It can be hard to get the feel of a city when you’re a tourist, only there for a quick weekend. Ingesting guidebooks can help, but without the luxury of a friend in a foreign destination it can be difficult to really get under a city’s skin. My weekend in Madrid made the difference between doing that, and just scratching the surface of a destination, so much more obvious. And having a luxury of a real, hands-on, local experience in this Spanish capital city not only brought the place to life, but gave me an insight into how the Madridilians I met on my journey actually live.
From the artisans living in the Letras neighbourhood, to the flamenco dancers and who dazzled us with their passion, this was a way into real Madrid - a chance to see how the city really operated and to meet some of its colourful and inspiring inhabitants.
Where to stay in Madrid
We landed in Madrid late at night so the surroundings of the Only You Atocha hotel were lost on me as I bustled through the door straight into the spectacular interior. I was to explore two Only You hotels on this trip to Madrid. The interior was instantly impressive, it felt like loft hotel in a trendy corner of New York, the wet-cut barber shop and oyster bar in the lobby affirming its position in the affluent hipster world. Circular book cases, low-flying aeroplanes and a selection of bottomless sweetie jars only added to our excitement and having washed in a truly cavernous shower I was soon snuggled up in my large and comfortable bed.
The lobby of the Only You Atocha hotel
It wasn’t until the morning when I drew back the curtains that I realised that I was literally sleeping on one of the biggest traffic intersections of Madrid. Opposite Attocha railway, this crossroads was busy from morning till night – it’s a miracle of modern double glazing engineering that you honestly barely notice the traffic noise. Up until that moment I’d been entirely oblivious.
Even the bathrooms at Only You Atocha are exciting
Breakfast was a buffet made in heaven. For those annoying health nuts among us there were chia pots, bee pollen and mini pots of green. Those preferring to eat like the locals had jamon and queso galore. There were eggs, cooked breakfasts – even dim sum available on request – alongside smoothies, detox juices and a large selection of hot drinks. The hotel boasts two restaurants – we were lucky enough that it was hosting a gastronomical experience in the form of Spoonik, a pop up in town from its home in Barcelona, when we were there. Not a meal, but an immersive experience created from the eccentric but brilliant minds of chefs Jon Giraldo and Jaime Lieberman, inspired by their travels through Latin America. With opera singers parading and the entire waiting staff playing a game of ‘boo!’ it might have been easy to overlook the food, were it not so delicious and unlike anything we’d eaten before (think popcorn ice cream floating inside a savoury corn soup). The desert – a chocolate tamale served in a corn husk with various other chocoholic delights on the side – was a taste experience I’ll never forget.
The bar at Only You Boutique has a different (but equaly luxe) vibe
Later that weekend, we transferred across town to Only You’s original hotel, this one a boutique – although its success and subsequent expansion has made that description slightly misleading. But despite it's large size, its décor still creates the feeling of a small, intimate (and uber chic) establishment – the gluten free bakery and sensational spa (complete with in-house Thai massages courtesy’s of the city’s popular Thai Room Spa ) reminders again that you’re in the cool spot in town.
The stunning lobby at Only You Boutique
Food at the Only You Boutique is different, yet equally satisfying. Breakfasts are a la carte (the vegan, a stomach-filling option bursting with greens and goodness), while the famous Sunday brunch is an endless buffet held between the bar and the restaurant, with enough free-flowing cava, Aperol spritz and vino of all varieties to keep you there until it’s time for aperitifs in the evening.
The Only You hotels are always full of new and exciting cultural treats. For Madrid Fashion Week on 7-11 July, the hotel has teamed up with the city's fashionistas to create a “money can’t buy” experience for its guests. All visitors All receive VIP tickets and backstage access to the fashion week shows, usually strictly invite-only. And the hotel is also hosting an exclusive pop-up store from Palomo Spain, one of the hottest Spanish fashion stories - famous for crashing the internet when they dressed Beyonce for her twins announcement shot!
