Enjoy the Finer Things in an Increasingly Cosmopolitan Madrid
Look out, Barcelona—Madrid is more exciting than ever.
It’s Spain’s capital and largest city, a robust metropolis with loads of historical significance, rich culture, and tapas-fueled cuisine. And yet for years Madrid has languished in the shadow of beachier, breezier Barcelona when it comes to tourism, welcoming fewer international hotel guests as visitors have chosen to descend upon its coastal cousin instead. But if attracting tourists is a competition, well, it ain’t over yet; Madrid has undergone a recent cosmopolitan glow-up that means Barcelona might want to sleep with one eye open.
Some of the exciting changes in Madrid come thanks to investments that give the city room to evolve. Last year, Madrid’s mayor unveiled a plan to make Madrid a better city for residents and workers by 2030, kickstarting the initiative with a nearly €4 billion investment into infrastructure and green works. And Euromonitor International’s Top 100 City Destinations Index 2022, which ranks the world’s top performers in economic and business activity—including tourism—placed Madrid at number four (if you’re counting, Barcelona was ninth).
To be clear, no one’s putting a nail in Barcelona’s proverbial coffin. The city is still a wildly popular destination that houses many of the country’s finest cultural institutions, some of Europe’s best beaches, and excellent restaurants and nightlife. So, the story isn’t that Barcelona is on the decline—It’s that Madrid is on the rise.
One of the most obvious and impactful examples of Madrid’s recent boost is the spate of new luxury hotels popping up all over the city. That includes the brand-new Thompson Madrid, plus the recently opened Edition and Four Seasons, which are neighbors in the Salamanca neighborhood’s stylish Golden Mile district. There’s also UMusic Hotel Madrid, which opened in November and shares a building with the newly renovated and reopened Albéniz Theater. It gets a nod from Cait English, the Madrid-based city manager for Devour Tours, which operates culinary tours in 15 cities across six countries. “You can’t miss the facade of the building, with its wooden statues of Spanish characters that haven’t been up for public view since the early 1980s,” she says.
And, of course, with new hotels come new restaurants, bars, and retail shops, including Galería Canalejas, which sits beside the Four Seasons. The luxury destination features 40 boutiques and a food hall housing 13 restaurants, including a few run by Michelin-starred chefs. New hotels also bring investment into surrounding parks and plazas, gathering places that have long been a fixture in Madrid.
“Public spaces all over the city have been completely refurbished to highlight and showcase the incredible historical and cultural heritage of Madrid as the Spanish capital,” says Carlos Erburu Zazpe, the general manager of Thompson Madrid. Madrid’s famous Plaza de España reopened late last year following a multi-year, $85 million renovation that brought in more than 1,200 trees, installed better lighting, and improved walkability by moving car traffic underground via a tunnel. The beloved Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid is undergoing a similar renovation. Once reopened, the site known for its clocktower and iconic statues will feature a new glass-walled train station and better pedestrian access.
The list of public spaces undergoing renovations also includes the plaza located just outside the front doors of the Thompson Madrid, which is getting an update and will be finished next year. Zazpe says it will be lusher, with more trees and specially-designed green areas. “It will be one of the very first sustainable square projects in Madrid, optimizing urban connectivity,” he explains. “Over the last couple of years, Madrid has been developing several projects in the city with sustainability in mind.”
Madrid’s stately, updated plazas are worth the visit, but the city’s cultural draws extend to its famous museums, including the Prado and Reina Sofia. Last year it even welcomed a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, when the Landscape of Light was awarded the designation. This stretch of the city includes the tree-lined Paseo del Prado avenue and encompasses dozens of historic buildings, monuments, and fountains, plus popular El Retiro Park and the impossibly lush Royal Botanical Gardens.
When touring the city takes a toll, you have countless options for food and drinks. But while Madrid is rightfully known for its array of tapas bars, it’s also become the place to go for high-end dining.
“Madrid has increased its gastronomic offerings by opening unique new restaurants and bars, making the city now a true culinary destination,” says Zazpe. The city currently boasts 30 Michelin stars awarded to 22 restaurants, so there’s always an exceptional meal within reach. But English says that she’s most excited about the fact that many high-end tasting menus these days are reasonably accessible. Once the exclusive domain of extravagant restaurants costing hundreds of dollars per person, Madrid’s tasting menus have become more egalitarian in recent years, allowing a more varied clientele to experience the food. English names Étimo as a personal favorite, where diners can score a 10-course meal for around €90.
And naturally, when you need a good drink to wash down those star-studded eats, the city is happy to oblige. “Madrid is starting to catch up to Barcelona’s very cool nightlife cocktail scene,” says English. She notes that Madrid’s traditionally minimalist drink preferences are making way for some more complex options, with most neighborhoods featuring at least one bar specializing in craft cocktails. To experience this relatively new shift, make a stop at Salmon Guru to check out one of the best bars in the world. English also recommends Savas in the Lavapiés neighborhood, as well as Vendittas in Las Letras, where a unique tapa is served with each drink.
These cocktail-focused bars provide a fun contrast to Madrid’s traditional bar scene, where some establishments have been slinging beer, wine, and housemade vermouth for more than a century. But even this scene has gotten an update, as stylish new vermouth bars and restaurants like Gran Clavel are putting a modern spin on the customary practice of enjoying a midday aperitif.
It’s emblematic of the city’s growth that new bars, restaurants, and hotels, as well as renovated public spaces, aren’t erasing Madrid’s historic past. Rather, they are building on long-standing traditions to add even more color to the vibrant city.
Kevin Gray is a contributor for Thrillist.