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Discovering why Madrid matches Barcelona as a city-break destination

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There’s grandeur at every turn in Madrid. From my hotel’s rooftop, the neoclassical facade of Teatro Real, considered one of Europe’s finest opera houses, is straight ahead. And just behind it’s the Royal Palace, the flowery 3,400-room jewel of the Bourbon dynasty.

To the west is Plaza Mayor. The square has a macabre past, having hosted bloody bullfights and the general public executions of the Spanish Inquisition, but its architecture is magnificent – Herrerian-style buildings adorned with vivid frescoes. Here lies the world’s oldest restaurant, Botin, which dates back to 1725 and is where painter Francisco Goya once worked as a dish washer.

This stately city, the wealthiest of all in Spain and residential to its Royal Family and central government, plays second fiddle to Barcelona because the country’s hottest city break destination. Yet there’s a cool, contemporary side to the gorgeous wide boulevards, and visitors are taking notice again. A cluster of recent hotels geared towards modern holidaymakers have popped up, reminiscent of The Madrid Edition and Rosewood Villa Magna.

Ailbhe MacMahon notes that there is ‘grandeur at every turn’ in Madrid. The frilly Royal Palace (above), is considered one of the buildings that prompts the comment. It lies near her hotel, the new-on-the-scene Ocean Drive Madrid

The neoclassical Teatro Real, one of Europe’s finest opera houses (above), is a stone's throw from Ocean Drive Madrid

The neoclassical Teatro Real, considered one of Europe’s finest opera houses (above), is a stone’s throw from Ocean Drive Madrid

The rooftop that I’m standing on, complete with a pool and cocktail bar, crowns one other of town’s newest haunts – Ocean Drive Madrid. Situated smack-bang in town centre, occupying one corner of Plaza de Isabel II, the 72-room hotel is the newest addition to the chic OD Hotels chain.

My room takes its cue from the chain’s Ibizan roots, with the decor a sunny Mediterranean palette of watery blues and terracotta reds. It’s minimal and smart, with a wave-shaped mirror, ultra-soft bedding and coasters shaped like miniature vinyl records.

Guests also can plump for deluxe rooms, a few of which come equipped with a personal sun terrace, record players and even beer taps for pulling pints.

Ocean Drive Madrid is smack-bang in the city centre, occupying one corner of Plaza de Isabel II. Above is the hotel's rooftop bar

Ocean Drive Madrid is smack-bang in town centre, occupying one corner of Plaza de Isabel II. Above is the hotel’s rooftop bar

The 72-room Ocean Drive Madrid (above) is the latest addition to the chic OD Hotels chain

The 72-room Ocean Drive Madrid (above) is the newest addition to the chic OD Hotels chain

Ailbhe describes her room (similar to the one above) as 'minimal and smart', with ultra-soft bedding

Ailbhe describes her room (just like the one above) as ‘minimal and smart’, with ultra-soft bedding 

Pictured above is Mar Mia, Ocean Drive Madrid's bar-restaurant. Ailbhe reveals: 'The hotel aspires to be an art gallery of sorts, exhibiting a new artist’s work each month. And, like its sister hotels, Ocean Drive Madrid’s restaurant hosts weekly creative events such as painting and wine workshops with local artists'

Pictured above is Mar Mia, Ocean Drive Madrid’s bar-restaurant. Ailbhe reveals: ‘The hotel aspires to be an art gallery of sorts, exhibiting a latest artist’s work every month. And, like its sister hotels, Ocean Drive Madrid’s restaurant hosts weekly creative events reminiscent of painting and wine workshops with local artists’

Guests at Ocean Drive Madrid can plump for deluxe rooms, some of which come equipped with record players

Guests at Ocean Drive Madrid can plump for deluxe rooms, a few of which come equipped with record players

‘What sort of beer?’ I ask. ‘Spanish beer,’ I’m told. After all!

For more Spanish beer, guests can head downstairs to Mar Mia, the hotel’s bar-restaurant. It’s an area bathed in orange light from theatrical fringed lampshades which hang low over the tables, and the partitions are dotted with framed collages.

The hotel aspires to be an art gallery of sorts, exhibiting a latest artist’s work every month. And, like its sister hotels, Ocean Drive Madrid’s restaurant hosts weekly creative events reminiscent of painting and wine workshops with local artists.

Art is woven into the material of Madrid, a city famed for its Golden Triangle of Art – the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia museums. But swerve the anaconda-sized queue that snakes across the Prado and make your solution to El Retiro Park, where the Crystal Palace glasshouse hosts small-scale exhibitions as a wing of the Reina Sofia museum. 

The kaleidoscopic glass constructing – modelled on the unique Crystal Palace in-built London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – was in-built 1887 to showcase tropical plants, but now it’s entirely dedicated to art and is a delightfully peaceful solution to get a shot of culture away from the crowds.

