For better or worse, Madrid has lagged other world capitals in acquiring an international flavor. But in the last few years, this stately city has caught up fast, thanks to the steadfast transformation of a once-seedy downtown area into a shopping, dining and nightlife district.
Downtown Madrid's revival started in the '90s, when entrepreneurial gay couples turned the dilapidated Chueca neighborhood into a hip nighttime hangout. Eventually Chueca went mainstream, and it continues to draw restaurants, art galleries, stylish hotels and boutiques.
It also expanded to the north, east and west, encompassing the neighborhoods of Malasana and Justicia (the whole district loosely falls within the rectangle formed by the Gran Via, Paseo de Recoletos, Calle de San Bernardo and Calle Sagasta).
After visiting the Spanish capital's most emblematic sights, like the Museo del Prado or the Plaza Mayor, and savoring tapas and pints at old school joints such as Los Gatos (Calle de Jesús 2; +34/914-293-067), check out the "new" Madrid.
Here are some recommendations:
Home Burger Bar.
opened last year in Malasana, it fostered a trend new to Spain: gourmet organic burgers. There's the "Cabrita," with goat cheese, cranberry sauce and mixed greens, or the "Caprichosa," with onion marmalade and brie cheese. It's good stuff, and lunch for two is about $30.
Calle Espiritu Santo 12. +34/915-229-728.
On a busy and quaint MalasanÞa street, Nina has become the go-to place for expats, tourists, and anyone looking for a well-rounded international menu in a stylish atmosphere (exposed brick, plush bench seats, bold flower arrangements). The sirloin steak is flawless, and the chicken paillard with foie gras and risotto is a standout. Dinner for two will be about $100.
Calle Manuela Malasana 10; +34/915-910-046.
No jet-setter will feel homesick at this gourmet store and restaurant, with white-on-white minimalist décor and a menu of global hits like goat cheese salad with spinach and caramelized onions, steak tartare -- and, for brunch, an assortment of croissants and muffins. Lunch for two runs about $70.
Calle Piamonte 10. +34/915-228-217.
Ático de las Letras.
Enjoy the views of downtown Madrid
, with wood-covered walls, and transparent polycarbonate stools surrounding tall steel tables. It's open for cocktails and "Pinchos" (slices of bread topped with cheese and/or seafood or beef) from 8.30 p.m. until 3 a.m.
Gran Via 11. +34/915-237-980.
-- on a tiny square called Carlos Cambronero -- is a far cry from the joints that once populated this formerly shabby area. A mix of young neighborhood couples and hipsters flock here for beer, wine and cocktails, or to nibble on
, salads, and delicious thin-crust pizzas. The furniture inside -- a mismatch of wooden chairs, banquettes and tables -- is all for sale.
Plaza Carlos Cambronero 4. +34/915-210-000.
Small boutiques like this one, with handpicked items by up-and-coming designers are slowly colonizing the streets around the Palacio de Justicia. In this cozy shop you'll find cotton camisoles, ethereal dresses, wispy-thin gold necklaces and hand-made leather sandals.
Barquillo 31. +34/913-081-280.
U by Adolfo Dominguez.
The noted Spanish designer
launched a "younger" line for men and women, breaking away from his famously conservative style. Go for the colorful jackets, knitwear, and t-shirts.
Fuencarral 5. +34/915-233-938.
This store, brimming with frocks from trendy European and American brands, is a required stop for any self-respecting fashion victim. Look for jackets and sweaters by Pringle 1815, Pringle's more casual -- and slightly more affordable -- offshoot, as well as cotton dresses labeled Velvet by Graham & Spencer, and, of course, Marc Jacobs accessories.
Conde Xiquena 17. +34/917-022-529.
from the chic and affordable Room Mate chain has a futuristic look. Although each room is different, expect oversized headboards with abstract designs in neon green, huge light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, or round-edged orange bench sofas. If it weren't for the views of the old buildings of Chueca, you might fancy yourself in an episode of the Jetsons. Standard rooms start at $150 a night.
Plaza Vázquez de Mella, 12 +34/917-011-173.
Hotel De Las Letras.
Housed in a 1912 building,
seamlessly blends modern décor with classic architecture. The sunny rooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows, are painted in rich burgundy, blue, or orange hues. Quotes from famous writers are scribbled all over the walls --
, of course. Amenities include flat-screen TVs, wireless Internet and DVD players. Standard rooms run from $185 on up.
Gran Via 11. +34/915-237-980.
Paola Singer is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday and Hemispheres magazine.