The real city that never sleeps: discovering nightlife in Madrid

From dancing ’til dawn at megaclubs to catching a film at a revamped cinema, the only way to really discover the Spanish capital is to stay up late.

Monday, February 17, 2020,
By Connor McGovern
Cinema-goers pack out Sala Equis, a revamped neighbourhood cinema
An adult cinema until 2015, Sala Equis is now a trendy neighbourhood picture house, where locals come to catch up before heading out into the night.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

"Muchas gracias,” cries the singer. “We’re just going to take a break. Back in 15!”

There are jeers of disappointment from the crowd, who have been dancing to her jazzy disco set all evening. Jokingly, she shields herself, and darts to the bar, where a freshly poured beer has her name on it. Waiters in bow ties, meanwhile, parade desserts to dolled-up diners, the room loud with conversation. The audience disperses; those remaining tap impatient feet to a playlist that fills the interlude. It’s 1am; most of this lot have work tomorrow. But at the door, people are still turning up.

“You should come on Saturday,” says waiter Constantino as he shows me to a table on the rooftop terrace for a post-dinner tipple. “It’s something else.” 

Couples and groups chatter and clink glasses on low-slung loungers, a gentle breeze ruffles hair and skirts. Across the rooftops, Madrid’s Royal Palace is lit up like a colossal white wedding cake. 

There’s a civilised, simmering buzz about the Ginkgo Sky Bar tonight, but if Constantino’s words are anything to go by, it’ll almost certainly boil over into full-blown excess on Saturday. 

The love of a late night in this nation is hardly unknown, but the Spanish capital lives for it. Everything, from the streets to the rooftops, sparkles into life when the sun goes down; the mood lifts, the temperature dips, and only then can Madrid really be itself
— whether it’s picking at late-night plates of patatas bravas or dancing until the lights come on. Daytime in this city almost feels like an inconvenience; everyone is waiting for night to fall.

“There’s somewhere to go, whenever you want,” says Luis de Paz. A native Madrilenian, he heads up Bespoke Travel Spain, which specialises in personalised itineraries in the country. “You could easily stay out from 6pm to 6am and not have to stop.” We’re walking through the nightlife hotspot of Malasaña, where customers spill from bars, and others linger over glasses of Rioja on tables outside. Across the street, twentysomethings fold giant pizza slices into their mouths as an elderly couple amble home, discussing the play they’ve just seen. 

“What I love about Madrid is the people. It’s so open-minded. Whether you’re from here, elsewhere in Spain or another country, everyone’s welcome. You don’t get that atmosphere in every city.”

It’s midnight when we arrive at El Junco, a music venue on Calle de Hortaleza, where a handful of punters stand outside, blowing smoke from vapes and cigarettes into the night air. “I admit I’ve never been here this early,” says Luis with a laugh. “I usually end up here at around 3am.” 

Alt-rock band The Rebels have just finished their set and are now busy signing T-shirts, CDs and body parts out back. The main room has morphed into a nightclub, and people are quickly filling the floor. “We come here because it’s chilled!” Daniel tells me (loudly) over the music. He’s the guitarist in a local band, a regular at El Junco. “You don’t have to be or do anything special. We just drink, dance and listen to the music.” 

He’s right; there are no frills to this place; looking around, I realise it’s little more than a room with a small stage and big speakers. But El Junco is packed, hips swaying and heads banging to a playlist that lurches from Meatloaf remixes to the Gipsy Kings, via obscure Spanish pop songs that, especially after half a dozen bottles of Madrid’s Mahou beer, nobody really knows the words to. 

Madrid's cocktail bar Salmón Gurú is trippy riot of neon pop art, animal prints and plush upholstered chairs, with rooms themed around Berlin, New York and China. 

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Screens, queens & cocoa beans

If Europe were a party, Madrid would be the guest bulldozing through the door four hours late, armed with beers and a boom box. It’d hog the dance floor, talk to everybody, and sulk when it was time to go home. Other cities require codes, conduct and careful planning to make the most of the night. Madrid, by comparison, simply doesn’t care. It’s laid-back, largely unpretentious and merely wants to have a good time — and wants you to, too. And when the day is done and the last sunbeams stream through the arches of the Puerta de Alcalá, the metamorphosis from high-brow cultural capital to party town begins.

“We wanted to be somewhere people grab a beer and chat before going out,” says Sara Morillo. She’s walking me around Sala Equis, a cinema on the edge of the La Latina neighbourhood. This was the last of Madrid’s adult picturehouses until it closed its 2015, but it’s found new life as a retro-chic cinema. “When we opened, a lot of people called what we did gentrification. But for me, it was a question of reinventing the past.” 

Those in the know are here early, nursing beers and tacos from the bar as a silent film plays on the big screen. It’s a trendy spot: exposed walls, trailing ivy and scarlet neon, with lightboxes and raunchy vintage posters. “It’s been popular with the locals,” she says gladly. “And for a few euros you can catch a film, too. Not bad, eh?”

But Sara has to dash; she’s going out tonight and has some errands to run beforehand. After all, the daytime can be an inconvenience in this town. 

