As soon as I am off the plane at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, and go through customs and baggage, I am queing up to catch a taxi. Yea! I’m in Spain, and am finally able to utter my first Spanish phrases, and listen to the machine-gun speed Castillian accent! The taxi driver asks, “¿Adóndeva, señora?” (Where are you going, ma’am). I answer, “La Plaza Santa Ana.”
For more than 10 years I have held the Plaza Santa Ana as my epicenter for all my activities when In Madrid. It is one of Madrid’s historical neighborhood plazas that dates back many centuries. It has been a place to gather, to meet up, to rally, to serve as the neighborhood park for centuries.
Plaza Santa Ana is just now being exploited by the tourist industry, with new hotels going into renovated palatial buildings, and new restaurants taking over the spaces of old family businesses that have run out of family members who want to continue the business. Regardless of the tourism, Plaza Santa Ana holds its charm and maintains the monumental architecture that is characteristic to Madrid. The plaza also continues to be one of Madrid’s most popular areas for nightlife. Madrid is famous for its nightlife which doesn’t begin until around midnight, and can go on until dusk, if so desired. (There is a reason Spaniards have heavy shutters on every window, so they can shutter out any light and sound for their much needed siesta!)
Plaza Santa Ana has held me in its geographical grasp for many years, because it has everything I need and every activity I love within a 10 block radius. I am not saying this is all there is in Madrid, it is not, this is just the tip of the iceberg. But if you only have a few days to spend in Madrid, this plaza is the perfect area to centralize and branch out from there.
I must admit, on a chilly winter day the plaza looks a bit bleak with a lone statue of Federico Garcia Lorca (a famous Spanish poet during the early 1900’s) on the east end. But once the activity starts to pick up in the early evening, or the surrounding venues start business for the day, Plaza Santa Ana transforms into a bustling place to be. The concrete plaza is surrounded on all four sides by a variety of yummy restaurants. In the spring and summer, the restaurants expand their service onto the plaza by offering terrace dining on tables with brightly colored umbrellas. The waiters scurry back and forth across the narrow street from the restaurant to the terrace on the plaza, and street performers stroll by trying to earn a few tips. The variety of performers keeps everyone entertained. Entertainment ranges from a flamenco dancer and her guitarist, a band (literally) of Romanian musicians, to mimes costumed and painted from head to toe. There is a lot of eye candy!
On the west side of the plaza is the luxurious newly renovated ME by Meliá Hotel, formerly the famous Reina Victoria Hotel. This beautiful hotel fills up the short block. It has the most prominent and impressive architecture on the plaza. This hotel was once the hangout for the most famous bullfighters of Spain. The bullfighters would come there to dress in their ‘traje de luz’ (suit of lights) for the ‘corrida’(the bullfight), and then hop into their limos to be taken straight to the bullring in the “Las Ventas” area. The charming old bullfighter’s bar has been replaced by a modern rooftop bar with a spectacular view of Madrid.
On the south side of the plaza are restaurants for all tastes: The Muii Muii, yes as in cats, international cuisine, heavy on the Spanish style cuisine. Up the street a couple bars away from the Miuu Miuu is a quite popular brewery, the Cerveceria Alemana (German Brewery) which serves “Natur Bier,” meaning natural beer in German. The only thing I find German about this place is the name and possibly the beer. The beer is made on the premises, at least some of it, and is very popular with beer lovers. The highlight of this restaurant is the fresh food, delicious Spanish dishes, great tapas, good for vegetarians or carnivores. A good meal at reasonable prices is always a guarantee here. Continuing up the street on the corner, you’ll find a grass hut façade of a Hawaiian restaurant! No lack of variety on this square.
On the east side of the plaza is the Teatro Español, as it has been used for theatrical productions since the mid 1500’s. The structure has changed throughout the centuries due to multiple fires. Its facade has a wedding cake like decoration that drapes across it elegantly, which reminds us of its antiquity and importance as a theatrical venue over time. Next to the theatre is my favorite vinoteca. A wine bar where wines from many regions of Spain and other international labels are sold. Exceptional tapas are also served at the Vinoteca, I highly recommend the ‘tosta’ (toast) served with goat cheese, roasted pepper and carmelized onions – mmmmm!
On the north side of the plaza is an important location, the ATM. This ATM looks as though it might not work, and it is impossible to see the screen if the sun is hitting it about mid-morning, but it has always worked for me. OJO: (Caution) Be careful when using an ATM if there are few people around, always watch your back! I like to observe the native Madrileños, and see how they conduct their business at the ATM or how they are holding on to their purses. The locals know better than we tourists how cautious one should be.
Beyond the ATM and bank are a couple more Spanish restaurants. Make sure and check out the menus at the entrance of the restaurants. This allows you to see how much you might have to spend . ¡ OJO! The bill is always higher if you choose to sit on the terrace, the food will be more highly priced and/or a service fee may be added onto the bill. A little farther down the street is my favorite breakfast and/or coffee hangout in Madrid, La Suiza. The kind gentleman with a welcoming smile behind the bar, is quick to greet you and take your order. Here you can experience some of the best coffee in Madrid, and that says a lot because Spanish coffee is great everywhere. In La Suiza, you can soak up the Spanish culture, have your coffee at the bar where the locals come in, and have their small breakfast before heading off to work. A typical Spanish breakfast that I like to order is a croissant “a la plancha” (toasted on the grill) with mantequilla y mermelada de melocotón (butter with peach jam) y un café con leche (coffee with milk). The coffee is definitely not American size, it is a small cup filled half with espresso and half with hot milk, probably as much as we really need, no super-sizing in Spain. There are also many other items on the menu to choose from: eggs, toasts, pastries, juices, to name a few.
As I previously mentioned, Plaza Santa Ana is a great location to base yourself while visiting Madrid. Apart from the variety of restaurants, there are hostels and hotels surrounding the plaza, which will fit any travel budget. Plaza Santa Ana is alsoa 5 minute walk from Spain’s finest museums, El Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (give yourself 15 minutes to walk here from Plaza Santa Ana). The plaza is 5 minutes from the Puerta del Sol, the absolute “centro” (center) of Madrid, 10 minutes from the Plaza Mayor and Madrid Antiguo (the oldest historical part of Madrid). And for those who love Flamenco, a 5 minute walk to the famous dance studio, Amor de Dios.
Believe me, if you want a taste of old Madrid, stay in or near Plaza Santa Ana and you will find night life, great dining experiences, shopping, activity, museums and historical sites just a few steps away from your hotel!