The 18th C. refrain, “From Madrid to Heaven” still conveys the lure and magic of Madrid, and to an extent describes my own experience of living most of the last 25 years in this bustling city of contrasts. Perhaps one of its most celestial characteristics is the almost ethereal quality of the golden light cast by radiant sunsets, painting the sky with delicate pinks, flaming reds and brilliant oranges on any given day.
Magical in a rite of its own, is the sheer vibrancy of a city that is defined as much by its winding, narrow streets of the old quarter with their sin fin of cafeterias, bars, and restaurants, as it is by the elegant palaces, museums and monuments gracing its tree-lined boulevards.
Starting out as a Moorish garrison (Mayrit) in the 9th century, Madrid took longer than many European cities to evolve into the pulsating metropolis that now stands proudly as a culinary and fashion mecca with magnificent art and compelling history co-mingling around every bend.
The Perfect Sunday Plan
When most of Madrid’s shops are closed, this is the day to take in some of the Triángulo de las Artes (Art Triangle) notable for its concentration of some of Europe’s greatest art housed in the Prado, the Reina Sofía National and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums.
My personal favorite, is the Museo de Sorolla, the former home of Spain’s most celebrated impressionist. The expansive collection is located in a mansion still adorned with Sorolla’s palette, paint brushes, slippers and pipe.
A graceful bookend to the city’s west side is the Plaza de Oriente a few blocks west of the Plaza Mayor. The square is home to some of Madrid’s most stylish terrazas with splendid views of the Royal Theatre and Palace. The latter is open for tours in English and is well-worth a visit to its sumptuous rooms.
If you’re missing nature, a late afternoon stroll in the Retiro Park (Parque de Retiro) is just the thing for providing a canopy of ancient trees and catching impromptu theatrical performances by some of Madrid’s most colorful characters. On sunny days, which are most in Madrid, one can enjoy a coffee on the banks of its small lake as ducks and rowers glide idly by.
Check out Calle Barcelona and Plaza Santa Ana for a plethora of watering holes and traditional Spanish cafés. Enjoy a short stroll through the jumble of lanes filled with small eateries dating back centuries that display their tapas and Castilian fare proudly.
Standing at a bar shoulder to shoulder with the locals is one of Spain’s most popular past-times. Must tries are the croquetas – brown and crunchy on the outside and creamy and delightful on the inside with tiny bits of cured ham or fish, as well as bite-sized pimientos de padron (small green peppers lightly fried in olive oil and sea salt), or boquerones (small marinated fish) with a caña (small draft beer) or a vinito tinto (small glass of red wine) to wash it down. If you don’t know the name in Spanish, just point and smile!
Destinations to Help You Get Started:
If you’re a Flamenco fan, there is no more traditional, authentically beautiful Spanish building to see than the the Tablao Villa Rosa. Just off the Plaza Santa Ana, the 100 year old exterior is adorned with hand painted tiled murals depicting the cities of 19th C Spain. With a baroque interior, and a stage in the center providing great views for all, there are two show times each night.
If you’re looking for a reasonably priced traditional Castilian meal in an authentically rustic setting, try El Lacon – 2 blocks off the Plaza Santa Ana in the old quarter on the tiny street with a big name. Calle Emanuel Fernandez and Gonzalez, 8
A beautiful, restaurant and bar decorated with ornate tile, crystal chandeliers and traditional Spanish food founded in 1856 is Viva Madrid, found on the same little street. Calle Emanuel Fernandez and Gonzalez, 7
Check out one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts on Paseo los Recoletos. Café Gijon is a 19th century elegant coffee house that is a historic stop on your tour of Madrid.
Hip Shopping? Try the pedestrian street, Calle Fuencarral (walk east on Gran Via about 10 blocks and go left). Enjoy a good half-mile of walking that feature well-known European chains.
The Circulo de Bellas Artes on Calle Alcala at the base of Calle Gran Via is an elegant turn of the last century building housing theaters, art collections and a magnificent cafeteria with baroque ceilings and statuary.
The Palacio de Cibeles, former home to the most elegant post office in Europe and my father’s personal favorite, is now home to a museum collection, restaurants and wonderful views of the city taken from the roof.
One More Important Last Tip
Forget your concept of time and clocks. Spain is on the western edge of the Central European time zone where it stays light later in the evening and dark later in the morning than most anywhere else in the world. The best way to cope is to take a deep breath and relax. It’s easier to enjoy by remembering that Madrid is only “a step away from heaven.”
* De Madrid al cielo, y, en el cielo, un agujerito para verlo. (From Madrid to Heaven and from Heaven a little window from which to see it.)