Madrid is the first city in a long while that swept me off my feet. My inaugural visit was in May of 2022, and it was love at first sight. I wasn’t expecting to be so easily charmed, but the affable Madrileños, the beautiful buildings and squeaky clean streets, the abundance of green space, the distinctive cuisine – they all made it nearly impossible not to fall for Marid.
This love story began – believe it or not – with the drive from Madrid–Barajas Airport. In a mere 30 minutes after deplaning, passing through customs, and fetching our bags, Charles and I pulled up to the curbside of our hotel in central Madrid. No traffic jams. Meticulously maintained roads. Very little construction. No road rage-ous drivers. It was the most pleasant drive to or from an airport I had ever experienced.
The romance blossomed upon entering our hotel – Palacio de Atocha, a CoolRooms property. In the center of the city on Calle de Atocha, equidistant from the Prado and Plaza Mayor, a 19th-century townhouse has been converted into one of the chicest boutique luxury hotels in all of Spain. Set just beyond the soaring entrance, which served as the former carriage house, an oasis of vintage glamor is surreptitiously tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Madrid’s central core. We were greeted by a welcoming staff in tailcoats and top hats who ushered us to our suite – an opulent affair with six juliet balconies overlooking the secret pool garden. It was to be our home for the next three nights…but I wish we could’ve stayed for a year.
The love continued to flourish on the city’s winding streets and picturesque plazas. Beneath a pristine pale blue sky, Charles and I meandered and roamed between neighborhoods. Just beyond our hotel’s front door was Barrio de las Letras, the Literary Quarter, so named because of the famed writers – Cervantes, Vega, and Lorca to name a few – who called this area home. Today, its cobblestone lanes are lined with lively cafes and smart boutiques, like La Compañía Polar and Sastrería Ankar on Calle del León. The vibe noticeably changed as we crossed into Sol, the beating heart of Madrid, filled with vibrant plazas, buzzy pedestrian shopping streets, and an infinite array of tapas bars. Neighboring Chueca is the city’s gay village, with a canopy of rainbow flags welcoming and regaling barrio residents and passers-through. La Latina, the oldest district built on the site of a medieval Islamic fort, beguiled us with its maze of narrow lanes lined with markets, churches, and cantinas. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out Salamanca, the city’s most glamorous neighborhood with beautifully maintained tree-lined streets filled with upscale shopping and refined restaurants and cafes.
A morning spent in Mardrid’s backyard, El Retiro, enchanted and delighted us. Charles and I strolled aimlessly through a labyrinth of horse chestnut and towering oak, which eventually spilled onto the Salón del Estanque, a pedestrian boulevard bordering a large pond filled with row boats and rowdy ducks. We continued our promenade towards the neoclassical Palacio de Cristal, a glass conservatory built for the 1887 Philippines Exposition. As we circled around this elegant structure, a violin and bassoon duet were busking to the melody of the Paganini’s Cantabile. We listened for several minutes while gazing at the palace’s stunning cupola and plated glass archways – a scene that inspires peace and tranquility in my mind to this day. Afterwards, we moseyed over to the Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, a formal garden home to a pride of peafowl, strutting amid pergolas and fountains. While the cocks were generally coy with their ostentatious plumage, we did get to observe (and hear) these avian wonders up close – and marvel at their stunning iridescent indigo bodies.
We were enamored with the wealth of art hanging in the city’s two powerhouse museums – the Prado and the Reina Sofía. At the Prado, we hired a private guide to help us make the most of our time. This temple of old-world masters is huge and we barely scratched the surface. I was blown away by Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The scene depicted by Bosch has a supernatural quality to it, done in bright colors with intricate images of debauchery and torture. Charles loves Diego Velázquez, so he was in heaven in the Velázquez rotunda, surrounded by the artist’s large scale paintings, including his most famous – Las Meninas. I personally enjoyed Queen Elisabeth of France on Horseback, depicting Elizabeth of Bourbon, the first wife of Philip IV, with a self-assured mein while leisurely riding a white steed. We were both blown away by Tintoretto’s Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, a mastery of perspective. As you walk past this 18-foot-wide canvas, the focal points shift depending on where you stand. At the Reina Sofia, we spent a bulk of our time contemplating Picasso’s Guernica. The imagery depicted in this chilling anti-war composition practically jumps off the canvas. I also loved Dalí’s Girl at the Window, an unexpectedly “normal” realist study of his sister, Ana María; and Sonia de Klamery by Hermen Anglada Camarasa, an exotic, jungle-esque depiction of a Russian ballet dancer.
Any foodie would be a fool not to fall for Madrid, home to 23 Michelin-starred restaurants among many other gourmet bastions of Spanish and international cuisine. One night, we ate at local celebrity chef Ramón Freixa’s Restaurante Ático on top of The Principal Hotel. The food was good, the views even better. But the meal we fell head over heels for was at a nondescript tapas cafe in a canopied plaza just off the Paseo del Prado. It was the middle of the afternoon on our first day in Madrid when we stumbled upon this bustling lunch spot with tables filled by locals and tourists alike. We nabbed a free four-top, and shortly after, a waiter brought over the menu, which was a large chalkboard propped up on a chair. We ordered a few standards – fried calamari, patatas bravas – along with ensaladilla Rusa, the Spanish rendition of Russian salad, and a green salad with sardines, olives, tomato, and queso fresco. Everything was delicious and super fresh. The calamari was actually cuttlefish served with a remoulade for dipping; this quickly became our go-to throughout the trip. The tomatoes in the salad were so juicy and flavorful. Normally I can’t eat tomatoes because of the acid, but in Spain, it wasn’t a problem. Nothing we had at that cafe was gourmet or high-brow – it was honest and simple cuisine. And yet, it was the meal that both Charles and I cherished the most from the few days we spent in Madrid.
Last visited in May, 2022