A Foreigner’s Guide to Madrid’s Barrios

Barrio (/ˈbarɪəʊ/) a district of a town in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries.

Want to visit the Spanish capital but don’t know where to stay? Are you an Erasmus student about to start your year abroad in Madrid and can’t choose where to live? Well, to help you on your way, here’s an ultimate barrio guide from someone who lays their head there every night. But first, a disclaimer: the borders and names of Madrid’s barrios are much disputed. Some base it on the Metro stop, some on the street names and some in a desperate attempt to claim they live in Malasaña, when in fact they quite clearly live in Chamberí. So these areas are very general and of course, some feed into others, but here’s a handy map made by Madrid council to give you an idea of the borders.

Malasaña/Chueca: Commonly understood as Madrid’s answer to Shoreditch, this barrio has a quirky café on every corner and no shortage of vintage shops. On weekends, you’ll find locals hoarding to its many squares to enjoy a drink al fresco. Unlike London, however, the pace of life is a lot slower, despite being filled with young professionals and busy students. After Chueca took the title as Madrid’s LGBT+ capital, gentrification has hit these areas hard; meaning it’s usually very busy and more expensive than other parts of the city. Nonetheless, this place is the perfect in Madrid to go bar-hopping, and with so much on offer you’ll rarely find a queue or entry fee. Plenty of novelty bars will keep you amused until the early hours: Space Monkey, Tupperware, and La Vía Láctea to name a few.

Lavapies/La Latina: Recently dubbed as the world’s coolest neighbourhood, this barrio is a favourite for many: myself included. Not only because this is the place I call home, but also because it feels like home. Unlike Malasaña and other heavily gentrified areas around the world, in Lavapies there’s a sense of community. Multiple communities, in fact, living more or less harmoniously. For now, it’s not really trying to be anything it isn’t: it isn’t filled so much with the posers and hipsters that make other ‘cool’ barrios rather soulless. I’d recommend coming here soon before it gets completely gentrified and there’s a cat café on every corner. Home to Madrid’s biggest market, El Rastro, you can head down here every Sunday to explore the array of second hand clothes, books and antiques on sale. Grab some food at Mercado de San Fernando: one of the very few places in Madrid you can find good vegan tapas.

Salamanca/Chamberí: These areas take up a huge portion of northern Madrid. Bordering Madrid’s pride and joy, El Parque de Retiro, this area is rather up-market and could be paralleled to Kensington & Chelsea. The buildings are beautiful and it doesn’t seem to carry the strong smell of dog urine and piles of cigarette butts like the rest of the city. Sleek and modern restaurants fill its elegant streets: not a franchise or Cien Montaditos in sight. Of course, this area brings with it a higher price tag, and it’s also rather more residential than the rest of Madrid. So, if you like peace, quiet and luxury, Chamberí is for you. But, of course, the park is entirely free and offers you all the luxury of Chamberí and more. Take a quaint row on its very own lake and admire El Palacio de Cristal.

Sol/Gran Vía: The beating heart of Madrid: it’s noisy, commercialised and absolutely heaving with tourists, but still unmissable. The best time to visit here is at night, around 4am. It’s still packed with people, but the crowd is somewhat more relaxed and the street vendors and entertainers aren’t clogging up the square. It’s definitely the Piccadilly Circus of Madrid. But the Schweppes and Tio Pepe light-up signs are slightly less vulgar than those of London’s centre, much like the rest of the shops, architecture and general atmosphere of Madrid’s centre. Nonetheless, when you undoubtedly end up here, have a bite in Las Bravas: the home to Spain’s infamous salsa brava: a spicy tomato sauce usually enjoyed with patatas or in a calamari sandwich.

Barrio de las Letras: Situated just to the east of Sol, this area is still heavily aimed at tourists. Nonetheless, it feels a lot more Spanish and cultured than its central neighbour. The pedestrianised streets are filled with authentic restaurants selling tapas and walls adorned with intricate mosaic tiles. If you want to absorb some real (if a little manufactured) Spanish culture, definitely visit Barrio de Las Letras for an escape from garish Sol. It also has the highest density of theatres in Madrid. Alcalá 31, previously used as a bank (authentic vaults still intact), is now a cultural centre that homes various cinema theatres.

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