When checking the pulse of a city, the best place to start is a good boozer — and Madrid is no exception. You can’t claim to know the Spanish capital until you’ve sunk a cerveza in one of its timeworn taverns, which, with their rubbish-strewn floors and generous plates of tapas, are the cornerstone of an entire culture. They’re also the bellwethers of change and the same economic forces that are nudging many of these traditional taverns into the history books are also reshaping the city’s ancient neighbourhoods. While this has been bad news for bartenders, it’s brought new businesses to the Spanish capital, adding to the city’s already enviable nightlife scene — and giving visitors even more reasons to stay up late.
A rough-diamond neighbourhood south of the city centre, Lavapiés has the dubious distinction of being home to the first two streets on Madrid’s Monopoly board: Ronda de Valencia and Plaza de Lavapiés, which are to the Spanish capital what the Old Kent and Whitechapel roads are to London.
The barrio’s low rents have long made it popular with working-class Madrileños, not to mention penurious artists and foreign immigrants, who have imbued its narrow streets with a vibrancy and multiculturalism that you don’t find elsewhere in the city.
African cafes, Asian restaurants and Arabian shisha bars sit cheek-by-jowl with traditional taverns, havens where the world is regularly put to rights over cold beer, strong cigarettes and plates of tapas.
Madrid’s no-frills bars — of which Lavapiés has many — offer an authentic slice of local culture but many face an uncertain future as rising rents force bartenders to pull the shutters down for the final time. The same economic forces are also reshaping rough-around-the-edges Lavapiés, which only a few years ago was considered too dangerous for tourists.
“This neighbourhood is in a process of gentrification,” explains Sara Alvarez Gomez, who works at TuuuLibrería, a pay-what-you-can-afford bookstore in the heart of the barrio. “This is bad because rents are going up, but good because there are lots of new things opening that are super interesting.”
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía — Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art, which was inaugurated here in 1992 — helped spearhead the redevelopment of Lavapiés, which now offers more than a dozen galleries, most of which are located in the southeast corner of the ’hood.
The rising tide of gentrification has brought with it hip bars and trendy restaurants, but the most popular culinary hangout is Mercado de San Fernando, a neighbourhood market which, despite its slight hipster leanings, remains refreshingly affordable: bottles of wine can be picked up for a couple of euros, plates of food for a couple more.
Although power lentil lunches are now de rigueur in Lavapiés, the barrio retains a raw edge: drunkards can still be spotted talking to pigeons in litter-strewn plazas, where red-eyed youths merrily puff away at joints, play guitars and make romantic advances; outside taverns, old men — cigarette in one hand, walking stick in the other — look on, noting, presumably, how everything has changed yet also remained remarkably similar.
If Lavapiés is up-and-coming, then Malasaña has arrived. Once the preserve of prostitutes and junkies, today this vibrant neighbourhood is one of Madrid’s most popular postcodes as it finds itself in the latter stages of gentrification. That it’s taken this long for the tendrils of ‘progress’ to creep into Malasaña’s labyrinthine streets is quite surprising really, given that it abuts one of the most famous thoroughfares in Madrid, Gran Via, which is affectionately known as ‘Spanish Broadway’.
Vaunted for its ostentatious architecture, Gran Via is lined with imposing 20th-century buildings, whose elegant façades were built to house lavish theatres, high-end hotels and exclusive emporiums, but are now mostly home to the cathedrals of consumerism we call shopping centres. That Gran Via occupies the same space as Oxford Street on Madrid’s Monopoly board is no coincidence.
From their stronghold in Grand Via, familiar international brands have pushed north into Malasaña and neighbouring Chueca, which, like London’s Soho, clings on to a thriving LGBTQ community, despite commercial pressures.
An independent spirit also endures in Malasaña, but then this neighbourhood has always had a rebellious streak; in fact, the barrio is named after a revolutionary former resident; Manuela Malasaña, a teenage seamstress who, legend has it, took up arms when Napoleon’s forces invaded Madrid in 1808.
Malasaña died fighting, not against imperialism, but sexual harassment; historians say she was executed after threatening predatory French soldiers with a pair of scissors. Today, her name is a synonym for strength and courage. It’s perhaps no surprise that a campaign to save Madrid’s traditional taverns began in Malasaña, which is home to a handful of old-school neighbourhood boozers; the most famous of which is certainly El Palentino, whose stainless steel bar has propped me up numerous times.
