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Big Adventure

Madrid, a New Old City

City on the verge

An empty street glazed with drizzle at 2am. You stare at the shuttered storefront thinking this can’t be right. They said Bar Cock is “a must”, and you skipped the childish joke about the name. Now, facing heavy metal blinds, you wonder what got lost in translation. But the door is ajar, warm light within and, you figure, what’s the worst that could happen?

“Madrid isn’t like Paris, with a checklist of monuments to see. The city is about interaction.”
Miguel A. Caballero

EASY TO MISS, BUT HARD TO FORGET

Invisible city

Push past that off-putting intro into an Almodóvar film: a baronial hall glowing like amber, nocturnal creatures whisper in pairs in deep club chairs and dark wood that has surrounded Salvador Dalí, Ava Gardner, Hemingway (of course), and George Clooney, to name a few. Founded in 1921, and it feels it when the bow-tied waiter serves your martini.

That dissonance between what you’ve heard and what you see happens again and again in Madrid. Questioning the brutalist block that hides plush Hotel Villa Magna. Hunting conceptual art down an alley behind Atocha station, or a minimalist boutique in opulent Salamanca. Finding five-star Gran Hotel Inglés on a street clamoring with youth hostels. You’ll start to doubt Google Maps.

Outwardly austere, Madrid is easy to miss. On the avenues, temples cap monumental banks, imposing apartments and grand hotels. Behind them, shops huddle in ashy side streets beneath prim Juliette balconies and conservatory windows. If Barcelona feels flirty, feisty, Madrid is her stoic sister. Which doesn’t mean she’s dull—she just makes you earn it.

“It’s very Castillian,” says Javier Bone-Carbone, art curator and Taschen editor, referring to the culture of the Spanish heartland surrounding Madrid. Moorish modesty overlaid with Hapsburg grandeur lend the city a severe formality. But break that surface tension and you’ll discover its interior riches. “Madrid isn’t like Paris, with a checklist of landmarks to see,” explains Bone-Carbone, “it is about interaction.”

Villa Magna

Haute hostelries

Two of Madrid’s best-kept-secret hotels exemplify its inward-facing character.

Since the 1970’s, Villa Magna is the choice for heads of state, movie stars and others wishing to fly below the radar. Built by a family on the site of their 19th-Century mansion, its modernist architecture is a departure, but one that casts the traditional style and warm hospitality within in an even brighter light. Later Turkish, Portuguese, and now Mexican owners added their own touches—a marble-lined hammam in the spa, new gardens—and expanded the art collection. Just 150 Empire-style rooms, villa-worthy bathrooms, and two penthouse apartments with vast terraces and views to the mountains feel like a well-staffed home. Shopaholics will appreciate the private passageway to a designer-curated outpost of El Corte Inglés. And don’t miss We Collect, a gallery and art club nestled in a Zen garden around the outside.

Surrounding Salamanca is Madrid’s “uptown”. Luxury-brand flagships line Calle Serrano and independent designers sprinkle the leafy backstreets. Taste traditional flavors at intimate, age-old La Parra—divans and Moroccan tile under candle-light and the hushed voices of old-Hollywood types. Or discover new ones at Amazonico—starlets and soccer stars picking at piquant hamachi and rare beef rodizios under cascades of jazz and tropical foliage.

A few blocks south, Gran Hotel Inglés opened in the 19th Century as Madrid’s first luxury hotel. Its return to five-star status signals the revival of artsy Las Letras, Madrid’s medieval heart. An extensive lobby library, including rare volumes of Don Quixote, pays homage to the area’s roots. Cast-iron columns mix with Chesterfields and Oriental rugs for a SoHo vibe. The rooms span old and new. Smartphones guide you around town, while deep, clawfoot tubs soak sightseeing-weary bones before heading out for an infamously late Spanish night.

Plan your trip

GRAN HOTEL INGLÉS

“Welcome to a “new” Madrid: glitzy and extroverted, not ashamed to shine.”
Miguel A. Caballero

High society

A wave of restaurants, luxury stores and hotels welcome you to a “new” Madrid rising in the old city-center: glitzy and extroverted, not ashamed to shine. “The middle and upper classes used to be very pijo, a bit stuffy” says Kiko Buxo, fashion designer and founder of minimalist brand Shon Mott. “But the younger generation are more experimental.” Europe’s third-largest city is quickly catching up to its peers. Think laid-back London, or brash Berlin.

Trend spotters long know that Madrid’s creative edge cuts through Chueca. Once a down-and out barrio, it is back with a thriving judgment-free attitude and urban mix of people sipping craft beers and coffees, and celebrating exactly who they are. Here you’ll find Isolee, Madrid’s first concept store, and Lab Lamarca, its most recent. Specialist shops offer handmade papers, Japanese ceramics and retro-pop foods. Or feast your eyes at established white-cube galleries like London’s Marlborough, and local groundbreakers like Travesía Cuatro.

REBIRTH

Now that vibe is moving further south. Construction cranes over Gran Via announce the arrival of brand name luxury condos above a multi-story shopping arcade sure to bring some of Salamanca’s style downtown. Students and backpackers still flock to Puerta del Sol for selfies on the well-trod tourist trail between the royal palace and Prado—Goya, check. El Greco, check. Velazquez, check. But above their heads a real estate boom is transforming the old tenements around Madrid’s old theater district.

So while Spain’s capital is hardly off the beaten path, it rewards the curious who push past first impressions. Plenty of folk will stroll Paseo del Prado, spin through the museums, taste tapas and sangria on Plaza Mayor—and not have seen a thing. No wonder Almodóvar chose Madrid for his seething tales of love and madness. But it’s all about to erupt. Expect a star performance.

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

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