From a politically insignificant quarter during the Moorish period to the extravagant capital of the Spanish Habsburgs, Madrid reflects a rich architectural history that dates back in the 16th century when King Philipp II transformed this once squalid, obscure town to the seat of his massive empire. Thanks to his strong passion for art and architecture, this metropolis is now a museum paradise, where galleries sprawl in every corner that could probably rival those of Italy and a permanent open-air exhibit that showcases its grand buildings.
Madrid is a landlocked city that lies in the geographical heart of the country, thus making it easily accessible to all cities around the Iberian peninsula. Since I also live in a completely landlocked country, I know the feeling of longing for beaches but at least, on the positive side, visiting other places outside Madrid would be very practical for me.
Knowing that I had more than a week to explore the Spanish capital, I took my time in navigating every bit of it. And since keeping a ten-day journal would have been eternal, let me spare you from this tedious task of reading by simply giving you Madrid in a Nutshell.
My top 10 picks in random order
Why not try having a “relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor“? Since Madrid possesses a rather austere and regal character, I’ve considered visiting the Royal district as my first stop to see the highlights of the noble city: Palacio Real, Catedral de la Almudena, remains of the old Moorish walls, andof course, the Plaza Mayor.
Surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque buildings, it is the perfect starting point to learn the basics about the city and at the same time, to appreciate the intricate history of this Spanish capital. After all, I was able to “talk to the Madrileños over a relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor” (I sincerely thank the city mayor, Ana Botella, for such a useful advice). After a short encounter with the shadows of Madrid’s former grandeur, I walked down the Calle Mayor and ended up to see the vivid and wild:
Puerta del Sol
Madrid could already be overwhelming for first timers but passing through the crowded square of Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) is simply inevitable for it is a place where people converge. From a bird’s eye view, the shape of the plaza resembles to a half risen sun with rays branching out of it.
Puerta del Sol had an intriguing character that kept me fascinated. I found myself strolling through it every day, not because I didn’t have a choice but I thought it was necessary to do so. Being more than just a meeting place for people, it creates a real life theater where everyone, including myself, gets to participate in the scene. Its the flair and flamboyance and the noise and the vividness that make this chaotic plaza a special place for me. Taking a break from the rest of the crowd, I went on to the next closest neighborhood and hit up my favorite plaza in Madrid:
Plaza de Santa Ana and Barrio de las Letras (Huertas)
What else could be more soothing than to be within the comforts of this little neighboorhood? Its small size gives an intimate atmosphere and a sense of closeness to the people. As this square used to be the meeting place of artists, poets and writers, bars and cafés surrounding the plaza add more flavor to its artistic flair.
Right in the middle of the square stands Federico García Lorca‘s statue facing the Teatro Español (Teatro del Príncipe). Not far from Santa Ana is the Barrio de las Letras where Miguel de Cervantes and Lopé de Vega used to reside. These houses have been converted to museums.
Gran Vía- Calle de Alcalá
Where do these streets actually start and where do they end? While the Gran Vía is lined up with countless shops, restaurants, theaters and a tempting bookstore (Casa del Libro:-)), Calle de Alcaláis a seemingly endless street that stretches out from Puerta del Sol, passing through the Plaza de Torosand then down to Avenida de Ámerica.
But the most interesting sites are found downtown— Plaza de Cibeles, Banco de España, Puerta de Alcalá and because the street also intersects with Paseo del Prado,that brings me to the next stop.
Paseo del Prado
This sumptuous, tree-filled boulevard does not only make one appreciate nature in the middle of the city, but through its prestigous art galleries, it has also brought out my innate artistry. Along the Paseo del Prado is a long line up of museums, three of which are called the ‘Golden Triangle’ , referring to the three world-class museums that are found in this district: Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and right down the street, close to the Atocha station is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The Caixa-Forum Madrid is also found along the Paseo del Prado. Depending on one’s taste, each museum offers a vareity of genres to every visitor, be it Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Cubism, Surrealism, Contemporary, Photography or Film Installations.
Who wants to feel the Andalusian atmosphere in this bustling city? To read my post about Museo Sorolla, click here
Parque del Retiro
With tree-lined avenues and an artificial boating lake, Parque del Retiro is another spot to tuck oneself away from the noise of Madrid. This massive greenscape gives one a contemplative environment to get in touch with nature and be isolated from the city crowd. Once a private park in the 17th century, it was officially opened to the public in the late 19th century and it was then that the people started to make this place their favorite venue to do their outdoor activities.
Don’t forget to visit the Palacio de Cristal. Hidden beneath the canopy of trees, it takes some effort to find this transparent treasure box that’s always worth a visit.
Plaza de Toros (Las Ventas)
It’s not just another bullfighting ring. As the country’s capital and the most Spanish of all Spanish cities, Madrid won’t be the complete without this tradition. Apart from being one of the largest bullfighting rings in the world, what I appreciated the most is the red brick structure and the Múdejar architecture that make it stand out from the modern buildings that surround it.
Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida
Tucked away from the mainstream attractions of this Spanish capital stands a bare-looking, small church, which exhibits Goya’s frescoed ceilings. Though small as it may appear from the outside, it showcases, however, a late 18th century grand masterpiece on the inside: The dome paintings that represent the miracle of St. Anthony. In front of the altar lies Francisco de Goya’s tomb, whose remains were exhumed in Bordeaux and then transferred to its present site. There’s just one thing that was missing, though– his head. Entrance is free but unfortunately, taking pictures is not allowed within the premises.
Templo de Debod
I initially thought that the temple was as authentic as the ones we see in amusement parks when, in fact, this particular structure was indeed a genuine Egyptian monument from 2200 BC. The question is, why on earth would it end up in Madrid when the city had nothing to do with Egypt? Simple. Since the Spanish archaelogists saved the monument from disappearing into the rising waters of a lake in Egypt, each block was transported to Spain as a symbol of gratitude by the Egyptian government.
Whew. That was indeed tough. Even for a second-time visitor like me, the task of selecting these places had been very difficult. After all, I learned to appreciate the city more than ever. Madrid is more than just the Spanish capital in the heart of the country. Through the city’s humble beginnings, from a miserable settlement into a grand metropolis, Madrid definitely deserves to show off what it has to offer.
Do you have any favorite spots to share in Madrid? I’d be glad to hear from you!