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The Prado Museum, Madrid. (Photo credit: Corbis)
On the day I moved to Madrid in 2001, a car bomb went off at the airport. I didn’t hear about it for a few days because the story was buried by news reports of the crown prince’s new girlfriend. Two weeks later, on 9/11, I spent a luckless evening running around my new neighborhood trying to find a bar with satellite TV. Every single place was broadcasting the Real Madrid soccer game. When the 3/11 train bombings brought a sick wave of déjà vu, I phoned my Madrileño friends in a panic to make sure everyone was all right. Each one was still in the office and had the same response: “Horrible news, just horrible. So, hombre, when are you coming to visit?”
Even before we were united by misfortune, New York and Madrid were like twins separated at birth: proud, stylish, at times given to taking ourselves a bit too seriously. Madrid is a city, after all, where nearly everything—from Pedro Almodóvar’s hairstyle to the birthday-cake architecture to the tradition of stepping in dog shit for good luck—inhabits a healthy space between joking and not joking.
Start your visit in the Salamanca district, Madrid’s locus of old money and high society, where the midday siesta may be dying out but the three-hour lunch break is still mandatory. (There were times when I was living there that I thought I’d smack the next person who informed me that “Americans live to work, Spaniards work to live.”) Many restaurants don’t even unlock their doors for lunch until 2 p.m. (my son’s kindergarten class ate lunch at the end of the school day), so a midafternoon stop at Alkalde, the high temple of tapas, may be in order. Salamanca is arguably the best-dressed neighborhood in the most chic city in Europe (think Milanese cuts mixed with Jermyn Street colors). The best time to watch the parade is late afternoon, during the post-lunch paseo, when the citizenry takes its postprandial stroll and the air goes hazy with the smoke of cigars and Ducados.
Though its fame may have been temporarily surpassed by the shiny Guggenheim Bilbao, the collection at the Prado still has only two rivals in Spain, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, both of which happen to be right down the street. This year, all three will be unveiling new additions that will allow them to vastly increase their gallery space, and display works that have been unseen for years.
Should your head start spinning from too much Goya (not to mention Velázquez, Dalí, and Picasso), return to the material world by shopping the boutiques on and off Calle Serrano. The flagship stores of designers Adolfo Dominguez and Purificación García offer minimalist interpretations of classic, conservative Spanish styles for men and women. Handbags from Loewe are the lesser-known (and less-trendy) peers of Prada and Hermès. If you’ve been foolish enough to pack only sneakers (considered mal forma after dark), head directly to Camper, home of the original Pelota, and pick up the hot shoe that everyone in the States will be wearing a year from now.
After dark, you can wear them to La Broche, where Sergi Arola offers his interpretation of the revolutionary foam-and-jelly cuisine of his former boss, El Bulli’s Ferran Adriá. The club of the moment is the well-concealed Le Ki (recently opened by Pepe Patatin, Madrid’s answer to Keith McNally). A bar for all times is the Art Deco-style Museo Chicote, the storied watering hole that never closed its doors during the civil war, even as Generalissimo Franco’s mortar shells pounded the Gran Via outside. It’s the perfect place for a veteran of anxious times to ponder a popular saying in Madrid: “Al mal tiempo, buena cara.” Or, roughly translated, “The worse things get, the better you should look.”
Alkalde (34-91-576-3359); the Prado (34-91-330-2800); the Reina Sofía (34-91-467-5062); the Thyssen-Bornemisza (34-91-369-0151); La Broche (34-91-399-3437). If the twin pillars of the Hotel Ritz (34-91-701-6767; www.ritz.es; from $525) and the Palace (888-625-5144; palacemadrid.com; from $450) don’t suit you, have a drink at their extraordinary bars and sleep at the new 45-room Hotel Adler (866-376-7831; epoquehotels.com; from $450), an ultramodern hotel in a nineteenth-century townhouse.