No city on earth is more alive than Madrid, a beguiling place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this is one city that knows how to live. Madrid's calling cards are many: astonishing art galleries, stunning architecture, relentless nightlife, fine restaurants and tapas bars.
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Madrid may not have the Roman origins that get city historians hot and bothered, and it may be a comparative parvenu, selected from rural obscurity to become the capital only in the second half of the 16th century, but it oozes an ebullience that rarely fails to move.
What To Do
Madrid is synonymous with art galleries, bullfights, tapas, bar culture and alfresco dining, and athletic frenzies are not really the order of the day. Relatively laid-back pursuits like swimming and tennis are popular. If all that sounds too strenuous, consider going along to a football match.
One of the world’s most horizontal cable cars (it never hangs more than 40m above the ground), the Teleférico putters out from the slopes of La Rosaleda (the rose garden of Parque del Oeste). The 2.5km journey takes you into the depths of the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s enormous green (in summer more a dry olive hue) open space to the west of the city centre. Try to time it so you can settle in for a cool lunch or evening tipple on one of the terrazas along Paseo del Pintor Rosales.
What To See
Enough grandeur to overwhelm the senses.
With a trio of truly great art museums that includes the Museo del Prado, and buildings like the Palacio Real that span the centuries, plus lively plazas, mighty boulevards and barrios brimming with character, Madrid has plenty of sights to keep the eyes, ears and mind occupied.
Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Home to Picasso’s Guernica, arguably Spain’s single most famous artwork, and a host of other important Spanish artworks, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is Madrid’s premier collection of contemporary art. In addition to plenty of paintings by Picasso, other major drawcards are works by Salvador Dalí (1904-89) and Joan Miró (1893-1983). The collection principally spans the 20th century up to the 1980s (for more recent works, visit the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo).
Museo del Prado
Welcome to one of the premier art galleries anywhere in the world. The more than 7000 paintings held in the Museo del Prado’s collection (although only around 1500 are currently on display) are like a window onto the historical vagaries of the Spanish soul, at once grand and imperious in the royal paintings of Velázquez, darkly tumultuous in Las Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings) of Goya and outward-looking with sophisticated works of art from all across Europe. Spend as long as you can at the Prado or, better still, plan to make a couple of visits because it can be a little overwhelming if you try to absorb it all at once. Either way, it’s an artistic feast of rare power.
Parque del Buen Retiro
The glorious gardens of El Retiro are as beautiful as any you’ll find in a European city. Littered with marble monuments, landscaped lawns, the occasional elegant building and abundant greenery, it’s quiet and contemplative during the week but comes to life on weekends. Put simply, this is one of our favourite places in Madrid. Laid out in the 17th century by Felipe IV as the preserve of kings, queens and their intimates, the park was opened to the public in 1868 and ever since, whenever the weather’s fine and on weekends in particular, madrileños from all across the city gather here to stroll, read the Sunday papers in the shade, take a boat ride or nurse a cool drink at the numerous outdoor terrazas.
For centuries the centrepiece of Madrid life, the stately Plaza Mayor combines supremely elegant architecture with a history dominated by peculiarly Spanish dramas. Pull up a chair at the outdoor tables around the perimeter or laze upon the rough-hewn cobblestones as young madrileños have a habit of doing. All around you, the theatre that is Spanish street life buzzing through the plaza provides a crash course in why people fall in love with Madrid. Ah, the history the plaza has seen! Designed in 1619 by Juan Gómez de Mora and built in typical Herrerian style, of which the slate spires are the most obvious expression, its first public ceremony was suitably auspicious – the beatification of San Isidro Labrador (St Isidro the Farm Labourer), Madrid’s patron saint. Thereafter it was as if all that was controversial about Spain took place in this square.
Plaza de Oriente
A royal palace that once had aspirations to be the Spanish Versailles. Sophisticated cafes watched over by apartments that cost the equivalent of a royal salary. The Teatro Real, Madrid’s opera house and one of Spain’s temples to high culture. Some of the finest sunset views in Madrid. Welcome to Plaza de Oriente, a living, breathing monument to imperial Madrid.
At the centre of the plaza, which the palace overlooks, is an equestrian statue of Felipe IV. Designed by Velázquez, it's the perfect place to take it all in with marvellous views wherever you look. If you’re wondering how a heavy bronze statue of a rider and his horse rearing up can actually maintain that stance, the answer is simple: the hind legs are solid, while the front ones are hollow. That idea was Galileo Galilei’s. Nearby are some 20 marble statues of mostly ancient monarchs. Local legend has it that these ageing royals get down off their pedestals at night to stretch their legs.
The adjacent Jardines Cabo Naval, a great place to watch the sun set, adds to the sense of a sophisticated oasis of green in the heart of Madrid.
You can almost imagine how the eyes of Felipe V, the first of the Bourbon kings, lit up when the alcázar (Muslim-era fortress) burned down in 1734 on Madrid’s most exclusive perch of real estate. His plan? Build a palace that would dwarf all its European counterparts. The Italian architect Filippo Juvara (1678-1736), who had made his name building the Basilica di Superga and the Palazzo di Stupinigi in Turin, was called in but, like Felipe, he died without bringing the project to fruition. Upon Juvara’s death, another Italian, Giovanni Battista Sacchetti, took over, finishing the job in 1764. The result was an Italianate baroque colossus with some 2800 rooms, of which around 50 are open to the public. It’s occasionally closed for state ceremonies and official receptions, but the present king is rarely in residence, preferring to live somewhere more modest.
