It’s not hard to fall in love with Madrid. The cosmopolitan city marries modernity and tradition with ease, cleverly coupling the ultra-modern lifestyle of a fast-paced 21st Century city with the laidback, it-will-happen-mañana attitude that the Spanish have made famous.
Well-dressed couples smooch on the streets of this tactile city, where stately buildings of warm sandstone have borne witness to the ebb and flow of Madrilian life for centuries. While at first these unabashed displays of public affection are disconcerting to those new to the Spanish way of life, after a few days spent meandering through the city’s narrow streets, sampling tapas in lively bars and people watching in Puerto del Sol, the amorous couples oblivious to the world around them will become just another part of Madrid’s fascinating landscape.
Located in the heart of Spain, Madrid is easily one of the largest cities in Europe. Considered the centre of the country’s business and cultural life, the city’s main tourist district pulsates with life day and night, and it is not unusual for commuters on their way to work to pass revellers making their way home from a club on any given morning. This affinity with the night is what Madrileños are famous for; they siesta during the day, eat late, and party well into the night, making sure they have plenty of time to play in this big-city life.
The whole centre of the city is easily explored on foot, and crowds lingering in the tourist district’s main meeting points – Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol – will find themselves entertained by musicians and human statues. From here, you can easily walk to most of the main attractions or even take a short ride on the city’s stellar metro system if you get tired.
Of the museums, the Museo del Prado is perhaps the most famous, but the imposing building with its fine collection of European art is only one of several galleries well worth the short walk to visit. Home to Pablo Picasso’s famous Guernica, Museo Reina Sophia, Spain’s modern art gallery is also a ‘must see’ on the art-loving tourist’s list.
Though the Spanish economy is currently in a slump, there is evidence of the good life all over the city. The storefronts along Gran Via and Puerto del Sol, the city’s main shopping district, are populated by glossy high-street names like Zara and Mango, while the tapas bars that line the streets are overflowing with the easy chatter of people satisfied by good food and wine.
Wandering along a non-descript street not far from the tourist-filled Plaza Mayor, a small paper sign in the window of an apartment building is the only clue that you have arrived at the entrance to one of my favourite local restaurants. Secreted away in the heart of Madrid’s tourist district, Casa Granada is a culinary gem that only the locals – and some lucky foreigners – know about. The epitome of Spanish dining culture, the restaurant is casual and relaxed with great food – the queso de cabra con uvos (goats cheese with grapes) is a personal favourite – and plenty of drink to be had. The restaurant’s ‘secret’ location is made all the more appealing by its top-storey views of the city, and you will find patient locals milling around the bar nibbling on tapitas and drinking vino tinto (red wine) while they wait for one of the coveted tables on the balcony.
Another of the city’s valued eateries, and one that is a lot more prominent, is Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. Founded in 1725, the restaurant has witnessed nearly 300 years of Madrid’s vibrant history, seeing it through civil war to the prosperity of the 1980s and the present day. Located just a few metres from the Plaza Mayor, the steaming kitchen with its original oven is on full display to diners as they enter the restaurant, and the heady aroma of cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) wafts through the air. The dish is Sobrino de Botín’s specialty, and the meat is so tender it is said it can be cut with a plate, although I used the more traditional knife and fork.
Hand painted tiles, original deeds and exact miniature replicas of each room fill out the rustic atmosphere of the restaurant, but it’s the impeccable service that really stands out. The meal was superb, but it was the invitation to the kitchen to see how the cochinillo was cooked, and the friendly waiter encouraging us to discover the subterraneous dining rooms that really made the meal special.
Another elderly establishment with a reputation for its food is the San Ginés Chocolatería, the city’s most famous churros café. Opened more than a century ago, the establishment serves little else but the quintessential Spanish treat (sticks of fried dough served with thick, dark hot chocolate), and is busy with sweet-toothed customers 24-hours a day.
For a Spanish flavour of a different kind, Casa Patas offers one of the most authentic Flamenco experiences in the city. The intimate venue, dimly lit and crowded with low tables, magnifies the raw emotion and sheer stamina of the dancers as they beat an intoxicating rhythm upon the stage. Combined with the nimble fingers of the skilled guitarists, and the melodic wail of the singers, this truly is an electrifying experience.
As a final touch, make sure you visit the glass sided Mercado de San Miguel. For food, wine and atmosphere, the stylish tapas market is the embodiment of Madrid – a sophisticated city that represents modern Spain at its most spectacular.