1. Start off in Cheuca
Although it’s the gay heart of Madrid, the neighborhood of Chueca is enjoyed by plenty of cool straighties as well. It’s a compact neighborhood with bars, tapas places, and shops that all cater to an urban gay clientele. El Lateral is a trendy tapas bar with a lot of outdoor seating. It’s a great place for a snack anytime of day, or just to meet up with friends before taking to the streets. For another cool place for a drink or tapas, especially late at night, check out Baco y Beto at 24 Calle Pelayo. It’s cozy and has a nice selection of tapas and decent wines. As for shopping, there are several little gay boutiques that range from cheesy to chic. Need a new swimsuit for your jaunt over to Ibiza or Barcelona? Check out the ES Collection shop at 54 Hortaleza for the sexiest damn speedos & underwear you ever saw, all made by this homo-centric Spanish company. And if you’re someone for whom sampling the local flavor includes a romp with a dark and handsome stranger, bars & saunas abound in Chueca, with many open most of the day and long into the night.
2. See Velasquez at the Prado
It’s sort of a no-brainer, but you really can’t go to Madrid and not visit one, two or all three of the great museums that form the ‘Golden Triangle’ of art. The Prado, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum together house a truly spectacular collection of art that spans the last 900 years, give or take. Among them, the Prado is the most visited and is considered one of the world’s greatest art museums. It houses an extensive collection of European works, with a focus naturally on Spanish artists. Among the treasures are several pieces by Diego Velasquez. Spend some time admiring Las Meninas, a defining work considered one of the most important paintings in Western art history, and see if you can figure out what that lucky little princess is really thinking.
3. Tapas: Mercado de San Miguel
Madrid’s cultural and social life revolves around the simple pleasure of eating and drinking, and tapas are the main star in Madrilenos’ gastronomic pursuits. The city abounds with delicious small plates but for the place to get a taste of the treats that span the city, head to the Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor. In this highly social garden of epicurean delights, you can sample bite size treats of every stripe. You must try the bacalao (dried salt cod) which is a local specialty. Olive lovers can enjoy the briny treats six ways to Sunday–in mini brochettes with sardines, stuffed with cheese, wrapped with ham—just to name a few. Speaking of ham, it’s everywhere in Madrid. It’s seems to be a city-wide addiction, with jamon or proscuitto appearing on literally every menu. There is even a chain of restaurants called Museo de Jamon. So get ready to pig out…literally!
4. La Latina neighborhood
On Sunday nights, the area of La Latina hums with energy as a younger crowd gathers for one last hurrah before the work or school week begins again. Join the party as it pours out into the Plaza de Puerta de Moros from the bars and restaurants. There are countless tapas places here, and you likely won’t go wrong with any of the well populated ones, but Juana La Loca was my favorite. It’s famous for its tortilla but what brought me here was the suckling pig, which did not disappoint. The atmosphere is loud, fun and friendly. Come here to feel like a real Madrileno for a night and buy a round of beers for the new-found friends you’re sure to make.
5. Retire in Retiro
A great city always has a great park, and Madrid is no exception. Buen Retiro once belonged to the Spanish royal family before it became a public park in the late 19th century, and its regal pedigree is evident in the beautiful Paseo de la Argentina which is lined with statues of the Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchs. Here, you can take rowboat out on the pond, listen to the various musicians that populate the grounds, or just sit on a bench and take a quiet moment to say to yourself, “Hey, I’m in Madrid. Not bad, self! Time for some ham soon.”
6. Gastro gorge: Santceloni
Spain has long been a hot spot for modern culinary explorations and Madrid has been at the center of that new wave of superstar chefs. While tapas bars abound serving delicious food on the cheap, an extravagant meal at a major restaurant is not to be missed. One top choice is Santceloni, where edible ecstasy is on the menu. You’ll be wowed by an extraordinary meal of inventive foods & flavors, served by a doting — and attractive — staff. The to-die-for ravioli with caviar & fennel cream has yet to fade from my memory. The main courses of John Dory, and the wild chicken should also be on your hit list. Cheese lovers take note: do not end your meal without indulging in a plate of dairy delights sliced from the vast selection on the cheese table. Santceloni ain’t cheap, but if you can stomach the cost, this kind of gastronomical experience is priceless.
7. Pull an All Nighter: LL, Liquid, Long Play
Nobody, and I mean nobody does late night like the people in this city. It’s not unusual to sit down to a leisurely dinner at 11pm. By the time that’s done, you’ll be heading to your first bar at close to 1am, and could likely find yourself out until 4am or later. And so the pre-dinner disco nap becomes pretty critical. Chueca, the gay center of the city is where you’ll likely start out. There’s a number of bars and clubs here and the best thing to do is to hop around. Get your first drink of the night at LL, an old school hangout where drag shows happen regularly. For your classic video bar, Liquid is friendly and fits the bill. On my Saturday night we ended up at a gay-friendly club called Long Play. For a more intense club vibe, check out Kluster or Diamante where pounding bass, club kids and shirtless men with dilated pupils create a sexually charged, adrenaline-fueled scene.
8. Stay Luxe & Lovely: Villa Magna
If you’re a label addict or just like to surround yourself with gorgeous things, a stay at Villa Magna could be just the ticket. Down Paseo de Castellana, not far from Santceloni, this grand hotel is located in the posh Salamanca area just steps from Cartier, Gucci, Chopard and the like. The recently renovated rooms here are quite large and luxurious, designed in rich chocolate & crisp white hues, and outfitted with sumptuous bedding to whisk you into dreamland. When you wake, a delicious breakfast buffet awaits you in the main dining room. The service throughout is top notch of course, as one would expect from this venerable classic of refined lodging. It’s an easy stroll to the Golden Triangle of art museums or to leafy Retiro Park. Do note however that this area, already reserved during the day, quiets down significantly at night.
9. Stay Cheap & Chic: Hotel Metropol Praktik
I discovered this jewel of a hotel in the center of Madrid and I just can’t stop telling friends about it! Their motto is ‘less is luxe’ and that refers primarily to the price. For less than $100/night, you can stay at the exceedingly well-designed boutique hotel that will have you wondering how they can afford to price the rooms so cheaply. The spacious and well designed rooms, a warm & friendly lobby area, rooftop access and free wi-fi all make for a great home base from which to explore nearby Puerta del Sol, Gran Via and Chueca. The vibe is hip but friendly and the website says they cater to “smart travelers who want to make the most of their time and money.” With Praktik’s low rates and high style, I felt like a genius as soon as I checked in.