Think Madrid as a city with multiple neighbourhoods. There’s the city centre along the main street Gran Vía where all the main landmarks are. There’s Malasaña the trendy hipster neighbourhood. There’s Salamanca, the rich snobby place. You can refer to this site for the full list of neighbourhoods.
Here’s my experience.
Read my in-depth thoughts of Malasaña.
Trendy hipsters. Young people. Great coffee shops all around. Any bar is a good bar and lively! Late nights, partying, lots of bar events, live music…. AND FOOD. This is the place. My favourite bar is in this neighbourhood, called BarCo.
Malasaña is a place where you can look up events or walk anywhere blindly. Excellent tapas restaurants. It’s a neighbourhood where you want to roam and stay out! Staff are super nice, locals are nice. Everyone is friendly and nice, even the Italian tourists I met.
This neighbourhood smells!! But it’s where the theatres are. Living here brings you closer to shows, theatres, and performances. Cheaper food and bars. If you come with friends, this neighbourhood is amazing.
Given my experience, I think I would have preferred La Latina as opposed to Lavapiés. I felt a lot of stares when walking the streets. Everyone notices me, the Chinese girl. It felt uncomfortable. Here’s my guess at their thoughts, “She’s alone, young, I wonder where she’s going?” kind of thing. The stares weren’t hatred, that’s for sure.
Beer lovers will appreciate Lavapiés. Many pubs serve craft beers from all over Europe/the world.
I didn’t stay in La Latina, but I visited often since it was close to Lavapiés. The most frustrating part of this neighbourhood is the El Rastro flea market every Sunday. It is incredibly packed to the point it is unbearable. But that’s because I don’t like crowds.
Tapas and Spanish cuisine are plentiful here. There are less late-night bars in this neighbourhood than Malasaña but bars are more traditional Spanish (super exciting!). Malasaña is modern, hipster, and lively. La Latina is full of Spanish post-work evenings, non-pretentious friends, and Spanish habits such as tossing your garbage to the floor! Seriously!!
A few bars even do Trivia games.
A Yelp friend used to visit these trivia nights. So a bar would have Monday trivia night. Another on Tuesday, another on Thursday. You visit with friends or you partner with strangers. Take a seat and that’s your team! The host asks questions, you discuss with your team for maybe 5 minutes, write your answers. After ten questions, the table with the most correct answers receive free beers! Yay!!
At these games, free tapas are served. Mahou beers are also served for about €3 or less. Makes a super cheap outing. They tend to start pretty late though, around 9-10pm. We left about midnight.
It was great fun!!!!! All the tables were so enthusiastic. Nobody was obnoxious. OMG. Nobody was obnoxious. It was a simple games night with happy, relaxed people from all ages. I love the Spanish atmosphere!
You’ll have to ask the locals to find you the Trivia games! I personally don’t know where they are.
Here’s a useful map!
I find Chueca, Salamanca, and Justicia to be more expensive. Not the accommodation, I mean the restaurants, the bars, the coffee shops. I can receive the same quality of food and service for cheaper in Malasaña and La Latina.
Sol & Gran Vía is the centre of the city. Many Madrid landmarks are walking distance from here. The restaurants in this area are decent but always packed. No thanks. I found myself passing this area more often than I’d like. It’s the centre after all! And I was walking north, east, south, west discovering places. My conclusion is: you don’t have to live right at the centre to enjoy the centre.
Madrid is so small, you can easily see the entire city in a week. With that said, I find Salamanca, Moncloa, Arguelles, and even Retiro to be uncomfortably far. Some museums I saw were in those areas, I chose to commute. It didn’t make sense to walk the forty minutes (to one hour). Arguelles of course is super far. If I stayed in those areas, I wouldn’t be in/out as I did in Malasaña and Lavapiés.
The most touristy is not Sol, it’s Retiro. Many museums are on this street. Tourist often spend their entire day here. In case you don’t notice the numerous tour buses, you’ll definitely notice the 100x increase in American chains: McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and lots of families and children (that’s a chain). It’s scary. All the restaurants here are tourist traps, meaning they are expensive and appeal to tourists. A bit of Yelp research will find you a much better restaurant in a different neighbourhood.
Retiro is the entire area between Atocha station and Retiro station. It looks small on the map, but it is huuuuuuuuuuuge. Especially after a long walking, sight-seeing day… Retiro is not a place to relax. It’s a place to “keep on walking” because museums and the park take up most of the area! At least in Sol, there are pitstops and window shopping.
Before visiting Madrid, I did my research and found the places I want to visit to be in Malasaña and Lavapiés. Yet I can walk anywhere from both locations. After Madrid, if I can redo my trip I would stay in Malasaña and La Latina. I still tremendously enjoyed my stay in Lavapiés.
I found Malasaña to be the easiest to start my day since it’s close to Gran Vía. Lavapiés is too far south on my “less motivated” days. The uphill walk (and the smell) was unappealing.