of crisps, or a punchy margarita and a gilda. If you know your Spanish stars, you’ll spot actors and musicians strolling in for a casual drink on ground level, or a conspiratorial dinner in the basement. Step back in time with glasses of sherry (and sherry only) in La Venencia, where they chalk up your tab like they’re counting the days in a prison cell. The old casks, nicotine-stained wallpaper and super dark wooden interiors look untouched since it opened in the 1920s. In a similarly traditional vein is Bar Cock (not a cruising bar, despite its name and proximity to Chueca),although this one’s a lot more polished and comes with an extensive cocktail menu. And shout-out to arguably Madrid’s tiniest bar, Bocanada, which is little bigger than a phonebox, but somehow packs in a number of natural wine enthusiasts. Some of the coolest and most knowledgeable of a new generation of wine buyers, distributors and sommeliers come down here to support their owner friend and argue over their favourites. 

La Esperanza


One part interior design and architecture studio, one part decor store is Casa Josephine, the muy chic boutique in the El Rastro neighbourhood. As members of Spain’s Architectural Digest’s most influential 100 interioristas of the year, their impeccable taste level comes approved. For menswear, head to Sportivo, a friendly shop in the Conde Duque area that is pleasingly crammed with Dries Van Noten, Marni, Mackintosh, Lemaire and a whole host of smaller Spanish and international brands. And obvious though this may seem, El Corte Ingles is well worth a visit. The massive department store dominates the city centre and it’s tempting to scuttle past, desperate to escape the crowds. But it does have a good range of Spanish brands that truly capture the local posh boy pijo style (quality chinos, polos and cable knit sweaters). And even if that’s not your thing, you’ll be surprised by the variety of affordable fashion here. 

Casa Josephine


With a range of price options, The Social Hub (cleverly rebranded from The Student Hotel) has taken over an epic building tucked away behind the Royal Palace. Yes, it’s near a huge four-lane main road and, yes, it feels somewhat cut off (even though it’s actually super central), but TSH has contemporary common areas, an enviable rooftop and a mini swimming pool that overlooks the palace gardens. More in the thick of things is the 7 Islas Hotel on the borders of Chueca and Malasaña and just a block away from the shopping street, Calle de Fuencarral. It’s great value, with spacious minimal rooms with styling inspired by Ace Hotels. If you can stretch the budget, stay at the incredible Four Seasons, which transformed an impressive old insurance company building, plus six neighbouring buildings. It’s the city’s most “wow” stay, with a top floor spa, pool and gym and breakfast taken overlooking central Madrid’s rooftops. As well as the KAWS sculpture in the lobby, the hotel is stuffed with incredible artworks, some from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and hundreds submitted by students at Spanish fine art schools. There’s also a luxury shopping arcade – La Galería de Canalejas – running right through it.

Four Seasons Hotel


Before you go to Madrid, stream Veneno (a Spanish series about the country’s most famous transgender singer and TV personality Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez). Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo’s loving tribute to one of the most exciting characters in recent Spanish history will give you a flavour of LGBTQ+ Spain. Assuming you do watch it, head to the moving shrine to her in the beautiful Parque del Oeste, where she and her contemporaries would go at night to hang out and pick-up clients. The tributes to her are touching, but this trip is also worth it because it triples up as an excuse to see and smell the beautiful rose gardens and get the cable car out to the former royal hunting grounds of Casa de Campo.

By David Annand. David has lived in London for 20 years and is slowly coming to the realisation that he will never move to the country

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