Sara Turner enjoys curious museums, moody drinking dens and tasty tapas in the Spanish capital
1 - Puerta del Sol
Madrid is at the centre of Spain and, in turn, Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) is in the centre of Madrid, so this is a good point to orientate yourself. This square has its own metro stop and is busy and vibrant at all times of day and night. Look out for the statue of the Spanish capital’s heraldic symbol, a bear and a madrone tree, and the fluorescent Tio Pepe sign, a 60-year-old advertisement for the sherry brand that has become an icon of Madrid.
The square is a great spot for people watching – grab a coffee outside one of the cafés and take in the impeccably dressed Madrilenos on their daily rounds. El Corte Ingles, at Calle Preciados 1-4, is a good one-stop shop – the original branch of this Spanish department store chain, it is on the site of a tailor shop from the late 1800s. Nowadays, alongside designer clothing, you can find music, books and gourmet food. Visit elcorteingles.es
2 - Museo del Jamon
Food is the ultimate pastime in Madrid so any tour should include a good sampling of its eateries. You’ll find some of Spain’s best, and most expensive, restaurants here but it’s fun to try out the tapas bars around town. Museo del Jamon (number six on Carrera de San Jeronimo, the road heading east of Puerta del Sol) is cheap and a little tacky, with fluorescent lighting around the door, but that doesn’t stop the designer-clad locals from stopping by, as it serves great cured ham. For €2 you can get a small beer and a delicious ham bocadillo (baguette), while some of the pricier cuts on offer include top-quality locally produced jamon iberico. At peak tapas time (between 5pm and 9pm) you’ll have to jostle your way to the bar. Open Mon-Fri 9am-12am, Sun 10am-12am; museodeljamon.com
3 - Lhardy
Continuing on the food and drink theme, just along the road at number eight is Lhardy. This is as quaint as Museo del Jamon is brash, with a carved Cuban mahogany façade. More than 170 years old, Lhardy is something of an institution in the city, and the restaurant upstairs still retains its old grandeur, with gold mirrors, austere waiters and crisp tablecloths. If you have the time it is well worth sampling the traditional fare – including, for the brave, callos (tripe Madrid-style) – although pre-booking is a must. Otherwise, the downstairs deli is equally impressive – pick a sandwich from the silver display case, pour some water from the cut crystal decanter and marvel at the tiny shop’s distinctive atmosphere of times gone by. It’s also a good place to pick up a souvenir, with plenty of jams, sweets and biscuits on offer. Visit lhardy.com
4 - Casa Museo Lope de Vega
With your stomach content, it’s time to visit one of the city’s lesser-known attractions. Turn right on to the narrow Calle de Ventura de la Vega, cross over Calle del Prado to Calle de Leon, and Calle Cervantes is on your left. At number 11 you’ll find Casa Museo Lope de Vega – this curious little museum in the heart of Madrid’s literary quarter is a reconstruction of the home of the Spanish author, playwright and all-round man of letters, Felix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio.
Historically, Lope de Vega is one of the greats from the Spanish Golden Age, which also produced his artistic rival Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote. The building is located where Lope de Vega lived in the last years of his life, although the street, confusingly, is named after Cervantes (Calle Lope de Vega is parallel). As well as producing an astonishing amount of work, including a book of 200 sonnets, La Hermosura de Angélica, he had a particularly fruity home life, partaking in numerous affairs and fathering a fair few children.
The museum is a reconstruction of Lope de Vega’s house, and apart from offering an insight into his life, it shows what it was like in 16th-century Madrid. The kitchen features a cauldron over an open fire, while the library has numerous original leather-bound books on loan from the National Library, on topics such as astrology and ancient Greek literature. There is also a small chapel and a Turkish-inspired drawing room, as was fashionable at the time, with rich red furnishings and floor cushions. There are 45-minute tours every 30 minutes so if you miss the start of one, book yourself on the next and continue on to the Ateneo de Madrid. Open Tues-Sun 10am-3pm; last tour at 2pm. Entry is free.
5 - Ateneo de Madrid
Ateneo de Madrid
Cut back to Calle del Prado for your next stop. Since opening in 1835, the literary and philosophical club Ateneo (number 21) has seen all of Spain’s Nobel Peace Prize winners frequent its rooms, as well as a number of presidents. Today it remains one of the city’s main cultural centres, with an extensive library, exhibition space and café. It is strictly speaking only for members, but if you ask nicely at reception they will let you go inside to take a look around its antiquated rooms – the floor-to-ceiling bookcases are gorgeous and will make anyone want to take up a new set of studies. There are also frequent exhibitions of art and photography.
Also worth a look is the Congreso de los Diputados de Espana (Congress of Deputies), on Plaza de las Cortes, the square at the end of Calle del Prado. The lower house of the Spanish parliament sits here and the Palladian structure, built in 1850, is a striking sight, as are the fabulous bronze lions guarding the steps. The painted ceiling in the grand assembly hall is also stunning but bear in mind that you can only go inside on Saturdays, when free tours take place between 10.30am and 12.30pm (you’ll have to queue and bring your passport). For groups of more than 15 people, weekday tours can be arranged. Visit congreso.es
6 - Plaza de Santa Ana
Walk back along Calle del Prado to Plaza de Santa Ana, a popular spot in the day and a busy focal point for evening festivities. At the eastern end is the Teatro Espanol, which in its early days would have seen the work of Lope de Vega performed, and today is still a vibrant destination on Madrid’s arts scene.
The small square is surrounded by tapas and beer-serving establishments, including the Cerveceria Alemana (the German pub), at number six. This is reputed to have been one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite drinking dens, and it looks little changed since his era – dark wooden chairs sit on a dark wooden floor, which merges into dark wooden walls. Mottled grey marble table tops lighten proceedings a little. A beer will cost you about €3, and a bocadillo €4, served by stout male waiters in white jackets and sombre trousers.
Madrid is home to the legendary churro, a doughnut-like strip that should be dunked in gloopy hot chocolate. To try them at their sticky best, visit the San Gines churreria at Pasadizo de San Gines 5.
The high life
Madrid is Europe’s highest capital city, at more than 650 metres above sea level.
If heights don’t make you dizzy, take the Teleferico cable cars from the city centre to Casa de Campo for fantastic views. Visit teleferico.com