Insider Guide: Best of Madrid
With its strident, martial statues peering down wide boulevards, even the best of Madrid can daunt at first glimpse.
Look for order, and you encounter bustle, sometimes even brusqueness. This shouldn't be mistaken for discourtesy.
Madrileños simply have a reputation for directness, of a haste that contrasts sharply with the pace of life in much of coastal Spain.
No offense is intended.
It's a proud capital city, fastidious about curating and displaying its national treasures, home of some of the world’s greatest art and sculpture and a place that inspires great civic loyalty.
The attitude is part illusion.
Spain’s most cosmopolitan city is also the country’s most open and gregarious metropolis.
Read on to preview the best of Madrid.
More on CNNGo: Insider Guide: Best of London
Almost a century old, Madrid’s Ritz was built to give the Spanish capital a landmark luxury hotel to rival the Paris original.
It continues to do so.
It’s at its best in the summer, when the garden comes into its own.
The hotel is well-appointed, with spacious bedrooms and service a little less snooty than its counterpart in the capital of France.
Plaza de la Lealtad, 5; +34 91 701 6767; from €250 (US$306); www.ritz.es
Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes
An elegant and ingeniously converted palace, this was once the residence of the Duke of Nobelejas.
In some of the suites, guests will gaze up at frescoed ceilings. There's a roominess about the communal areas, with their wide staircases and hallways.
This best of Madrid hotel is well located for late-night ventures.
Calle del Prado, 6; +34 91 389 6051; from €80; www.hoteles-catalonia.com
Housed in an attractively rounded corner-of-the-street building, the Embajada is at the smart end of functional, its rooms unpretentious and unfussy, with the discreet exception of the stained glass insets in the windows.
It’s convenient for the Castellana, one of Madrid’s principal avenues, and for the city center.
Calle de Santa Engracia, 5; +34 91 594 0213; from €59; www.nh-hoteles.es
More on CNNGo: 50 stunning rooftop bars and restaurants
Meson Txistu rather brandishes its encounters with local celebrity.
There are photos of the king of Spain on display; it's popular with the soccer players of Real Madrid. The cuisine is broadly Basque, which means the fish recommends itself.
Meson is strong on red meat, too, with a good wine list and wide selection of jamon serrano.
Plaza de Ángel Carbajo, 6; +34 91 570 1006; expensive; www.mesontxistu.com
Dating from 1725, Botín claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. But you don't eat at this best of Madrid restaurant merely to chalk off an entry in Guinness World Records -- you come for the meat, above all, the pork.
Suckling pig is the traditional specialty, deservedly celebrated.
Just off Plaza Mayor, this is a splendid site to work up an appetite.
Calle de los Cuchilleros, 17; +34 91 366 4217; moderate; www.botin.es
Café Oliver likes to think of itself as a something of mold-breaker, for having first advertised and served the concept of brunch on Sundays -- this in the capital of a nation given to late eating hours, and wedded to the idea of long family outings to eat on Sunday starting at three o’clock, or well after.
The food is Mediterranean in an extended sense, with North African influences among the Spanish, French and Italian.
Calle Almirante, 12; +34 91 521 7379; budget to moderate; www.cafeoliver.com
More on CNNGo: Olympics for freeloaders: 10 things that don't cost
This is a club to which modern Madrid owes some of its reputation as a sleepless city, at least at weekends.
Set up in an ornate former theater, close to the up-all-night Sol and Santa Ana districts, it brings in a wide clientele, principally -- though not exclusively -- those who want to use the dance floor.
Simply watching from the sidelines or the upper-floor aeries is permitted, too.
Calle del Arenal, 11; +34 91 366 3733; www.joy-eslava.com
A zeitgeist bar for 21st-century Madrid: those with a spirit of independence like to be seen here after midnight.
Déjate Besar has been designed imaginatively, with quirky, kaleidoscopic lighting. Stays open until 3 a.m., except on Sunday and Monday.
Calle de los Hermanos Bécquer, 10; +34 91 562 2485; www.dejatebesar.cl
Mulata is a lively tribute to Latin America, especially to Cuba and Brazil, from where many thousands of people have settled in the capital of Spain.
Expect a good range of Caribbean and South American cocktails, Latin music and iconic posters. And a relaxed vibe.
Calle del Almendro, 22; +34 91 364 1605
Shopping / Attractions
This young, best of Madrid brand has rapidly grown into an international name.
With its jagged lines and forceful colors, Paramita’s clothes and accessories are identifiably 21st-century Spanish: amplified and exuberant and a bit more risqué than the more established and successful compatriot chains, like Zara, that now command high streets the world over.
Calle Mayor, 47; +34 91 540 0171; www.paramita.es
Antigua Casa Talavera
This is probably the best place in Madrid to find examples of the kind of delicately hand-painted ceramics which in southern Spain, above all, are an art form.
Most of what is on sale is original design -- bowls, plates, cups -- but there are also reproductions of classics.
It’s also a beguiling place simply to browse.
Open weekdays and Saturday mornings.
Calle de Isabel la Católica, 2; +34 91 547 3417
Want to appreciate how international a city Madrid is?
Its biggest and most varied market is a good pointer.
El Rastro is popular with Madrileños of all sorts, which also means it gets crowded, so it’s as wise to be there early on a Sunday if you want to move at your own pace.
Fashionistas will find plenty in the way of clothes, collectors discover lots to arouse curiosity in the way of handicrafts. And people-watchers won’t be bored.
More on CNNGo: London as a local: 10 tips for Olympic survival
Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores area
Museo del Prado
Museo del Prado is the most famous of Spain’s art museums, and its most canonical.
The Prado is still fresh from its most important transformation, the 2007 restructuring and extension of its exhibition halls.
There’s a full rewarding day, or more, to be had from Spain’s grandest collection of fine art, above all the works of El Greco, Velazquez and Goya.
A warning: Sunday often means long lines.
Spaniards eat late, which is sometimes confounding to visitors from elsewhere, when they find restaurants still organizing the tablecloths at 8 p.m. But there is a compensation: tapas.
Tapas, a mealtime in miniature, fills not only a gap in the daily timetable, and space in the belly before dinner, it's an important social function, as well.
In a gregarious city like Madrid, it means good food to be taken standing up, mouthfuls designed not to interrupt for too long what's really important: talking time.
There are staples: dried ham, boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) and fried, salted green peppers; a small plate is likely to contain one that surprises with its spiciness.
One specialty is rich, meaty callos -- long in preparation -- but in the bars of La Latina and Santa Ana, there is ample opportunity to see and taste new combinations: montaditos arranged with an eye on their visual appeal, little pieces of toast bearing arrangements of seafood, ham or manchego cheese, as patiently put together as a wedding cake.
Aperitifs? Tapas are far more than that.
They are the reason to let dinner wait, to keep chatting until late into the night. That's Madrid all over.