Imagine yourself, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a reserved guest at a spectacular, noisy party. You step into a quiet corner and find yourself in conversation with a soft-spoken, elegant stranger, who turns out to be your host. Perhaps he calls you “old sport,” as if to suggest a shared club membership.
That’s the tone of breezy, casual elegance aimed for at the Principal Madrid, a five-star hotel tucked into a Renaissance-style building at the quiet start of the main drag of Madrid, one of the liveliest round-the-clock streets in Europe.
For those who want to sample the undiluted intensity of Madrid, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start. You’re at the gateway to the 24-hour fiesta of the Gran Via, which is like Broadway with a Spanish bounce, where people push together como arroz (like rice), before splitting up to visit the countless cinemas, boutiques, restaurants and clubs in in the nearby maze of streets.
At the same time, you’re on the bridge to the grand heart of Madrid, the Plaza de Cibeles, among the sculptures, fountains and the cathedral-like city hall, Cybele Palace. From there, it’s a short walk down Paseo del Prado to explore the cultural treasures of the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums. Almost everything is within walking distance, and the rest can be reached via four nearby metro stations.
With its Renaissance arches, mid-century furniture and a charcoal-and-grey colour scheme that evokes the backgrounds of Renaissance portraits at the nearby Prado museum, Principal Madrid feels like a period movie set, waiting for you to write your own script.
You enter, not by the front door on Gran Via, but on a side street, Calle de Marques de Valdeiglesias, where you check in with the black-uniformed doormen. Two small glass-and-steel elevators – one for hotel guests, one for people heading to the restaurant – whisk you up to the sixth-floor reception.
Though the muted colours continue into the guest rooms, the details transition to bachelor-pad minimalism: framed abstract ink doodles on the walls, a houndstooth-patterned throw on the bed and black shiny subway tiles in the bathroom. This sets the context for lots of techie amenities: free WiFi, a Bluetooth sound system, an app to download free newspapers and a capsule coffee machine.
If I could change one thing
After hours of art-gazing or club-hopping, you may feel the need to break a healthy sweat, but the Principal Madrid’s minimal, condo-style gym is disappointing. As compensation, you’re a few minutes from the splendid and sprawling Buen Retiro Park, with its formal gardens, rental bikes and long running paths.
Eat in or eat out?
The main dining room, La Pergola, is overseen by two-star Michelin chef Ramon Freixa. With its glass walls, rattan roof, potted plants and views over the city, it’s like dining in the garden in the sky. Whether it’s a potato salad (served in a hard taco shell, with hard-boiled egg and a brush stroke of tomato sauce on the side) or his Barcelona-style crème brûlée (creamy and crunchy in a tall glass, with a tangy lemon layer in the middle), Friexa gives the familiar a conceptually witty, and tasty, twist. But it would be a crime to limit yourself to just one chef in Madrid. Eight Michelin-starred restaurants in the city are within less than a half-hour walk from the Principal.
The view. Though the rooftop bar is closed in winter, guests are still welcome to go up for a look. The seven-storey height is exactly right to admire a pair of fanciful early 20th-century, Madrid landmarks, the Beaux-Arts Metropolis building, with its gold-leaf-covered tower, topped by a statue of Winged Victory, and the eclectic Grassy building, which resembles an ornate slice of birthday cake. Turn around, and you’re eye level with the intricate 18th-century spires of the Church of San Jose. The whole panorama feels like a chance to eavesdrop on the conversation between inspirational architecture from different eras.
Whom you'll meet
The clients are international and eclectic – a middle-aged German couple on holiday, young Americans travelling with their in-laws, a trio of young Russian dudes on a tour – along with locals, from Madrileno couples double-dating at La Pergola or or middle-aged senoras catching up over a glass of cava in the lounge. The focus is on experienced travellers who will appreciate the hotel’s convenience, the distinctive style and some unobtrusive cosseting during downtime in the heart of a bustling city.
Principal Madrid, Marques de Valdeiglesias 1 (corner of Gran Via 2), theprincipalmadridhotel.com; 76 rooms from $394 (€260).
The writer was a guest of the hotel.