Gay-city breaks rarely get much better than sipping a late afternoon mojito in Plaza de Chueca. Sitting on a metro stop, overlooked by wrought-iron balconies, this centre of Madrid’s urban gay life almost defies visitors not to be seduced. The people-watching is unrivalled anywhere else in the quarter, and rushing one’s drink or summoning the bill seems an almost aggressive act. If you’ve gone on vacation determined to “wind down and rush for nobody,” Spain is a perfect destination in which to hone those skills, even in its frenetic capital.
Nobody can accuse Madrid’s legendary “boystown” of not showing guests a good time. Chueca has followed the trend of other gay ghettos in steamrolling toward gentrification in recent years, but gay “gatos” (an affectionate term for Madrilenos with some interesting historic roots) aren’t about to let it end the party. Don’t hold your breath for signs of Spain’s economic woes here. Madrid is a young, energetic city that’s been through much worse and has always come out dancing.
Gay nightlife here takes many forms, but the trick can be in knowing where to look. During Madrid Pride — a celebration that draws two million participants each year and has been praised by many as Europe’s best — it can feel as if Chueca has expanded to fill the entire city. (In 2017, Madrid will host World Pride.) But Madrid’s LGBT labyrinth is one of the world’s largest at any time of year, boasting high-powered dance clubs, saunas, cruise clubs, bars, restaurants and cafes.
Around Chueca, most of the bars close around 3 or 4am, which can seem counterintuitive in a nightlife culture where nobody goes out before midnight. It doesn’t mean the party’s over: it’s just moved on, usually to one of the larger dance clubs in a nearby neighbourhood. Adapting to these rhythms is essential to getting the most out of your Madrid stay. The early evening streets are teeming with young men and women who spruik about various bars and parties throughout the city. Contrary to what a lifetime of travel instinct might have taught you, these touts are often the most reliable source of info for tourists looking to enjoy the city late into the evening. So take the card, which sometimes includes free entry or a free drink, for whatever club they’re promoting. Most are legit, but check for matching posters around the neighbourhood or ask a bartender if you’re not sure.
With so many bars competing for your euro, it can be hard to find up-to-date listings or know where to start, but there are some standouts. LL Bar is a small, but a favourite for quality drag entertainment any night of the week, featuring a downstairs bar that’s popular with local bears. Liquid and Why Not? attract young, fashionable fans of North American pop. Gris lures a more mature and alternative crowd with some of Chueca’s best drink specials and a regular rotation of ’80s, goth, new romantic and new wave favourites. Lakama is a stylish and popular catch-all, with playful bartenders ripped straight from a fitness catalogue. Meanwhile, showtune fans might want to start the evening singing along at Bambalinas, though the predominantly Anglo, musical-theatre standards (with one night of the week devoted to Eurovision) seem an unlikely fit for Madrid.
There’s no avoiding it: drink prices in Chueca will come as a rude shock next to the comparable bars in Barcelona, or even elsewhere in Madrid. Two-for-one specials are common, but check if this means two drinks for one person or if you can share it with a friend. Also ask if your entry cost includes a freebie called a “copa,” meaning any basic mixed drink. The upside lies in value for money. Many of trendy Chueca’s bartenders aren’t afraid to flex their skills in presentation, and ordering a simple “copa” at the right bar (Lakama is a good pick) can net you a pretty spectacular blend of booze, fruit and creativity. Just be wary of strong pours. There’s a reason many locals stick to beer in a country that really isn’t known for it.
Chueca’s sheer variety and size, coupled with a language barrier that’s somewhat stronger than in other popular European cities, can make exploring Madrid’s gay neighbourhood a challenge for first timers. But this is one district that every LGBT traveller should visit once during their lifetime, as it more than lives up to its reputation for those who persevere and adapt to its rhythm.
For more information on Madrid, visit esmadrid.com.