As I turn a corner, the imposing Guernica comes into sight, stretching from floor to ceiling and across most of the wall. Picasso’s black and white Cubist masterpiece is almost as daunting in size, as it is affecting in subject.
Considered to be one of the most important pieces of 20th century art – and arguably the painter’s most famous work – the anti-war painting expresses outrage at a Nazi bombing of Spanish city Guernica two years before the Second World War broke out.
The painting hangs in Reina Sofia, one of the capital’s finest art galleries, and is no doubt the reason many visitors roam its grand hallways. Get in early enough and the experience is even more impactful without a crowd gathered in front.
Almost equally well-known, the Spanish painter’s Weeping Woman hangs on the opposite wall and Salvador Dali’s Girl At The Window is displayed around the corner. The museum is unique in its expanse of work, our guide Miriam says. “It’s a window to the 20th century; we show the relationship between artists and context.
All six floors of the Reina Sofia are now open, allowing visitors to view the gallery’s works from the 20th century to the present day as a permanent collection for the very first time.
The museum makes up one point of the ‘Golden Triangle’ in Madrid – or Paseo del Arte – a walkable central area of three of the most important art collections in Spain.
But not all of Madrid’s art hangs in museums. Nearby, in the vibrant Lavapiés neighbourhood, a piece of street art depicts migrants crammed into a small dinghy arriving into a Spanish port. It’s one of many painted along a 300-metre wall outside an abandoned tobacco factory (the basement is now home to artist studios) as part of the Muros Tabacalera project.
The piece, by Yksuhc Juan, was created last year. “The focus is luck, it’s chance, who they are and where they come from, just humans trying to have a better future,” says our guide Gerardo Reyna from Cool Tour Spain (cooltourspain.com).
While it won’t enjoy the same longevity as Picasso’s Guernica – “Street artists know the pieces are there until the moment they finish [when another artist paints on top]”, says Gerardo – there is a poignant parallel to their subject matter. Some 80 years apart, both show outrage for innocent people affected by conflict.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more concentrated selection of street art in Madrid than Lavapiés, although the Malasaña area (think trendy cafes, vintage stores and hippy vibes) also boasts a few gems.
Some of the world’s most respected street artists have left brush strokes here. A huge pop art-inspired scene of an embracing couple by British artist D*Face stretches up the side of a residential block, and not far away there’s a collaboration between famed Spanish painter Okuda and Portuguese Bordalo II – on one side is a chimp made from recycled materials, the other features a geometric, surrealist rabbit. “It’s Madrid’s most Instagrammed spot,” says Gerardo.
The new Hard Rock Hotel Madrid, where I’m staying, sits directly opposite the Reina Sofia and is a 10-minute walk into the bustle of Lavapiés. Launched in Hard Rock’s 50th anniversary year, the smart four-star offering is their 37th property. Budapest and New York are due to open early 2022.
The hotel celebrates the city’s artistic talent. Behind the bar is a striking, specially commissioned mural by local young street artist Frank Gomez inspired by the countercultural movement, La Movida, which charted a shift to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Other decorations inside the property include David Bowie’s platform boots, a jacket worn by Rihanna and a seven story light installation of a giant guitar in the lobby.
As for the hotel experience, highlights include a rooftop bar with day beds, live music, a pool and outdoor garden, and exceptional food.
It feels like a grown-up take on the brand many will be familiar with. But as we sit down to a nine-course chef’s table testing menu, it’s clear there’s no classic Hard Rock burger with American cheese in sight.
Half-Spanish, Half-Venezuelan, chef Juan Perez’s menu (with no less than nine accompanying drinks) celebrates his journey from South America to Spain through food. There’s a savoury corn crème brulée inspired by Venezuelan arepas and rabbit ribs with a Canarian sauce. While his take on patatas bravas – layed like a mille-feuille and fried – is worth the plane trip alone.
The hotel is only 10 minutes from the huge El Retiro Park – the green lungs of the city – and five minutes beyond that is yet another world-renowned gallery, the Prado. First open in 1819, it houses a 8,600-painting collection dating back to the 12th century – impossible to get through unless you have all day, but Spanish masters Velázquez and Goya, and Dutch artist Bosch were my highlights.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza is a further five-minute stroll: another heavyweight in modern art. I catch the René Magritte exhibition – running until the end of January 2022. The permanent collection features impressionists Monet and Renoir around the corner from Van Gogh, Degas and Kandinsky.
The Spanish capital isn’t just an art haven, though. Its distinct neighbourhoods are a maze of pretty side streets and pastel coloured blocks with Juliet balconies, and it’s easy to lose hours weaving them.
In nearby, bohemian Las Letras, poetry emblazoned in brass letters decorates some of the streets . Cafes sprawl onto pavements with locals drinking wine at lunchtime, classic Spanish jamón hangs in shop windows and busy hole-in-the-wall tapas restaurants are plentiful.
Towards the more touristy end of town, the historic Plaza Mayor with its enormous esplanade dates back to 1620. Once the centre for bullfights and public executions, no first-time trip to Madrid would be complete without at least setting foot in it.
It’s here you’ll find the best bocadillo de calamares, a fried calamari sandwich in white bread, a staple of Madrid. Locals are more likely to eat them at 2am on their way home from the bars, but it’s just as delicious for lunch. There’s one rule though: don’t order one at a sit down cafe; they’re best enjoyed from a takeaway window. I queue at La Campana and scoff mine with the Casa de la Panadería and all its architectural glory in plain view.