Madrid de los Austrias
This, Madrid’s oldest, most historic and atmospheric quarter, with its evocative tiny cobblestoned streets and archways, was named for the seventeenth-century Spanish monarchs, the Hapsburg Dynasty, and is home to La Latina a lively nightlife neighborhood with its tapas bar filled Cava Baja that stretches south from the Plaza Mayor. Here is where madrileños gather on Sunday afternoons for taking a caña or vermú and a pre-lunch aperitivo after the El Rastro flea market shuts down. In Los Austrias you’ll find several cloistered monasteries, Encarnación and Descalzas Reales and lovely small churches like San Ginés, the Plaza Mayor, the Old City’s most grandiose public square, Old Madrid’s major thoroughfare, the Calle Mayor, Cuchilleros Street of Casa Botín fame and the Cava San Miguel, with its ancient taverns or mesones built within the bowels of the Plaza Mayor. Here you’ll also find the tourist-filled iron and glass San Miguel Market and the Church of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid.
Palacio Real and Opera
The imposing, 3,000+ room Rococo style Bourbon Dynasty Royal Palace and its French-designed Sabatini Gardens dominate this section of the city, along with the Almudena Cathedral, which hosted the wedding of King Felipe and Queen Letizia. Across the lovely square, the Plaza del Oriente, sits the neo-classical Royal Theater (Opera House) and further beyond, the Senate.
Barrio de las Letras
Also referred as Huertas, which is actually the area below it, named for its bar and club filled main street. This “Literary Quarter” refers to the seventeenth-century, Golden Age writers, Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca, who lived and wrote here. At its northern end sits the House of Parliament, the Palacio de Las Cortes, and at its southern tip, the Atocha rail station.
For the visitor it offers the most convenient neighborhood for a short visit to the city, as the major museums are nearby along the Paseo del Arte, it is blessed with an abundance of moderately priced hotels; One Shot Hotel Prado, Vincci Soho, Room Mate Alicia, Catalonia Hotel Atocha and Las Cortes, short term rental apartments, good value restaurants from cheap to moderately priced; Terramundi, El Barril de Las Letras, Vinoteca Moratín, Triciclo and Tándem, Vi-Cool, Restaurante Vietnam, La Huerta de Tudela, cafés for a quick and inexpensive breakfast (Huevos Rotos, Platería Bar Museo, El Azul de Fúcar, Chocolat), vegetarian-friendly eateries (La Biótica), a cool jazz club, Spain’s classical theater, a self-service laundry, and to equip a rental kitchen, there are small markets, delis and wine shops.
Madrid’s “Grand Old Way," the entertainment epicenter of Madrid, is similar to Broadway, but sans skyscrapers, lined with many theaters, cinemas, fast food emporia, 3-4 star hotels, a FNAC and huge El Corte Inglés (at nearby Callao) and a few “working girls” on adjacent Calle Montera. At its lower end it boasts some stately 19th-century architecture capped with elegant sculpture. The Gran Vía feeds into the more noble Calle Alcalá at its southern end, and its northern tip it terminates at the 70,000 m2 Plaza de España with its statue of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Bustling at all hours, it has undergone a 2-1/2 year renovation to become a true destination in the heart of the city.
Puerta del Sol
This is Madrid’s epicenter, “the gate of the sun” and “kilometer zero," the dead center of Spain, from which all distances of Spain’s roads are measured, the middle point of the country and where visitors will find a major underground transportation hub. It is also Madrid’s “Times Square," where revelers come on New Year’s Eve to gather under the clock tower to drink a sip of cava and eat twelve grapes during the final countdown to ring in the New Year. The area has been undergoing major renovations the last few years but your will still find a few fast food joints, gold & silver buyers, a classic pastry shop, La Mallorquina, the main (and giant) branch of Spain’s only department store, El Corte Inglés, and like the Gran Vía, it is a beehive of constant activity. Here sits Spain’s largest Apple Store and the much-loved statue of the Oso y el Madroño, the Bear and the Strawberry Tree. From here one can walk north to the Gran Vía, south to La Latina, east to the lower House of Parliament, or west to the Royal Palace.
This slowly gentrifying, decidedly working class quarter, the city’s Jewish Quarter during the Middle Ages, is home to a large immigrant population, primarily from North Africa and the Middle East and is considered the most multicultural, diverse area of the city. Decidedly blue collar, it appears both scruffy and endearingly bohemian and houses many cheap eateries, many offering vegetarian/vegan fare and Indian cuisine, Arab style teahouses, Arab baths, the Hammam Al Andalús, and beloved old time bars around the Calle de las Ribera de Curtidores, where the Sunday morning flea market, El Rastro, is held, the Cine Doré, the oldest cinema in the city, and two lively, and authentic covered markets.