What do to in Madrid
This was a weekend of culture and fashion – and our first stop was the Thyseen-Bornemisza Museum, a short stroll from our first hotel in Atocha, and hosting a stuning Sorollo & Fashion exhibition, showing the influence fashion had on the iconic Spanish Impressionist artist, Joaquin Sorolla, with an array of stunning period clothes alongside his most famous works of art. There are some beautiful museums in Madrid. The Reina Sofia museum – Spain’s national museum of 20th Century art - is another which deserves the whilling away of an afternoon, with artwork from Dali and Picasso. But while studying and enjoying the work of some of the nation’s most famous artists from years gone by is not to be missed, equally inspiring is visiting some of Madrid’s modern-day artisans, making a living in the same area of the city they always have.
Meeting jewellery designer Andres Gallardo
We had a way into this fascinating world courtesy of Jo Wivell, our tour guide for the weekend, from Corazon Travel. Hailing from Yorkshire, Jo has spent the last 20 years living in Madrid and is a fantastic ambassador for the city she felt so much at home in when she first made the trip from the UK all those years ago, that she never left. Jo’s tours feel like you’re being led around the city by a friend – as she introduces you to the stars of her behind-the-scenes Textiles, Food and Fashion tour, you feel welcomed into her world, and the artisans we visited all greeted her with the welcome kiss of a great friend – no walking round in a huge groups behind a guide holding an umbrella ahoy here.
We meet Claudio Fonsecca, who paints custom silk scarves in the family-owned studio his mother worked in before him. The cape makers still making bespoke orders for Madrid’s high society, whose establishment was responsible for the cape Picasso lies buried in, and award-winning jewellery designer Andres Gallardo, whose unique porcelain jewellery is wining him accolades across Europe. Having already stopped off at one of Jo’s favourite coffee shops for an espresso and a bit of tapas, we pause for lunch, at Javier Bonet’s latest pastry-based venture, Hojaldreria, where the chef himself pops out to explain his mouthwatering menu to us and Jo reveals how she first fell for his delectable offerings, when a friend brought one of his cakes to a party she was attending. Javier is, Jo explains, a bit of a mover and shaker on the Madrid food scene , having already set up the Sala del Despiece. It's quality experiences like this, with such a personal touch, that means each one of us wishes we were carrying on to La Rioja and San Sebastian, where Jo’s tour would take us if we had the time.
The dancing is so dramatic you can't help but be pulled in
The highlight of Jo’s tour is a live Flamenco dancing experience at Tablao Las Carboneras. Again, Jo’s passion for this style of dance (one she’s studied both in Madrid and abroad) brings our time in Madrid alive. Any concerns of naff tourist experiences are allayed as soon as we step foot in the venue – located in the basement of the old palace of the Count of Miranda. One of the singers of the troupe we see tonight is very well known in the Flamenco world, Jo explains. And as she goes on to tell us about the improv-nature of Flamenco performances, we are given a real-life example as a waitress takes to the stage to first sing, then dance despite being dressed in her head-to-toe black waiting uniform. It's really a night to remember.
Jamon galore at Mercado San Miguel
Orf course no trip to Madrid would be complete without a healthy focus on food – and although our bellies are already close to bursting following the treats put our way both at our Only You hotels and the restaurants Jo selects for us as we tour the city, there is one more spot that's so much fun it deserves special mention. The city’s Mercado San Miguel is a little like a bustling Borough Market, but with a focus on eating and drinking there, rather than shopping for groceries to take home. Again, Jo’s local knowledge is an advantage, as we have a rather well-placed barrel reserved for us by the proprietors of a wine stall, which acts as our base for wine sipping and tapas tasting on our last evening. But whatever your penchant (huge legs of Iberico ham hang side-by-side with stalls serving sardines and others devoted to olives), it will on sale here. And unlike at Borough market, it won’t break the bank.
Double rooms are priced from £160 at Only YOU Hotel Atocha and £210 per night at Only YOU Hotel Boutique (prices are per night and based on two people sharing) For more information visit the hotel's website.