Madrid Reborn

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor hosts many artists selling their crafts around Christmas.

If you haven’t been to Madrid lately, now’s the time to go. After eight years of citywide renovations—pedestrianizing the entire urban zone and transforming the derelict wasteland along the Manzanares river into a leafy park—the Spanish capital has morphed into one of Europe’s most exciting destinations. Beyond the Big Three museums (the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza), new contemporary art centers like CentroCentro and the CaixaForum Madrid are stealing the spotlight. Combine that with avant-garde fashion and cuisine (thanks, Ferran Adrià!), and Madrid will have you itching to pull an all-nighter so as not to miss a thing.

Villa Magna Prestige Suites
Villa Magna Prestige Suites have Magic Mirror flat-screen TVs for a subtle-yet-trendy effect.

After a night out in this all-hours party town, you’ll want to rest your weary head at the Hotel Villa Magna on Paseo de la Castellana at the edge of the chic Salamanca district. Filled with contemporary art, this five-star address is a favorite of celebrities and international dignitaries in need of discreet service. When Luxury Travel Advisor stayed at the hotel this fall, Lenny Kravitz breezed through check-in unnoticed, and L.A. Laker Pau Gasol—fresh from helping his Spanish team win the FIBA European Basketball Championship—gave media interviews in the lobby without the usual crowds of fawning fans. (Though we hear that Lady Gaga’s parade of shopping bags en route to her suite tipped off fellow guests about her shopping spree!)

Head Concierge Angel Masa ([email protected]; 011-34-915-871-246) has charmed this exacting clientele for 39 years. He can set up private dinners in the Prado Museum, organize cooking classes so you can learn the secrets of molecular cuisine (spherificated olives, anyone?), and arrange for a personal shopper to give you the inside scoop on Spanish fashion designers like Felipe Varela and Alma Aguilar. As the president of the Spanish chapter of Les Clefs d’Or since 1999, Masa is somewhat of a celebrity in the concierge world. An example of his concierge prowess: For clients desperate to see a sold-out opera premiere, Masa dressed them up as cast members and seated them on the stage.

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The Villa Magna
The Villa Magna lounge opts for quiet glamor rather than over-the-top opulence.

This devoted staff is what distinguishes the Villa Magna from its competitors. Even when it closed for 17 months in 2007 for a top-to-bottom overhaul, the hotel kept all of its employees on the payroll. In the restaurants, waiters are quick to bring a footstool for your handbag, and your morning café con leche arrives promptly with a basket of flakey croissants. Evening turndown service finds a silver tray with macarons and herbal tea placed on your coffee table; and, by the bed, a bottle of mineral water and a jar of hand cream, scented with the hotel’s custom fragrance by perfume maker Blaise Mautin.

Still gleaming with the 50 million euro makeover, the Villa Magna is quietly glamorous rather than in-your-face opulent, and dressed in noble tones and custom-made designer furnishings. The lobby lounge, haute cuisine restaurants and leafy terraces are abuzz with conversation. This hotel is a fashionable destination for both conducting business and relaxing with a cocktail. During Fashion Week, locals gather in the bar to watch the runway shows. And the outdoor event space—one of the finest in Madrid—sets the stage for high-profile meetings and weddings.

Villa Magna Junior Suites
Villa Magna Junior Suites are among the most popular accommodations.

The renovation reduced the room count from 182 to 150, meaning that even the smallest room category (the Magna Room) is generously sized. (The Grand Prestige Rooms and Junior Suites are the most popular.) All rooms come with Magic Mirror flat-screen TVs, walk-in closets with dressing areas, and enormous marble bathrooms with rain showers, separate soaking tubs and Penhaligon’s toiletries. The renovation bumped up the number of suites from 18 to 50, and Villa Magna now has the most suites in any hotel in Spain. Like sophisticated penthouse apartments, the Royal and Real Suites on the top (ninth) floor are droolworthy digs with furnished outdoor terraces showing off the city skyline. Brad Pitt chose to throw his birthday bash in the Real Suite. Was it the grand piano, Turkish hamam, or the private Pilates room that charmed him the most? For reservations, contact Front Office Manager Victor Colmena ([email protected]; 011-34-915-871-234).

Our restaurant picks: When in Madrid…do as the Madrileños do. Start your day (or finish your soirée) at Chocolatería San Ginés, an institution since the 19th century, for the city’s most famous churros and hot chocolate. Before lunch, browse the treats at the San Miguel market before grabbing a place at the counter for oysters washed down with white wine. The brand new market, San Anton, in the Chueca neighborhood is another foodie’s fantasy—its gourmet stalls brimming with jamón ibérico and artisanal cheeses. The trendy top-floor terrace restaurant has been packed since day 1. Lunch is a great value priced at $17.70 for two courses plus a drink and post-meal coffee. It’s even possible to pick out your ingredients at the market and then have them prepared for you in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Villa Magna Magnum Bar
Villa Magna Magnum Bar is as sophisticated as it is cozy.

Another notable newcomer: Poncelet Cheese Bar is a design-led restaurant decked out with Nordic-style furniture and a vertical garden covering a wall. Some 145 cheeses are available to taste on a cheese platter, and each menu item showcases a different gourmet cheese, inviting diners to revel in the “culture of cheese.” For a taste of Old World Madrid, book a table at Lhardy, which has been serving bountiful traditional recipes in aristocratic surroundings for 150 years. After “shopping ’til you drop” in Salamanca, dress to the nines for a night out at Loft 39. Or hit Le Cabrera for cocktails and tapas-sized epicurean delights.

And don’t leave town without indulging in molecular gastronomy. Spain has been at the forefront of this movement ever since Ferran Adrià opened El Bulli, the world’s most celebrated restaurant until it served its last supper on July 30. Adrià’s protégées continue to pave the way for culinary experimentation, and Chef Paco Roncero makes magic with liquid nitrogen at Madrid’s Michelin-starred La Terraza del Casino