A funky, counterculture, ultra hipster neighborhood for 20s and 30s somethings, some liken Malasaña to Manhattan’s East Village; others see a resemblance to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while others think of it as Madrid’s version of Camden Town. Its main square is the Plaza Dos de Mayo, and it is nestled between the main streets of Fuencarral to the East and San Bernardo to the West. Just east of the trendy boutiques of Fuencarral, you’ll find the up-and-coming hipster neighborhood of Triball, tucked between Malasaña and Chueca. Like Chueca to the South, Malasaña abounds in “cheap eats” plus indie boutiques, tattoo parlors, vintage bookshops, one cute boutique hotel (Abalu) and a plethora of late night bars for Gin Tonics and Mojitos. It has also become the center of the craft beer craze; La Tape, Fábrica Maravillas, Irreale. In the post-Franco late 70s and early 80s it witnessed the birth of the cultural, drug and sexual rebellion, “La Movida”, immortalized in early Almodóvar movies.
Madrid’s “gay” district since its gentrification in the 90s, home to its LGBT community, which celebrates a riotous Gay Pride Parade on the last Saturday of June, but is welcoming and friendly to those of all persuasions. A center of nightlife, it is blessed with a plethora of late night bars and clubs and is also home to some bargain restaurants (Momo, Bazaar) and renovated, classic taverns like La Carmencita, hip hotels (Room Mate Oscar and Only You), a hip “cheap sleep” (Sidorme Fuencarral 52), trendy boutiques on Calles Almirante and Fuencarral, shoe outlets on Calle Augusto Figueroa and an attractive street market, Mercado de San Ildefonso, and an interesting indoor market/food court, the Mercado de San Antón, with a hugely popular rooftop restaurant/bar.
To some this section is known as Justicia because the Justice Palace sits there, some refer to it as Salesas because of the proximity of the Plaza de las Salesas. Another lovely square in the Trafalgar neighborhood is the Plaza Olavide. This lower section of Chamberí appears a bit NYC Soho-like including Calles Almagro, Eduardo Dato and Fortuny, are as exclusive and lovely, architecture-wise, as Salamanca, with ultra chic restaurants and beautiful mansions, some which house foreign embassies. In upper Chamberí you’ll find the jewel of small art museums, the Museo Sorolla.
Castellana-Recoletos-Paseo del Prado
These are the three names for the broad boulevard that divides Old Madrid from its modern expansion (Ensanche). It is the city’s major north-south axis, stretching from Atocha rail station in the South to the leaning twin towers at the Plaza de Castilla in the North. For the visitor it is on this north-south axis starting at the mid-section, at the Plaza Colón and moving down to Puerta de Atocha, where one will find Madrid’s City Hall/post office, the Palacio de Cibeles, and its major art museums/exhibit spaces: Fundación Mapfre Sala Recoletos, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Prado, Caixa Forum and finally, at its southern end, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
On this avenue tourists will also find its key 5-star hotels; Hesperia, Intercontinental, Villamagna, Meliá Gran Fénix, Ritz and Westin Palace, glamorous watering holes for the rich and famous (Tatel, Punk Bach, Otto, Ten con Ten), the American Embassy and the Botanical Gardens, which sit just south of the Prado.
Madrid’s most exclusive, affluent and elegant neighborhood was developed as an expansion to the city in second half of the 19th-century under the patronage of the Marquis de Salamanca. This is where the city’s crème de la crème lives and does its luxury shopping in its posh international boutiques on the Golden Mile, between Calles Serrano and Ortega & Gasset. Here the visitor will also find distinguished 4-star (Totém) and 5-star hotels (Wellington, Bliss and Unico), cosmopolitan restaurants on Calles Velázquez and Jorge Juan and beautiful architecture. New Yorkers may find it reminiscent of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It begins east of Castellana Boulevard and just north of Retiro Park. From a Salamanca area hotel one can take a very pleasant half-hour walk to the Prado and reach the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s epicenter, via subway or bus in around 20 minutes. Here you will also find embassies, the Juan March Foundation and the lovely Fundación Lázaro Galdiano Museum.
This is home to the city’s northern rail station and is the primarily international business and financial section of the city, but not convenient for lodging the short-term visitor. It houses a large executive ex-pat community and one of the city’s top indoor markets, Mercado de Chamartín, along with elegant restaurants in the area around Calle Dr. Fleming, on its eastern side; DiverXO, 99 Sushi Bar, Sacha. It is also where you will find Real Madrid's home stadium, Santiago Bernabéu.
This quiet, primarily upper middle class residential neighborhood sits directly east of Retiro Park, the city’s most beautiful green space, with its artificial lake for canoeing, puppet theater, bike rentals, street artists, its Glass Pavilion that houses special exhibits from the Museo Reina Sofía and is THE place to stroll on a sunny Sunday morning. The Retiro barrio has also become a haven for gourmet small plates dining. Come here on the evening to indulge in a “moveable feast” at one of its highly regarded gastrobars; La Catapa, Taberna Marcano, La Raquetista. It’s also home to one of the city’s best marisquerías (seafood temples), Casa Rafa.
Madrid’s main public university, Universidad Complutense, is located in Moncloa on its northern end; thus, it’s a young person’s hangout with plenty of bars. On its main thoroughfare, Calle Princesa, you will find a large branch of El Corte Inglés and other Spanish chains. Its southern end abuts the Plaza de España. Paseo del Pintor Rosales, its prettiest promenade, faces the large Parque del Oeste, where one catches the cable car, Teleférico, to the Casa de Campo with its Zoo. At the southern end of Pintor Rosales at Ferraz you’ll see an Egyptian temple, the Templo de Debod, a gift from the Egyptian government to the city.