Sara is organised, but for many, nights here generally drift from one place to the next with no real plan. In Madrid, it’s far more about the what — the talking, dancing, drinking — rather than the when, where or why. But Chueca, the beating heart of the city’s nightlife scene, is one of the wheres. It’s long been the city’s gay district, but it’s a broad church these days. Everyone’s out tonight: clubbers, bar-hoppers, families, hen parties, stag parties, drag queens, dog walkers, young couples stealing kisses on street corners, and mystified tourists trying to take it all in. And just across busy Gran Vía, in the Las Letras district, is one bar that embodies that eclectic Madrid spirit.

“We’re a ‘taberna inusual’,” says Diego Cabrera, barman and owner of Viva Madrid. “An unconventional taberna. We like to do things differently.” 

Diego, with his salt-and-pepper beard and thick Argentine accent, pours me a media combinación: it’s sweet and smoky with vermouth, and streaked with bitters. It’s one of the classic tipples on a menu that strays from the norms of old Spanish tabernas, which traditionally deal in wine and beer. However, the original charm — mirrors, painted tiles and dark wood panelling that date to 1856 — has remained, and its clientele is as varied as ever. “Viva Madrid has always been a reflection of Madrid itself,” he explains. “Royalty, film directors, matadors, hookers — everyone came here. Post-Franco, this was where people could come and be themselves. And that’s something we want to keep today, too.”

Chocolate and churros are the order of the day — or, rather, night — at Chocolatería San Ginés, open 24 hours.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

But just around the corner is Salmón Gurú, another of Diego’s bars, that’s as far from a traditional taberna as you can get. Unassuming on the outside, inside is a trippy riot of neon pop art, animal prints and plush upholstered chairs, with rooms themed around Berlin, New York and China. 

“Bartenders are pharmacists,” Diego says while around him, staff serve frothing, steaming, flowery drinks in all kinds of bizarre receptacles. “We’re prescribing things to people, things that take time to develop and perfect. We shouldn’t just be churning out drink after drink.”

From the list of ‘prescriptions’, I’m served a Saint-Léger: a delicious concoction of lemongrass, gin, cognac, lemon and coconut, crowned with a honey-slicked plantain crisp and wasabi peas. It puts the piña colada to claggy, saccharine shame. 

Until bars like Salmón Gurú, Madrid had a fairly demure cocktail scene; drinkers relied on classic old venues like Museo Chicote, a favourite with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Grace Kelly. As for what to drink, the simple gin and tonic was the go-to. It’s long been a staple of the Spanish bar and still today, they’re the mark of a good bartender, I’m told by one local: a big, ice-filled glass of deftly paired gin, garnish and tonic that’s bigger, bolder and colder than what you or I might expect on a summer afternoon. 

While there’s no doubt he can make a killer G&T, it’s Diego’s more inventive concoctions that have helped put Madrid onto the mixology map. However, the city wasn’t his first home after moving to Spain.

“I used to tend bars in Barcelona before moving here,” he says. I wonder if he prefers coastal or capital city. “Oh, I couldn’t choose,” he laughs. “But I do love Madrid.” 

Whatever libation guides you through a night here, all roads lead to one place. Just off busy Puerta del Sol is Chocolatería San Ginés, an all-night sanctuary for the tired and hungry since 1894. Inside, photos of famous patrons deck the green-and-white walls as teacups are lined up along the bar like soldiers, ready to be filled with melted chocolate and whisked off with a plate of churros. “Hombre, we see all kinds of people in here,” a waitress tells me. “Tourists in the day, madrileños [Madrilenians] at night. When you’re not ready to go home, then you come here for churros.”

Almost on cue, the waitress rushes to greet a friend who’s wandered in; the latter’s face is streaked with tears. After hugs and kisses, she’s ushered to a table and served a mound of churros and a mug of chocolate. And just like that, her world is a better place.

 

Insider tips

Vermouth is the city’s tipple of choice. It’s served nearly everywhere, but rustic Stop Madrid, in Malasaña, and Taberna de Ángel Sierra in Chueca are true local institutions well worth seeking out. 

Don’t forget to switch to local time to make the most of the night. As a rule of thumb, locals generally don’t head out to eat until 10pm, finishing up around midnight. From there, it’s drinks until around 2.30am, after which many make their way to the clubs, which largely close at 6am. 

If clubbing’s your thing, check out Madrid Lux, where you’ll find night-by-night event listings and details of how to book onto VIP guest lists. 

 

Essentials

Getting there & around
Various airlines fly direct to Madrid including British Airways from Heathrow, Gatwick and Dublin; Iberia from Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham; EasyJet from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh and Liverpool; and Ryanair from Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin. 

Average flight time: 2h10min.

The city centre is generally easy to cover on foot, but single fares on the 14-line metro system start at €1.50 (£1.30). More info: metromadrid.es

When to go
Spring and autumn are ideal at around 20C. Winters are bright but chilly (3-4C). Summers, though, can get extremely hot with highs of 40C-plus. 

More info
Madrid Tourism

Bespoke Travel Spain

Where to stay
VP Plaza España Design (home to the Ginkgo Sky Bar) has doubles from €196 (£169), room only. 

Located in Chueca, 7 Islas Hotel offers doubles from €120 (£103), room only. 

How to do it
British Airways Holidays has return economy flights and two nights’ accommodation, B&B, from £129 per person. 

Follow @connorjmcgovern

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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