Imagine a bright, colorful neighborhood with row after row of cute boutiques, excellent restaurants, and a vibrant, quirky bar scene. Sounds pretty happy, right? Now imagine that you're in the heart of Madrid surrounded by young, hip, beautiful Spaniards. You're in Popupla intern Alison Weissbrot's happy place — the funky local districts of Malasaña, Chueca, and Tribunal.
MADRID – Madrid bears the weight of history on its shoulders. It has been at the heart of a glamorous world empire, a dreary fascist stronghold, and everything in between. Today, it's the glue that holds Spain together. The re-gentrified, trendy neighborhoods that have blossomed throughout the city reflect a vibrant creative awakening that's taken hold in recent decades.
If you wander away from the central tourist spots of Plaza del Sol and the Royal Palace to venture across Gran Vía, and you will find yourself in a trifecta of small, colorful shopping districts — Malasaña, Tribunal, and Chueca. For four months as a student studying Spanish, I lived and loved its funky local hangouts in crumbling pastel buildings splashed with vibrant graffiti art. The vibe? Just plain happy. The colors are bright, the locals are cool as can be, and there's an air of easy contentment all around. It beckons around every plaza corner. It lingers between steaming cups of café con leche. It charms the windows of bars and boutiques. Welcome to my happy place. Let me show you around.
MORNING STROLL IN MALASAÑA
Spaniards don't really do breakfast the American way. For them, a morning meal consists of stopping for a quick café con leche and a light croissant. But Carmencita (Calle San Vincente Ferrer, 51; +34-915-23-8073), a tiny hole-in-the-wall nestled between the trendy bars of Malasaña, serves a killer weekend brunch. The menu is small but covers all the brunch necessities: eggs, pancakes, booze. Fuel up with a café con leche and eggs benedict with smoked salmon and avocado. Indulge in a giant bloody Maria if you're feeling particularly lax.
After you're sufficiently stuffed, begin your tour on a cultural note — I promise, a day of endless shopping and eating will soon unfold — at Centro Cultural Conde Duque (Calle Conde Duque, 11; +34-91-722-0573). What was once the old military barracks of the Royal Guard Corps is now a thriving arts and cultural center equipped with a concert hall, city archive, and public library. Get your fix of contemporary Spanish art at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid, which houses a collection of realist paintings and graphic art.
Get lost in a maze of cobblestone streets. You're in the heart of Spanish counterculture, surrounded on all sides by cafes and thrift shops the colors of a pastel rainbow. Soak in the sun — it's sure to be a perfect blue sky overhead — in one of the many plazas you'll find behind the bends of charming alleyways. Enjoy the company of hip, young, and beautiful locals also partaking in a lazy morning stroll.
Stop in J &J Books and Coffee (Calle Espiritu Santos, 47; +34-91-521-8576), a secondhand English bookshop with friendly expat owners and a fully stacked bar. The shop holds weekly intercambios (translation: exchanges), a Spanish tradition where locals and foreigners meet up for a chat. It's an awesome way to indulge in cultural immersion. This may be an excellent opportunity to meet a cute local who can help you become fluent in Spanish (among other things). When you're all talked out, pick up a dusty copy of Hemingway and sip on a mid-morning glass of sangria. What the hell, Ernest did it all the time, and he wasn't even on vacation.
Calle Fuencarral is one of Madrid's best shopping streets if you're looking to boutique-hop on (somewhat of) a budget. Mercado de Fuencarral (Calle Fuencarral, 45; +34-91-521-4152) is an offbeat shopping mall in the main plaza, filled with vintage stores selling everything from quirky jewelry to edgy leather goods and sweet kicks. My favorite boutique, Herself (Calle Fuencarral 75; +34-915-235-237), sells the cutest clothes on the block and won't max out your credit card.
VINTAGE FINDS IN TRIBUNAL
You've shopped your way up Calle Fuencarral and spilled into the neighboring district of Tribunal. Don't worry, this one is also known for great shopping. Calle Velarde, a tiny alleyway that you would breeze right by if you didn't have a seasoned local to warn you (you're welcome), is a mecca of all things vintage. Poke your head in and out of stores brimming with Levi's cut-offs, blasting '90s hip-hop and funk. Magpie (Calle Velarde 3; +34-914-48-3104) is the spot for vintage finds that will help you blend right in with this neighborhood.
