Why DOES Madrid play second fiddle to Barcelona for city breaks? From swanky new hotels to cool quirky bars, discovering why the Spanish capital is a match for its coastal rival
- Ailbhe MacMahon finds visitors are taking notice of the Spanish capital’s ‘cool, contemporary side’
- She stays at Ocean Drive Madrid, a new hotel in the city centre with a rooftop bar and pool
- One evening, she discovers a quirky bar – Sala Equis – where films play throughout the night on a big screen
There’s grandeur at every turn in Madrid. From my hotel’s rooftop, the neoclassical facade of Teatro Real, one of Europe’s finest opera houses, is straight ahead. And just behind it is the Royal Palace, the elaborate 3,400-room jewel of the Bourbon dynasty.
To the west is Plaza Mayor. The square has a macabre past, having hosted bloody bullfights and the public executions of the Spanish Inquisition, but its architecture is magnificent – Herrerian-style buildings adorned with vivid frescoes. Here lies the world’s oldest restaurant, Botin, which dates back to 1725 and is where painter Francisco Goya once worked as a dish washer.
This stately city, the wealthiest of all in Spain and home to its Royal Family and central government, plays second fiddle to Barcelona as the country’s most popular city break destination. Yet there’s a cool, contemporary side to the beautiful wide boulevards, and visitors are taking notice again. A cluster of new hotels geared towards modern holidaymakers have popped up, such as The Madrid Edition and Rosewood Villa Magna.
Ailbhe MacMahon notes that there’s ‘grandeur at every turn’ in Madrid. The elaborate Royal Palace (above), is one of the buildings that prompts the comment. It lies near her hotel, the new-on-the-scene Ocean Drive Madrid
The neoclassical Teatro Real, one of Europe’s finest opera houses (above), is a stone’s throw from Ocean Drive Madrid
The rooftop that I’m standing on, complete with a pool and cocktail bar, crowns another of the city’s newest haunts – Ocean Drive Madrid. Located smack-bang in the city centre, occupying one corner of Plaza de Isabel II, the 72-room hotel is the latest addition to the chic OD Hotels chain.
My room takes its cue from the chain’s Ibizan roots, with the decor a sunny Mediterranean palette of watery blues and terracotta reds. It’s minimal and smart, with a wave-shaped mirror, ultra-soft bedding and coasters shaped like miniature vinyl records.
Guests can also plump for deluxe rooms, some of which come equipped with a private sun terrace, record players and even beer taps for pulling pints.
Ocean Drive Madrid is smack-bang in the city centre, occupying one corner of Plaza de Isabel II. Above is the hotel’s rooftop bar
The 72-room Ocean Drive Madrid (above) is the latest addition to the chic OD Hotels chain
Ailbhe describes her room (similar to the one above) as ‘minimal and smart’, with ultra-soft bedding
Pictured above is Mar Mia, Ocean Drive Madrid’s bar-restaurant. Ailbhe reveals: ‘The hotel aspires to be an art gallery of sorts, exhibiting a new artist’s work each month. And, like its sister hotels, Ocean Drive Madrid’s restaurant hosts weekly creative events such as painting and wine workshops with local artists’
Guests at Ocean Drive Madrid can plump for deluxe rooms, some of which come equipped with record players
‘What kind of beer?’ I ask. ‘Spanish beer,’ I’m told. Of course!
For more Spanish beer, guests can head downstairs to Mar Mia, the hotel’s bar-restaurant. It’s a space bathed in orange light from theatrical fringed lampshades which hang low over the tables, and the walls are dotted with framed collages.
The hotel aspires to be an art gallery of sorts, exhibiting a new artist’s work each month. And, like its sister hotels, Ocean Drive Madrid’s restaurant hosts weekly creative events such as painting and wine workshops with local artists.
Art is woven into the fabric of Madrid, a city famed for its Golden Triangle of Art – the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia museums. But swerve the anaconda-sized queue that snakes around the Prado and make your way to El Retiro Park, where the Crystal Palace glasshouse hosts small-scale exhibitions as a wing of the Reina Sofia museum.
