Madrid de los AustriasThis, 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 (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 Isidr, the patron saint of Madrid.
Palacio Real and OperaThe imposing, 3,000+ room Rococo style Bourbon Dynasty Royal Palace and its French-designed Sabatini Gardens dominate this section of the city, along with 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 LetrasAlso 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 or 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, it is blessed with an abundance of moderately priced hotels (One Shot, Ibis Styles, Vincci Soho, Room Mate Alicia, and three members of Catalonia Hotels), short term rental apartments, good value restaurants, from cheap to moderately priced (Terra Mundi, Maceiras, La Verónica, 3 members of the Oter group, Vinoteca Moratín, Triciclo and Tándem, Vi-Cool, 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.
Gran VíaMadrid’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 Plaza de España with its statue of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Bustling at all hours, I find it not the quietest or most attractive place to stay given the constant frenzy of sidewalk activity and heavy traffic.
SolThis 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. Populated by fast food joints, gold & silver buyers, a classic pastry shop, La Mallorquina, many chain stores, the main (and giant) branch of Spain’s only department store, El Corte Inglés, like the Gran Vía, it is a beehive of constant activity. Here sits Spain’s largest Apple Store, behind 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.
LavapiésThis 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 Ribera de Curtidores, where the Sunday morning flea market, El Rastro, is held, an excellent flamenco club, Casa Patas, the Cine Doré, the oldest cinema in the city, and two lively, and authentic covered markets.
MalasañaA 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 (formerly sketchy) 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.
ChuecaMadrid’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.
ChamberíTo 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 this 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 PradoThese 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.