Travel
5 min

Madrid

History in Spain’s capital city gets a modern makeover

Combine Old Madrid sightseeing with gastronomy at San Miguel Market, a magnificent iron and glass structure built in 1916 and reopened in 2009 after a hip renovation. Credit: LoAnn Halden

Madrid’s patron saint, Isidore the Farmer, receives his due each May 15 with festivities steeped in traditional dress and bullfights. But this doesn’t compare to the street celebrations that unfold in early July, when the weeklong Madrid Pride draws an estimated two million revellers.

These calendar highlights, less than two months apart, speak volumes about Spain’s capital city: steeped in history, yet speeding forward with youthful exuberance. The country came late to democracy, transitioning in 1975 after 36 years under the iron rule of General Francisco Franco — but in 2005 it became the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. And nowhere is the country’s desire to make up for lost time more apparent than in Madrid.

This is a city where a bank holiday not so long ago resulted in long lines of locals — including many families with children in tow — queuing up at Fundación Mapfre to see a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion exhibition, bondage-style displays and all. Catholicism is still the dominant religion in this city of roughly 3.3 million, but fiestas have higher turnouts than mass. Madrid notably hosted the largest EuroPride to date (2.5 million attendees in 2007) and presented winning bids for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s Annual Global Convention in 2014 and WorldPride in 2017. “After so many years of repression during the dictatorship, for many young people, supporting gay rights became a symbol of freedom,” says Madrid guide Natalia Gutierrez.

Walk as much as possible to best soak up the architectural and cultural melding of Madrid’s past and present. Historic squares like Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol (“Gate of the Sun”) anchor Old Madrid, while Plaza de Santa Ana has a comfortable local vibe. The Museo del Prado houses Spanish masterworks from Goya and El Greco, but don’t miss the contemporary magic of hospital-turned-museum Reina Sofía, home to Picasso’s Guernica, or the dramatic façade of CaixaForum, a former electric power station transformed into a “levitating” cultural centre with a multistorey vertical garden on site (See Art Walk at esmadrid.com). The Cibeles Palace, constructed in the early 1900s as the city’s postal service headquarters, contains the CentroCentro exhibition space, with its observation deck for panoramic city views and public lounging areas with free WiFi.

Combine Old Madrid sightseeing with gastronomy at San Miguel Market, built in 1916 and reopened in 2009 after a hip renovation; the iron and glass structure serves as a showplace for a dazzling display of Spanish staples, from Iberian ham to succulent olives. It’s a popular stop for tapas with the late-night crowd, thanks to a 2am closing time Thursday through Saturday. Food is serious business here, and while traditional croquetascocido (chickpea soup) and ham are ubiquitous, modern bistros have added inventive twists. La Gastrocroquetería de Chema infuses its croquetas with everything from chicken curry to squid ink. Estado Puro reinvents every tapas dish imaginable, including the potato omelette, delivered deconstructed in a glass as the XXI Century Tortilla. Still, don’t skip the old school entirely; it’s hard to beat the simple calamari sandwich served from El Brillante’s lunch counter since 1952.

Finding the LGBT in Madrid doesn’t require much effort, given that the main gay neighbourhood and site of Pride, Chueca, sits just off the city centre. Its main streets, Calle Fuencarral and Calle Hortaleza, contain some of the city’s most fashion-forward shopping. Nightlife starts late, with music-video bars like Liquid good for a pre-club cocktail at midnight. Fulanita de Tal covers early and late-night lesbians at two locations within walking distance: “Fula” serves up cocktails and culture from day into night and Fulanita VIP Club keeps women dancing until 6am on weekends. Another central Madrid neighbourhood, Lavapiés, is growing in popularity as the alternative, more ethnically diverse gaybourhood.

For an LGBT-friendly, prime location at the intersection of Chueca and Gran Via, book into the Room Mate Óscar. The highly stylized 74-room boutique hotel also houses French-Japanese rest0-lounge ParisTokyo, another good spot for a pre-club cocktail and light nosh on the queer circuit. With 23 properties in Madrid alone, Meliá Hotels International has a bed for every taste; check out the ME Madrid Reina Victoria overlooking Plaza Santa Ana or the newly opened Innside Suecia near Círculo de Belles Artes.

Day-trips outside Madrid

While Madrid, the city, demands attention, there is another Madrid — the region — that reveals its treasures through quiet exploration. Take a day-trip outside the city limits to these UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all easily accessible by local train from Atocha Railway Station, for leisurely strolls through the pages of Spanish history.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial
An hour’s train ride northwest of Madrid sits the Monastery of El Escorial, an austere behemoth built between 1563 and 1584 during the reign of King Philip II. This iconic complex of the Spanish Renaissance combines royal quarters, a mausoleum of monarchs, a basilica with a 92-metre dome, and a stunning library that feels like a gallery. El Escorial’s sombre granite construction and religious underpinnings are softened by the art-filled interiors and its surroundings — the Guadarrama mountains provide a cool escape from Madrid’s summer heat. The pedestrian-friendly town that accompanies the monument has several good options for day-trip dining on regional fare, including the famed El Charolés and the 1768 inn-turned-tavern Mesón La Cueva.

Alcalá de Henares
Two things immediately catch the eye in Alcalá de Henares: Cervantes and the storks. Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes was born here in 1547; his statue stands watch over the main plaza, quill pen aloft. But the resident storks certainly give him a run for top billing; more than 100 nesting pairs have settled atop the towers of the town centre. Alcalá was the world’s first city established solely as a university, and it’s still a centre of higher learning — particularly popular with Spanish-language immersion students. The youthful, international influx infuses the air with a sense of forward momentum not often found in streets steeped in so much history. Although it’s only 40 minutes east of Madrid, it’s worth staying overnight for the design-savvy Parador de Alcalá de Henares; the converted 17th-century convent school has a cavernous spa with lighting that somehow manages to soothe and evoke Studio 54. For excellent seafood, especially Galician-style pulpo (octopus), don’t miss another church conversion: La Cupula Restaurante.

Aranjuez
If the weather is picnic-perfect, pack up some olives and Iberian ham and catch a train 40 minutes south to the Royal Palace of Aranjuez and its Versailles-inspired gardens. Wide tree-lined avenues cut through the extensive grounds, which are laden with fountains featuring characters from Greek myths. Located on a low plain of the Tagus River, it was the spring residence of choice of kings and queens, including Isabel II (who reigned from 1833 to 1868) and her allegedly gay husband, Francisco de Asis, Duke of Cadiz. In addition to touring the palace, stop in at the Museo de Faluas Reales near the pier to see the elaborate pleasure boats that carried the Spanish rulers along the waterways.

For more information on Madrid, visit esmadrid.com.

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Madrid, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

Another resource is Cristina Cabrera, a licensed guide. You can reach her at capturespain@gmail.com.