Travelling to a place with the sole intention of treading an “unbeaten path” is a never a great idea. But when that place is a bustling European capital, how can anyone expect to find somewhere fresh from the footfalls of those who’ve gone before?
It’s a good question. Expectations on finding any sort of path, unbeaten or not, is something I’ve not only learned to let go of in lieu of wandering Madrid’s city streets, but also life in general. Sure it’s a bleak outlook, but for other visitors trying to keep sane in the Spanish capital, acting accordingly might be the best way forward.
And expectations or not, finding the beating pulse of this city remains very much the crux of this offbeat guide. So with that at the forefront should I give in to temptation and begin my futile quest for the unbeaten path in Madrid’s many raucous bars? Or, better still, hope that it naturally unfurls after a stroll around the green fields of Buen Retiro Park?
Whichever way you look at it, it’s probably about time to make a start. So, let’s do what any other rational person would do. Let’s put it all off to go shopping instead.
Looking Up Skyward
Anyone familiar with Madrid and its maze of backstreets will probably scoff at starting out an expedition like this with an amble down Gran Via, one of the city’s liveliest and best-known shopping districts. But the truth is very few people look past the hotels, movie theatres and boutique stores that populate it.
So with shopping a simple ruse fashioned to check out the area, take a walk down Gran Via along the Calle de Alcala and let it prove to you my first point about finding any sense of the “unbeaten” here in Madrid. That is, in order to find a city that few others see, you only really need look up.
And what better place to look then skyward? Home to some of the city’s most stunning and iconic buildings, most visitors to Madrid don’t even bother to concern themselves with early 20th century monoliths like the Edificio Metropolis and the Edificio Grassy that loom above.
But with art-deco bastions like The Capitol on Plaza del Callao, Gran Via is an ideal place to start marveling at the forgotten architectural splendor of Madrid. Continue walking down to the final part, the Plaza de España, and you’ll also find my favourite viewing spot in a city made more famous by indoor worlds (those of taverns and tapas bars) rather than those that live outside.
Outdoors is where you’re likely to find the special parts of Madrid. And despite being overshadowed by national rival Barcelona when it comes to monuments of magnitude, this city stills packs a decent punch. Continue to head down Gran Via (with a stop off in gargantuan book store Casa del Libro at Gran Vía, 29) along the Calle de Princessa and up to the base of the Arco de la Victoria and you'll see further examples.
Built in 1956 as a tribute to Franco’s Nationalist army who rose to victory during the Spanish civil war, the 39m-high Arco (arch) serves as a reminder of a fraught past that many of Spain’s modern day visitors don’t know a shred about. Also referred to by a large number of Madrid’s three-million strong population by a different name completely (to avoid association with the dictator himself), don’t be surprised if you have difficulty finding this one either.
But where the Arco might not be the kind of blink-and-you-miss-it spot you expect to find off of a city’s beaten track, Madrid’s Museo al Aire Libre (Open Air Museum) is a dead cert for any such list.
Situated beside Calle Serrano, beneath a busy flyover (you’ll have to walk a short while down Calle de Jose Abscal to find it), here you’ll find 17 sculptures, each made at the hands of a different Spanish artist. The setting enables you to get up close and personal with these cold bronze and steel figures — you’ll soon realise that this is about as public as ‘real art’ gets here at Museo al Aire Libre.
Other Hidden Gems
If it’s art and culture you crave more of then Madrid has plenty of other little-known gems hidden away in other city pockets, too. One of those options, the Museo Sorolla, the former mansion home of Valencian artist Joaquin Sorolla, offers a far more intimate look into the life of a Madrid-based artisan than that which you might see at the world famous Prado or Reina Sofia.
Tread a little further, too, around the corner from the Museo Sorolla and you’ll find two other areas of the city largely ignored by the tourist crowds.
Close to Goya metro station, the district of Salamanca is home to one of the city’s most thriving local spots in the Mercado de la Paz, an upscale market full of Spanish hams, cheeses, fresh produce and seafood. Walking around its circle of stores and eyeing its many cafes, it’s a smart move to head and check out Santa (Calle de Serrano, 56), one of Madrid’s best-loved chocolate shops, that sits in the heart of the neighbourhood.
Away from Salamanca, one of Madrid’s other lesser-known treasures is the Malasaña district. Similar to that of New York’s East Village or London’s Camden Town, this neighbourhood boasts laid-back bars like La Paca (Calle de Valverde, 36) and Lolina (Calle del Espíritu Santo, 9), a host of secondhand vintage clothes stores, quirky galleries and booming nightclubs to party in away from those of the centre that will burn your wallet to a cinder.
Cover Your Tracks
Yet how can any true Madrid-based adventure end without mention of two of its finest features: food and drink. It's here, that in respect of my opening sentences, the problem of “venturing off the beaten track” proves more troublesome still. After all, recommend a restaurant that nobody knows and people will start to get suspicious.
At the risk of upsetting the balance, however, let me throw two propositions into the mixer that might fit either end of the spectrum. The first, Taberna de Cien Vinos (100 Wines, Calle del Nuncio, 17), located in La Latina, is a small dark den of debauchery unknown to most despite serving up tasty free pinchos and cheap raciones. The second, Café Moderno (Plaza Comendadoras, 1), is more widely known, but still just as fun thanks to a massive outdoor terrace, nightly live music and twice-weekly literary recitals.
Recommending bars in a city that has more per capita than anywhere else in Europe is never going to be easy. Really want to enjoy the best that Madrid has to offer? Then do away with any attempt to follow a beaten track.
In a city like this, which has as much or as little of anything you want, the path you decide to tread is yours and nobody else’s.
How To Get There
Indirect return with Qatar Air, Air France, Emirates Airlines or Vietnam Airlines. Prices range from VND12 million to VND19 million before tax.
The Westin Palace, Plaza de las Cortes, 7 (rooms from VND3 million per night)
Hotel Vincci Capitol, Calle Gran Via, 41 (rooms from VND1.3 million per night)
Petit Palace, Puerta del Sol (rooms from VND840,000 per night)
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