MADRID neighbourhoods: Jan 23

Local still reigns in Madrid. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, or barrios, each one with a distinct vibe.  I have 7 favourite barrios, all of which you can get to  – more or less – by foot, as Madrid is a relatively small European city. 

Madrid is perched on an arid plain 700 metres above sea level, where nine months of infierno (hellishly hot heat) is followed by three months of invierno (winter). 

I last went to the city in January 2023, in winter. The thermometer hovered at around zero at night, while during the day it was time to get out the sunglasses and while away the time with a coffee on one of the many terraces.  

Summer is different. Back in July 2019, when I was in Madrid for the Monocle Quality of Life Conference, the sun beat down with a vengeance, day after day, pushing people into the cool of buildings, away from the open streets. Not even the mature trees in El Retiro botanical garden provided sufficient shelter from the heat. 

7 neighbourhoods to visit

Avoid the tacky tourism of Sol-Gran Vía, even though that’s where the Madrid Edition hotel is located, between Plaza Mayor and Sol. Instead, I’m starting my post with Las Letras, a quieter neighbourhood east of Sol. Then I move further south-west to Lavapiés and on to La Latina, on the city’s fringes, looking out towards the mountains of Guadarrama. 

Next stop are the neighbourhoods above Gran Vía – the main road that cuts the city into north and south. Here, going from west to east as far as the Paseo del Prado, are Conde Duque, MalasañaChueca, and Chueca’s slightly posher neighbour, Salesas

Still confused? Here’s a map to download of Madrid’s central neighbourhoods.

South of Gran Vía

Las Letras 

For location, you can’t beat Las Letras. It’s near Sol (for the train from the airport) and Plaza Cibeles (for the bus to the airport). And it’s a short distance from the golden triangle of museums: the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía, home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – regarded as one of the history’s most moving and powerful anti-war paintings. It’s also across the road from the city’s biggest green space, El Retiro park.  

Here are some favourites in Las Letras for visiting, shopping, or stopping for a coffee or a glass of sherry:

Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum – for a wander through the permanent collection, largely empty of visitors, and perfect for taking in the works of some of the most famous artists in recent history.

ACID Café – my favourite breakfast spot. Pictured is a Ukrainian babka bun with hazelnuts and a cup of Danish La Cabra coffee. For lunch, I got hooked on the focaccia stuffed with red peppers and salsa romesco (a Catalan red pepper & almond sauce).

Daniel Chong – fabulous for colourful urban backpacks, pouches and bags made in Spain out of recycled materials. Daniel himself studied in Buenos Aires and Valencia, and seems a fun kind of guy. He has several shops across the capital.

Real Fábrica Española – a store on a mission to discover and conserve the best of craftsmanship in Spain. My favourites are the woollen blankets and the linen. It’s in Cervantes Street, which takes its name from Miguel De Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, who used to live at No 2. 

Alojamiento Jaen – in the same street as Real Fábrica Espańola. I love staying at  this simple guesthouse. The street is intimate, there’s lots
of natural light in the rooms, the corridors are quiet, and the welcome warm.

La Venencia – a Madrid establishment popular at aperitivo time. I love a good chilled fino (dry sherry) with some salty raciones, as tapas are called in Madrid: anchovy on bread, olives, mojama (dried tuna served with almonds and bread nibbles). No tips. No photos. No reservations.


La Latina – living on the edge 

I discovered La Latina, with its views across to the Sierra de Gudarrama mountain range, during my trip in  2023.  Here are some of my favourite places:

Pastora – a café where the coffee beans come from the owner’s farm in Colombia. The cakes also looked good.  Instead I bought chocolate made in Galicia and some tinned sardines. 

Obrador San Francisco – one of Madrid’s best known bakeries. No savouries for lunch: only loaves of bread, cookies. Given that my visit was just before reyes, the feast of the three kings, on 6 January, piled high were the roscónes de reyes, a crown-shaped sweet, brioche cake. 

Marmitón  – a bistro that came via a recommendation from London. Here I met co-founder and chef Pablo Sánchez and had 3 great little courses, all designed with a twist … and with a reflection of Pablo’s Malaga origins. They were: 

  • Lobster tartar with a bisque sauce 
  • Trout from the Pyrenees with a XO sauce, shrimps & Brussels sprouts
  • Caramelised apple with golden syrup & cinnamon with apple & spearmint ice cream.

Barmitón – opened by the founders of Marmitón, a few streets away. I came here for an aperitivo before my lunch: a glass of Verdejo from Rueda, north-west of Madrid, with some olives dribbled with salsa brava (an olive oil, smoked paprika & tomato paste sauce). The music starts and the doors open from 13h00 – a good amount of time before the main lunchtime hour of 14h30–15h00. 

