QUICK GUIDE TO MADRID
If you need a change of scene but can only get away for a short time remember that Madrid is only a brief flight away from any city in Europe, and easily accessible by train or express bus from any corner of Spain. Leave your car at home as travelling round the city on the Madrid Metro is simple and the ticket pass reasonably priced. The best time to go up is on a Friday, hotels are easier and sometimes cheaper to book as business people leave the city for the weekend.
The capital of Spain is located in the heart of the peninsula, in the centre of the Castilian plain 646 metres above sea level, and has a population of over three million. A cosmopolitan city, a business centre, headquarters for the Public Administration, Government, Spanish Parliament and the home of the Spanish Royal Family, Madrid is characterized by intense cultural and artistic activity and a lively nightlife. Like any other capital city, Madrid has its own unique atmosphere and the best way to absorb this is to wander along the central streets discovering the centre’s most prominent attractions almost by chance.
The emblematic Plaza Mayor dates back to the start of the 16th century and until the last century was used as a marketplace. It was the scene of popular events, even public announcement of sentences during the Inquisition and executions, religious processions, bullfights, dance and theatre festivals. The most striking building in the large paved plaza is the Bakery house, with its colourful fresco-adorned façade. Beneath the arcades are an assortment of shops, outdoor cafes, taverns and restaurants. On Sundays a stamp market is held under the arches. Make a stop at the tourist information office here and pick up a simple guide book (in English) and map, and set off to explore this fascinating city.
Leave the square by the calle Cuidad Rodrigo, passing the San Miguel Market building, the roof supported by airy iron columns. Proceed along the calle Major until reaching the Plaza de la Villa. In these narrow streets there is an evident mixture of Moorish and Christian architecture making up the framework of what was once a medieval town sprinkled with convents and palaces. Follow Segovia street towards the 15th century San Pedro el Viejo church, which was built over a mosque and still conserves a 14th century Moorish tower. Make your way towards the Barrio de La Latina (Latin Quarters) and Cava Baja street where ancient shops and restaurants evoke the traditional flavour of Madrid. Nearby Cuchilleros street is bustling with olden-style taverns and in the back lanes surrounding Plaza Major you will find an assortment of crowded typical tapas bars.
The Puerta del Sol Gateway was once a 15th century defensive bulwark, part of a wall which enclosed the town. The former Casa de Correos (Post Office) was built in 1768 and is crowned with a tower with a clock on its four sides; the most famous timepiece in Madrid. At the stroke of midnight on December 31, the Madrileños hail in the New Year to its chimes. A marker on the ground indicates Kilometer zero from which all the country’s road distances is measured. Three historical statues adorn the plaza; a statue of Venus, the bear and berry tree which is made of stone and bronze displaying the city badge, and the third one representing King Carlos III.To the left, on Alcalá street you’ll find the Ministry of Finance, a former Customs House and good example of Baroque classicism. The head office of the Banco Español de Crédito was built in 1882-1891. The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was built in 1775 as a palace, remodelled in 1974, its priceless art gallery includes 16th and 17th century works by the Spanish School.
The fountain in Plaza de Cibeles, surrounded by some of the city’s most important monuments, has become an important symbol of Madrid. On the Southeast corner is the immense Neoclassical-style Palacio de Comunicaciones with its ornate stone walls once the main post office it is now the City Hall. Next to it, you’ll find the Naval Museum which displays interesting documents and relics along with ancient and modern model-ships of the Spanish Navy. The Bank of Spain stands impassively on the Southwest corner, started in 1891, it reflects neo-renaissance tendencies. The legendary Puerta de Alcalá in Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square), was designed in 1778 and used to be the gateway to the city by the Aragón road.
The Teatro Real or Royal Theatre, built by Queen Isabel II, was remodelled and inaugurated in 1997 as the opera house. Nearby is the Plaza de la Encarnación, which is linked to the Plaza de Oriente, where the 17th century Monastery of the Incarnation is found. In the Plaza de la Marina Española the Senate Palace was built at the end of the 16th century for a community of Augustinian friars. Recently remodelled it is now the seat of the Spanish Senate. Continue along Torijareet to the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Proceed on the Calle de Trujillos and turn left at the Travesía de Trujillos which runs into the Plaza de las Descalzas, where you’ll see the 16th century Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. As you come back towards Plaza de Cibeles, you’ll find the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Circle), currently site of one of the most dynamic institutions in the cultural life of the city.
By the Plaza de Oriente you’ll see the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), constructed on the site of a Moorish fortress it was destroyed by fire in 1734 and later rebuilt in 1737. Opposite the main façade is the Plaza de la Armería. Circling the Palace is the Sabatini Park and the sloping enclosed gardens known as the Campo del Moro. Joined to the Palace is the Almudena Cathedral. The Royal Palace, not currently used as a royal residence, is used for state receptions so the more important rooms can only be visited when official acts are not being held.
