Exploring the Imperial City of Madrid, Spain

This is Madrid. You will be impressed.

Madrid; Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

As the capital city of what was once the most wealthy and powerful global empire in the world, Madrid delivers. I was definitely impressed. I think you’ll be as well.

Madrid the City

With a population of around three million people, Spain’s cosmopolitan capital sits atop a large plateau surrounded by the Sierra Guadarrama and Sierra de Gredos mountain ranges. It’s in the region of New Castile, also known as Castile La Mancha, the area made famous by Miguel de Cervantes’ famous novel, Don Quixote.

Madrid is the seat of Spanish culture and tradition. Modern Madrid is characterized by its tall buildings, congested boulevards and plazas lined with trendy restaurants, cafés, clubs and shops. Despite this, there are many older areas with narrow streets in the center of town that are fun to explore.

Perhaps Madrid maintains its beauty because it contains very few industries. Other than tourism, construction and some transportation companies, the largest employer is the Spanish and municipal government.

Places and Areas to Explore in Madrid

Madrid is huge and has a lot to see, making it at times intimidating for some visitors. My advice would be to start with Madrid’s main sites and then if you’re interested, venture further into specific areas or neighborhoods.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor; photographer unknown

When exploring a new city, it’s generally a good idea to have a central point relatively close to everything. In Madrid, this place would be the Plaza Mayor, probably the most famous of all plaza’s in Spain. Dating back to at least 1619, the grounds of what is now the Plaza Mayor were once used to stage bull fights. Apparently killing bulls wasn’t bloody enough and so the Spanish Inquisition decided to use the area for torturing and executing heretics. During happier times though, the plaza was used for celebrations, fairs and even the occasional royal wedding.

Plaza Mayor; photographer unknown

Most of the original square was destroyed during various fires in 1672 and 1790. In 1854, the plaza became enclosed with a ring of buildings, apartments and a few great arches that served as the plaza’s entrances or “gates.” The most notable of these is the Arcos de Cuchilleros, meaning the “Arch of the Knife-Sharpeners.”

Christmas festivities at the Plaza Mayor; photographer unknown

Today, the Plaza Mayor is a lively place where crowds of people, street musicians and mimes conglomerate on pleasant days. The perimeter of the plaza is lined with restaurants and small shops selling everything from scarves to stamps.

The plaza is always lively, but especially in December during the annual Christmas Market. Sundays are great days for stamp and coin collectors, and most weekends (weather permitting) have some sort of improvised concert or art festival taking place. The plaza is open all year round.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol; photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Meaning “Gate of the Sun,” Puerta del Sol is one of Madrid’s most popular and busiest public squares. Similar to Plaza Mayor (see above), Puerta del Sol is where people come to hang out and exchange news, grab a coffee or a bite to eat at one of the square’s many vendors, or be entertained by local street performers. In the past, Puerta del Sol has been the site of many political protests and rallies, most notably those dealing with anti-austerity and anti-war causes.

The Bear and the Strawberry tree, symbols found on Madrid’s coast of arms; photographer unknown

Well-known sites include the Office of the President of Madrid (in the old Post Office) and a statue of King Charles III of Spain. There is also the famous statue of The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, two symbols of Madrid that are found on the city’s coat of arms. There is also a plaque here that marks the square as where the Spanish highway network begins. While generally always busy, Puerta del Sol really comes alive during the summer months and every December 31st, when its famous clock tower strikes midnight as thousands of Madrileños welcome the New Year. And of course just like in any modern city, there is an Apple store, though this one is located in what used to be the semi-famous Paris Hotel.

Mercado San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel
A stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor is the Mercado de San Miguel. This enclosed market is an extremely popular place for sampling many Spanish foods and delicacies. Nearly any edible item can be found here, from the latest sea catch to various empanadas, local varieties of pizza, pastries, exotic fruits and vegetables. At night the place comes alive as some of the vendors and counters turn into bars serving Spanish wine and tapas until 2AM. You can see Madrileños coming here on weekend nights to drink, eat and dance to live music before heading out for a night on the town (most clubs in Madrid don’t start heating up until 1AM at the earliest).

Retiro Park (El Retiro)

El Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro, El Retiro or simply “Retiro” is roughly 350 acres trees, beautiful gardens, fountains and interesting non-commercial buildings at the edge of Madrid’s city center.

Built on the grounds of a former monastery, Retiro is one of the best places in Madrid to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The area was turned into a park when Emperor Phillip II moved his capital to Madrid in 1561.

There are several interesting things to see and do within the park. At the center of Retiro is a small artificial lake where one can canoe or kayak. On the lake’s eastern bank is the Monument Alfonso XII, dedicated to one of Spain’s kings. The Statue Walk, known locally as the Paseo de la Argentina, is lined with beautiful sculptures depicting various kings from Spain’s long history.

The park is popular with both locals and tourists and is a great place to people watch.

Palacio Real

Photo from Pinterest
Bourbon monarchs were known for their extravagance. The Palacio Real (“royal palace”) is definitely a testament to that.

Sabatini Gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) and the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) in Madrid, Spain

The foundations of the original palace were actually built by the Moors during their rule of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1086, King Alfonso VI of León and Castile captured the relatively modest palace and made it one of his own. In 1734, the place burnt down and Spain’s new king, Philip V, ordered a new one to be constructed. His goal was to build something not only worthy of his new Bourbon Dynasty (previously the ruling family of Spain were the Habsburgs), but also to rival the Palace of Versailles in France. Funded with an almost unlimited supply of gold and silver coming from Spain’s American colonies, the palace was founded in 1738. However Charles III (Carlos III), the first king to actually live there, moved in almost three decades later in 1764.

