MADRID, THE THIRD LARGEST CITY in the European Union, is administratively divided into 21 districts, which are further subdivided into 128 wards or barrios. The highly dense urban core has sprawled out over the last two decades, and while some areas have a modern feel, many others keep a suburban landscape vibe.
Here’s a quick guide to key areas, focusing on barrios you should definitely cover in your visit.
This neighborhood represents old Madrid. And it is monumental. It has those kind of buildings that you must see at least once in your life: Plaza Mayor, the majestic Royal Palace, the Royal Theatre and the Almudena Cathedral.
The Km0, located at Puerta del Sol, is not only a geographic reference: here you are introduced to Madrid’s vibe. It’s no surprise that everyone goes to Sol: locals and tourist alike. It is a meeting point for madrileños and friends, or the starting point to explore the city for visitors. Few streets in Madrid are as lively as the Gran Via, with its theaters, cinemas, shops and unique buildings. Another plus: if you are fond of iconic statues, here is where you find “El Oso y el Madroño” (the Bear and the Strawberry Tree).
For tapas’ lovers. It’s right beside Austrias and Sol districts, so you won’t have to walk far to enjoy La Latina’s cuisine. Plan your visit on a Sunday and you can get lost in El Rastro, one of the most dynamic flea markets in the world.
The area deserves superlatives such as “trendiest”, “most artistic”, and “queerest”. Chueca is known as the barrio gay of Madrid, with not only well-known nightlife, but also modern restaurants and lots of art shops. Mercado de San Anton, in addition, offers some of the best delicacies and fresh produce in town.
Paseo del Arte
Possibly the most important concentration of art in the world. You can find El Prado Museum, Reina Sofia, Thyssen-Bornemisza and La Caixa Foundation within walking distance of each other. If you wish to see everything there is to see in these museums, you will need several days just for Paseo del Arte.
After visiting museums, bars, restaurants and monuments, what you need is… a little rest. No better place to enjoy nature in the heart of Madrid than El Retiro. If you are too tired for walking around the park, enjoy free outdoor performances or take a boat ride on the lake. This old-fashioned activity requires up to 7.5 euros, sunscreen and the willingness to row. When in Madrid…
Barrio de las Letras
Spanish for “Literary Quarter”, here is where writers from the Golden Age of Spanish literature used to live. On top of that colorful historical datum, there are 3 things you should know: many streets are pedestrian only, you’ll find Plaza de Santa Ana to be charming and great for people-watching, and for a night out, go to Huertas Street.
Much of the Spanish aristocracy lived in Chamberi during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which clearly has bequeathed remarkable stately buildings. Two places in the neighborhood will surprise you (because they even surprise madrileños that go there for the first time): the Sorolla Museum and the old metro station of Chamberí. In the first one, you enter the house and studio of “the painter of light”. The station, not operational anymore, can be visited to see murals and picture what a former subway station in the 60s used to be like. Another must is Calle Zurbano, considered by the New York Times one of the best 12 streets in Europe.
If you’re into posh neighborhoods and expensive housing, there is no place like Salamanca district. This is where you find embassies, business schools, high-end restaurants with Michelin stars and luxury shops that constitute Madrid’s Golden Mile. Aside from walking around in the wealthiest streets of Madrid, a visitor on a budget can head to “Museo al aire libre” -where Paseo de Eduardo Dato crosses Paseo de la Castellana-, an open-air collection of 17 abstract sculptures by Spanish artists of the 20th century. Book and map lovers can also have a good time with the collections from the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), free and open from Tuesday to Saturday.
Spanish for “footbath”, and a great contrast to Salamanca. Lavapies is probably the most multicultural neighborhood in this list. In 2015, immigrants from Latin America, Europe, Asia, North Africa and West Africa, represented 11.2% of Madrid population, so get ready for a melting pot of traditions from all over the world. The highlights of Lavapies are the medieval feeling of the streets, the corralas (houses built around a central courtyard), and the bohemian restaurants and art galleries.
Featured image: ofernandezberrios