Madrid can be divided into two main zones of real interest to visitors: the old traditional Center, with the Puerta del Sol and Gran Vía at its heart and surrounding 17th-century Austrias, and Castizo (traditional) Argüelles, Chueca, Malasaña, Chamberí, and Lavapiés districts; and the newer Ensanche (extension) refers to all parts of Madrid built outside of the old city walls from the 18th century onward. This area includes the wide cosmopolitan Castellana Avenue, with its business offices and classy hotels; the grid-planned, once mansion-filled Salamanca barrio, home of some of Madrid's best shops and restaurants; and northern Chamartín district, with its easier-going residential atmosphere.
The Austrias & Plaza Mayor -- The Austrias quarter, with its alleys and tiny plazas, is named after the 17th-century kings of Spain, and contains the city's most evocative churches. In 1617, the colonnaded Plaza Mayor became the area's hub; today, with its mix of Habsburg, French, and Georgian architecture, it is one of the key nighttime centers of tourist activity. It's filled with cafes, bars, and shops selling everything from turn-of-the-20th-century souvenir hats to stamps and rare coins over the weekend. Concerts, shows, and exhibitions are often held here; and at Navidad, it's a child's delight with a proliferation of Christmas trees and stalls selling gifts. The lavish Reyes (or Three Kings) processions originate from here on January 6 amid much excitement.
The square is bounded by Calle Mayor, Cava de San Miguel, and Calle de la Cruz. Westward from the Plaza, the narrow Arco de Cuchilleros is filled with long-established eating spots and tabernas; cavelike locales, called mesones -- hewn into the base of Cava de San Miguel's old five-story buildings at the northern end of the plaza -- provide wine, tapas, and musical entertainment. Touristy, but great fun. In a narrow atmospheric street called the Cava Baja, just before you reach the Plaza de la Cebada, you'll find the largest concentration of trendy wine bars, homey tabernas, and posada- (inn) style restaurants in all Madrid.
The nearby Plaza de la Paja, close to the city's two oldest churches, was actually the heart of the city and its main marketplace during the medieval period. On the western edge of this area is the diminutive Muslim Madrid zone, which is centered on Las Vistillas, just below the Almudena cathedral and Royal Palace -- the zone enjoys views toward the distant Guadarramas. Below it to the west is the Campo del Moro park; the Manzanares River, with its bordering walkways; and the great green expanse of the Casa de Campo.
Puerta del Sol -- Just east of the Plaza Mayor, the semicircular "Gateway to the Sun" is the starting point for all road distances within Spain. Its attractions are more peripheral, ranging from the shops and department stores of northerly traffic-free Preciados to the countless arrays of bars and nightspots lining the southerly, narrow alleyed district of Huertas.
Dominated by the 18th-century Casa de Correos (seat of the regional government), whose New Year's clock chimes are traditionally witnessed by exhilarated crowds, all eating their 12 grapes in time with the chimes, the crescent-shaped square is perennially lively, and its symbolic statue of the Bear and the Madroño Tree is a favorite rendezvous spot. It's also a prime hunting ground for pickpockets and purse snatchers, so take care.
Gran Vía/Plaza de España -- Gran Vía is the city's main street, lined with cafes, restaurants, cinemas, department stores, and the headquarters of banks and corporations. As you walk along, note the changing styles of buildings on either side: You're actually time-traveling through the 4 decades it took to construct the avenue between the early and mid-1900s. Gran Vía cuts a bow-shaped east-west swathe across the center, between the neoclassical Metrópolis building near the Banco de España and the Plaza de España, where statues of Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, are set in a park surrounded by olive trees and beside a fountain overlooked by the stark 1950s Torre España and Edificio Europa buildings.
In April 2010, the avenue celebrated the first centenary since its initial surfacing began. Purple carpets covered most of its surface, cars and buses were diverted, and inhabitants and visitors alike enjoyed the rare luxury of strolling along its temporarily peaceful and traffic-free length.
Argüelles/Moncloa -- Just to the northeast of Plaza España is Argüelles, a compact barrio of narrow crisscrossing lanes, sandwiched between promenade-like Pintor Rosales (which runs along the edge of Parque del Oeste) and the shop-filled Calle Princesa leading up to Moncloa. The latter is home to the kitsch '50s Ministerio del Aire building and, slightly to the north, a huge university campus area bounded by the green recreational zones of Puerta de Hierro to the north and Cea Bermúdez and Bravo Murillo avenues to the east. Students haunt its cafes, tascas, and more recent wine bars.
