In Madrid’s bohemian, bookworm-favoured Barrio de las Letras, Gran Hotel Inglés is a historic hotel brought back to life. Back in the day – the original incarnation opened its soon-to-be-hallowed doors in 1886 – all of Spain’s literary and artistic movers and shakers moved and shook here. Sound fun? We’d wager it’s even better nowadays, thanks to a restoration by American architect David Rockwell. Art deco influences abound, as does tasty tapas – both in the lupine Casa Lobo and beyond the hotel, where all Madrid’s key cultural players are but a short amble away.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm, also flexible.
Double rooms from £371.36 (€417), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates don’t usually include breakfast (€30 for over-12s; €25 for ages 3–12; free for under-3s).
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout, gym, valet parking. In rooms: TV, iPod dock, air-conditioning, soundproofing system, minibar, free bottled water, tea- and coffee-making kit, wellies and L’Occitane bath products.
Our favourite rooms
If a (Twenties-style, freestanding, roll-top) bath is a dealbreaker, don’t choose a Deluxe. If a balcony’s your bag, request a room with one when you book. All rooms have an art deco influence, with soft grey chairs, gilded edges and velvet headboards, but if you’d prefer to survey the streets of the lively literary quarter below, opt for an outward-facing room, rather than one overlooking the inner courtyard.
There’s a petite Jacuzzi plunge pool in the spa, which you’ll need to book in advance.
The award-winning Le Max Wellness Club Spa deploys Sisley Paris products for facials, massages and other rejuvenating rituals (which include vinotherapy and jet-lag cures) in its four treatment rooms.
Stubble, scarves and specs will help you look the literary part; a well-thumbed copy of an early-20th-century Spanish classic might help you keep up the pretence.
Some rooms have been specially adapted for wheelchair users, but the restaurant isn’t wheelchair accessible.
Sit next to the open kitchen if you want to get some tapas tips; otherwise, go for one of the round booths.
Not too shaggy.
Casa Lobo is so called after the Spanish word for wolf, and there are lupine references everywhere (except actually on your plate). Breakfast is an indulgent spread of pastries, smoothies and homemade jams; don’t miss the house-special fried eggs, served with pan con tomate and jamón ibérico. Later in the day, the classic Spanish cooking continues, with some modern mastery by two star Michelin chef Fernando Arellano thrown in. Don’t miss the croquetas; other favourites include the almond gazpacho and truffled eggs with chorizo and fried potatoes.
LobByto is in the lobby (natch) and the first thing you see as you enter the hotel (handy if you’re desperate for a drink). The staff channel Jay Gatsby’s styleas they mix up dry martinis; there’s also a whole menu dedicated to gin. Tasty tapas (mini stew of the day, squid sandwiches, and so on) are served whenever you want them. There’s also an impressive choice of wine, vermouth and beer.
Breakfast is from 7am until 11am; lunch hours are 1.30pm to 4pm; dinner service is 8.30pm until 11.30pm, and for night owls, the bar is open until 1am, or until you choose to retire.
Breakfast and a series of snacks, salads and sandwiches (including some child-friendly options) can be served in-room.
Gran Hotel Inglés is in Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras, aka the literary quarter.
Madrid’s Barajas airport is 14 kilometres away; the drive should take about 20 minutes, and hotel transfers start from €100 each way.
The city’s grand old Atocha station is a 15-minute drive from the hotel; transfers start at €75. Renfe services arrive from other cities across Europe, including Barcelona, Lyon and Marseille (www.renfe.com).
The city-centre setting means you won’t need a car to get around; parking at the hotel costs €50 a day if you insist.
Worth getting out of bed for
The marvels of Madrid are laid out before you, whether you want to go for a jog (optimistic) around El Retiro Park, the entrance to which is 15 minutes on foot from Gran Hotel, shop along the callesGran Via or Serrano, or visit the Prado museum. Raise a toast to all things cerveza in the old-fashioned German beer hall Cerveceria Alemana, which has been serving fermented hops to thirsty punters since 1904. A flea market has existed on the same site as El Rastro since the Middle Ages; magpies can get their fix every Sunday and public holiday. Trainspotters will love the 19th-century Atocha station, which is still in operation but has simultaneously been transformed into a tropical garden. The barrio has lots of flamenco shows, the oldest of which can be witnessed at Corral de la Moreria, a 20-minute walk from the hotel.
Hipster-favoured Habanera on Calle de Genova has indoor palms, parquet floors and a buzzy brunch vibe. For some of the best tapas in town and a whole load of old-school, wood-panelled charm, hit up Bodega de la Ardosa on Calle de Colon, which has been deep-frying croquetas since 1892. Madrid’s oldest-restaurant prize however goes to Sobrino de Botin (est. 1725), which is touristy but traditional – be sure to book if you want to devour delicious suckling pig. Push the boat (and the purse strings) out at the three-Michelin-star Diver XO, the two-star Coque and Bibo.
