Adorned with verses and plaques in memory of writers, many intellectuals and countless people are attracted by its lively nightlife and its proximity to major museums. Truly, Barrio de las Letras is one of the most charming areas of the city.
With its proximity to Paseo del Prado and its museums, many tourists flock to the neighbourhood bars and terraces to rest and recharge their batteries between art viewings.
Huertas Street and its surroundings make up an especially busy area thanks to the numerous haunts there, many of which are open until dawn. Santa Ana Square is one of the spots most frequented by locals and visitors to have a cold beer on one of the terraces during the summer months. If that’s not your style, wander around getting lost among the narrow streets and you’re sure to discover many a charming place for a tipple and a bite to eat.
Despite retaining this aura of tradition, in recent years the neighbourhood has undergone a major renovation and an increasing number of bars, restaurants, and shops have settled here.
Barrio de las Letras is in the middle of a gastronomic boom. Almost daily new and modern restaurants open their doors with all kinds of treats on the menu. Market cuisine is mixed with international flavours, yet traditional Spanish food is not forgotten, and décor figures as an important part of the business. Bars that have been around for decades are now making a bit of room for flirty little cafés that make you feel at home as soon as you walk in.
Huertas area is known as the Barrio de las Letras although it is not a neighborhood in its legal-administrative sense. The reason is the intense literary activity that developed in the streets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which continues today.
The name “Huertas” derives from the late Middle Ages, when these fertile lands were owned by the Marquis de Castaneda, who were devoted to growing vegetables for consumption of the inhabitants of the village.
With the growth of the population in the sixteenth century, the neighborhood was subject to progressive urbanization, configured as a suburb. People were gradually taking up residence who could not afford the high costs of staying near the Royal Palace, including prominent writers of the Golden Age Spanish as Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Gongora.
Many of the houses still retain architectural elements of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, although most of the buildings were renovated in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century and almost none of them passes four heights. These features give the area a picturesque look and some old character that contrasts with more modern areas of the capital of Spain.
From Plaza de Santa Ana, famous for its open air terrace cafés and tapas bars, streets like Calle de las Huertas, with its cobbles carved with quotations from great Spanish writers, run downhill towards Paseo del Prado. Precisely in Calle Lope de Vega, in the church of San Ildefonso (the convent of the Trinitarias Descalzas) there is a commemorative plaque to remind you that somewhere in the building lie the mortal remains of the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Not far from here (in Calle Cervantes, in fact) is the house-museum of the great dramatist Lope de Vega, who is also buried here in the neighbourhood, in the church of San Sebastián (in Calle Atocha).
One of the favourite events of frequent visitors to the neighbourhood is the Mercado de la Ranas. On the first Saturday of each month, local shop owners take their goods out on to the street, decorate their shop windows and run special offers, while concerts and street theatre add to the lively atmosphere.
Within walking distance you will find Retiro Park. This green oasis in the centre of Madrid has 125 hectares and is home to over 15,000 trees. From the botanical point of view, the Park includes some very important gardens: the Jardín de Vivaces, the Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez (classical gardens of an Andalusian style), the Jardines del Arquitecto Herrero Palacios, the Rose Garden, and the Parterre Francés with the oldest tree in Madrid, a bald cypress that is believed to be 400 years old.
The Park is not only the lungs of Madrid, but also offers cultural, leisure, and sport activities to all people, those from Madrid and those visiting. Among its architectural, historical, and popular elements are the lake for rowing, and the Velázquez and Glass palaces, both used today as exhibition halls. The Glass Palace, a romantic pavilion created to house a collection of exotic plants for the Philippine Exhibition of 1887, is one of the main examples of cast-iron architecture in Spain.
In addition, the retreat shelters outstanding sculptures and fountains such as: the Monument to Alfonso XII by architect José Grasés Riera; the Reserve of Ferdinand VII, located at the corner of O’Donnell and Menéndez Pelayo streets, which includes the Casa del Pescador; the artificial mountain; and the Casa del Contrabandista (formerly, Florida Park banquet hall) which confers a romantic air; the statue of the fallen angel, the only sculpture in the world representing the devil; and the Galápagos Fountain created to commemorate the birth of Isabel II.