A wandermelon insider details the transformation of Chueca, one of Madrid’s trendiest neighborhoods.
There’s something highly appealing about watching a neighborhood’s dramatic transformation. Youth sub-culture especially seems to idealize the abject and strive to refashion it into something “hip.” Similar to NYC’s Meatpacking makeover, Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood is a prime example of a former run-down barrio that has become one of the cities coolest areas. Luckily for me, it happens to be where I call home.
Chueca’s initial transformation took place in the 70s, during which time it became a central location, along with neighboring Malasaña, in Madrid’s “Movida.” Like teenagers bursting onto the college scene after years under strict parental guidance, young Madrileños leapt out into free society after the death of Franco in extreme fashion. Chueca became an area distinguished by an abundance of drugs, crime and prostitution. That is until about 15 years ago when the gay population of the city adopted the neighborhood and transformed the troubled “barrio” into a trendy hotspot littered with quirky and fabulous shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries. Recently, this area has become known not only for the young, free-spirited people and businesses that populate it, but also for the highest real estate prices in the city. While gentrification certainly brings some negative effects such as cost of living, it is undeniable that this neighborhood has become a fantastic and essential area to explore on any trip to Madrid.
Chueca is conveniently located in the center of the city and is a short walk from most popular sites such as the Prado and the Plaza Mayor. Though it garners most of its attention from its offbeat nightlife, Chueca boasts some significant architecture within its borders. My favorite is the Longoria Palace, the sole example in Madrid of Catalan modernista architecture reminiscent of Gaudi’s famed work in Barcelona. The playful and ornately decorated building was designed in 1902 by José Grasés Riera for the banker Javier González Longoria and is currently owned by the Spanish writers’ and artists’ association.
Other noteworthy architectural achievements in the area include “La Iglesia de las Salesas,” a lovely Baroque church built in 1705, the Municipal Museum and Library, another example of Baroque architecture with a stunning, bright pink façade, and “The House of the Seven Chimneys,” a residence from the 16th century with a fascinating history. Many people speculate about this eerie looking building but the most popular story is that the ghost of a former lover of King Felipe the II haunts the building that now houses the Ministry of Culture.
As you set off on your day or weekend of indulging in all that is Chueca, you will obviously need to know where to find the tastiest treats. If you want to have a fantastic traditional tapas experience, you have to try “El Bocaito”. This restaurant, founded in 1966, has a delicious, unique menu. I recommend forgoing the restaurant and taking a seat at the bar to watch the bartenders preparing food with the precision of a heart surgeon. Here you can enjoy colorful salads and delicious little toasts topped with your choice of meat and fish. If you like spicy food, the “Luisito” is the most heavenly but also spiciest cuisine I’ve ever tried. Afterwards, if it’s a nice day, you might want to enjoy a beverage in Chueca’s Square where you can find “La Taberna Angel Sierra,” a bar famous for its Vermouth on tap. It is always a happening place, overflowing with locals and tourists alike.
Another hotspot located one block from the square is the recently opened Mercado de San Anton. This market contains a variety of fresh produce on the first floor, small stations featuring food from around the world on the second floor, and a restaurant and bar on the roof. If Chueca coincides with a homesick phase of your trip and you have a hankering for a burger, you must try the “San Wich,” a Chilean restaurant that offers outrageously delicious hamburgers, hotdogs, and pisco sours. If you’re in the mood for a good coffee and a snack, particularly if it’s before 1:30 pm when most restaurants are closed, I recommend “El Diurno,” Chueca’s local video rental store. Thankfully, El Diurno doubles as a café and has refreshing coffee and tea as well as yummy prepared foods like salads, sandwiches, and pastas that you can enjoy in the hip sitting area or take on the road. I personally love to grab a sandwich and head to the Retiro Park, just a 10-minute walk away, for a picnic.
The neighborhood is jam packed with unconventional shops and contemporary art galleries. On Calle Fuencarral, the main shopping street strictly for pedestrians, you will come across mostly name brand stores. The more exciting approach is wandering the streets and popping into random specialty shops or boutiques that catch your eye.
Ironically, despite the fact that Chueca has been associated with an attitude of embracing one’s own distinctiveness, there seems to be a confusion of identity in many of the local businesses. You can find several hair salons that are acting as art galleries, either showing local artists work or painting large murals on the walls. Also many of the art galleries double as bars, as they often have lively openings offering food and beverages. Bookstores also join in on the fun, becoming any number of things on any given day. One impressive example of this phenomenon is the store “La Cabeza Bien Amueblada” or “The Well Furnished Head” which is a combination hair and beauty salon, clothing shop, and furniture/interior design store. This blurring of identities really sums up the spirit of this neighborhood. Playfulness and spontaneity are found around every corner and make visiting Chueca a truly one-of-a-kind experience.