I had not been to Spain in a long time, but returning to Madrid last month made me wonder what took me so long. Madrid is thriving!
The Spanish capital – a lively city of 3 million people – has everything other European capitals offer: culture, history, gastronomy, art, plus two important ingredients added to the mix: friendly people and low prices. The Madrileños, as the locals are called, say ‘buenos dias‘ (good morning) and smile, even if they don’t know you. ‘Gracias‘ (thank you) seems to be mandatory, and ‘perdón’ (excuse me) part of every conversation.
And let’s not forget Madrid’s famous nigh life – this is really the city that never sleeps. Or its gastronomy, as varied as the many regions of Spain. Madrid has the world’s oldest restaurant, Restaurante Botin, operating in the same address on Plaza Mayor since 1725 (try their cochinillo asado)! But wherever you eat in the city, you can have a delicious dinner – with excellent wines – for 20 EUR, or $22.80. Try that in Paris or London…
Madrid’s Prado Museum, in the area known as Paseo del Prado (Prado’s walk), is one of the oldest and most important in the world, with an unrivaled collection of Goyas, Velazquez and major European masters. In its endless galleries, their paintings are strong reminders of Spain’s major role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was the world’s greatest colonial power. The result of the incredible amount of riches brought from its Central and South American colonies can be also seen in Madrid’s magnificent buildings and grand public squares, which give the city a very grand air.
Since 1992 the Paseo del Prado has a new resident: the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the most important privately-assembled art collections in the world: that of German baron Heinrich Tyssen Bornemisza and his son Hans. It has more than 1,000 paintings, and is a lesson in the history of Western art – no less. Some experts say this collection is bigger than queen Elizabeth’s; it was sold to the Spanish government by Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, a former Miss Spain and widow of the late baron. This museum deserves few hours, it’s simply stunning.
Another must-see museum in Madrid is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, specialized in modern art. Its highlight is Picasso’s Guernica, considered the most famous single work of the 20th-century, inspired by the mass air attack of 1937 on the Basque town of Gernika-Lumo, by German pilots. The painting was in New York until 1981, reflecting Picasso’s wish that it should not return to Spain until democracy was re-established. Since 1992, it occupies a whole wall of the Reina Sofia, a powerful statement against war and violence. If you can only see one museum, go see Guernica.
Madrid has many barrios (neighborhoods), each with a different crowd and personality. I loved Barrio de las Letras, down the hill east of Plaza de Santa Ana. It got its name because of the writers who lived there (Miguel de Cervantes, author of D. Quijote de la Mancha, among others). Next to Huertas, it’s full of tapas bars, cafés and terraces, as well as creative boutiques and charming restaurants. I had the best pizza I can remember lately at Pizzamascalzoni, on Calle Cervantes, 1, right in front of the house the writer was born and lived all his life. Barrio de las Letras seems to be the favorite of Madrid’s ‘in-crowd’ as well, judging by the elegant young people walking Calle Leon (Leon Street) late at nigh, a bit like New York’s Soho; my daughter Clara, who lives in hip London, was impressed. But no matter which barrio you choose, there’s a huge selection of restaurants, cafés, theaters and music halls everywhere. The night never seems to end, in Madrid.
I left for Mallorca wishing I had more days in Madrid. This last visit made me put Madrid in my ‘favorite cities’ list again, just like I had done when I first saw it, in my 20’s, while studying in Perugia, Italy. Some things seem to get better with time. Madrid is certainly one of them.
When to go:
If possible, avoid the summer months (July and August), Madrid gets too hot, too crowded – expect lines everywhere – and more expensive. Spring and fall are ideal: the weather is nice, and you can still find good prices in hotels and restaurants, while avoiding huge lines in the museums. Or go in the winter, if (like me) you love cold weather, good prices and plenty of space.
Where to stay:
There are hotels for every budget on or near Paseo del Prado, starting at the top with the extravagant and luxurious Hotel Ritz by Belmond. The Paseo is a convenient location to stay to explore the city.