Madrid’s bohemian Malasana neighbourhood, named after local heroine Manuela Malasana who was executed aged 17 during the Spanish uprising against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. 'Here you can meander around the cluster of independent galleries which offer a more intimate chance to get a feel for Madrid’s art scene,' says Ailbhe

Madrid’s bohemian Malasana neighbourhood, named after local heroine Manuela Malasana who was executed aged 17 throughout the Spanish rebellion against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. ‘Here you may meander across the cluster of independent galleries which supply a more intimate probability to get a feel for Madrid’s art scene,’ says Ailbhe

Malasana lies shoulder to shoulder with the Chueca district (above), explains Ailbhe, 'where the vibe is more boutique than boho'

Malasana lies shoulder to shoulder with the Chueca district (above), explains Ailbhe, ‘where the vibe is more boutique than boho’

Sala Equis, a suave bar-cinema where Ailbhe watches Buster Keaton movie Seven Chances as she sips an Aperol spritz

Sala Equis, a suave bar-cinema where Ailbhe watches Buster Keaton movie Seven Possibilities as she sips an Aperol spritz

It’s a wonder to wander across the sculpture as light dances through the glass panels above.

Beyond the Golden Triangle is Madrid’s bohemian Malasana neighbourhood, named after local heroine Manuela Malasana who was executed aged 17 throughout the Spanish rebellion against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. Here you may meander across the cluster of independent galleries which supply a more intimate probability to get a feel for Madrid’s art scene.

Malasana lies shoulder to shoulder with the Chueca district, where the vibe is more boutique than boho. Beyond the designer clothes shops and yoga studios you’ll find Mercado San Anton, considered one of Madrid’s oldest markets. It underwent a sleek renovation last 12 months so now traditional stalls have been replaced by gleaming booths branded with daring graphic fonts.

An eclectic collection of vendors serve up the whole lot from tapas to contemporary Japanese and American dishes. At La Casa del Bacalao (The House of Cod), where each dish is a few euros or less, it’s hard to withstand the moreish crispbreads laden with marinated anchovies and sliced octopus. Next I try a portion of croquettes plied with oozing Cabrales blue cheese. Each bite-size serving adds up and shortly I’m feeling happily full.

Art house: The Crystal Palace, above, is a glass-encased wing of the Reina Sofia museum. 'It’s a wonder to wander around the sculpture as light dances through the glass panels above,' says Ailbhe

Art house: The Crystal Palace, above, is a glass-encased wing of the Reina Sofia museum. ‘It’s a wonder to wander across the sculpture as light dances through the glass panels above,’ says Ailbhe 

I walk it off with a stroll down Gran Via until I arrive outside a notorious Madrid institution – Museo Chicote. The outside of this Art Deco cocktail bar is lacklustre, but cross the edge and also you’ll enter a haze of dry ice and red velvet drapes. Staff dance with each other between taking orders as Gloria Gaynor is pumped through the speakers.

Established in 1931, the important sport here is the black-and-white photographs of former patrons that cover the partitions to see who you recognise. First I spy Sophia Loren. Next, a moustachioed Salvador Dali. Frank Sinatra. Rita Hayworth. Jayne Mansfield.

It’s a number of fun, but after Museo Chicote’s cocktails I want a siesta. Only in Madrid could you nap at 7pm and get up with loads of time before dinner.

'Only in Madrid could you nap at 7pm and wake up with plenty of time before dinner,' writes Ailbhe. Above is one of Madrid’s many cheap and cheerful tapas bars

‘Only in Madrid could you nap at 7pm and get up with loads of time before dinner,’ writes Ailbhe. Above is considered one of Madrid’s many low-cost and cheerful tapas bars

Ocean Drive Madrid (above), is among a cluster of new hotels in Madrid geared towards modern holidaymakers, such as The Madrid Edition and Rosewood Villa Magna

Ocean Drive Madrid (above), is amongst a cluster of recent hotels in Madrid geared towards modern holidaymakers, reminiscent of The Madrid Edition and Rosewood Villa Magna

The clock strikes ten by the point it’s time to explore the La Latina neighbourhood looking out for somewhere to eat.

I slip right into a packed tapas bar for a number of small plates before making my solution to Sala Equis, a suave bar-cinema. The cavernous important bar is solid in red light and ivy crawls up the partitions. Rows of deckchairs within the centre face up towards an infinite screen that plays movies throughout the night as a backdrop to the revelry.

Settling down in a single I order an Aperol spritz and catch the beginning of Seven Possibilities, the 1925 Buster Keaton film.

Glamorous crowds swirl around me because the silent comedy flickers across the screen. Very similar to town it calls home, Sala Equis is sophisticated and oh-so-cool. Barcelona? It’s finally met its match.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Ailbhe MacMahon was a guest of Ocean Drive Madrid where B&B starts from £152 per night (oceandrivemadrid.com).

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