Youthful Malasaña maintains a healthy live music scene, which took root in the neighbourhood after the fall of Franco. Since then, the barrio has been a proving ground for upstart artists, who ply their trade in sticky-floored venues such as Intruso and BarCo which stay open until dawn every day.
And so to Salamanca, Madrid’s most exclusive neighbourhood. It’s rather like an affluent old aunt who got rich long ago and is quaintly out of touch with reality — but still fun to visit.
Laid out on a grid system, the tree-lined avenues of this well-to-do barrio bristle with fancy restaurants, stylish bars and designer boutiques, where demi-fortunes are readily dropped on dinner and designer goods — if you’ve packed posh togs, wear them here.
Unlike Lavapiés and Malasaña, Salamanca isn’t at the cutting edge of cool (wealth cossets one from the constant need to innovate), but the neighbourhood does lay claim to one of the capital’s most exciting culinary ventures, Platea Madrid, which opened to much acclaim a few years back.
Occupying a redundant art deco cinema, this four-storey food court (and, randomly, a burlesque venue) has since established itself as one of the city’s top dining destinations, serving anything from traditional tapas to Michelin-starred meals. It’s a stunning venue that would be even better if the old cinema screen hadn’t been turned into a rather distracting multimedia advertising board.
Salamanca is separated from downtown Madrid by Paseo de la Castellana, which, to persist with the Monopoly theme, is Spain’s version of Park Lane. The barrio also borders Buen Retiro Park, one of the most pleasant places to spend a lazy afternoon in Madrid.
When Ernest Hemingway was in the neighbourhood, he whiled away afternoons at Las Ventas, the world’s most-famous bullring, whose location in Salamanca seems strangely at odds with the barrio’s otherwise sophisticated sensibilities. Hemingway set part of The Sun Also Rises at Las Ventas, which today, rather than being the inspiration for seminal literature, is a theatre of controversy; protestors regularly amass outside the stadium to demand an end to bullfighting.
Though I share their desire to see this bloody tradition consigned to the history books, I must confess to finding the Bullfighting Museum at Las Ventas strangely compelling. The same goes for the bars surrounding the stadium, which are festooned with bullfighting paraphernalia and will surely slip away when the spectacle is inevitably banned.
Salamanca does a rather nice line in off-piste cultural attractions, though its greatest asset is Museo Lázaro Galdiano, which is stacked to the rafters with paintings by Goya, Zurbarán et al — the kind of thing an affluent old aunt would undoubtedly approve of.
When in Madrid
Drink at a tavern
Make a beeline for one of Madrid’s traditional taverns and order a caña (small glass of draft beer) to get a real feel for the city. Rising rents have forced many to close, so pop in — you’ll be rewarded with cold beer and complimentary tapas.
Go to El Rastro
The best bazaar in town: El Rastro, held every Sunday along Plaza de Cascorro and Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores. It attracts thousands of hawkers who sell everything from antiques to vinyl. At 3pm, everyone packs up and piles into La Latina’s pubs.
Visit Las Ventas
Love it or loathe it, bullfighting is woven into Spanish culture. Las Ventas is the best-known theatre for this bloody ‘sport’ and although the on-site museum is guilty of glorification, it does offer an interesting insight into this most controversial of traditions.
Sip a sherry
One of Ernest Hemingway’s favourites haunts in Madrid was La Venencia, a sherry house that remains much as he left it: nicotine brown walls, dusty casks and a total absence of technology (mobile phones are banned).
Eat a calamari sandwich
Madrid may be as far from the sea as it gets in Spain, but locals are mad for calamari sandwiches. Numerous restaurants in and around the Plaza Mayor serve this unlikely speciality. La Ideal is the pick of the bunch .
Fly to Madrid with EasyJet from around £60 return and stay at 7 Islas Hotel, a boutique hotel in Malasaña, where doubles start from around €94 (£84) per night. Build a bespoke tour of the city, focusing on anything from food and wine to history, with Insider’s Madrid from €280 (£244) for two people for three hours.
Lonely Planet Pocket Madrid. RRP: £7.99.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)