Had enough shopping? Recharge with a quick break in Plaza dos de Mayos, Tribunal's main square named after Madrid's uprising against French occupants in 1880. Watch lovers dine at cafes as children monkey around on the small playground in the center. Spaniards eat a late lunch because of the tradition of afternoon siesta (which is, in fact, still a real thing). Stop at one of the cafes bordering the square for a quick tapa if you're getting hungry.
GAY TIMES IN VIVACIOUS CHUECA
Chueca, Madrid's famous gayborhood, is only a few blocks away. Browse some of the bright shops (one of them has tiny Chihuahuas that adorably paw at you through the window) as you cross the main Plaza de Chueca. The storefronts aren't the only vibrant parts of this hood — rainbow flags proudly establish the neighborhoods gay-centric vibe, and the shops and bars reflect the trendy and chic taste of its inhabitants.
High-end market Mercado San Antón (Calle de Augusto Figueroa, 24; +34-913-30-0730) is the neighborhood gem and a food lover's heaven. Eat your way around the world at the tapas stations on the second floor or have a sit-down meal at the meat-centric rooftop restaurant Cocina de San Antón, which pays homage to Madrid's undying love of jámon. When you're full of pinxtos, post up with a pitcher of sangria at the swanky rooftop bar and watch the lazy afternoon unfold below you.
If tapas and wine leave your sweet tooth wanting more (there's always room for dessert, right?), stop by Labonata (Plaza de Chueca, 8; +34-915-237-029) for a giant cone of helado or a creamy batido (milkshake). Rainbow colored ice-pops and desserts in the display case fit right in with Chueca's flamboyant charm.
Chueca maintains the endearing vibe that already had you swooning in Malasaña and Tribunal. Kill the rest of the afternoon wandering around in and out of boutiques, up and down cobblestone streets, and romancing in plazas that dot the streets. You know the drill.
BAR HOP 'TIL YOU DROP
Malasaña, Tribunal, and Chueca by night are bar-hopping territory for a laid-back crowd of grungily fashionable Madrileños. As a study abroad student, I found my way into a great many tacky discotecas and international clubs around the city, so I can say with confidence (beacuse I learned the hard way) that here lies Madrid's true local color. If you want to actually have conversation with a local, rather than jump up and down to flashing lights and thumping techno (hey, no judgment), this is your spot. The bars are copious and cute, and there's one to match each quaint cafe that lines the neighborhood blocks. Stroll in with nary a plan or a care in the world, and find yourself drinking and dancing until sunrise. And don't say I didn't warn you: If you're not still partying when the sun comes up, you're not doing it the Madrid way.
Start the night with tapas and sangria at Lateral (Calle Fuencarral, 43; +34-91-531-68-77), the city's best fusion-tapas joint. (You could always find me here.) Tapas are loosely defined as both traditional plates, like patatas bravas and jamón ibérico, and more innovative ones, like pesto-burratta pizza and tuna tataki.
After dinner, stroll down Calle Fuencarral to Plaza de San Idelfonso, where Spaniards will be gathering for a traditional night of botellón, the great Spanish tradition of drinking in the streets. Pick up a bottle of wine and some plastic cups, park yourself on a bench, and you'll look like a local.
When the wine runs out, head to Bar Sidi (Calle de Colón, 15; +34-915-218-403), an unassuming, graffiti-painted storefront. A knock on the door reveals a rowdy dive bar — a true local spot — where the bartender is the bouncer and your ID alone won't get you in. You have to look like a native.
From here, take the night into your own hands. Bar hop your way down the streets, or continue to botellón outside — on a warm night, the streets themselves become a party of their own. Just a tip: If you walk into a bar and the floors are dirty, it's a good sign. When Spaniards are vibing on the place's food and drink, they'll throw their napkins on the floor, and the bartenders leave them there to show off how popular the spot has been that night.
You can't call it a night without live music and dancing at BarCo (Calle Barco, 34; +34-915-31-77-54), a dark and steamy spot where you can sway your hips to live Spanish music all night long. And prepare to do just that — Spaniards party until the crack of dawn.
See all the locations in this story. (Google maps)