It’s a Sunday morning at the iconic El Rastro flea market. Hanging side by side at one of the market’s many stands are two t-shirts. One reads: “Madrid: City of Joy;” The other, “Madrid is a Mixtape.”
Amid the shouts of vendors, the crooning piano of street performers, and the bustling energy of a city waking up, the t-shirts prove that there isn’t a better way to describe Madrid than this: a joyful mixtape. Many of Madrid’s neighborhoods couldn’t be more different from one another—from the edgy, youthful energy of Chueca and Malasaña to the quieter, polished, and upscale Salamanca and Chamberí, one street over can feel like a different world. In reality, though, each neighborhood works in tandem to make the mixtape. The city itself wouldn’t be as exciting and wholly alive without the medley of difference. All this ensures you’ll find world-famous art, from the Prado to the Reina Sofía and beyond, a fantastic food scene on the rise and constantly evolving, and one of the most open and accepting communities in all of Europe. That’s what’s remarkable about the city: Madrid, though so different across its various barrios, is community-based in a way that’s proud and accessible to locals and first-timers alike. This much is clear: all it will take is a morning walk through El Retiro park, an afternoon shopping spree through the bustling center of Sol, and an evening over beer and tapas in Chueca, and you’ll be pressing “replay” on the mixtape that is Madrid faster than you can say “Más, por favor.”
The best way to understand the city’s diverse and complex makeup is to start from the center and spiral outwards. Starting from the center means starting from Sol, which is where everything from Spain’s highway system to the city’s metro begins. Sol is Madrid’s bustling central square, home to department stores and the famous bear statue. It is also a convenient starting point to walk to many of Madrid’s biggest attractions like The Prado Museum, Plaza Mayor, and the Royal Palace. Using Sol as our center, we’ll start to the south and spiral clockwise. Just south of Sol is Lavapies, a melting pot of international cultures that has begun to attract a young, trendy crowd. Just clockwise from Lavapies is La Latina, home to Madrid’s oldest architecture (the name is synonymous with “Latin Quarter”) as well as streets overflowing with tapas and beer. Continuing to the northwest corner of the city, you’ll find Moncloa and Arguelles, areas in proximity to the famous University. As the spiral continues, we arrive at Malasaña, the hip and happening area just north of Sol. Malasaña has leafy plazas, independent stores with quality, hidden-gem shopping, and bohemian cafés. North of Malasaña is Chamberí, which we can think of as the slightly older, more polished sibling. With its quieter streets, authentic architecture, and people in business suits along the tree lined avenues, Chamberí will serve you a delicious glass of wine for dinner and then probably go to bed early. On the contrary, no one in Chueca (the next neighborhood) has ever gone to bed before 8pm. Chueca is Madrid’s hippest, most exciting neighborhood, teeming with busy, hipster bars and one-of-a-kind shops. As historically the gay district of Madrid, it remains true to its heritage with an abundance of BGLTQ+ references and celebrations. As we move east, we arrive at Salamanca: Madrid’s crème-de-la-crème of upscale living. Completing the spiral, back in the southeast of the city, we find Retiro and Las Letras. Retiro is mainly home to Madrid’s famous and fantastically beautiful park, El Retiro, while Las Letras is a small neighborhood named after famous writers of Madrid such as Lope de Vega and Cervantes. These days, Las Letras retains its starved-bohemian-writer feel with arts and culture events, cobblestone streets, and gritty independent stores. You’ve now made it back to Sol (didn’t we tell you that’s how it works?), completing a voyage through the neighborhoods of Madrid.
Madrid-Bajaras Airport (MAD) is Madrid’s international airport. From the airport, which is about 9mi. away from the city center, taxis are available, but taking the metro is an easy and cheap option. Metro stops are at Terminal 2 and Terminal 4, and the Nuevos Ministerios line will go straight to Madrid’s center in under 15min. If you’re not flying in, you can easily get to Madrid via train, as it is the hub of Spain’s entire RENFE train system. Atocha is the city’s main railway station, followed closely by Chamartín. Most trains depart from and arrive to one of these two stations. If you are arriving via bus, you will most likely arrive in Estación del Sur (Méndez Alvaro). Buses from all over Spain as well as several international stations travel through Madrid. Many different companies service the station, but tickets can be bought in one place at www.movelia.es.
Madrid’s city bus system is called Empresa Municipal de Transporte (EMT), and operates 6am-9pm M-F with some exceptions. The bus system is extremely widespread, operating 214 lines and covering the entire city and beyond. Buses do not stop automatically at every stop; they must be flagged down. Buses are bright red and blue (older, diesel buses are red; newer, hydrogen buses are blue) so they are easily spotted. Madrid’s Metro is a complex, rapidly-growing system of 13 lines and 301 stations connecting all of Madrid and the surrounding area. The Metro operates 6am-1:30am daily. A single trip ticket costs €1.50, and zone or region Tourist Passes can be bought for either one day or one week. The metro is fairly simple to navigate; within the city, you are never more than five or so minutes from a station, and each station has a map either outside or within it. Madrid is also full of taxis, which can be found on every main street, square, and landmark, as well as in lesser-populated areas. A green light indicates the taxi is free. Madrid’s bike share system is called BiciMAD and has approximately 120 stations around the city. This is the easiest way to get around the city by bike, as access stations are available in many locations and bikes can be rented for as little as two hours.
Tourist Offices: Plaza Mayor Tourist Information Centre (Pl. Mayor 27; 915 787 810; www.esmadrid.com; open daily 9:30am-9:30pm).
Post Offices: Palacio de Cibeles (Pl. Cibeles; 914 800 008; open daily 1:30-4:30pm and 8pm-midnight).
Internet: There is free Wi-Fi from Grupo Gowex in newspaper kiosks and municipal buses, plus some restaurants and shops. You’ll also find free Wi-Fi hotspots at many cafés and local businesses.
BGLTQ+ Resources: www.gayiberia.com and www.gayinspain.com are great resources for travelers in the BGLTQ+ community.
Emergency Number: 112
Police: National Police Headquarters Madrid (Av. Del Federico Rubio y Galí 55; 913 223 400).
Rape Crisis Center: RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE
Hospitals: Hospital Universitario HM Madrid (Pl. del Conde del Valle de Súchil; 902 08 98 00; open daily 24hr).
Pharmacies: Farmacia Abelló (C. de Fuencarral 114; 914 472 374; open daily 9:30am-9:30pm)