How to Hang Like a Local in Madrid’s Trendiest Neighborhood

Lavapiés, once overlooked, is the go-to district in the Spanish capital to find both traditional and modern Madrid.

How to Hang Like a Local in Madrid’s Trendiest Neighborhood

A courtyard inside the Tabacalera, an old tobacco factory converted into a collaborative art space

Photo by Benjamin Kemper

Ten years ago, most Madrileños turned their nose up at Lavapiés, the melting-pot neighborhood just south of the historic center. Deemed too punk, too dirty, or too dangerous, this web of graffiti-sprayed streets was left in disrepair while trendsters and tourists flocked to gay-friendly Chueca, artsy Malasaña, and gentrified La Latina—but no longer.

Today Lavapiés is a vibrant multicultural hub that embodies the spirit of modern Madrid: open-armed, rootsy, and refreshingly rebellious. By day, Caribbean minimarts blare contagious calypso beats, quasi-legal art squats like the Tabacalera flaunt their latest creations, and Nordic-style cafés bustle with bearded-and-bunned Euro-hipsters. By night, a motley crew of revelers packs into the neighborhood’s pocket-size bars and nightclubs for retro dance parties, live performances, and underground DJ sets.

Lavapiés is arguably Madrid’s most castizo (“authentically Madrileño”) neighborhood.

Yet Lavapiés is arguably Madrid’s most castizo (“authentically Madrileño”) neighborhood, thanks to its charming corralas (traditional Madrid-style group housing), rough-and-ready plazas, and colorful local lore. Knock back a few vermús in an old-timey Lavapiés taberna, and a regular might regale you with tales of the Manolos, Lavapiés’s dandies romanticized in plays by Ramón de la Cruz, or with the legend of a decapitated acolyte (punishment for murdering his priest and stealing his riches) after whom Calle de la Cabeza is named.

The push and pull between past and present, between deep-rooted tradition and electrifying multiculturalism, makes Lavapiés endlessly intriguing—and explorable.

To experience it like a local, brush up on tipping etiquette and mark your map with these secret spots.

Baobab serves up affordable Senegalese comfort food.

Baobab serves up affordable Senegalese comfort food.

Photo by Benjamin Kemper

Where to eat

To get on Lavapiés’s high-energy wavelength, get a jolt of caffeine at Hola Coffee, a third-wave coffeehouse that roasts its own beans for a fruity, complex brew. The optimal sidekick? Warm banana bread dripping with coffee butter.

After your morning hill workout—Lavapiés’s topography is no joke—you’ll be ravenous. Refuel with Senegalese comfort food at Baobab, an indoor-outdoor restaurant on Plaza de Nelson Mandela specializing in seven-euro Thiéboudienne, an umami-rich fish and pumpkin stew ladled over toasty fonio (a West African “super grain”). Competing in the cheap eats category is NAP, Madrid’s hottest pizzeria both literally and figuratively: Its 930-degree oven, bedazzled in urban artist Okuda’s geometric designs, churns out blistered Neapolitan-style pies in under a minute.

With dinner far off—at 10 p.m. if you’re feeling Spanish—a merienda, or mid-afternoon snack, is all but obligatory. Forgo the customary churros con chocolate for Indian pastries at Noman Sweet Shop, a convenience store with an improbably delectable spread of hand-crimped samosas, scraggly pakoras, and cardamom-scented gulab jamun. Take your warm paper bag of goodies across the street to Plaza de la Corrala, and chow down al aire libre.

 Locals meet for beers and impromptu jam sessions on the steps of Plaza de Agustín Lara.

Locals meet for beers and impromptu jam sessions on the steps of Plaza de Agustín Lara.

Photo by Benjamin Kemper

As evening approaches, Madrileños flock to Lavapiés to partake in the neighborhood’s quintessential pastime, the tapeo, or tapas crawl. First, stop at Antonio Sánchez, a creaky tavern founded in 1786, where realist painter Ignacio Zuloaga, champion bullfighters, and King Alfonso XIII once rubbed shoulders, and order a sudsy caña, or half-pint, at the zinc bar. Although each drink comes with a complimentary canapé, save your appetite for Los Chuchis, a market-driven gastrobar where handwritten menus feature soul-satisfying dishes like dilly salmon croquettes and baked feta with roasted tomatoes and chilies.

Around the corner is vinoteca and restaurant La Falda, worth a visit for its juicy, paprika-dusted octopus alone; it sings alongside a glass of citrusy xarello, a rare Catalan varietal. Still peckish? Melo’s churns out golden, ultra-creamy ham croquetas until 1 a.m.

Where to shop

Every Sunday, the sloping Ribera de Curtidores transforms into one of Europe’s liveliest flea markets, El Rastro. Skip the stalls hawking cheap tchotchkes and souvenirs and instead weave your way south toward Plaza del General Vara del Rey, where antique dealers lay out Franco-era dinnerware, ornate pocket watches, and other curious collectibles. Photography buffs could spend hours at nearby Fotocasión, a three-floor temple to photography that sells analog cameras and hard-to-find film types alongside the latest technology. Readers, on the other hand, can buy used books by the kilo at La Casquería, which occupies a defunct butcher stall in Mercado de San Fernando.

Where to drink

Madrileños love to drink outdoors, but it’s not always easy to snag a table in Lavapiés, whose miles of street-side terrazas fill up fast on warm evenings. Here’s a secret: An unassuming entryway at 31 Calle Doctor Fourquet belies a hidden courtyard café, Sala Mirador, that gets all the sun and half the crowds of the typical neighborhood spots. After gulping down an ice-cold Mahou, the classic Madrid beer, sip something more eclectic at Bendito Vinos y Vinillos, a wine bar that pours palate-bending natural wines such as an amber muscat by Microbodega de Alumbro, of which only 450 bottles were produced.

Catch a live performance at Sala Julgar, one of Madrid’s last non-touristy flamenco venues.

Then, when you’ve got a nice buzz going, catch a live performance at Sala Juglar, one of Madrid’s last non-touristy flamenco venues, or let loose to ’80s and ’90s rock hits at El Grillo Afónico, where Lavapiés locals meet for cocktails and impromptu dance parties. Scenesters who know their EDM from their deep house can find like-minded revelers at Club 33, a bumping discoteca where the lights don’t turn on until 6 a.m.—at which point, why bother going home? The cafés will be opening soon anyway, and you’ve only scratched the surface of what this multifaceted neighborhood has to offer.

Next: Where to Find London’s Victorian Charm

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