As soon as the weekend comes around and the clock strikes midday, the tavernas of Madrid begin to buzz with conversation as locals congregate and spill out onto the immaculate walkways, sipping their first aperitif of the day.
Spain’s capital is simultaneously slow-paced and alive with energy, favoured among residents and visitors flocking in for its tapas joints, restless nightlife and endless sunshine. With the sun pressed against your back, it’s hard not to be lulled into the laidback rhythm of the city and get lost in holiday mode altogether.
A city of contradictions that’s both traditional and innovative in equal measure, Madrid’s art scene is just as diverse, tugging back and forth between old-world elegance and burgeoning modernity. Art is everywhere you go, whether you’re bumbling along the streets of the literary quarter or stumbling upon 17th-century sculptures in Retiro Park. Here’s where to eat, drink, and take in the to and fro of classic and contemporary art up close in Spain’s vibrant capital city.
WHAT TO PACK
Where To Stay
Neighbouring a slew of cultural institutions and museums, the Four Seasons Hotel Madrid doubles as an immersive gallery and an elegant spot to bed down in the city. It’s the history behind the building and location that makes the property all the more intriguing. As a former bank in the 1980s-1990s, it’s safe to say that we can only imagine the scandals and shenanigans that went on inside these four walls – particularly in the Royal Suite where parts of the building have been preserved.
Starting up a project to support local talent and emerging artists, the designers worked with curator Paloma Fernández-Iriondo to assemble a collection of over 1,500 pieces. As you waltz up the majestic 19th-century inspired staircase along the elongated corridors, sculptures, paintings and photographs are splayed across the walls – each handpicked with meticulous consideration. The art installations are a conversation starter, blending in enough to slot into place and carefully arranged so as to pique curiosity with the hotel guests. The dichotomy of styles, periods and artists on display are particularly striking, with abstract sculptures anachronistically planted side-by-side with replicas of the classics from the Museo Nacional, recalling the capital’s mix of old and new style architecture.
A day of museum hopping calls for hearty breakfast fuel. The breakfast buffet at Dani Brasserie is both vast and versatile. First stop? The pan con tomate station, serving toasted bread with freshly prepared tomato with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Did we mention there’s a rooftop terrace? If you’re sticking around for lunch, you’ll get a double whammy of rooftop views and delicious Andalusian delights prepared by chef Dani Garcia. Upon return, find yourself at Isa Restaurant and Bar, all together mysterious, seductive and edgy. As you saunter past the semi-circular bar bedecked with low-slung velvet chairs, you know you’re set for a swish night out. The drinks menu here is a highlight, designed in a playful anime-style design with the typography to go along with it, and an innovative and experiential menu using various contraptions to create neon potions and smoky concoctions. For dinner, sharing is encouraged to make the most of the menu, starting with snacky bites like the edamame topped with kimchi and garlic, followed by sculptural plates of sea bass, aubergine and salmon nigiri. For dessert, a selection of mochis and chocolate lava cake will leave you feeling tipsy with pleasure.
Basing yourself at the Four Seasons means you have an assortment of cultural institutions right on your doorstep, whether you’re exhibition-hopping around the Paseo del Arte, Madrid’s art promenade, or the Teatro Real opera house for a flamenco show. Beyond the art, there’s a sprawling, multi-level spa, a rooftop restaurant and a sleek dinner spot designed by New York studio AvroKO.
What To See
Piscasso, Miro and Dali are just some of the greats that come to mind when we think of Spanish art. In a city that’s been blessed with so many home-grown talents, it begs the question of where to begin when scouring the city for the best museums.
Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum
Located within Madrid’s triangular art promenade, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza journeys through an enormous collection of European art. As you enter, the dusty salmon-pink walls and potted plants along the main entrance are a refreshing alternative to the usual white walls of an art gallery. Immerse yourself in an impressive breadth of artistic styles, especially in the permanent collection which is home to paintings by Salvador Dalí, Georgia O’Keeffe and many other 20th-century art icons. The Museo del Prado and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia are also good places to start if you’re museum-hopping in the area.
Live flamenco shows can be found in all corners of the city, from tiny tavernas to larger stages. The tricky part is selecting where to go from such an exhaustive list of options. For a traditional theatrical setting in a stately building, a showing at the Teatro Real is an immersive experience that draws in the crowds but manages to feel intimate. During our visit, Maria Moreno showcased a gripping and passionate performance, swaying rhythmically to the cajón, a flamenco drum box, and the melancholic riff of the Spanish guitar. For the full experience, you can book a range of backstage tours of the opera house.
Once reserved for royalty, Retiro Park first opened its gates to the public in the late 19th century. Lakes, ornate palaces, fountains and manicured gardens are sprawled across acres of green space. Visit the Palacio de Cristal, marvel at statues of Spanish writers hidden among the trees and explore the many marbled ornaments on display. Retiro is arguably at its best in the early hours of the morning, before the crowds appear throughout the day.
El Rastro Flea Market
Preserving the largest volume of artwork by the renowned Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, visit The Sorolla Museum for a memorable and insightful culture fix. Not only does this space house the late artist’s most beloved art pieces, including a remarkable collection of over 1,200 drawings and paintings, but also his treasured possessions as this is the home in which he lived. The heavenly garden, designed by the artist himself, plays a prominent role in Sorolla’s artwork – and the best part is, you can see it both in real life and through the artist’s vision.
Independent boutiques, hip bars and traditional tavernas – Madrid has a barrio for each and every requirement. For independent brands, the Justicia neighbourhood is where you’re likely to run into a spontaneous pop-up. Taschen, Nud and Sezanne are all within walking distance from one another. For lively bars and restaurants, Barrio Chueca is a short stroll away in case you’re craving a light refreshment in between all of the retail therapy. Lovers of luxury brands should head straight to Salamanca if just to peruse local and international designer boutiques and niche museums.
Beyond the art promenade, art enthusiasts will appreciate Barrio de las Letras, a leafy neighbourhood lined with cafés abuzz with conversation and sprawling crowds that pour out of the tavernas as soon as midday strikes. This is where Cervantes used to hang out, along with his fellow 17th-century counterparts – all artists and writers who enjoyed a life of live music and endless tertulias (literary gatherings). Now, trendy boutiques and coffee shops neighbour one another; balconies overspill with plants and residents are caught basking in the sun. Grab a coffee from Feliz and keep an eye out for the gold plaques which pay homage to a lost generation of female Spanish writers.
Lead image: Álvaro Bernal via Unsplash