The most historic neighbourhood in Madrid keeps the secrets of the great monarchs who once lived in it among its monuments, churches and palaces. From the Almudena Cathedral to Plaza Mayor, the architectural beauty of the area attracts large numbers of tourists who marvel and contemplate these constructions made by the ancestors of Madrid. Restaurants in the area serve traditional Madrid stew, while the Sabatini Gardens welcome weary travellers to take a break in the beautiful surroundings.
History of Madrid
Palaces, churches, and monasteries have been standing in this area since the 16th century. Los Austrias got its name from the time when the Habsburg dynasty reigned in Spain, ruled by Charles I, who decided to build squares and monuments in the city. Later, along with Felipe II, he would initiate the reorganisation of the old Plaza del Arrabal, making way for what is now Plaza Mayor. Tourist routes pass through daily on the cobblestone streets of this area, which also boasts beautiful gardens.
The great attraction of Los Austrias is undoubtedly its buildings and monuments. The Royal Palace is the main site that draws tourists, along with the Almudena Cathedral right next to it. Inspired by sketches made by Bernini for construction of the Louvre in Paris, the palace boasts more than 3,000 rooms, and every Wednesday you can watch the colourful changing of the guard. Opposite the monarchial residence is the Plaza de Oriente and the Royal Theatre. In the streets that surround this architectural complex you'll find churches and chapels like the San Andrés and San Ginés churches, and the Monasterio de las Descalzas.
If you're looking for a place to enjoy the latest culinary inventions with fancy presentations, Los Austrias is not your destination. Most of the restaurants in this neighbourhood offer a traditional menu and they're not the cheapest in the Spanish capital. Here you'll find places along the lines of Casa Ciriaco, a century-old restaurant whose star dish is the chicken fricassee; or La Bola, where after six generations, they're still serving their stew in the traditional clay pot, and where celebrities have dined over the years.
Jardines de Sabatini
This is one of the most beautiful corners in the district of Los Austrias. These neoclassical gardens are located off the north façade of the Royal Palace, between Calle Bailen, and the Cuesta de San Vicente. With a large circular fountain and a small pond where tourists and locals cool off in the summer, the French style make the gardens a singular green space in Madrid. The shrubs and hedges are trimmed into geometric shapes that further highlight the beauty of the park and its statues.
Restaurants in Los Austrias
Holding court on a quiet backstreet, this dignified, classic Madrid restaurant is considered by many to be the home of 'cocido', the huge and hearty stew lifelong Madrid residents love and a test for the biggest of appetites. La Bola is still run by the same family that founded it in the 19th century, and the 'cocido' (which is only served at lunchtime) is still cooked traditionally in earthenware pots on a wood fire. Unfortunately, this impressive pedigree has led to a certain complacency, verging on the arrogant, in some of the waiting staff.
Pick your way down the side of the open kitchen to a deep dining room hung with pictures of visiting royals and grateful celebrities, along with rather grimmer photos of the 1906 bombing of Alfonso XIII's wedding procession – which happened right outside the door. Undamaged, and still going strong, Casa Ciriaco was a meeting place for the intelligentsia in pre–Civil War days, and although it no longer attracts too many thinkers, the Castilian fare is a taste of days gone by. 'Cochinillo' (suckling pig) is the speciality, along with partridge and butter beans, when in season. Waiters are as old-school as you'd expect, but very friendly.
This long-standing tablao sports seemingly authentic Arab décor, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, and an atmosphere to match. A relaxed mix of tourists, fans (Hemingway, Che Guevara and Picasso, and more recently Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, among others, have all paid a visit) and professionals enjoy a solid, expensive and sometimes exhilarating show. You must book (and pay) through the venue's website.
Bars in Los Austrias
Wine-lovers adore this place. Located in the old Café Ricordi, it has had a complete overhaul and now resembles a 19th century tavern but with some modern touches. As well as offering more than 150 varieties of wine, chosen by wine expert Sánchez Magro, the bar has its own bodega where it holds tastings during which you can also try some of the delicious tapa style food, all of which is prepared by Michelin star holder Pepe Rodríguez. They have a very recommendable tasting menu called ‘Todo el Lío’.
The belle époque interior is entirely fake yet utterly convincing, making this one of the most peaceful and elegant spots to flick through the newspapers or recover from the exertions of the Palacio Real opposite. Despite its location, with tables outside on the stunning Plaza de Oriente, the café seems to be as popular with locals as tourists, who are perhaps put off by its air of grandeur.
Located in the old quarter, this bar-restaurant specialises in the Basque style tapas known as pintxos. You can choose among those on display on the bar, which are both hot and cold, and the waiter will bring your selection to your table. There’s also a menu with more elaborate dishes and an extensive wine list. The terrace seating is very popular in summer. It’s the perfect place to have a bite to eat and a few glasses of wine with friends.
Shopping in Los Austrias
Power to creativity. That’s the slogan of El Gato Negro, one of the oldest establishments in central Madrid. Located next to Plaza Mayor, this shops was founded in 1880 and is a must for handicraft fans. Here you’ll find material like cushions, wool, accessories and needles for crocheting, knitting and needlework.
One of the classics establishment of old Madrid, Casa Yustas was founded in 1886 and is the city’s most famous hat shop, selling classic, vintage and modern and alternative models and filling custom orders. This 100-year-old establishment also has a wide selection of gifts and decorative and military items.
Mar de Letras is a well-stocked bookshop specialising in kids' editions. Look out too for the English titles, regular English storytelling evenings and educational toys. They also do shadow theatre and puppet shows, all with the goal of getting the littlest ones into the habit of reading.
Nightlife in Los Austrias
This basement bar, going for some 20 years now, was Madrid's first dedicated exclusively to blues. Run by a Swiss-Spanish guy called Albert, who has a large collection of old records that won't disappoint, there are live acts featuring local bluesers from Tuesday to Thursday. The musical programme here includes both international names and local artists like Fede Aguado. The live performances are of high quality. Jam sessions are also scheduled, during which you can enjoy a beer or a mojito.
The modern (almost futuristic) decor of this beautiful café enchants from the first moment. Its huge bar, contemporary bar stools and sombre but comfortable chairs and tables make for a really cool-looking space.In the nightclub you can dance to refined chart-topping pop music, as well as live Caribbean music which will get your hips moving to irresistible Cuban rhythms. After enjoying sophisticated cuisine during dinner, take a look at their extensive cocktail list. As soon as you cross the threshold you’ll realise that this place practically demands a gin and tonic.
If you’re looking for a place where you can have a beer while listening to a monologue, then this is the place for you. It has an extensive selection of beers and the premises are a little dark but welcoming. The activity here is non-stop, when it’s not Comedy Night, they hold language exchange classes. It’s a good place to watch a football match with your friends. You can also have something to eat here.