A long weekend in… Madrid

Five years ago, Spain’s capital was laid low. Today it’s another story, says Paul Richardson, as chefs and retailers play with global influences – and contemporary culture suffuses historic spaces with electric new life 

Platea, with the Ramón Freixa restaurant on the first floor
Platea, with the Ramón Freixa restaurant on the first floor

In the seven years since the economic ice storm first blew in, Madrid has had a rough ride. There were times when, to walk among the sleeping bags lining the corners of the Plaza Mayor, you’d have thought the city was headed for an Athens-style meltdown. But after those dismal few years, suddenly madrileños have a spate of much better news: Big Investment is back. Last year, greater Madrid was the inland Spanish region in which visitor numbers rose fastest; in fact, that 2014 figure of 10.2m tourists represents a historic record for the city.

The lobby at The Principal Madrid hotel
The lobby at The Principal Madrid hotel | Image: Montse Garriga

For decades, the charm of Madrid was that of a place that felt unremittingly, and unrepentantly, Spanish. These days, cheap air travel and the massive presence of exiled young Spaniards in London, Berlin and New York conspire to bring global trends home to roost. Madrid has been quick to pick up, for example, on such international urban memes as midcentury-modern furniture, artisan bread, craft beers and pop-up restaurants. And after years of resistance to the bicycle craze, new cycle lanes and the public rent-a-bike service BiciMAD are finally ushering in the two-wheeled era.

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The brightest new sparks on the city’s hotel scene also speak directly to this. A clutch of urban five-stars includes The Principal, a splendid exercise in eclectic elegance, set slap-bang on the Gran Via; and there’s the fashion-fabulous four-star Only You. But it’s to the Urso Hotel & Spa that the most discerning will surely turn. This former 1914 paper factory with the air of a grand townhouse has a winningly grown-up sense of style that extends even to its location – a corner site on a wide street that’s poised between two neighbourhoods: rambunctious Chueca and refined Salesas. There’s a fine little spa in the basement, and the restaurant, The Table By, is a fashionably peripatetic place in which top Spanish chefs take seasonal turns at the stove – a clever conceit in a city perpetually hungry for culinary novelty.

The Roman Courtyard at the National Museum of Archaeology
The Roman Courtyard at the National Museum of Archaeology | Image: MAN. Luis Asin

Proof that these days Madrid’s cultural firepower goes way beyond the Prado can be found at the Matadero, a vibrant new “contemporary culture centre” making imaginative use of a former cattle market and slaughterhouse for all manner of arty goings-on, from theatre to dance to live music. Meanwhile, the newly redesigned National Museum of Archaeology brings to the fore Spain’s enormous wealth of ancient, as opposed to modern, art; among its prizes are the Visigothic crowns and crosses of Guarrazar.

The Plaza Mayor 
The Plaza Mayor  | Image: Getty Images/Hemis.fr RM

But the city’s greatest cultural strength, contend many of its citizens, lies in its food and drink. The range and quality of madrileño eating is vast – so much so that even longtime residents sometimes dread being asked to recommend anywhere in particular. The culinary big league in Madrid is like its football: well-funded, fast-moving and high-scoring. David Muñoz, Mohican-sporting “punk chef” whose DiverXO won its third Michelin star last year, now brings his kaleidoscopic fusion cuisine to a tapas bar on the top floor of a department store. StreetXO is now one of two of the city’s edgiest contemporary eating experiences, along with Diego Guerrero’s DSTAgE, which became the most sought-after seat in town (as well as its quickest-ever earner of the Michelin star) shortly after opening last June.

Segovia Cathedral
Segovia Cathedral | Image: Getty images/Flickr Open

The other big headliner in town is Platea: the stunning new development harbouring a fancy “food court” on a grand scale, holding up to 1,200 diners in a restored 1950s cinema, by the Plaza de Colón. The restaurant on the Circle level is by Ramón Freixa, already the holder of two Michelin stars at his eponymous place at the Hotel Unico; close by, the El Palco coctelería is by movers and (cocktail) shakers Diego Cabrera and Luca Anastasio. There is further input from Peru, Japan, Andalucía and Galicia, and a tearoom run by posh pâtisserie Mamá Framboise. The huge space hasn’t been so buzzing since it housed a popular disco in the basement and screened films upstairs.

Madrid’s Basilica of San Francisco the Great
Madrid’s Basilica of San Francisco the Great | Image: Shuttershock/emei

As the Platea movida would suggest, if there’s one food concept that rules right now in Madrid, it’s the market. After the revamps of Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado de San Antón come the challenging silver boxes of the Mercado de Barceló (just over the way from Urso). On Madrid’s streetwear central Calle Fuencarral, meanwhile, the new Mercado de San Ildefonso proves that food can hold its own with fashion. In the big industrial-chic locale (concrete, air-con tubes, factory walkways), hip young madrileños drift and graze between Ibérico charcuterie from Arturo Sánchez, fine Galician shellfish, and cheeses from Poncelet.

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Feed and move on: this has always been Madrid’s modus operandi. Tapas is still tops, though the fashion for teensy culinary artworks has broadened into a fondness for traditional Spanish classics like ensaladilla rusa, wild mushroom croquetas, Santoña anchovies or simply a perfectly cooked tortilla de patata. Debonair, a glittering new bar at the civilised end of La Latina, opposite the recently restored Basilica of San Francisco, exemplifies this classy-yet-informal style. Also worth singling out are gastrobars Yakitoro, a Japanese/Spanish tavern from television-star chef Alberto Chicote, and Arzábal, whose pair of glorious tapas outfits in the Retiro district is now joined by the dark and glamorous post-modern drinking den, Club A.

But then in Madrid, retro seldom feels like playing it safe. There is no shame here in taking an existing genre and doing it better: like the casa de comidas, reinvented in the glorious retro-modern Taberna La Carmencita in Chueca. Then again, much-loved eating places don’t come more loved than La Tasquita de Enfrente. This was initially run as a humble tavern by the parents of current owner Juanjo López, whose genius for market-led Spanish cooking has accorded it cult status. Many a madrileño would rather bag a table in the tiny dining room here than in the very coolest of the city’s new restaurants, the post-industrial butchery-themed Sala de Despiece.

The Spanish capital has never been known as a prime shopping hub; but retail pursuits are more entertaining, and original, than they have been for ages – with the quartier to conjure with these days found in the eastern end of the city centre. Its nexus is the perennially trendy calles of Piamonte, Almirante and the smarter end of Chueca. Addresses not to miss include high-glam Poison, and Delitto e Castigo (loosely translated as “crime and punishment”), the latter recently name-checked by US Vogue as one of the world’s 25 best shops. Also worth a look-in are the analogue camera shop and gallery Lomography, and bookshop/winebar Tipos Infames. Then turn a corner into Calle Fernando VII for a visit to Pez and Le Marché aux Puces, two of the barrio’s most exquisite boutiques, and perhaps a restorative cocktail perched on a bar seat at Dray Martina. From that vantage point, it might be hard indeed to believe that five years ago this town was sunk in the grimmest of recessions. But Madrid has a tenacious side to match its refined one, and it was never going to stay down for long.

For other european city breaks, try the smooth guides to oslo and rome

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