Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain. Aside, from it’s role as a city, Madrid is also one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain (Madrid Autononmous Community). It is the third-most populous municipality in the European Union after Greater London and Berlin, and its metropolitan area is the third-most populous city by urban area in the European Union after Paris and London.
Madrid may be lacking in architectural beauty compared with other major Spanish cities, but it makes up for this with its boundless energy, blue skies, art, culture and some of the most exhilarating and exhausting nightlife in Europe. The city is compact and easy to navigate on foot – most of the sights of interest are found in the downtown area between the Royal Palace and Parque del Retiro.
Madrid sits in the geographic centre of the Iberian Peninsula and has long been an important stop on any art tour through Europe. The famous Museo del Prado on the city’s ‘Museum Mile’ houses important works by Spanish and European masters from the Renaissance onwards, while the Museo Thyssen-Bornemiza houses one of the most extensive private collections in the world. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is devoted to 20th century Spanish art, with works by Miro, Dali and Picasso.
Visitors wishing to take a break from all that art may want to see the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s largest bullring, where regular bullfights are still held. Sports fanatics who like something a little less blood-thirsty can watch Real Madrid, or Atletico de Madrid, Spain’s most famous football teams kick off.
The city sits atop a plateau and is the highest capital in Europe, making its climate somewhat extreme with steaming hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Spring is the best time to visit and explore the squares and alleyways in the heart of this crowded city.
Madrid is a city of great monuments. Among its highlights are the medieval centre dating back to the Habsburg Empire and the Prado Museum. But Madrid is not just a cultural destination. It is also a lively metropolis with many pubs, cafes, discotheques and nightclubs open late into the night. Don’t be surprised if you get stuck in a traffic jam at four in the morning, and the people you meet are not necessarily going off to work.
Puerta del Sol: It’s nearly impossible to visit Madrid and not pass through this semi-circular space, if only because it is very much the hub of the public transport system. From here, too, the Calles Arenal and Mayor lead away to the Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real, while to the west Calle Alcalá and the Carrera de San Jerónimo run to the Huertas area, the Paseo del Prado and the main museums. It is called a Puerta (gate) because this was indeed the main, easternmost gate of fifteenth-century Madrid. Under the Habsburg Kings it was surrounded by churches and monasteries, and the space between them supplanted the Plaza Mayor as the city’s main meeting place. It was rebuilt in its present form in 1854-62. It still is Madrid’s most popular meeting point.
Plaza Mayor: Madrid’s grand main plaza was the city’s hub for centuries. It was first built in the fifteenth century as a humble market square, then called the Plaza del Arrabal (Square outside the Walls). After Madrid was made capital of Spain by Philip II Juan de Herrera drew up plans for it to be completely rebuilt, but the only part built immediately was the Casa de la Panadería (The Bakery). Dominating the square, with two pinnacle towers, it was completed under the direction of Diego Sillero in 1590. Large sections had to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1790. Bullfights, carnivals and all the great festivals and ceremonies of imperial Madrid were held here.
Palacio Real (Palacio de Oriente): You are unlikely to catch sight of Spain’s royal family here, as this 3,000-room official residence is only visited by them for occasional state functions requiring additional grandeur. The rest of the time the palace, commissioned by Philip V after the earlier Alcázar was lost to a fire in 1734, is open to view.