La Puerta del Sol, or simply Sol, is the tourist hub of central Madrid. It is easily one of the most populated zones of the city, regardless of the hour. All roads lead to and from Sol.
Lots of tourists and tour groups, lots of street performers, some food vendors, families, shoppers, pets, pickpockets…Sol has it all in spades. There are cameras everywhere, so street photography is very, very easy here. The people will assume a street photographer is another tourist, and willingly will enter the frame. Generally the people in Sol are very forgiving, if not indifferent about photography.
Sol as a hub communicates many streets-as-spokes, radiating out from the plaza in all directions. As one would expect, the streets running north/south receive less light than those like Calle Arenal, which run due west or east. Get there in the morning, get there in the afternoon but not too late. The buildings are tall, and block out some of the best light as the sun begins to touch the horizon. On a summer’s afternoon on Calle Arenal, for example, one couldn’t count the photographers taking advantage of the golden-orange hues painting everything.
Start at the metro stop and look immediately east and west to find the light. Should the photographer walk north, to Callao or Gran Via, they would find what light they were lacking in La Puerta del Sol. Walking due west on Calle Arenal takes the photographer to the opera house (and the Opera metro stop), and beyond that to the Royal Palace and the Sabotini Gardens. Walking east, the photographer will find the Barrio de Letras (wealthy literary neighborhood) and the museum district.
Sol is a very good point of departure if a street photographer intends to shoot Madrid.
Gran Via is the ritzy belt that ties together central Madrid. More or less, it begins at a Palace and ends at one. Between these extremes stand great, shiny office buildings, street-level restaurants, cinemas, plazas, and an abundance of foot traffic.
Gran Via is always busy with tourists and businesspeople. The street itself is broad enough to be American, and together with its super-wide sidewalks Gran Via could be called Madrid’s Michigan Avenue, if the photographer is familiar with Chicago’s most famous shopping area. Now and again there are street performers, shoe-shiners, performance artists, activists, construction workers, and along Calle Montera, between the Plaza de Callao and Sol, prostitutes hawk themselves to the passing single males. Gran Via is a great place to wear a camera, but remember: its status as a tourist trail is well-known to the local petty theft class, so keep your wits about you, your wallet in your front pocket, etc.
Backdrops along Gran Via vary from big modern buildings to more regal, stonework facades to plate-glass shop-fronts, with little deviation. What is more or less the easternmost point of the street, that which lies east of Banco de Espana metro stop after Gran Via technically changes names, is the grand Palacio de Cibeles. It’s a popular tourist spot and that plaza, the Plaza de Cibeles, is a somewhat regular spot for protests. The Plaza de Callao lies further west, just north of Sol. Cinema and theater are advertised here, on giant screens fixed to the sides of some of the buildings. Walking north will land the photographer in Malasana, or Chueca. Moving westward it is natural to deviate south a little to the Plaza Mayor, and Opera beyond, and the Palacio Real beyond that.
As always, the mornings and afternoons are lovely on Gran Via. As it runs laterally across the city center, the sun steals down its shining corridor, bathing one side or the other of the street in yellow-orange light twice daily. Walk on the light side, even if fewer pedestrians favor it. With a standard 50mm lens, shooting across the wide street will not bear much fruit. Walk it, or find a place to sit down and shoot, either from an adjoining terrace or through a street-facing restaurant’s front windows.
Chueca as a neighborhood is sliced from Malasana’s eastern edge and is culturally distinct in the city center. The city’s old red-light district, Chueca has now gentrified away from grit and obvious crime. The neighborhood is clean, boasts luxury shopping, clubs, and is the city’s most LGBT-friendly neighborhood. It is no secret to tourists, and in turn is no secret to pickpockets or table-to-table misdirection robberies, for example. As in any popular neighborhood in any city the world over, it pays keep your wits about you.
Generally, Chueca’s residents are youthful in mind, easy-going, friendly, and perhaps due to the density of tourists, unconcerned about strangers with cameras. Depending on the time of day, people have been known to request that a passing photographer take their street portrait.
Radiating outward from the Plaza de Chueca, from the metro stop there, a photographer can find much to see and shoot in the immediate vicinity. Walking Calle Hortaleza can be quite fruitful, and with settings adjusted for the shade even Calle Fuencarral, a shopper’s heaven, may share its subtle treasures. Two markets, the Mercado Fuencarral and the Mercado de San Anton, live in Chueca and while prices in these places leave a little to be desired, they are lovely architecturally and house a lot of lively scenes.
One could either make their way north from Gran Via on Hortaleza or Fuencarral, or they could emerge from the Chueca metro stop in the heart of the neighborhood. Wander from there, north and south with your compass. Don’t be shy to sit a spell on a terrace, or have a coffee behind a street-facing window. Play tourist, play visitor, play guest. Have fun, as that is what Chueca is all about.