Madrid, the capital and largest city in Spain, is famous for its historical landmarks, world-class museums and galleries, lively street life, grand boulevards, and bustling sidewalk cafes. Geographically situated in an interior region that Spaniards call the heart of the country, Madrid is Spain’s administrative, financial and transportation center. Madrid hosts nearly seven million tourists annually making it the fourth most visited capital city in Europe after London, Paris and Rome.
With its diversity of architectural styles, Madrid has been called the “city of a thousand faces”. The city absorbed foreign influences and adapted them over the centuries, so today the city has an eclectic mix of architectural styles that include Art Deco, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Francoesque, Neo-Classical and Modernism among others. Visitors will not be disappointed by Madrid’s grandiose vistas.
Many of the historic neighborhoods in Madrid retain their traditional ambience even as the city has developed an infrastructure that provides modern efficient services to its more than three million urban inhabitants. At the heart of the city is Old Madrid where most of the tourist attractions and night-time action can be found. Classy and dignified Ensanche, Madrid’s grandest area, is the home of upscale residences, designer boutiques, embassy buildings and elegant hotels. Of less interest to visitors are the growing suburban regions on the periphery of the city.
Madrid has a relatively homogenous society. Just under 85% of its inhabitants are Spaniards of different backgrounds and ethnicities. In recent years, many young Spaniards have migrated to Madrid from surrounding small rural villages seeking to improve their social life and economic status. Also seeking a better life in this perceived prosperous metropolis are recent immigrants from Latin America, Europe, Asia, North Africa and West Africa.
At around three square miles, Old Madrid’s narrow winding calles (streets) and broad avenidas (avenues) are easily explored on foot. A fun, adventurous way to discover the city is to simply let your curiosity lead you down one street after the other. An early morning stroll down the small streets will take you past markets just setting out fresh fruits and flowers, poultry, fish, and a wide variety of jamón (ham). You’ll pass boutique owners preparing for a busy day, small family owned cafes serving up strong café con leche (coffee with milk), fresh squeezed orange juice and warm croissants.
For tourists seeking a more structured and informative itinerary, the Madrid Tourist Information Center located in Plaza Mayor can recommend one of several guided walking tours. The Madrid of Cervantes tour, for instance, focuses on the time of the famous writer Cervantes, author of The Adventures of Don Quixote. The walk follows the streets of an area that at one time was home to great composers, writers, comics and poets. The Medieval Madrid tour takes you through Madrid of the 14th and 15th centuries. You’ll see some of the most ancient and tiny streets that you might miss by following your curiosity. These and other walking tours, costing around $5 and lasting for about 90 minutes, are led by knowledgeable and informative guides who speak Spanish, English and, in some cases, French.
Another great way to get a unique view of Madrid is to board one of the open-top Madrid Vision double-decker buses. Following either the Historical or Modern Madrid route, these big red hop on hop off buses make more than 20 stops and cover all of the city’s highlights, from historical sites and monuments to the modern Madrid of skyscrapers and cosmopolitan architecture. After boarding the bus at any of the stops, tourists receive headphones that provide access to audio-guides of the sites in English as well as seven other languages. A ticket for two consecutive days of sightseeing is less than $30.
An even better deal is to buy a MadridCard which includes free or reduced admission to more than 40 major museums, palaces, gardens, theaters, tours including Madrid Vision, car rentals, dining and shopping. Visitors reap additional rewards when they combine the MadridCard with the Tourist Travel Pass, which provides unlimited trips on all of Madrid’s public transportation. Tickets can be purchased online at a 5% discount or in Madrid at the tourist offices, major hotels, the airport or train station and other outlets around the city.
Regardless of how visitors move around the city, they will find museums, theaters, cathedrals, gardens, plazas, bars, restaurants and busy streets that capture the sum and substance of Old Madrid. In such a compact place, there really is a lot to see and do.
With so many museums to chose from, most visitors put three of them at the top of their must see list – the Museo Prado, one of the finest museums in the world that houses thousands of old masters; the Renina Sofía which displays contemporary art including that of Pablo Picasso; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza which displays Western art from the 13th to the 20th century. This triángulo de arte or triangle of art is considered a must-see experience for true art lovers.
A museum where you will not see any paintings is the Museo del Jamón. This pork palace, located across the street from the Prado, displays 600 hams hanging aromatically from the ceiling and serves up Spain’s best variety of hams, sausages and cheeses. A chain of theme restaurants devoted to the world of ham and sausage, it has additional locations all around Madrid. Ham lovers describe the Jamón Serrano, a kind of smoky, dried ham, as heavenly.
Madrid, considered a “green city”, is committed to nature and to a generally healthy lifestyle. Its combined parks and historic gardens cover an area that is more than two thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. The largest and most popular of these is the Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro Park) which is the home of some 15,000 trees, a working observatory, three exhibition halls, a rose garden and a large lake where lovers and families with young children enjoy rowing under Madrid’s bright skies.
