Not to deny Barcelona’s many cosmopolitan charms (or pounce on its recent political turmoil), but I’ve always found Madrid to be the more alluring Spanish city. With its beaches, its sinuous Gaudí buildings, its cafés tucked away in the Gothic Quarter’s cobblestoned labyrinth, Barcelona seems too easy to fawn over—just note the roaming packs of visitors on Las Ramblas. On the other hand, Madrid, while hardly immune to tourism, somehow feels populated less by foreigners and more by Madrileños. These lucky souls live their everyday lives in a city filled monumental architecture, casually superb restaurants and a veritable trove of art. My partner and I recently spent a week moving among them.

By Peter Frank
National Palace of Madrid
Photo by Shutterstock

What I Loved

  • The extensive Reina Sofia Museum, especially Picasso’s epically emotional Guernica, a visual polemic against war and the wrenching forces of modernity.
  • The Royal Armory at the Palacio Nacional. The intricate armor worn by emperors like Charles V and Philip II reveal how petite those men actually were. Were the palace’s absurdly grandiose main rooms, dripping in frescoes, ornate plaster carvings and Baroque furniture, a way of compensating?
  • Wandering the capital’s grand avenues and boulevards. There’s a fountain or monument around every corner, and the tiny side streets lead you to infinitely browsable neighborhoods like posh Salamanca, youthful Malasaña, gay-friendly Chueca, or hipster La Latina. 
Jamón ibérico
Photo by Evan Bench via Wikicommons

What I Ate

Ham, ham, lots of ham. Bellota is the finest variety of jamón ibérico, made from free-roaming, acorn-fed piggies. Glistening, luscious, well marbled, slightly sweet, it’s completely addictive—and we ordered it every time we saw it on a menu. But we learned quickly to ask for a tapa-sized portion: A full ración had enough sliced ham to choke a horse...not to say we left any behind.


Bibo Restaurant
Photo by Bibo Madrid

Where I Ate

The best jamón was at a venerable tapas bar in Malasaña called Bodega La Ardosa—make sure to also try the Cabrales-stuffed croquetas and a bowl of salmorejo, a thicker version of gazpacho. In La Latina, Juana La Loca has modern tapas like raw sea bass with shaved truffles, but also traditional options, like their exemplary egg-and-potato tortilla. Bibo was a fun, brightly lit “scene” restaurant with a carnivalesque theme—think dishes that arrive steaming with dry ice or smoke. Fismuler is a lower-key but still lively spot with a menu that seizes the season with a Nordic touch: grilled corvina with charred endives, roasted duck in a puree of sweet, smoky corn.  

The staircase at Palacio del Retiro
Photo by Peter Frank

Where I Stayed

A designated national landmark, the Palacio del Retiro is an elaborate mansion from the early 20th century that’s been turned into a contemporary luxury hotel. I loved how the modern furniture ceded center stage to the well-preserved and respected architectural elements of the original building: swirled plaster moldings, intricately carved wooden doors, a show-stopping wrought-iron central staircase. Our room overlooked the leafy grounds of the vast Retiro Park—a perfect, soothing respite from the busy city.