The kaleidoscopic glass building – modelled on the original Crystal Palace built in London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – was built in 1887 to showcase tropical plants, but now it’s entirely devoted to art and is a delightfully peaceful way to get a shot of culture away from the crowds.
Madrid’s bohemian Malasana neighbourhood, named after local heroine Manuela Malasana who was executed aged 17 during the Spanish uprising against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. ‘Here you can meander around the cluster of independent galleries which offer a more intimate chance to get a feel for Madrid’s art scene,’ says Ailbhe
Malasana lies shoulder to shoulder with the Chueca district (above), explains Ailbhe, ‘where the vibe is more boutique than boho’
Sala Equis, a suave bar-cinema where Ailbhe watches Buster Keaton movie Seven Chances as she sips an Aperol spritz
It’s a wonder to wander around the sculpture as light dances through the glass panels above.
Beyond the Golden Triangle is Madrid’s bohemian Malasana neighbourhood, named after local heroine Manuela Malasana who was executed aged 17 during the Spanish uprising against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. Here you can meander around the cluster of independent galleries which offer a more intimate chance to get a feel for Madrid’s art scene.
Malasana lies shoulder to shoulder with the Chueca district, where the vibe is more boutique than boho. Beyond the designer clothes shops and yoga studios you’ll find Mercado San Anton, one of Madrid’s oldest markets. It underwent a sleek renovation last year so now traditional stalls have been replaced by gleaming booths branded with bold graphic fonts.
An eclectic collection of vendors serve up everything from tapas to contemporary Japanese and American dishes. At La Casa del Bacalao (The House of Cod), where each dish is a couple of euros or less, it’s hard to resist the moreish crispbreads laden with marinated anchovies and sliced octopus. Next I try a portion of croquettes plied with oozing Cabrales blue cheese. Each bite-size serving adds up and soon I’m feeling happily full.
Art house: The Crystal Palace, above, is a glass-encased wing of the Reina Sofia museum. ‘It’s a wonder to wander around the sculpture as light dances through the glass panels above,’ says Ailbhe
I walk it off with a stroll down Gran Via until I arrive outside a notorious Madrid institution – Museo Chicote. The exterior of this Art Deco cocktail bar is lacklustre, but cross the threshold and you’ll enter a haze of dry ice and red velvet drapes. Staff dance with one another between taking orders as Gloria Gaynor is pumped through the speakers.
Established in 1931, the main sport here is looking at the black-and-white photographs of former patrons that cover the walls to see who you recognise. First I spy Sophia Loren. Next, a moustachioed Salvador Dali. Frank Sinatra. Rita Hayworth. Jayne Mansfield.
It’s a lot of fun, but after Museo Chicote’s cocktails I need a siesta. Only in Madrid could you nap at 7pm and wake up with plenty of time before dinner.
‘Only in Madrid could you nap at 7pm and wake up with plenty of time before dinner,’ writes Ailbhe. Above is one of Madrid’s many cheap and cheerful tapas bars
Ocean Drive Madrid (above), is among a cluster of new hotels in Madrid geared towards modern holidaymakers, such as The Madrid Edition and Rosewood Villa Magna
The clock strikes ten by the time it’s time to explore the La Latina neighbourhood on the lookout for somewhere to eat.
I slip into a packed tapas bar for a few small plates before making my way to Sala Equis, a suave bar-cinema. The cavernous main bar is cast in red light and ivy crawls up the walls. Rows of deckchairs in the centre face up towards an enormous screen that plays films throughout the night as a backdrop to the revelry.
Settling down in one I order an Aperol spritz and catch the start of Seven Chances, the 1925 Buster Keaton film.
Glamorous crowds swirl around me as the silent comedy flickers across the screen. Much like the city it calls home, Sala Equis is sophisticated and oh-so-cool. Barcelona? It’s finally met its match.
Ailbhe MacMahon was a guest of Ocean Drive Madrid where B&B starts from £152 per night (oceandrivemadrid.com).
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