Madrid is an ex-convent schoolgirl, a rebellious teenager who pushed the boundaries of hedonism and then grew up and got sophisticated without ever forgetting how to have fun. That’s why this is a city as at home in the nightclubs and bars that give the streets their soundtrack as it is in the hallowed halls of high culture.
It’s true that Spain’s capital doesn’t have the immediate cachet of Rome, Paris or even that other city up the road, Barcelona. Its architecture is beautiful, but there’s no Colosseum, no Eiffel Tower, no Gaudí-inspired zaniness to photograph and then tell your friends back home, ‘this is Madrid’. But this city is an idea, a way of living for the moment that can be hard to resist.
Madrid’s calling cards are many: astonishing art galleries, relentless nightlife, its transformation into Spain’s premier style city, an exceptional live music scene, a feast of fine restaurants and tapas bars, and a population that’s mastered the art of living the good life. It’s not that other cities don’t have some of these things. It’s just that Madrid has all of them in bucketloads.
It’s often said that this is the most Spanish of Spain’s cities and it is indeed Europe’s most passionate city writ large. Very few Madrileños come from here originally, possibly making this Europe’s most open and welcoming capital. If this can be summed up in a single phrase, it’s the oft-heard, ‘If you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid’. It’s not that they’ll knock you over with the warmth of their welcome. Rather, you’ll find yourself in a bar or lost somewhere and in need of directions, and you’ll suddenly be made to feel like one of their own. Just as quickly, without knowing when it happened, you’ll realise that you never want to leave.
The old and the new contrast vividly in Madrid, where narrow cobbled lanes and 17th-century chapels border modern boulevards and gleaming skyscrapers. Such is the diversity of modern Madrid, where locals revel in the centuries-old sport of bullfighting in the afternoon and then feast on sushi in the evening. And if you ask Madrileños about their favorite attractions, they're just as divided: The masterpieces of the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums vie with junk-shopping at the Rastro.
Your feet will grow weary before you make your way through the masterpieces of the Prado. The collection rivals that of the Louvre, with works from around the world, but since you're in Madrid you may as well focus on the rich collection by Spanish masters Goya and Velázquez. When the temperatures rise, Madrileños catch a cool breeze in the Parque del Retiro with 350 acres of shade trees, gardens, fish ponds and a lake.
For 500 years Madrileños have shopped for deals at the Rastro. On Sundays true bargain-hunters arrive before 7 a.m. for this flea market's best buys, haggling over gems and oddities: Franco-era furniture, costume jewelry and dusty antiques (or knock-offs). If the Gran Via area isn't the city's trendiest shopping district, Madrid doesn't care to hear it. Many prefer the Art Deco shops selling trendy clothing there over any other district in Madrid. Take home the most traditional souvenir -- a handbag made from supple Spanish leather.
Although not for everyone, Madrid still loves its bullfights. The city's largest bullring is the plaza de toros at Ventas, where thousands admire the banderillero's footwork and the bull's fury. After midnight, Madrid's young people flock to the lively bars of Chueca and Huertas for drinks. The city's biggest clubs lie on Calle Arenal.
Follow Madrid's lead and begin your evening with a tapeo, the Spanish version of a pub crawl. Hop from one tasca, or tapas bar, to the next, sipping Spanish wine and nibbling on chorizo, stuffed peppers and manchego cheese on Ventura de la Vega, Plaza de Santa Ana or the Plaza de Santa Barbara. After tapas, Madrileños head for dinner, indulging in flavors from across Spain: Andalusian gazpacho, Valencian paella and Madrid's own lamb and vegetable stew, called cocido.