Gran Vía is one of the main arteries in Madrid; an assortment of grand buildings with ornate façades, large cornices, colonnades and balconies dominate the Eastern end. Rising imposingly at the interjection of the Gran Vía and Calle Alcalá you’ll see the Metropolis Building. Near the Plaza Red de San Luis you’ll find the headquarters of Telefónica, the first skyscraper in Madrid built in 1929. A little farther along, you’ll come to the Plaza de Callao bustling with pedestrians, surrounded by cinemas, department stores and shops. Separating the Gran Vía from Princesa street is the huge Plaza de España, noted for two exceptional buildings dating back to the 1950’s; Edificio España and the Torre de Madrid.
From the Puerta de Alcalá heading north is the Salamanca district, where a large number of the select art galleries are concentrated, along with numerous prestigious shops selling designer clothes, accessories, jewellery and furniture. The Spanish Parliament in the Plaza de las Cortes was finished in 1850 with Corinthian columns. On the opposite side of the street is the Palace Hotel, built in 1912. The Lope de Vega House-Museum is located on Cervantes street, an area where other renowned Spanish authors, including Miguel de Cervantes, once lived. The Neptune Fountain has a statue of Neptune standing on a chariot wielding a trident. On the semi-circular Plaza de la Lealtad is another of Madrid’s finest hotels, the Ritz Hotel, a unique structure dating back to 1910.
Buen Retiro Park is the largest and most beautiful of all Madrid’s majestic parks, inaugurated in 1632 by Felipe IV. The 130 hectares of woodland form a green, tree-clad island in the middle of an asphalt jungle. The fine gateways are located in the Plaza de la Independencia, the Calle de Alcalá, Calle de O’Donnell, and Calle de Alfonso XII. White stone figures of the Kings and Queen of Spain peep out from the avenues of lofty trees and thick bushes, and just inside the park there is a large artificial lake where rowing boats can be hired. Inside the park is the lovely Crystal Palace, made out of iron and glass, and also the Velázquez Palace, both built at the end of the 19th century and currently used for exhibitions.
Prado Museum is located in an 18th building, considered one of the most important art galleries in the world, it houses masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Zurbarán, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angélico, Rubens, and Rembrandt among others.
Open 09.00 to 19.00; Sunday 09.00 to 14.00; Closed Mondays.
The entrance to The Royal Botanic Garden is beside the Prado Museum. These gardens contain about 30,000 different species of trees and plants from all over the world and were founded by Charles III.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, housed in the 17th century Villahermosa Palace, exhibits a splendid collection ranging from primitive Flemish to contemporary works. More than 800 paintings and sculptures, carvings, tapestries and other items are displayed. Open 10.00 to 19.00; Closed Mondays.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is on Calle Santa contains a permanent collection of Spanish contemporary art, as well as temporary exhibitions. It’s also the showcase of the famous painting Guernica, by Picasso. Opens 10.00 to 21.00; Sunday 10.00 to 14:30; Closed Tuesdays.
NIGHT LIFE in the city that never sleeps:
In the vicinity of the Plaza de Santa Bárbara, the Glorieta de Bilbao and Alonso Martínez, a large number of popular bars and pubs are concentrated.
The bars in the districts of Arguelles and Moncloa are generally frequented by University students and a younger crowd.
Malasaña, in the vicinity of the Plaza de Dos de Mayo, has countless old cafés and bars with live music, in addition to moderately-priced restaurants plus discos.
The streets of Paseo de la Castellana, Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado boast quality restaurants, cafés and popular night spots.
In the summer months and especially at night, open-air terraces abound in the areas of the Paseo de la Castellana and the Parque del Oeste.
Tapas are a wide variety of Spanish appetizers, and “Ir de tapeo” or bar-hopping is a popular tradition in the hundreds of bars scattered throughout the streets of Madrid.
Restaurante Botin is the oldest restaurant in the world and is included in the Guinness Book of Records. Founded in 1725, it is frequented by international celebrities. The ancient brick-arched dining room oozes history but more importantly the food is wonderful and not ridiculously priced. Specialities include suckling pig, roast lamb and oven baked hake. Situated on calle Cuchilleros.
An evening at a MUSICAL is a must. Currently showing, The Lion King is suitable for all the family. Set in the stunning fauna of Africa, this story is probably one of the greatest every told. With an international cast of more than 50 actors and songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the show evokes the story of Simba, through a blend of music, dance and African shapes conveyed through spectacular animated sculptures, elaborate costumes and impressive sets. At Teatro Lope de Vega, Gran Via 57.
Finally, don’t miss the Rastro, an incredible flea market with a retro atmosphere held each Sunday morning. A flood of humanity invades the narrow lanes and small plazas in La Latina district (tube station La Latina) in search of everything imaginable. When stalls fold up, around 14.00, amble along to one of the lively bars which thrive between Plazas Humilladero, San Andrés and la Paja, for tapas and a drink.