A weekend in Madrid: Things to do, see and eat in Picasso country
This year, Madrid is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death and the 100th anniversary of Joaquin Sorolla’s with a series of exhibitions dedicated to each artist.
Madrid has little to prove as a premier art destination. Its central “golden triangle of art” (anchored by the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums) makes for a dazzling pilgrimage, and the city is bolstered by cutting-edge cultural foundations like Espacio Solo and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.
This year, Madrid is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death and the 100th anniversary of Joaquin Sorolla’s with a series of exhibitions dedicated to each artist. Also, few cities have had such a flurry of hotel openings since the pandemic’s onset – including the Edition, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental and the Hard Rock.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the city’s warm embrace of anyone wanting to join the fun. Since so few Madrilenos are actually from Madrid, everyone is welcome.
Stroll the new agora: Hemmed in for decades by four busy boulevards, Plaza de Espana was a spot locals typically tried to avoid. A 70-million-euro (S$100 million) redesign, completed in November 2021, has transformed the plaza by diverting traffic away or into underground tunnels.
New tree-shaded promenades and playgrounds have become a magnet for locals and visitors, and pedestrian paths now link the plaza to landmarks like the nearby Royal Palace; the Parque del Oeste; and the Madrid Rio, a vast park built along the Manzanares River.
Also now readily accessible from the plaza: The 2,200-year-old Temple of Debod, given to Spain by the Egyptian government in 1968; the Cerralbo Museum, an ornate 19th-century nobleman’s palace; and the Sabatini Gardens, where sculptures of Spanish kings stand among the towering magnolia and cypress trees.
Take a royal tour: Madrid’s Royal Palace is sometimes skipped by visitors who feel “museumed out”. That’s a shame. The finest 18th-century artists and craftsmen came to Madrid to adorn the palace’s every surface in frescoes, silk damask and lots of gold leaf.
One room is floor-to-ceiling porcelain, while another has a dining table that can be set for 120 guests. The vast armory’s shimmering suits of armour are a hit with children as are the royal kitchens, which had holes near the bottoms of the doors so the royal cats could keep the mice at bay.
Next to the palace, an extraordinary new Royal Collections Gallery will bring together 600 rarely seen masterpieces when it opens this summer. Avoid lines by buying tickets (12 euros) online.
Tap your heels: Several of Madrid’s historic flamenco tablaos (traditional venues with smaller stages) sadly didn’t survive the COVID-19 era.
One that did is Corral de la Moreria, just south of the Royal Palace. Inside, there’s an eight-seat, Michelin-starred restaurant led by the Basque chef David Garcia, where diners enjoy nine courses before taking VIP seats for the flamenco performance in the tavernlike main room (135, dinner and show).
If you can’t land a restaurant reservation, the main room offers simpler fare two hours before showtime (about 95 euros, dinner and show). The 70-minute performances in this intimate setting often feature top dancers like Jesus Carmona, who can fill an auditorium in New York or London.
Grab breakfast: The canary-yellow-tiled Golda, in the trendy Salesas neighbourhood, draws an in-the-know crowd with its mostly healthy Middle Eastern-accented breakfast fare, like toast with hummus, roasted tomato, feta and sumac (6.50 euros) and a densely marbled chocolate-pistachio babka (6 euros).
After breakfast, it’s worth popping down the street into the stunning grand Baroque church of Santa Barbara, built in the 1750s by one of Spain’s most cultivated queens, Barbara de Braganza.
Anyone travelling with young children may prefer breakfast at Frida, a few blocks away, which has outdoor seating overlooking a small playground and whose menu includes kiddie favourites like pancakes (9 euros).
Gallery hop, then shop: For more than a decade now, Salesas and the north end of Chueca have been a centre of Madrid’s most compelling contemporary art galleries and innovative Spanish boutiques.
Showing mostly international artists under 40, the Travesia Cuatro, Alzueta and Albarran Bourdais galleries all feature invitingly quirky spaces that go beyond the white cube.
For apparel, two standouts include Oteyza for exquisitely tailored men’s and women's clothing, including capes, with a distinctly Castilian accent (handmade sneakers, 385 euros; bespoke suits starting at 1,800 euros).
Nearby is Ecoalf, which creates luxurious garments by upcycling old water bottles and fishing nets (raincoat, 385 euros). Keep up your energy with treats like milhojas (layers of puff pastry and sweetened cream) from La Duquesita, which opened in 1914.
Explore museums: Sometimes, it’s nice to shift gears and enjoy some bite-size museums that don’t require a half-day to explore. Two such visual bonbons happen to be a short stroll away from each other in the pretty, tree-lined Chamberi neighbourhood.
Kids and adults will enjoy the Museo Geominero (free), a four-story, 1917 Beaux-Arts jewel box filled with mineral and fossil delights – including massive amethysts, heaps of fool’s gold and fossils.
And no matter when you visit Madrid, it’s endless summer at Museo Sorolla (3 euros, free on Saturdays after 2.30pm), the glamorous former home and studio of Joaquin Sorolla, one of Spain’s most celebrated painters, best known for his sun-dappled images of frolicking children and fashionable ladies enjoying the seaside. His death in 1923 is being honoured with exhibitions here and at the Royal Palace this spring.
