Standing at the heart of Madrid is the Museo Nacional del Prado, renowned for its array of masterpieces by Velázquez and an unrivaled collection of Goyas and El Grecos. Nearby, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía displays works by Miró, Dalí and Picasso, including the latter’s “Guernica.” To the east of the great central thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Castellana, lies the chic residential district of Salamanca, which not only contains much of the city’s most desirable real estate but also a majority of its upscale boutiques and galleries. Madrid’s character owes much to its location 2,188 feet up on Spain’s central sierra, which ensures a sunny climate but also freezing winters and scorching summers. I prefer to visit during the spring or fall, either April-May or September-October. But travelers particularly interested in museums and shopping might enjoy January most, when top sites are uncrowded and stores have their best sales.
The Madrid restaurant scene is livelier and more adventurous than ever. Madrileños dine out later than just about anyone else in the world, meaning that restaurants tend to open at 8 or 9 p.m. and likely won’t be busy until 10. Madrileños are also crazy for tapas, the snack-size nibbles that accompany a glass of wine or beer, and many nights out begin with a tour of favorite tapas bars before dinner.
The beautiful towns of Toledo and Segovia make for memorable day trips.
Madrid’s Lesser Known Museums
Confronted with the Prado, the Reina Sofía and El Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, many people overlook the smaller Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. This royal academy and museum houses works by Goya, Murillo and de Zurbarán. Also consider the Museo Cerralbo, which offers an intriguing glimpse of aristocratic life in Belle Époque Madrid. The wonderful Museum of the Americas is also often neglected. It contains one of the world’s most spectacular collections of pre-Columbian art, including Mayan and Incan art and artifacts that the Spanish conquistadors brought home.
The Daunting Prado Collection
Like all great museums, the Prado cannot be digested in a single visit. Among the array of masterpieces, we unfailingly visit Velázquez’s celebrated “Las Meninas” and the enchanting “The Infanta Margarita de Austria” (possibly by his son-in-law). The Prado has the finest collection of works by Goya, including “The Family of Carlos IV,” “The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid” and his horrifying Black Paintings. It also contains an outstanding collection of paintings by El Greco, who was born in Crete but spent much of his working life in Toledo.
One of Europe’s Best Cocktail Bars
Del Diego is one of our favorite cocktail bars in Europe. It’s an oasis of calm right in the heart of the city and the black jacket-wearing bartenders are charming, old-fashioned pros who practice their trade with pride and none of the nonsense that’s become too common in contemporary cocktail culture. It stocks an especially good selection of gins (as the world’s third-largest consumers of the spirit, the Spaniards are connoisseurs).
Where to Buy Espadrilles
Antigua Casa Crespo is the best place in Spain to buy espadrilles. It’s an alluring old shop that’s run by the fourth generation of the same family. They stock a variety of styles and colors of this famous footwear, which is made with cotton canvas and has rope-trimmed rubber soles. Among its better known customers is Queen Sofia of Spain. Note the shop’s old-fashioned hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 8:15 p.m.
You won’t find these fabled sweets at a traditional bakery. Dulces de convento, or “convent sweets,” are a specialty made by cloistered nuns throughout Spain as a way of earning money for their convent. A local led us down a narrow cobbled street to the nondescript doors of the Monastery of Corpus Christi within a quiet plaza. We buzzed in, walked down a dark hallway and found a little door in the wall housing a turnstile. After a few words of Spanish to someone we could not see, we put in our money and turned the Lazy Susan until a small box of shortbread-like cookies appeared. Alas, on this occasion, the treats were nothing special, but the experience was delightful.