Retiro Park, one of the most attractive city center parks in Europe, was once playground of the rulers of the country. Today, park visitors can jog, picnic, have their fortunes told, hear a chamber music concert or jazz performance, see a puppet show, rollerblade, bicycle, stroll hand in hand or relax with a Mahou cerveza (local Spanish beer) or glass of vino at one of several outdoor pavilions.
The Real Jardin Botánico (Royal Botanical Gardens), designed 250 years ago, also invites visitors to enjoy a pleasant stroll surrounded by thousands of live plant species. Particularly astonishing is the garden’s collection of lithops or living rock cacti that disguise themselves as boulders as a defense mechanism for survival. Also drawing interest from visitors is a collection of carnivorous plants and cypress trees dating from the period when the garden was founded.
Madrid’s open spaces also include its two primary public squares – the Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol – along with numerous other plazas. Plaza Mayor, formerly the site of bullfights, public executions, pageants and Inquisition trials, is the principle square in Madrid. Street entertainers, painters and musicians draw hoards of locals and visitors who just hang out or order paella or tapas and dine alfresco at the wide selection of cafes and bars at the perimeter of the plaza.
Nine streets lead up to Plaza Mayor’s gigantic traffic free, cobble stoned bustling square which can hold up to 50,000 people. At the center stands a statute of Felipe III who was king when the square was inaugurated in 1620. Entering the plaza through the huge archways, visitors are greeted by a wide open space more than twice the size of a regulation NFL football field with three story walls in varying shades of purple and ornately decorated with murals and reliefs.
Located on the ground in Puerto del Sol (Gateway of the Sun) is the Kilometre Zero, the center of Spain’s road network. From this point, all major road distances in Spain are measured. Ten Metro lines and four main traffic arteries converge here making it the center of activity.
Madrileños (Madrilenians), as residents are called, gather in Puerto del Sol to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Similar to the ball dropping in New York’s Times Square, television cameras focus on the big clock to count down the seconds until midnight. Beginning precisely at midnight, revelers eat 12 grapes on each stroke of the clock to represent good luck for the next twelve months.
Both locals and visitors cite the area under the clock as a social gathering point to kickoff an evening of fun. Puerto del Sol is also the site of many big political demonstrations. Standing near this popular spot on Calle del Carmen is a 20-ton bronze statute of the symbol of Madrid – the Oso y Madroño (the Bear and the Tree), a bear reaching for the fruit of the madroño or strawberry tree.
In addition to being the starting point for many of the city’s pedestrian streets, this area is a major shopping destination. The flagship store of Spain’s biggest department store, El Corte Ingles, located on Calle Preciados, sells everything from shoes, electronics and house products to bicycles, groceries and insurance. Standalone bookshops, small shoe stores, music and video stores, as well as gift and souvenir shops, are plentiful.
While wise shoppers can find great bargains in leather and ceramic goods in this shopping district, the broadest selection and best prices can be found at El Rastro, Europe’s largest flea market. Open only on Sundays from 7:00am until 2:30pm, flea market connoisseurs will find pure delight in the bargaining bonanza that spans ten street blocks in every direction around the Plaza de Tirso de Molina.
When they tire of walking, many tourists avoid Madrid’s endless traffic congestion and metered cabs to go underground to Madrid’s Metro trains. The second largest metro system in Western Europe, Madrid’s system is color coded and numbered, relatively cheap, clean, fast, and safe with easy to understand signage. Stations are clearly marked above ground with signs displaying a red diamond with “Metro” emblazoned on a blue background. The system works similar to metro systems in Paris and Washington, DC.
Most Madrileños use Metro as they head out for an exciting evening of vibrant entertainment and succulent meals. Madrid’s night life begins late when the mind-boggling concentration of tapas bars, tabernas, restaurants, dance halls and nightclubs come alive. Sidewalk tables along the narrow winding streets near Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor are full, even on the chilly fall evenings. Most of the bars have standing room only space and people queue up at the nightclubs and theaters. During the week, many Madrileño don’t head home until the Metro stops at 1:30am. On weekends, many Spaniards stay up all night and create a 5am traffic jam as they head home.
Visitor will enjoy Madrid regardless of the time of the year. However, spring and fall are the more pleasant times to visit. Madrid is basically a dry city. Rain is rare and high heat in early summer does not seem as oppressive as some might expect due to the region’s low humidity. And with so many Madrileños on holiday during August, visitors will experience fewer lines and less traffic. The downside is that many of the bars and restaurants are closed. Winter months can be quite cold with a dusting of snow during a brief couple of weeks. However, with such mild winters, many visitors choose Madrid as their Christmas shopping destination.
In many ways, Madrid is a city of contrasts. On the one hand, it is a city of immense energy, constantly growing and sizzling with life. On the other hand, it offers an array of large and small city parks, quiet places and artistic venues where you can relax, enjoy the scenery and proceed at your own pace. In short, it is one of the most exciting capital cities in Europe.