Landlocked atop a desert plateau, Madrid was once the baroque centre of a global empire and the wellspring of a golden age of art and literature. Despite centuries of wear and a recent civil war, the city still functions as a massive open-air museum to visitors while also operating efficiently as fourth-largest city in Europe.
For some, its breathless nightlife of countless tapas bars, always packed plazas, and multilevel clubs and discos might overshadow what’s happening while the sun’s out. But Madrid is not a bar town. Its “Golden Triangle” of museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen – house three of the world’s greatest art collections. Located in the center of a country with one of the world’s strongest culinary traditions, Madrid takes in the catch from all directions, creating a gastronomical tour of the entire country in a single city.
But stepping away from the tourist hubs offers opportunities to explore lesser-known perspectives on the city. Down the hill from Puerta del Sol’s lights and giant facadesis Lavapiés, both an immigrant quarter and bohemian neighbourhood, where the outdoor tables along Calle de Argumosa fill with young drinkers most summer nights. Further south, the newly renovated Matadero (the city’s old slaughterhouse) has been turned into a enormous art space and hopes to become an important European creative centre. It’s also located along the banks of the Manzanares – Madrid’s long ignored river – which has recently been reclaimed and rejuvenated as a vast inner-city greenbelt.
Madrid is often overwhelming at first – its unabating energy, sprawling form and apparent lack of centrepiece monuments can make it difficult to get a handle on. But with time and unhurried exploration the city’s revealing details take shape. Like all of the world’s great metropolises, it is a place where expectations meet their end and an openness to life’s unending variety begins.