Life in Letras

Published November 21, 2013

One of Madrid’s oldest barrios is home to some of the best and newest restaurants, shops, and events in the city.

By Olivia Young

In old Madrid, tucked somewhere between the constant, pressing bustle of Puerta de Sol and the commerce-rich Calle de Atocha, you’ll find the charming and quintessential neighborhood called Barrio de Las Letras. Its narrow, winding streets and classic architecture evoke both the lyrical, colorful Spain visitors expect and the lively, non-stop metropolis of which that its residents, the madrileños, are so proud of. Its streets are lined with unique boutiques, authentic tapas bars, and used book shops — the last which, of course, speaks to the barrio’s rich history.

Barrio de Las Letras, or “Letras” for short, takes its name from the famous Spanish writers who once lived there, including Félix Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quévado, and Miguel Cervantes, according to Turespaña. In Letras, their legacy is set in stone — literally. Stamped into the cobbled streets are shining metal letters spelling out passages from Spain’s most treasured works, a fitting tribute to the Siglo de Oro (Golden Age) writers.

Madrid's Barrio de las Letras. Photo by Olivia Young.

Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras. Photo by Olivia Young.

Today, the neighborhood boasts a distinctive bohemian feel, emphasized by a wide mix of locally owned restaurants, bars and businesses whose owners persevere despite the economic crisis. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best museums, including El Museo Reina Sofía and El Museo Nacional del Prado.

You can truly find a little bit of everything in Letras, from sprawling, airy plazas to a grassroots indoor market and some of the best Vietnamese food in the city. Whether you’re visiting Madrid for a couple days or you’ve lived there for a couple years, you’ll love getting to know one of the most beautiful parts of the city.

Getting There: Metro Antón Martín

The Letras Authors

Francisco de Quévado:
According to the Fundación Francisco de Quévado, the author was born into a Castilian noble family on September 14, 1580. The author is best known as a poet: He wrote more than 300 poems in his lifetime, although they weren’t published as a collection until after his death in 1645. In addition to his fame as poet, Quévado was also a renowned politician, satirist, and literary critic.

He began his studies at the Colegio Imperial de la Compañía de Jesús, (now the Instituto de San Isidro de Madrid) a Jesuit university where much of Spain’s nobility was educated at the time. There, he studied grammar, rhetoric, and the humanities. Quévado later continued his education at both the University of Alcalá and the University of Valladolid.

Quévado died on September 8, 1646 at the age of 64, leaving behind a legacy of poetry and highly educated works that live on to this day.

Miguel Cervantes:

Miguel Cervantes was born near Madrid in 1547, according to Cervantes is famous for Don Quixote, the classic tale of adventure on the Spanish plains. His first published work was a set of poems, which appeared in 1569.

His earlier works, including a novel and multiple plays, failed to earn him critical or social acclaim. Finally, in 1605, he published the first part of Don Quixote, which tells the story of an old man who gets lost in his own delusions of military grandeur.

Cervantes published the second half of the novel in 1615. Although the book didn’t bring him wealth during his lifetime, his unique work lives on as one of the most important literary classics in the world.

Madrid's Barrio de las Letras. Photo by Olivia Young.

Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras. Photo by Olivia Young.

Where to Eat:

Whether you’re craving authentic Spanish tapas or a more global experience, Letras has a restaurant to fit the bill.

Vietnam Restaurant: For some of the best Vietnamese food in the city, head to Calle de las Huertas 4. Vietnam Restaurant offers a cozy dining experience and delicious classics, like pho and spring rolls, for reasonable prices. Calle Huertas 4. Hours: Tue – Sun: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.

Casa Gonzalez: Casa González is known for their good wine and good Spanish food. The best part? They sell most of their wares in the bar, so you can take your favorites home with you. Calle León, 12. Hours not available.

Dionisos: Pop in to Dionisos for a culinary trip to the Greek Isles — without ever leaving Madrid. Their menu is full of the Greek classics you’re craving, and the atmosphere is just right for a relaxing evening out. Calle de San Gregorio, 11.

Cafetería Miranda: Cafetería Miranda boasts classic Spanish cuisine and drinks mixed with fresh, new flavors and regional dishes. Stop by in autumn for their irresistible in-season pumpkin and goat cheese quiche, or enjoy one of their delicious mojitos. Calle de Las Huertas 29. Mon – Sun 8:00 p.m. – 03:00 p.m.

Vertical Caffé: Located between the Museo Reina Sofía and CaixaForum, Vertical Caffé is the perfect place to stop for a café con leche after an afternoon at the museum. They offer all the café classics, from espresso to lattés, but they also have delicious mochas and shakes (batidos). Calle de Almadén, 26. Mon-Fri 8:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m., Sat-Sun 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.

What to Do:

El Mercado de Las Ranas
: Literally translated, El Mercado de Las Ranas means “The Frog’s Market.” It takes place first Saturday of each month and is dedicated to supporting small business in the Letras neighborhood. Stroll through the market and enjoy the sampling of local wares, from artisan pieces to clothing and food.

Plaza Santa Ana: Wander around Letras and you’ll eventually find yourself in Plaza Santa Ana. Lined with hotels, restaurants, and open-air terraces, the plaza is the perfect place to spend an afternoon (or evening).

CaixaForum Madrid: CaixaForum is an exhibition and conference center that hosts film and art shows, as well as visiting lectures. The exhibits change every few months, so there’s always something new to see. Adult tickets: 4 euros. Entrance is free for La Caixa bank customers. Paseo del Prado, 36, 28014 Madrid, Spain. Mon – Sun 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía: The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, or just “Reina Sofía” for short, hosts Madrid’s best modern art, including several works by the infamous Salvador Dalí. Mon – Sun 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Olivia Young graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors from Drake University, where she earned a double major in magazines and English. She is currently teaching English in Madrid. Find out more on her website and her blog, Travels Untranslated.