Sit at a sushi counter: Spaniards rank among the world’s highest per capita consumers of fish, so it only makes sense that the cuisine of Japan, another fish-loving nation, would have a presence in Madrid. Nowhere in the city treats fish with greater reverence than Kappo, a chicly spare Japanese restaurant with just six tables handily located three blocks from the Sorolla Museum.
Behind a 12-seat sushi bar, chef Mario Payan serenely prepares nigiri after nigiri as he monitors the pacing of each diner’s 18-to-20-course omakase meal. Payan has developed a cult-like following for the simplicity of the setting and the purity of the dishes. Lunch for two, about 180 euros. Reserve ahead.
Discover regional crafts: Even if you aren’t venturing to see more of Spain on this trip, you can find many of the country’s best regional products, including ceramics, textiles, sweets and olive oil, in a handful of charming shops clustered in the historic city centre, between the neighbourhoods of La Latina and Las Letras.
Two standouts are Real Fabrica, which has mohair blankets from the Rioja region (189 euros) and retro enamelware coffee sets (57.50 euros) from the Basque Country, and Cocol, which sells Majorcan alpargatas (Spanish for espadrilles) in a chic range of colours (from 47 euros) and ceramics inspired by the traditional crockery of Talavera de la Reina in Toledo province (platters from 69 euros).
Lounge in the lobby: A couple of years ago, the stylish Urso Hotel in Chueca went old school and added live piano music to its lobby cocktail bar – making it the perfect spot to graciously slide into evening mode while musing on the day’s highlights (cocktails about 10 euros).
From Urso, it’s a lovely stroll to dinner at La Vaqueria Montanesa, where restaurateur Carlos Zamora (who also owns La Carmencita and Celso y Manolo) gets the mood just right with a minimalist but cozy and candle-lit ambience and a range of simple yet superb dishes with top-quality produce.
Starters include crab and shrimp croquetas, a five-tomato salad, and three different artichoke preparations. Beef, lamb and fresh fish are brought daily from Cantabrian farms and ports. Dinner for two, 80 euros.
Find the secret bar: Spaniards love the idea of starting the late-night fun with “la primera copa”, a post-prandial first drink in a somewhat sophisticated spot before the night evolves (or devolves).
Head to the cozy, candle-lit Jack’s Library, a hidden bar slinging craft cocktails (from 12 euros) in Chueca, tucked behind what appears to be an expensive flower shop. Afterward, you can dance and perhaps spot minor celebrities at the current hot spot Lula on Gran Vía (entry 30 euros, including one drink).
If your idea of Saturday-night fun includes mirrorballs and hundreds of shirtless musclemen, then the gay club Kluster should be on your agenda.
Break some eggs: Hemingway once wrote, “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night”. Whether you did, or merely left it gasping for air, you’ll want a hearty breakfast.
The high-ceilinged room at The Omar, the restaurant inside the new Thompson hotel (the chain’s first property outside North America) has the air of a classic European coffeehouse with large round tables and large windows overlooking Plaza del Carmen near the Puerta del Sol.
The a la carte breakfast is great, but the 40-euro brunch is an absolute extravaganza with a table-covering deployment of fruit, yoghurt, cured meats and baked goods to which one can add eggs Benedict, the perfect tortilla Espanola and Moroccan flatbreads with cheese and baba ghanouj.
Go barefoot to church: The austere-on-the-outside Monastery of the Royal Barefoot Nuns (Monastery of Las Descalzas Reales, 6 euros), founded in 1559 by Joan of Austria – the daughter, sister and mother of Spanish and Portuguese kings – today sits surrounded by the shopping centres, taverns and offices of the Puerta del Sol.
Still home to a handful of Clarissine nuns, an order dedicated to sacrifice and spirituality, whose members live without heating or shoes, the monastery features some surprisingly beautiful worldly goods, including a suite of the Eucharist tapestries by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Visits are by guided tour only, so advance booking is essential.
If tickets are sold out or your Saturday-night behaviour makes you reluctant to enter a house of worship, head instead to the WOW Concept store, about a 10-minute walk away, for artfully curated international design and fashion.
Enjoy lunch with Picasso: This year commemorates the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death. Cultural organisations in the two countries in which the artist lived, Spain and France, have developed a programme of some 50 exhibitions and events to honour the occasion.
While the Reina Sofia’s major Picasso exhibition, Picasso 1906: The Great Transformation, won’t open until November, one of the artist’s most celebrated masterpieces, Guernica, is on permanent view at the Reina with a fascinating display of drawings, paintings and photographs that document its creation.
For year-round outdoor dining, El Jardin de Arzabal at the museum has a beautifully tented terrace filled with plants.
WHERE TO STAY
Rosewood Villa Magna, newly renovated, is among the city’s most luxurious addresses and near the major art museums and high-end shops of the upscale Barrio de Salamanca. Its three roaring fireplaces in the lobby and bar make it ideal for a cozy winter stay. Doubles from 850 euros.
CoolRooms Palacio de Atocha, in an 1850s palace in the historic city centre, has some of the most spacious rooms in Madrid, not to mention top-floor suites with large decks and hot tubs. Doubles from about 250 euros.
Bastardo, a hipster hostel in trendy Chueca, has a buzzing lobby and a variety of room options – from singles to shared rooms to family rooms that sleep six. Doubles from about 90 euros.
For short-term rentals, the pretty Almagro neighbourhood offers quiet streets lined with boutiques, galleries and small restaurants in walking distance of museums and attractions.
By Andrew Ferren © 2023 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.