Basilica de San Francisco el Grande – I stumbled across this monumental, 18th-century basilica by chance. The dome is the largest in Europe outside Italy.  The artworks are also impressive, with canvases by 18th and 19th century Spanish artists include Goya, Velázquez and Zurbarán. 

Jardín de las Vistillas, or the Garden of the Views – from there, you can see the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains in the distance, as well as across to  the Cathedral de Santa María Real de la Almudena in the old centre of Madrid, Madrid de los Asturios.

Cocol – a craft store in a side street alongside the Church of Saint Andrew the Apostle. I came away with four candles (€2.50 each), two perfumed with natural vetiver and two with bergamot. Made in Valencia, they follow the designs and moulds once used to make candles for carriage lanterns.


Natural wine in Lavapiés

 Walking south to the district of Lavapiés, I realised how Madrid is a city of hills. Lavapiés is the old Jewish quarter, and, quoting the Monocle Travel Guide on Madrid, still “attracts diverse diasporas, from Africa to India and Asia”. Here are some favourite places, from my 2019 visit:

Bendito – good for an aperitivo of natural wine, in the market of San Fernando.

La Canibal directly opposite Lavapiés metro station, the restaurant offers wine and beer on tap. I went for the fixed lunch menu of gazpacho and Iberian pork with potatoes, and a glass of Chardonnay from Bodegas De Fábula in Murcia. 

Hola Coffee – they roast their own beans, and coffee was served in cups made by a Korean artists who mixes coffee grounds into the clay.


North of Gran Vía 

Conde Duque

The Conde Duque neighbourhood is home to the spectacular Liria Palace, the residence of Carlos Fitz-James Stuart, the Duke of Alba. It’s “among the largest [arts collections] accumulated by European aristocrats”, wrote The New York Times in 2012. 

 The neighbourhood is also home to one of my favourite photography art galleries in the city, Blanca Berlín

And next time I’m in Madrid I want to eat at Batch restaurant in the the market of Vallehermoso, just north of Conde Duque.


Malasaña

A densely packed, neighbourhood east of Conde Duque, and famous as the birthplace of la movida madrileña night scene in the 1980s. Some favourites:

Café Angelica – part of the Cantabrian Deluz y Companía restaurant group, a tiny café with excellent coffee and herbal teas. 

7 Islas Hotel – the lobby is the best I’ve been to in Madrid, but the rooms are dark, and mostly look out over a central well. 

Angelita  – a great place in the evening. Around the corner from 7 Islas, this restaurant is all about cocktails, natural wine and fun. When I visited in 2019 much of the produce coming from the owner’s village near Zamora, where his parents run a vegetable garden.


Chueca 

Still heading east, you come to Chueca, another neighbourhood that has made a turnaround since it was a no-go area in the days when I worked in Madrid in the 1990s. 

Here, favourites are Tasca Celso y Manolo and Taberna La Carmencita, both part of Deluz y Companía.  

My real favourite of the Deluz group, though, is La Vaqueria Montañesa (pictures below), on the way to the Norman Foster Foundation. Deluz also has a small supermarket chain, El Super de los Pastores

A third of the group’s staff are from social inclusion projects. “If you give people an opportunity, then 90 per cent if not more of the time they take it,” Carlos told the 2019 Monocle Quality of Life Conference. “Give them a lot of training, support, confidence, and they can go from washing dishes to managing a restaurant.”

At the top end of Chueca is Casa González & González homeware store, and where I buy Spanish-made woollen socks for the house. 


Gota go to Salenas

After Chueca, and before the Paseo del Prado is the fancy neighbourhood of Salenas. However, the really serious, bourgeois money is found on the other side of the Paseo del Prado, in Salamanca.

Here, in Salenas, is my favourite (natural wine) bar – GOTA, opened by ACID Café in 2019.  I rolled up at Gota with a reservation at the bar for 8pm and the turntable was already turning and the people enjoying themselves, even though this is early for Madrid. Be warned, the place is small, and intimate. 

I had a glass of Galician Albariño – for a natural wine at Euros4.50, and coming from London, this was a snip – together with Stuffed cabbage with a soubise sauce & leaf salad and Scallops, endive & a vinaigrette of chicken stock. I’ll be back for sure!


In the summer months, don’t miss  PHotoESPAÑA.  It’s a great way to see the city, and the venues provide the perfect bolthole from the summer heat.  In the meantime, here you can find my favourite locations on my Maps in Google. 

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