Madrid has a long and complex history. Center of power of a monarchy that for centuries ruled half the world, it is now one of the major tourist spots of Europe. Once ground zero of the Spanish Inquisition it is now best known for its zestful nightclubs, outstanding shopping centers, and life-celebrating art.
Any trip to Madrid will reward the visitor with first-rate bullfights or soccer, shopping third in Europe only to London and Paris, art museums that are second to none, and parks as good as those in New York’s Manhattan. In short, be prepared to spend some time here.
Art lovers will want to visit the Prado, to be sure. But there is the equally outstanding Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a recent addition to the city’s offerings. Founded by the wealthy industrial family’s Baron Thyssen and his wife, a former Miss Spain, it houses over 700 of Europe’s treasures from the 13th-20th centuries. For those who want something more modern, Queen Sofia houses enough 20th-century art to satisfy fans of New York’s MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).
But there’s much more to see and do than a stroll around art museums. For a lovely walk in Madrid’s warm sunshine, you’ll want to visit the Parque del Buen Retiro. Though only about a third the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, and much smaller than London’s Hyde Park, it is second to none in beauty. Besides the lovely grounds, there are lakes, sculptures and the Crystal Palace to see and enjoy.
While you’re thinking about London, visit the Basilica de San Francisco El Grande. With a dome larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral, and almost as much art as St. Peter’s in Rome, you won’t be disappointed.
For more outside pleasures there are several other major options. The Puerta del Sol is the geographical and civic center of Madrid and all of Spain. The paving slab marked Km 0 is the literal beginning for the country’s six major highways, radiating outward from there.
Plaza Mayor is not far away. Visitors can enjoy a meal at one of the dozens of cafes or restaurants or just sit in the shade and watch the people go by. The square, nearly 100m on each side, is surrounded by buildings that have seen everything from bullfights to beheadings.
Don’t miss seeing the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace, either. Long the home of Spain’s monarchs, it still contains the throne room, the Royal Armory, and the Royal Pharmacy. You can stand in some of its 2,800 rooms and imagine what it must have been like to rule half the world from there. That’s easy to do when you see El Cid’s sword, or the hundreds of jewels, porcelain vases, and other objects on display.
But leave some time for shopping. Anything from the El Corte Inglés department store to the El Rastro flea market will have you knee-deep in choices. Gran Via is Madrid’s most well-known avenue for shopping but there are dozens of others: Calle Alcala, Calle Montera, Calle Princesa… the list is endless. Whether you want a fine antique, a new pair of elegant shoes, or some of Europe’s best fashion, you’ll find it in one of Madrid’s boutiques.
It may not take you 400 years (the time it has been Spain’s capital) to see all that Madrid has to offer, but be prepared to spend some time here.