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With its strident, martial statues peering down wide boulevards, even the best of Madrid can daunt at first glimpse.
Look for order, and you encounter bustle, sometimes even brusqueness. This shouldn’t be mistaken for discourtesy when you travel here.
Madrileños simply have a reputation for directness, of a haste that contrasts sharply with the pace of life in much of coastal Spain. No offense is intended.
It’s a proud capital city, fastidious about curating and displaying its national treasures, home of some of the world’s greatest art and sculpture and a place that inspires great civic loyalty.
The attitude is part illusion. Spain’s most cosmopolitan city is also the country’s most open and gregarious metropolis.
Read on to preview the best of this fascinating destination:
Close enough to the Castellana to feel the pulse of the city’s main artery, set back enough to sleep quietly and stroll along sedate side streets.
A converted 19th-century palace, with marble floors in the reception areas and period-style furniture, the Orfila also has an upmarket restaurant with a classy lunchtime set menu that’s also a good value.
From here, boutique shopping wis easily accessible, with the Prado a short walk away.
Almost a century old, Madrid’s Ritz was built to give the Spanish capital a landmark luxury hotel to rival the Paris original. It continues to do so. It’s at its best in summer, when the garden comes into its own.
The hotel is well-appointed, with spacious bedrooms and service a little less snooty than its counterpart in the capital of France.
The chief recommendation, certainly in the summer, would be the roof-top swimming pool. There’s a bar up there, too, and captivating 360-degree views of the Spanish capital.
When you’ve stopped peering into the distance, look down and you’ll get an idea of the many options for an evening out, either side of Gran Via. It’s a good address from which to reach Sol or Santa Ana.
The Emperador makes a charm of its faint air of the old-fashioned, but you can ask for a room with a window; several don’t have one.
Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes
An elegant and ingeniously converted palace, this was once the residence of the Duke of Nobelejas. In some of the suites, guests will gaze up at frescoed ceilings.
There’s a roominess about the communal areas, with their wide staircases and hallways. This best of Madrid hotel is well located for late-night ventures.
Meson Txistu rather brandishes its encounters with local celebrity. There are photos of the king of Spain on display; it’s popular with the soccer players of Real Madrid.
The cuisine is broadly Basque, which means the fish recommends itself. Meson is strong on red meat, too, with a good wine list and wide selection of jamon serrano.
So popular since its opening, less than 20 years ago, that several satellite versions of De María have sprung in up in Madrid and the city’s surrounds.
The best is still the original, which you’ll find in the business district. The focus here is meat, with a South American influence to the cooking; tender beef readied the Argentine way, and an excellent choice of wines.
Dating from 1725, Botín claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. But you don’t eat at this best of Madrid restaurant merely to chalk off an entry in Guinness World Records – you come for the meat, above all, the pork.
Suckling pig is the traditional specialty, deservedly celebrated. Just off Plaza Mayor, this is a splendid site to work up an appetite.
Red brick and dark wood interiors, Casa Juan looks very Spanish. Most of the clientele will be too, and they will linger over their food. They’re entitled to. Casa Juan isn’t for dashing in and out.
The degustación combinations are more than ample, and the menu specializes in meat and fresh fish prepared in a variety of regional ways. Opening hours are strictly Madrid: just dinner, and after 9 p.m.
Café Oliver likes to think of itself as a something of mold-breaker, for having first advertised and served the concept of brunch on Sundays – this in the capital of a nation given to late eating hours, and wedded to the idea of long family outings to eat on Sunday starting at three o’clock, or well after.
The food is Mediterranean in an extended sense, with North African influences among the Spanish, French and Italian.
This is a club to which modern Madrid owes some of its reputation as a sleepless city, at least on weekends.
Set up in an ornate former theater, close to the up-all-night Sol and Santa Ana districts, it brings in a wide clientele, principally – though not exclusively – those who want to use the dance floor.
Simply watching from the sidelines or the upper-floor aeries is permitted, too.
Mulata is a lively tribute to Latin America, especially to Cuba and Brazil, from where many thousands of people have settled in the capital of Spain.
Expect a good range of Caribbean and South American cocktails, Latin music and iconic posters. And a relaxed vibe.
Mulata, Calle del Almendro, 22; +34 91 364 1605
Antigua Casa Talavera
This is probably the best place in Madrid to find examples of the kind of delicately hand-painted ceramics which in southern Spain, above all, are an art form.
Most of what is on sale is original design – bowls, plates, cups – but there are also reproductions of classics.
It’s also a beguiling place simply to browse. Open weekdays and Saturday mornings.
Real Madrid, at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu
The home of what claims to be the most glamorous and successful football – or soccer – club in the world sits on prime Madrid real estate, lording it a little ostentatiously over the Castellana.
For big games, tickets are hard to come by. But on an average weekend it’s a place not just to see some of the most celebrated stars of the most popular sport floodlit in their all-white strip, but a genuine cross-section of madrilenos in the audience; the earthiest of them chanting from behind the goal.
The most well-to-do keep warm in the seats beneath long, overhead outdoor heaters.
Want to appreciate how international a city Madrid is?Its biggest and most varied market is a good pointer.
El Rastro is popular with Madrileños of all sorts, which also means it gets crowded, so it’s as wise to be there early on a Sunday if you want to move at your own pace.
Fashionistas will find plenty in the way of clothes, collectors discover lots to arouse curiosity in the way of handicrafts. And people-watchers won’t be bored.
Located in Plaza de Cascorro, between San Millán and Ribera de Curtidores.
Museo del Prado
Museo del Prado is the most famous of Spain’s art museums, and its most canonical.
The Prado is still fresh from its most important transformation, the 2007 restructuring and extension of its exhibition halls.
There’s a full rewarding day, or more, to be had from Spain’s grandest collection of fine art, above all the works of El Greco, Velazquez and Goya. A warning: Sunday often means long lines.
Madrileños know how to have a good time. Even when they’re waiting for a meal.
Spaniards eat late, which is sometimes confounding to visitors from elsewhere, when they find restaurants still organizing the tablecloths at 8 p.m.
But there is a compensation: tapas.
Tapas, a mealtime in miniature, fills not only a gap in the daily timetable, and space in the belly before dinner, it’s an important social function, as well.
In a gregarious city like Madrid, it means good food to be taken standing up, mouthfuls designed not to interrupt for too long what’s really important: talking time.
There are staples: dried ham, boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) and fried, salted green peppers; a small plate is likely to contain one that surprises with its spiciness.
One specialty is rich, meaty callos – long in preparation – but in the bars of La Latina and Santa Ana, there is ample opportunity to see and taste new combinations: montaditos arranged with an eye on their visual appeal, little pieces of toast bearing arrangements of seafood, ham or manchego cheese, as patiently put together as a wedding cake.
Aperitifs? Tapas are far more than that.
They are the reason to let dinner wait, to keep chatting until late into the night. That’s Madrid all over.