One of the palace’s many banquet halls

The Palacio Real has well over 2,000 rooms and is one of the most heavily decorated royal residences in the world. While technically it is still the residence of the King and Queen of Spain, no royal has lived here since 1931 after the Second Spanish Republic was formed.

Outside the palace at night; photo courtesy of Spanish Ministry of Tourism

Today, most of the palace’s rooms are used as offices and for state functions, though about 50 rooms are open to the public. The palace’s guided tour takes you through many of the more extravagant parts of the complex where you can see the throne room, the grand dining hall, the royal bedroom and outside, the palace’s well-kept gardens that contain statues of various Spanish monarchs.

Royal Palace Information

Plaza de Cibeles

Photo courtesy of Spanish Ministry of Tourism

The Plaza de Cibeles is one of the most beautiful urban spaces in all of Spain, let alone Madrid. Located in the center of the city, the plaza is a nice place to hang around and just people watch. The most prominent feature of this area is the Palacio de Cibeles, one of the best pieces of neo-classical style architecture in the world. The center of the plaza contains a fountain with a statue of a the Roman goddess Cybele on a chariot drawn by two lions known as the Fuente de la Cibeles. The fountain is popular with Real Madrid fans, many of whom conglomerate here after the team wins important matches.

Photo courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Tourism

Other noteworthy and beautiful buildings around the square include Banco de España (Bank of Spain), the Palacio de Buenavista and the Palacio de Linares.

Gran Via

Photo courtesy of Spanish Ministry of Tourism

The Gran Via or “Grand Way” passes through central Madrid from the Plaza de España all the way to Calle de Alcalá. It’s one of the busiest streets in the capital and has been dubbed “the street that never sleeps.” The Gran Via contains hundreds of expensive stores and restaurants, but the most well-known landmark is definitely the old Telefónica Building and its prominent clock tower. At one time (in 1929), this was the tallest building in Europe.

El Rastro Market

Just a few minutes south of the Plaza Mayor is El Rastro, arguably Madrid’s best street market. Coming into full effect on Sunday mornings, El Rastro is the place to find, well, really any odd object. Shoppers can search for that special centuries-old collectible, antique, painting, cheap hat, book, vinyl records and more. You probably won’t know what you’ll be buying until seen it there. However if you’re a compulsive shopper, maybe then it’s best to avoid El Rastro.

Madrid Zoo

The Madrid Zoo has an interesting design in that each section is laid out into the form of five continents (corresponding to where the animals are from). Over 2,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish can be found in this complex. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take a train tour or sit down for one of the zoo’s famous bird shows.

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu

Though I’m not a huge fan of Real Madrid, their stadium is impressive. Even if you hate the team, still check out their stadium. You’ll either be in complete awe or hate them even more.

Art and History Museums

Madrid is one of Europe’s best cities for world-class museums. The big three art galleries, i.e. the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía form what is known as the Paseo del Arte. Other museums, such as the National Archaeological Museum, focus more on Spain and Europe’s history. While there are many to choose from, the following museums are considered to be must-see parts of most Madrid itineraries.

The Prado

The Prado Museum; Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Prado is the premier museum in Madrid and possibly in all of Spain. It’s here that you’ll find over 5,000 works of art in over 100 rooms by some of the greatest masters of painting and sculpture. The collection includes mostly Spanish paintings dating from the 12th to 19th centuries as well as important works by Italian, French, Dutch, German and British painters.

El Greco Prado
Painting by El Greco in Prado Museum, Madrid
Some of the highlights of the Prado’s collection include over 100 works by Goya, El Greco’s Adoration of the Shepherds, Dürer’s famous self portrait and more. Being one of the largest and most exquisite art museums in the world, it’s definitely worth visiting, even if for just a couple of hours. This is one place in Madrid that should not be missed.

The Prado Museum Official Site

National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Museo Arqueológico Nacional)

The museum’s famous ” Lady of Elche”

After the Prado (see above), the National Archaeological Museum is probably the best historical museum to visit. Founded by Queen Isabella II in 1867, the halls and walls of this complex contain one of the best European collections of Roman artifacts (outside of Italy), Egyptian mummies, ancient coins, ceramics and prehistoric objects. The museum also has a really impressive library focused specifically on archaeology, history and art.

National Archaeological Museum of Spain

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid

If you’ve ever picked up an art textbook, chances are that a good number of the origin paintings will be found here. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum covers European art as far back as the 13th century. The museum’s collection contains over 1,000 art works including those from the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romantic, Impressionist and modern art periods. Some of the more famous works include Venus and Cupid by Rubens, The Annunciation by El Greco, Young Knight by Vittore Carpaccio, Charing Cross Bridge by Monet and Les Vessenots by Vincent van Gogh, among many others.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Centre de Arte Reina Sofía

Opened in 1986 by Queen Sofia, the Reina Sofía Museum is home to nearly 40,000 square meters of some of the world’s most the most famous contemporary art. Designed by the famous architect Antonio Fernández Alba, the museum’s exterior was inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris. It’s permanent collections are housed on the 2nd and 4th floors and include works by Juan Miró, Picasso, Salvador Dalí and others. Outside is a garden and courtyard filled with various sculptures.

Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art

Outside Madrid

Time permitting, it’s worth seeing the nearby historic cities of Toledo and Segovia.

Further Reading:

Art Tourism in Madrid

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