About a week ago, I saw The Awl post this sponsored article to Twitter, asking if Madrid is the most photogenic city in the world. I immediately assumed this had to be a joke of some sort, because while Madrid has many, many things going for it, it’s not terribly photogenic. I figured out pretty quickly that this was part of a larger project in which Samsung is trying to sell its new Galaxy Camera and has asked photographers in eight cities around the world to make the case for why their city is the most photogenic. Each city—Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Milan, San Francisco, and Sydney—gets its own photo montage and video.
But what struck me about this list is that if you were to crowd-source a list of the world’s most beautiful cities, I really doubt it would look anything like Samsung’s. Paris and San Francisco are logical choices because each city plays a sort of archetypal role in what we imagine a “beautiful” city to look like (Paris for its history, and SF for its natural setting). And I suppose if you’re used to American aesthetics, almost any major European capital will come off as unusually pretty because we really don’t have anything similar. But my experience with friends who’ve been to Berlin is that it’s so beloved partially because it’s grimy and post-industrial. Likewise, compared to somewhere like Paris or Rome or even other cities in Spain, Madrid just isn’t that beautiful. It’s pretty enough, and it’s got some very charming neighborhoods, but that’s not its trump card.
The point I’m trying to make is that I lived in Madrid and loved it, but it’s definitely more of a living city than a visiting one (either that, or a place you should visit with a friend who knows it well). I understand that this is a somewhat artificial distinction, but I visited most of Spain’s major cities and think Madrid is the one that succeeds the most as a city even if it’s not even close to being the best looking. Seen from above, it’s just a sprawling mass dropped right in the middle of the meseta. It has no landmarks that you can latch onto from afar, or that define it in the popular imagination. Instead, the city functions as the place where all of Spain’s incredibly rich, diverse regional cultures converge. Its main strength is its relentless, buzzing sense of urban energy, and unfortunately for the city’s boosters, this is not something that’s easy to describe in tangible terms (“You just have to feel it to understand, man!” is not likely to convince someone to drop $800 on a plane ticket to a city they know nothing about). Madrid isn’t about seeing things so much as soaking up the atmosphere of a place that pioneered the idea of going out at midnight, hopping from restaurants to bars to clubs, and coming home when the Metro opens at six in the morning. So while I wouldn’t call the city a well-kept secret, it does seem that most tourists focus their attention on Barcelona.
If you’re popping in for a four or five-day visit, this makes perfect sense. You’ve got a location on the water, Mediterranean beaches, a compact urban core, and an artist who’s strongly associated with the city. To a certain extent, your visit is planned for you. In this sense, the city reminds me strongly of San Francisco, even down to the way they both appear from a higher elevation (hilly, light colors, low-to-medium rise). Both cities have a sort of whimsical quality to them and are very good at playing up their avant-garde tendencies, something that makes them totally seductive for me and for everyone I know who’s been there.
Madrid is almost the polar opposite. It’s a city person’s city—loud, chaotic, and largely built in shades of gray and brown. It definitely rewards people who enjoy walking, because its historic core is both fairly compact (by the standards of three-million-person cities, in any event) and very neighborhoody. So within a 45-minute walk, you can hit Lavapiés (the historical Jewish district, today home to most of the city’s South and East Asian immigrants), Los Austrias (official buildings and crooked old streets), Malasaña (grubby nightlife, lots of bars), Chueca (the gay neighborhood, lots of clubs), and Salamanca, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood and home to lots of unreconstructed Francoists. The boundaries between the neighborhoods are often very precisely marked. In particular, Chueca and Malasaña are right next to each other, and the tenor of many of my nights out with friends would entirely come down to which side of Calle Fuencarral we decided to end up on. And it’s not that other cities don’t have this dynamic (insert your own joke here about going north of 96th Street). But historic neighborhoods in Madrid are very dense and very small, making for a lot of variety in a fairly compact space, and very distinct neighborhood identities if you move down to an even smaller level.
What this means is that the city is a very interesting place to people-watch, even if it’s not notably beautiful. I suppose this could lead us into a discussion of whether “beautiful” and “photogenic” might actually be very different concepts. One could argue, for instance, that Madrid’s street life and energy make it a cool place to capture on film for reasons other than its aesthetics. The video that Samsung posted, if nothing else, makes a case for the city as an interesting place. But that’s almost the point. When I hear “interesting,” my first instinct is to think of cities that stand out for reasons other than their physical appearance—cities whose main calling card, in other words, is that they’re fucking cities. With places like Barcelona, you get to gawk at your surroundings for a bit before figuring out the details of how the city works and what it’s like from day to day. What I ended up loving about Madrid is that in the absence of gawk-worthy things, you just have to jump right in.