For the unacquainted, Madrid is known to be home to time-honoured customs like the Flamenco and bullfighting. But in reality, the Spanish capital is so much more than that. With the passage of time, Madrid has grown to include all the hallmarks of a modern metropolis, mixed seamlessly with the old-world grandeur of her Spanish roots.
Its people — known locally as Madrileños — have changed, too. Just wander along the streets and you’ll notice many Madrileños spending time hanging out in the city’s open plazas, soaking up the sun, partying hard at the trendiest clubs, or attending live concerts and theatre shows — they aren’t homebodies. Also, Madrileños aren’t as fond of midday siestas as they used to be, so don’t expect to be turning in after a boozy lunch.
Indeed, modern-day Madrid has become a travel destination teeming with fun places to visit, culinary experiences to delight your senses, and unforgettable nights spent dancing on the streets till the wee hours — it is truly the city that never sleeps. Here are four neighbourhoods, or barrios as they’re known locally, to show you why.
Madrileños usher in the New Year by eating 12 grapes to the 12 midnight chimes struck by the clock tower of the Real Casa de Correos (Royal house of the Post Office, above, right)
Get a taste of Spain
Puerta del Sol, a city square right in the heart of Madrid, is rich in historical significance both for Madrileños and all Spaniards. Wander around the open plaza and you’ll spot several monuments which will give you a peek into the capital’s history.
The Kilometre Zero mark was first placed in the grounds of Puerta del Sol in 1950 and replaced in 2002 and 2009 when the square underwent renovations
The iconic ’El Oso y el Madroño statue, also called the bear and the strawberry tree, has an interesting back story. Be sure to ask locals for their account!
Look out for the Kilometre Zero mark, a metal plaque on the ground outside the clock tower of the old Post Office building, the Real Casa de Correos. This plaque marks the official start point of Spain’s six national roads – the A-1 to A-6. The ’El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, is another iconic monument situated at the open plaza. It is the symbol for the capital of Spain and the coat of arms for Madrid.
Also situated within Sol is Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s grand central square where eye-catching architecture and vibrant street activity breathe life into a location built in the late 1500s. Locals are also known to throng the plaza in December when a temporary Christmas Market is in town. The plaza now hosts the city’s main tourist office and several bars and restaurants.
Sol is one of the reasons why Madrid is also referred to as the culinary capital of the country. So, be bold and step into any bar or restaurant around the Plaza to make your own tasty discovery. For a true taste of Madrid, you should sample the Bocadillo de Calamares, a local specialty made of fresh bread rolls filled with squid rings deep-fried in olive oil.
Madrileños are known to wash down their Bocadillo de Calamares with a caña, or small beer
Churros are often served with a cup of thick, hot chocolate, which has a custard-like consistency. While many may prefer to have it as a toothsome dessert, the Spanish are known to have churros for breakfast, too
Another local favourite is Cocido Madrileño, a hearty stew filled with vegetables, chickpeas, chorizo, and different cuts of pork. Simmered for no less than four hours, the stew is normally served and eaten over two to three courses in a meal. For dessert, hop over to the Chocolateria de San Gines, which serves up Churros con Chocolate, a sinfully sweet Spanish snack that locals consume for breakfast, too.
With its mix of unique local shops and established fashion labels, Barrio de Salamanca, promises to have something for every shopper
Come shop till you drop
Any shopping trip to Spain wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Salamanca. In fact, many often compare it to California’s Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But, in Salamanca, the mix of quaint local shops and international luxury and high street brands mean you don’t have to be a millionaire or Hollywood celebrity to shop here.
Head to Serrano Street to shop for stylish threads at the flagship store of Zara, the Spanish fashion retailer that has conquered the world. It’s a dream come true for fans of the high street brand, with a wide array of everything fashion spread over seven floors in a 2,400sqm building.
Located on the same street is Casa Loewe, the flagship store of the iconic Spanish luxury leather brand, Loewe. Set within a 19th-century building, the three-storey boutique boasts the entire range of products in the Loewe world for both men and women, along with accessories and exclusive bespoke collections.
