Getting off the beaten Madrid tourist track not only exposes you to sights, sounds and tastes that are more authentically Spanish, it allows you to avoid the crushing crowds that mob the more famous destinations. Once you’ve taken in the top attractions, turn your attention to these hidden treasures to fully appreciate the city’s cultural riches and romantic charm.
To dine at Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, continuously operating since 1725, is to personally experience a Madrid of aristocratic Hapsburg traditions that remains immune to trends. The house specialties of roast suckling pig and roast baby lamb have been prepared the same way in the same ovens for almost 400 years. The restaurant was famously a favorite of Ernest Hemingway who sets the final scene of his seminal novel “The Sun Also Rises” in the dining room.
Of all Madrid’s tablao, the café/bar/theaters where Flamenco is performed, Corral de la Moreria is the most renowned. The troupe is the most accomplished, the dancers the most passionate and when the greatest flamenco stars visit the capital, it is in this rustic tavern they perform. A Madrid institution since 1956, it has attracted a who’s who of celebrity patrons through the years from Dali and Picasso to Kennedy and Kissinger to Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman. Guests may choose from a pricey prix fixe dinner of traditional Spanish cuisine for the 10 p.m. show or those minding their budgets can skip the meal, pay a cover and purchase a cocktail for the midnight show.
To tour the Museo Lazaro Galdiano is to enter into the private world of one of Spain’s greatest art collectors and view his priceless collection as he displayed it in his own magnificent, turn-of-the-20th-century mansion. Explore almost 40, meticulously restored rooms filled with paintings, sculpture, decorative objects, jewelry and armor spanning two millennia including outstanding works by Goya, Bosch and Gainsborough. When the Prado and the Reina Sofia are mobbed you can experience the sumptuous galleries and surrounding gardens of this equally impressive museum in relative peace and solitude.
Known as “Goya’s Sistine Chapel,” Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida features elaborate frescoes of the miracles of St. Anthony that Francisco Goya painted on the ceiling dome and cupolas of this hermitage at the end of the 18th century. Decried as sacrilegious at its unveiling for the inclusion of contemporaneous depictions of orphans, beggars, prostitutes and other urban poor, it attracted the attention of the king himself who defused the religious controversy by giving the work his stamp of approval after viewing it personally. It took Goya four months on his back to complete the ceiling and he now lies under it in a tomb that serves as his final resting place.
One of the richest convents in the world, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales or Monastery of the Barefoot Royals, contains a treasure trove of religious masterpieces within its cloistered walls. Since the 16th century, either by calling or forced by circumstances, some of Europe’s wealthiest women came to this Franciscan convent to become nuns. They brought with them dowries containing everything from Titian paintings to Rubens tapestries to jewel encrusted reliquaries that serve as devotional objects as well as masterpieces of art the nuns allow the public to appreciate.
By order of the king, the Real Fabrica de Tapices opened in 1721 to create rugs and tapestries for the palaces of the Spanish Royals as well as for monarchs across the continent. The factory has continued to operate since that time hand looming textiles of the finest quality based on designs commissioned from the greatest artists in the world. Visitors tour the factory and learn its history as well as watch workers create individual pieces on centuries old looms. Purchasing a rug or tapestry makes a memorable gift or souvenir.
One of Madrid’s least know but most unique attractions, the Public Art Museum displays a collection of 17 abstract sculptures by leading Spanish contemporary artists in an open air forum. Built in the shadow of a landmark bridge, the sculptures span a variety of contemporary trends from a vanguard Miro to a Sempre mobile and rather than being all grouped together, they are part of a promenade that includes a small lake and garden. Best of all, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day.
Relax like a noble at El Capricho de Alameda de Osuna, a peaceful and verdant fantasy that is acclaimed as the most exquisite park in all Madrid. Created at the end of the 18th century, it was designed by Marie Antoinette’s personal gardener as the private playground for an eccentric duchess to entertain her guests. Beautifully restored in recent decades and now open to the public on weekends; stroll a magnificent landscape featuring lush lawns, manicured hedgerows, mature trees and a collection of exotic plants and flowers, all surrounding canals and a lake.
With so many sites to see it’s easy to stress over what to include and what to leave out. Making time for these highlights means no disappointments for you in Madrid.