Exploring Hemingway’s Madrid

Ernest Hemingway (right) and Robert McAlmon attend a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros de la Fuente del Berro in Madrid, Spain (1923), photo from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

It’s no secret that Ernest Hemingway loved his drink.  It’s also no secret that the legendary author got around, traveling across the world to places ranging from Paris to Pamplona, Cuba to Key West.  His life of adventure not only influenced some of his most recognizable works, but also left an indelible mark throughout the cities (and bars) he frequented.

With Spain in particular, Hemingway is perhaps most often associated with the San Fermín running of the bulls festival (his 1925 trip to Pamplona inspired The Sun Also Rises, which he wrote within 8 weeks of returning) and his stint as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War (where he reported alongside his future third wife Martha Gellhorn and was later inspired to write For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1939).  He was also no stranger to other cities like Barcelona and Madrid, the latter which he called “the most Spanish of all cities”.

Fast forward to present day, I had Hemingway on the brain after reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (a fictionalized novel told from the perspective of his first wife Hadley) and decided to seek out a few of his old haunts during a trip to Madrid.  Here are a few places you can drink like Don Ernesto in the city, plus a few other Hemingway-approved spots to check out.

La Venencia (Calle de Echegaray, 7)
Hands down, one of my favorite experiences in Madrid was at La Venencia.  A favorite of Hemingway too, this sherry (or jerez as it’s called in Spain) bar has been frozen in time – from its dimly lit street with discrete signage to its worn interior with bullfighting posters on the wall and rows of dusty bottles behind the bar.  It’s as if Hemingway was just there yesterday…  The bartender keeps track of your tab with chalk tick marks on the bar as he pours you a chilled glass of the strong wine, typically accompanied by a bowl of green olives.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but definitely a place you should check out.

Cervecería Alemana (Plaza de Santa Ana, 6)
Hemingway was a regular at this beer hall in the 1950s, calling Cervecería Alemana “a good place to drink beer and coffee” in his September 5, 1960 Life magazine article.  Originally founded by Germans in 1904, it also remains virtually unchanged from its early days when it was frequented by notable bullfighters, actors and authors like Hemingway, who used to enjoy his beer at a table by the window just right of the entrance.  During our visit, Cervecería Alemana was packed with people spilling into the street in front of Plaza de Santa Ana, a good sign that this place is still a hit.

Museo Nacional Del Prado (Paseo del Prado)
No trip to Madrid is complete without a visit to Spain’s largest museum.  The Prado boasts the most expansive collection of Spanish art in the world, which includes works from masters like Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez and El Greco.  Rumor has it that Hemingway was a regular patron of the Prado and often stayed at the grand Plaza Hotel (originally commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912, now called the Westin Palace) across the street because of its close proximity to the museum.

Plaza de Toros de las Ventas (Calle de Alcalá, 237)
Another Heminway-esque site in Madrid is the 24,000 seat Las Ventas bullfighting ring.  Hemingway first became interested in the sport during his 1923 visit to Pamplona and often attended bullfights in Madrid too.  While bullfighting has been banned in cities such as Barcelona, matches are still held here from March through October.  Visitors can also partake in one of the daily tours of Las Ventas to get an up-close-and-personal look at its beautiful neo-Moorish architecture and life inside the arena.  Also nearby is the free Bullfighting Museum, which offers and even deeper dive into the history of the country’s legendary pastime.

Sobrino de Botín (Calle Cuchilleros, 17)
This restaurant first opened in 1725 and has carved out a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest in the world.  Hemingway would often dine at Sobrino de Botín for an indulgent meal of roasted suckling pig (the house specialty) accompanied by red wine, which the author recounted towards the end of The Sun Also Rises“We lunched upstairs at Botin´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.”  Sobrino de Botín is located just south of Plaza Mayor on Calle Cuchilleros, which transitions into Calle Cava Baja, the spot of one of my favorite tapas crawls in Madrid.  Albeit a bit touristy today, visitors can even make a reservation and request to sit at the Hemingway table upstairs in the corner.

Museo Chicote (Gran Vía, 12)
In the 1930s Museo Chicote was the place to see and be seen, attracting foreign press and celebrities alike – from Hemingway and Orson Wells to Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and more.  As Spain’s oldest cocktail bar dating back to 1931, it maintains a glamourous vibe thanks to its retro art deco interior and feels a bit more upscale than other places in Madrid.  We found the drinks to be a little on the pricy side but worth every euro cent.  The bartender sure knew how to mix a mean martini.  

Hemingway’s Hotels
Also on Gran Vía the TRYP Madrid Gran Vía (Gran Vía, 25) is one of the many hotels where Hemingway would lay his head after a presumably long night of living it up in Madrid (the hotel’s breakfast room used to be named after the writer).  Other hotels associated with Hemingway include the Hostel Aguilar (Carrera de S. Jerónimo, 32) where the author and his first wife Hadley stayed in the 1920s, the former Hotel Florida (originally off Plaza de Callao and Gran Vía, now home to department stores) that served as a home base for Hemingway, Gellhorn and other foreign correspondents during the Spanish Civil War and the Hotel Suecia (Calle del Marqués de Casa Riera, 4) where he stayed during his last visit to Madrid in the 1950s.

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