Comfortable footwear is a must at the El Rastro Flea Market – you need to be quick on your feet to score the¬¬ best deals!
But if you’d rather bring home something that’s uniquely Madrid, head to El Rastro, the most popular open-air flea market in Spain, located between Calle Embajadores and the Ronda de Toledo. Open every Sunday, the flea market is a bargain hunter’s paradise where you’ll be able to find new and pre-loved clothes, quaint jewellery, bags, and decorative ornaments at unbeatable prices.
3. La Latina
Liv’in La Vida Loca
While it is one of the oldest barrios in Madrid, don’t let the medieval streetscapes in La Latina fool you. You’ll want to check out Calle Cava Baja a curving street featuring the most traditional and popular tapas bars and restaurants in the city, and this fact is not lost on tourists. Travellers from far and wide are known to flock here as part of their Cava Baja – or Tapas Crawl.
Fun fact — the idea of tapas originates from the middle ages, back when cleanliness standards weren’t as high. A plate with food had to be placed on top of wine glasses to prevent flies from falling into the wine.
Tapas are an institution in Madrid, and you can find them served up at almost any Spanish bar in the city. One thing to note: you don’t actually have to pay for it. While tapas restaurants abroad charge some hefty prices for a small plate with a few slices of jamon (ham), in Madrid, tapas are free when you order a drink.
The Madrid Atocha Railway station houses a tropical garden surrounded by iron and glass with 260 different species of plants.
If the night is still young and living it up in a Spanish nightclub is your cup of tea, hop on the metro, alight at Madrid Atocha station and make your way to Teatro Kapital, a seven-storey mega club, just down the street. There’s something for everyone here, with music ranging from House to Funk, Latin to Dance. Open from Thursday to Saturday, the dance floor gets busy only past midnight. Here’s a tip: A good night out in Madrid truly ends with, not supper, but breakfast. So be prepared to stay up all night long.
Putting the art in the heart of Spain
The Spanish capital is every art lover’s dream come true with over 60 museums spanning almost every field of human knowledge imagineable.
After visiting the exhibitions, watch the world go by while sipping on coffee in this artsy restaurant, NuBel, located within the Reina Sofia Museum
Particularly in Lavapies, which is home to some of the most notable ones. Take a stroll down Paseo del Arte, or Art Walk as it’s known in English, and you’ll arrive at the Reina Sofia Museum. The museum showcases one of the finest selections of contemporary art pieces in the world, including Picasso’s iconic Guernica painting, circa 1937. It’s also a short walk from the infamous El Prado Museum. If you want to get more out of your day trip down Paseo del Arte, download the Essential Art Walk app, Paseo Arte Imprescindible (App Store, Google Play), as your companion.
Also check out Matadero Madrid, a contemporary arts centre, which was formerly an old livestock market and slaughterhouse. Now it plays host to drama, musicals, dance performances, and exhibitions on architecture, fashion, literature, and even cinema.
Whether you are keen on museum hopping, feasting, bargain hunting or just dancing the night away, there’s always something to do at all hours of the day in Madrid. Be sure to check out these four barrios the next time you’re in the Spanish capital for an irresistibly invigorating travel adventure.
Best time to visit:
March to May or September to October. Be sure to avoid visiting during the summer months as other Spaniards enter Madrid, and the locals head out of the city, so it’ll be crowded and many businesses will be closed.
Currently there are no direct flights from Singapore to Madrid. Expect at least a short stopover in cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, London, or Dubai, depending on the airline you choose. Search for airfares and book your tickets here.
Always carry a pair of sunglasses with you because Madrid is a city bathed in sunlight. Even in winter, when the mercury can dip below zero, you’ll find blue skies and sunshine.
Don’t be alarmed by locals dumping bones, shells of sunflower seeds, used napkins, and other waste on the floor nonchalantly. It’s totally normal and gets cleaned at the end of the day.