Nocturnal sorts will find like-minded souls and great music at the Jungle Jazz Clubon Calle de Jorge Juan. Stick around to the end of the night and join the clubbers in possibly the best local tradition we’ve ever heard of: going for churros after dancing into the small hours – everyone flocks to Chocolateria San Ginés.
We’ve been in our room at historic Madrid stay Gran Hotel Inglés for less than five minutes and Mr Smith is already splish-splashing in the Twenties-inspired standalone roll-top bath tub. ‘Join me’, he ventures; but my mind is elsewhere. ‘Let’s go eat’, I respond. We’re certainly in the right place to do so: Gran Hotel Inglés is not only steeped in history, it’s also perfectly situated for a weekend exploring all the wonders of the Spanish capital – edible and otherwise – without ever having to set foot on the Metro or hail a cab.
Gran Hotel Inglés opened in 1886, and was Madrid’s original five-star hotel. It even pre-dates the Ritz in London (which opened in 1906) and it was the Spanish residence of choice for many European royals in its glory days. Sadly, it fell into disrepair during the Spanish Civil War and, following years of decline, closed its doors in 2012. It re-opened six years later under new ownership and – following a complete restoration by the Rockwell Group – the modern-day Gran Hotel Inglés continues to pay homage to the decadent splendour of the roaring Twenties, combining elegant Art Deco design with all the comforts expected of a contemporary luxury property.
Our Premium Room is bright, airy and almost shamefully spacious, with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and plush beds dressed with cool, crisp sheets and velvet headboards. Although part of me never wants to leave (and the disgruntled look on Mr Smith’s face indicates he certainly doesn’t), we step out of our sanctuary into the glaring sunlight to explore the city.
We have arrived in Madrid on the first day of spring and the trees lining the calles and vias are gloriously green. We stroll down the road from the hotel and pass numerous sun-kissed terraces, all packed with merrily chattering people sat at tables overflowing with cold cañas, glasses of wine and arrays of delicious-looking tapas plates. And it’s not even two in the afternoon yet – also known as Spanish lunchtime. Anywhere else, things would be getting messy, but fortunately we’re in Spain, the country in which locals blithely eat and drink their way through most of the day and half the night, and yet few ever see a visibly inebriated person staggering down the street. We’re eager to learn the Madrileños secrets.
The hotel is located in Barrio de las Letras (which translates to the Literary Quarter) – once home to the likes of Don Quixote scribe Miguel de Cervantes and Baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo during the Golden Age of Spanish literature. The neighbourhood remains popular with the bohemian crowd and now houses several of Madrid’s main museums, as well as a glut of bustling streets and plazas packed with wine bars, tapas bars, cocktail bars, and any other type of bar you can name.
Yet this buzz is not unique to Barrio de Las Letras. One of the things that makes Madrid so irresistible and downright fun is the way the streets in all its neighbourhoods somehow manage to stay busy seven nights a week. In Madrid it’s never too late (or early) for a glass of wine and a tapa or five. Plus, every barrio has its own distinct character and village feel and enough hangouts filled with high-spirited locals to go around. The beauty of Barrio de Las Letras is that it’s within stumbling distance of nearly all of them – from hipster-favoured Malasaña, to gay-friendly Cheuca, edgy, Lavapiés, and historic La Latina.
We make it about five minutes down the road before stopping in for a quick bite at La Malaje, a gastronomic tapas bar that’s been causing quite a stir on Madrid’s food scene. Manuel Urbano, recently named one of the most exciting young chefs in Spain, greets us warmly and ushers us to a table. He’s known for his contemporary, Andalusian-inspired take on local cuisine and for inventive dishes such as white-prawn tartare with cured egg yolk and caviar, and pork-jowl stew with artichoke. With such tempting prospects, one thing leads to another, and three hours and a nine-course tasting menu later, we waddle out to continue our food pilgrimage.
The 48 hours that followed are all a bit of a blur, but they definitely featured Spanish omelettes; morcilla (black pudding) with apple compote and foie gras; sweet figs wrapped in crispy bacon; excessive amounts of Spanish ham; deep-fried calamari; platters of cured Manchego cheese; and an incredibly hearty casserole of chickpeas, meat and vegetables, known as cocido madrileño. It’s all washed down with multiple glasses of rich, full-bodied Ribera del Duero red, more than a few servings of crisp white Godello, some sherry, and a couple of gin and tonics served in fish-bowl glasses.
When the time came to leave Gran Hotel Inglés, two questions remained: how do the Madrileños avoid getting sloshed? And why are they never tired? We may never have the answers, but at least we know why Madrid shares the nickname ‘la ciudad que nunca duerme’ (‘the city that never sleeps’) with New York – with the former giving the latter a real run for its money.