Our local guide Will show us on this post “Lavapies Neighbourhood in Madrid”, his favourite barrio in the city: What to see, where to eat and tons of local tips!
Lavapies is a neighbourhood with a tremendously diverse history, associated with movements of the working class, immigrants and counter culture. As a result, this neighbourhood today is represented by over 80 different nationalities, offering a seemingly unlimited variety of restaurants and tapas bars, art exhibitions and music, all in one intimate, village-like environment.
When you step out of the exit at Lavapies metro you´ll find yourself at the square of its namesake, where there used to sit a fountain used by the residents for washing up. Straight away this gives you the supposed origin of its name: ´Lava´, meaning, ´Wash´, and ´Pies´, meaning ´Feet´. These days, the plumbing´s just as good anywhere else, so don´t worry, you can wash up indoors if you need to!
Plaza de Lavapies forms a small hill where at the top, residents will gather to chat and often play their own music into the late night, bringing their own chairs if there´s no room on the benches. At the bottom is the first essential eatery to visit, Portomarín. This bar specializes in dishes from Galicia, which in my opinion has the best seafood in all of Spain. The octopus is unbeatable and if you go just for a drink, you´ll be given generous portions of tapas ranging from tortilla to mussels with pickles.
Further up from the plaza on Calle Ave Maria is Melo´s, another bar that you cannot leave this city without grabbing a bite to eat from. Spanish bars don´t come much more typical than this, as to get served you have to politely, yet assertively, elbow your way through the crowd, grab the staff´s attention and yell out your drink order, along with the best croquettas in Madrid and the legendary zapatilla; a gigantic toasted ham and cheese sandwich that you could easily share between four people.
Going back to the metro entrance, if you turn and look behind you´ll see Calle Argumosa, famed for having a long stretch of terrace bars. Even in the cold winter, as long as the sun´s out this street will almost always be filled with people eating and drinking outdoors, giving it an eternal summer vibe. Get to the roundabout at the end of Argumosa and you´ll find intersecting with it, one of the strongest art quarters of Madrid, Calle Doctor Fourquet. While just a stone´s throw away is the main contemporary art centre of the Reina Sofia, Doctor Fourquet is home to a number of independent galleries and event spaces.
This includes Cruce gallery, which is the oldest surviving in Madrid from the underground art movements of the 80s and 90s. Further down the street is a gorgeous hidden gem of a communal garden. The sign out front declares, “Esta es una Plaza”. The urban garden is a tranquil space in an otherwise notoriously noisy city, and the organisers´ enthusiasm for welcoming passers-by to come and relax among their murals, gazebos and vegetable patches is one of the many things that makes Lavapies feel like a village compared to other urban settings.
To see more of what this community is capable of, continue towards Embajadores metro and you will see a towering, mural-covered building next to it called the Tabacalera. This edifice has seen some dramatic changes in Madrid having started as a liqueur production house under Carlos III in the late 1700s, and turned into a tobacco factory under the Napoleonic occupation. After years of dereliction from the start of this century it was taken over by local activists, who were demonstrating for more social spaces in the area, and remains today a self-organised space for community use. Here, you´ll find art workshops and music rehearsals amongst many other cultural activities, and overall a fascinating building to explore.
By now you´re probably getting hungry again, and in this part of the barrio you´ll still be spoilt for choice. Just a bit further up Calle Embajadores is my favourite food market in the whole city, San Fernando, where you can truly live like a Spaniard. Pick up some jamón, beers or a bottle of wine from one of the many bars inside, and enjoy the party atmosphere of the central court until closing time. If you don´t eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and may have gotten the impression so far that you may as well order a unicorn over a veggie meal, you´ll be pleased to know that San Fernando also has a vegan bar.
Behind the market is Plaza de Agustín Lara, possibly the most beautiful square of the neighbourhood. Overlooking it is the skeletal dome of an 18th Century school that was destroyed during the 1930s Republic, and you should also see the statue of the renowned Mexican musician whom this square is named after. The lyrics on the podium are from a song that Lara wrote for Madrid that has become a beloved anthem for the city. The first line reads in English:
“When you come to Madrid, my Chulona, I will make you the Empress of Lavapies…“
I don´t know whom he was writing too, but she was a lucky lady!
There´s one last spot which is an absolute essential for enjoying the food of Lavapies; a major contribution from the long established Senegalese community. Take the uphill slope leading from this square and you´ll find two amazing bars. One is a tiny place called Colores, and the second is Baobab, with terrace seating on Plaza de Nelson Mandela. Both offer cheap, soulful dishes that include sweet root vegetables, typical of Africa, in many rich sauces, my favourite being made from peanuts.
Lastly, you´re going to need to digest all that food with some dancing. Head back down the hill to the metro, again onto Argumosa, and the first left goes up Calle Salitre. On this hill is an incredibly fun Brazilian bar called Maloka. There´s usually live Bossa Nova music and great cocktails for only 6 euros. Just be sure to arrive for around 11pm because the bar is tiny and fills up quickly!
And that is merely skimming the surface of what you can experience in my favourite barrio, but more than enough to have the best time in Madrid.