Madrid is the quintessential European city. For us, it typifies the European urban experience—a striking balance of traditional and cosmopolitan, ancient and cutting edge, exclusive and welcoming. But Spain’s largest city can be a little overwhelming for first time visitors.
To make it easier for you to choose where to rest your head (after what undoubtedly will be some very late nights!), we are happy to highlight five of our favorite neighborhoods, and some of the specific attributes that make each of them so much fun.
Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol neighborhood (often simply referred to as Sol) is not just central to Madrid, it is the symbolic center of Spain. Like the rays of the sun, the streets of the city radiate from this bustling hub.
Puerto del Sol is known for being very tourist-friendly; you are as likely to hear English being spoken here as you are to hear Spanish. That fact makes the vibrant neighborhood very attractive to many but also should serve as a caution to visitors who are looking for a more local-centric experience.
While the central plaza may be well known for buskers and international fast food chains, it is also bursting with cultural and political significance. The area has been a central meeting point for centuries, and has served as a focal point for democratic demonstrations and protests. It’s also the location of many government offices, including the office of the President of Madrid.
Examining neighborhoods over tapas
Salamanca is about as ritzy as a neighborhood can be. Well-heeled travelers from around the world, including many foreign diplomats, call this chic enclave home. In fact, Salamanca is known for having some of the most expensive real estate in all of Spain.
Close to the center of the city but worlds away from the bourgeoisie hubbub of Puerta del Sol, Salamanca is the perfect place to stay for visitors looking for a refined and upscale neighborhood vibe.
One of the area’s main shopping streets, Calle Serrano, boasts many of the world’s prime fashion houses and designer labels. So if you’re interested in buying a €30,000 handbag or just want to dream a little, this is your spot.
Just north of Gran Via, the city’s main drag, is the trendy-but-approachable Chueca neighborhood. Chueca is Madrid’s most LGBT-friendly barrio, and its eclectic mix of international restaurants, tabernas (traditional gathering spots), and western style bars make it a destination for a wide array of visitors.
One of our favorite activities in Madrid is to grab a cerveza or vermouth at Taberna Ángel Sierra and chomp on some delicately spiced green olives while listening to the music being played in Plaza de Chueca, the barrio’s main square.
Right in the heart of Chueca is the San Antón Market, a multistory foodie Mecca. The culinary emporium offers a cornucopia of artisanal meats and cheeses, crusty Spanish breads, and ripe local fruits and vegetables. It also houses numerous restaurants and handicraft stalls.
Viewfinder Tip: The Atocha neighborhood, which borders Retiro in the south, can be an easy and cost-effective place for travelers who are visiting via the barrio’s namesake train station.
Retiro is defined by the enormous park that shares its name; El Retiro is one of the city’s largest parks. The park is dense with ornate gardens, rich with sculptures, and is dripping with water features.
On any given day the park plays host to thousands of Madrelleños and visitors enjoying a diverse range of activities. Some of these activities include jogging around the park’s iron-fenced perimeter and exploring celebrated buildings such as the glass pavilion named Palacio de Cristal (the “Crystal Palace”). On one of our runs through the park, we stumbled upon a marching band performing near the Paseo de la Argentina, also popularly known as Paseo de las Estatuas (the “Walk of Statues”), because it is lined with statues of kings from the Royal Palace.
In addition to featuring sumptuous outdoor spaces, the neighborhood contains several major museums. Along Paseo del Prado, the tree-lined main boulevard, sits the world-renowned Museo del Prado, which has a world-renowned collection of European art.
Further down the boulevard is Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, our personal favorite. We love this modernist museum because Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, hangs on the walls.
This neighborhood’s architecture—buildings largely uniform in shape and color—belies how dynamic and diverse it really is. For example, where Salamanca is known for luxury fashion houses, Malasaña is adored for cutting-edge boutiques and emerging designers pushing the boundaries of fashion.
Centered around Plaza del Dos de Mayo and easily accessed by the city’s metro system, Malasaña is famous for bars, galleries, and boutiques that cater to the most niche interests and avant-garde tastes. Visitors and locals alike flock to the crowded streets to be part of scene that is artsy and edgy but unpretentious.
What do you look for in a neighborhood when you travel?