Castizo (Traditional) Madrid
Chueca -- This atmospheric area north of the Gran Vía includes the narrow streets of Hortaleza, Infantas, Barquillo, and San Lucas. Though appealing to all tastes and persuasions with a concentration of richly varied bars and restaurants of all price ranges and nationalities, it's also famed as the center of Madrid's gay scene. At night the entire area is very lively, especially in the tiny main square which is packed with cafe tables and chairs in summer.
Malasaña -- Centered on the famed Plaza Dos de Mayo, this traditional barrio is named after a teenage seamstress -- Manuela Malasaña -- who became an unwitting martyr for the Spanish cause during the Peninsula War, when the scissors she was carrying for her work were interpreted as a lethal weapon by the occupying French forces and she was summarily tried and executed. The neighborhood's grid system of crisscross narrow lanes is still bordered by traditional but now largely renovated 19th-century buildings and, at night, its many music bars are patronized by hard-rock and grunge fans.
Chamberí -- Though built in the late 19th century outside the old city walls, this originally working-class zone is more low-key and upmarket than its southerly counterparts Malasaña and Chueca. The focal point of Chamberí is the circular Plaza Olavide. Classy, elegant, and traditional, Chamberí is set among wide avenues with historic mansions -- many of which now house foreign embassies. The barrio offers an attractive selection of restaurants, bookshops, art galleries, and museums, such as the charming Sorolla (where the famed Valenciano painter lived and worked for many decades).
Lavapiés -- In decay until a few decades back, this former medieval working-class quarter south of the Plaza Mayor has seen many of its lanes turned into pedestrian zones with houses tastefully converted into studio flats. The area is filled with a new polyglot ambience, thanks to the recent immigrant influx from North Africa and the Middle East. The overall blend of the international and earthy bohemian has transformed the area into one of the most evocative and stimulating in Madrid.
Castellana -- Madrid's longest and most elegant avenue runs south from the Plaza Castilla to Colon (Columbus) Square, and its central pedestrian lanes are summertime open-air terraces filled with animated crowds. En route, it passes the high-rise AZCA business center, huge Santiago Bernabeu fútbol (soccer) stadium, and a choice of top hotels, expensive shops, apartment buildings, luxury hotels, and foreign embassies.
Next comes the shorter and more intimate Recoletos, linking Colon with the emblematic Cibeles fountain whose ever-busy roundabout is overlooked by the main post office (known as "the cathedral of post offices") and the 19th-century French- and Viennese-styled Banco de España. Its central median is often reserved for antique-book fairs, and its most famous buildings include the National Library and Gran Café de Gijón.
The elegant final stretch is the Paseo del Prado, which leads down from Cibeles to Atocha railway station. Tree-shaded and maturely beautiful, it's home to such incomparable city gems as the Neptune statue, Bolsa (Stock Exchange), Ritz hotel, Museo Nacional del Prado, and Botanical Gardens. To the east of the garden lies Parque del Retiro, a magnificent park once reserved for royalty, with rose gardens, wide walkways, terrace cafes, fountains, statues (including the only one in the world dedicated to the devil), musicians and entertainers, a rowing lake (the Estanque), and Madrid's finest homage to the Industrial Revolution: the iron-, tile-, and glass-built Casa de Cristal (Crystal Palace), inspired by its 19th-century London namesake.
Salamanca -- Ever since the city walls came tumbling down in the 1860s, this elegant, stylish, and expensive neighborhood east of the center has been one of the most fashionable areas to live in Madrid. Some of the city's most traditional covered markets are tucked away here. Calle Serrano marks the western border of this neighborhood and is lined with international shops, stores, and boutiques. The U.S. Embassy is located halfway up the avenue, close to the Lazaro Galdiano Museum.
Chamartín -- The home of Madrid's main northerly railway station is also one of the city's most trendy but easy-going corners, with wide avenues, elegant boutique markets, and some charming hotels hidden behind flower-filled gardens. One of the city's largest contingents of long-term expatriates lives in this area, and it has a particularly attractive selection of international eating spots.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.