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Madrid Neighborhoods

Madrid is made up of a patchwork of barrios each with their own distinct flavor. Madrileños tend to stick to their own barrio, as each has lots in the way of dining, shopping and nightlife. This gives Madrid a small-town feel despite its roughly three million people. Strolling through your barrio, you bump into friends and neighbors, and local shopkeepers and waiters will get to know you. Try to find the barrio that most suits your taste and settle down for a while. Find a favorite café or bar and go back regularly. After showing up for the second or third time you’ll be promoted out of the category of outsider and quickly get to know people. Below are the six barrios offering the most to visitors, all clustered in central Madrid. Barrios have vague boundaries. The designations below reflect local consensus, not the technical truth known only to civic planners.

Malasaña

The hippest barrio for Madrid nightlife is just south and west of Glorieta de Bilbao (Metro: Bilbao) in a network of narrow lanes flanked by attractive 19th-century brick buildings with ironwork balconies. Less touristy than Sol, less rundown than Lavapiés, Malasaña rocks until 3AM on weekends and not much earlier on weekdays. Even if you don’t want to party hard, this is the place to come for a variety of dining options centered on Calle de Manuela Malasaña, offering everything from traditional tapas to vegan to Ethiopian. A myriad of bars and little discos offer after-dinner fun, and the streets are generally safe, with few pickpockets or rowdy types. Plaza Dos de Mayo gets a bit drunk and disorderly on weekend nights, but a heavy police presence keeps real troublemakers away. In the daytime there are lots of funky little shops and cafes to keep you occupied.

Chueca

Once a rather run-down area of town, gentrification has changed the entire character of this barrio, thanks to the influx of young gay professionals. Chueca is now one of the top spots in Madrid for nightlife, dining and shopping. While rainbow flags adorn many balconies and there are dozens of shops catering to the gay population, don't be fooled into thinking it's a gay-only barrio. The innumerable lounge bars, multiethnic restaurants and odd little shops welcome everybody. The main avenue entering it is Calle de Hortaleza, starting at Metro stop Alonso Martínez. From there head into the little lanes to the east. Those centered around Plaza de Chueca (Metro: Chueca) are where most of the action is.

Lavapiés

The barrio centered around Plaza de Lavapiés (Metro: Lavapiés) offers Madrid’s most multiethnic ambiance, with about half of the population being immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa. The rest are working class Spaniards, pensioners and lefty artists. It’s a bit rundown and scrappy, but safe compared to most European and all American cities. The streets around the plaza, especially those running uphill directly to the north of it, are the scene of some of the most eclectic experiences Madrid has to offer—bars dating from La Movida, African and Indian restaurants, and an assortment of little boutiques selling spices and imported clothing. There’s even an Egyptian hookah bar. Lavapiés and Malasaña are the best places for una juerga (a pub crawl), and the fun lasts until dawn. Ignore the many drug dealers. Despite what many young madrileños seem to think, buying drugs is actually illegal in Spain.

Puerta del Sol

Madrid’s tourist barrio is centered around Puerta del Sol (Metro: Sol). This is the literal center of the city, with a “kilometer 0” sign marking the beginning of several major roads that radiate out like spokes on a wheel. Sol offers a huge range of hotels, restaurants and bars right in the historic core of Madrid. Major clubs like Kapital offer nightlife to the under-30 crowd, and a seemingly infinite number of bars give a chance for the not-so-older folks to unwind. A host of restaurants offer traditional cuisine from Spain’s many regions, and there are some international selections such as Italian and Indian, too. It’s annoyingly crowded both day and night, and in the summer it can be sweltering because the wider avenues don’t provide enough shade. Beware of pickpockets here; they are highly skilled and can spot an unobservant visitor from a mile away.

Barrio de los Austrias

Welcome to Madrid’s historic core. Between the Royal Palace and Metro La Latina you’ll find a slew of old-fashioned bars and restaurants, Renaissance religious buildings, stately homes and an up-and-coming nightlife. It’s also home to the famous El Rastro market. The decayed nostalgia of El Rastro’s antique stalls captures the feel of this barrio perfectly. Come here for a glimpse of traditional Madrid, where waiters in white aprons service up tiny cañas (small glasses of beer) along with savory tapas (snacks) in 19th-century bars decorated with elegantly painted tiles.

Barrio de Salamanca

Madrid’s most exclusive barrio is home to classy boutiques, high-end restaurants and five-star hotels. This is the place to come for shopping, especially if you’re after jewelry, designer clothing and accessories. There are also many fine art galleries and shops selling expensive antiques. There’s an air of snobbery here, though, that sours it somewhat in comparison to tolerant Chueca and party-hard Lavapiés. It’s definitely a place to flash your money, and if you don’t have much, some people will make sure you know that they’ve noticed.

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