If you’re lucky, you might just catch the colourful changing of the guard in full parade dress. This takes place at noon on the first Wednesday of every month (except August and September) between the palace and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena. There’s also a less extravagant changing of the guard inside the palace compound at the Puerta del Príncipe every Wednesday from 11am to 2pm. The French-inspired Jardines de Sabatini lie along the northern flank of the Palacio Real. They were laid out in the 1930s to replace the royal stables that once stood on the site.
Plaza de la Cibeles
Of all the grand roundabouts that punctuate the Paseo del Prado, Plaza de la Cibeles most evokes the splendour of imperial Madrid. The jewel in the crown is the astonishing Palacio de Comunicaciones. Built between 1904 and 1917 by Antonio Palacios, Madrid’s most prolific architect of the belle époque, it combines elements of the North American monumental style of the period with Gothic and Renaissance touches. It serves as Madrid’s town hall (Ayuntamiento), with the main post office occupying the southwestern corner. Other landmark buildings around the plaza’s perimeter include the Palacio de Linares and Casa de América, the Palacio Buenavista (1769) and the national Banco de España (1891). There are fine views east towards the Puerta de Alcalá or, even better, west towards the Edificio Metrópolis.
The spectacular fountain of the goddess Cybele at the centre of the plaza is one of Madrid’s most beautiful. Ever since it was erected in 1780 by Ventura Rodríguez, it has been a Madrid favourite. Carlos III liked it so much that he tried to have it moved to the royal gardens of the Granja de San Ildefonso, on the road to Segovia, but madrileños (people from Madrid) kicked up such a fuss that he let it be.
A Sunday morning at El Rastro is a Madrid institution. You could easily spend an entire morning inching your way down the Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores and through the maze of streets that hosts El Rastro flea market every Sunday morning. Cheap clothes, luggage, old flamenco records, even older photos of Madrid, faux designer purses, grungy T-shirts, household goods and electronics are the main fare. For every 10 pieces of junk, there’s a real gem (a lost masterpiece, an Underwood typewriter) waiting to be found.
Antiques are also a major drawcard for traders and treasure hunters alike with a concentration of stores at Nuevas Galerías and Galerías Piquer; most of the shops open 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 8pm Monday to Saturday and not all open during El Rastro.
A word of warning: pickpockets love El Rastro as much as everyone else, so keep a tight hold on your belongings and don’t keep valuables in easy-to-reach pockets.
Antigua Casa Talavera
The extraordinary tiled facade of this wonderful old shop conceals an Aladdin’s cave of ceramics from all over Spain. This is not the mass-produced stuff aimed at a tourist market, but comes from the small family potters of Andalucía and Toledo, ranging from the decorative (tiles) to the useful (plates, jugs and other kitchen items). The old couple who run the place are delightful.
Behind the attractive old facade lies a connoisseur’s paradise, filled with local cheeses, sausages, wines and coffees. The products here are great for a gift, but everything’s so good that you won’t want to share. Not that long ago, Mantequería Bravo won the prize for Madrid’s best gourmet food shop or delicatessen – it’s as simple as that.
Corral de la Morería
This is one of the most prestigious flamenco stages in Madrid, with 50 years’ experience as a leading flamenco venue and top performers most nights. The stage area has a rustic feel, and tables are pushed up close. We’d steer clear of the restaurant, which is overpriced (from €43), but the performances have a far better price-quality ratio. This is where international celebrities (eg Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali and Omar Sharif) have all gone for their flamenco fix when in town.
One of Madrid’s classic jazz clubs, this place offers a low-key atmosphere and top-quality music, which is mostly jazz with occasional blues, swing and even flamenco thrown into the mix. Compay Segundo, Sonny Fortune and the Canal Street Jazz Band have all played here. Shows start at 10.45pm but, if you want a seat, get here early.
It always seems like there's a party going on in Madrid, but the city goes particularly crazy during Carnaval (February/March), the Fiesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (2 May) and Fiestas de San Isidro (15 May). There's localised mayhem in June-July when the city's districts celebrate their various saints' days. Offices, banks and some shops close on public holidays, and they often also close on the intervening day if the holiday falls close to a weekend. Madrid is just about evacuated in August, as the locals head off on their holidays, and you may find that some restaurants and shops will be closed for the month.
OK, a picture of Madrid wouldn't be complete without mention of the city's bullfights. Those with the machismo of Hemingway and the sensibilities of Sid Vicious can taste the blood and sand at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas, the world's biggest bullfighting ring. The city's main bullfighting season kicks off with the Fiesta de San Isidro on 15 May.
Food and Drink
Restaurante Sobrino de Botín
It’s not every day that you can eat in the oldest restaurant in the world (the Guinness Book of World Records has recognised it as the oldest – established in 1725) that has also appeared in many novels about Madrid, most notably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Frederick Forsyth's Icon and The Cobra. The secret of its staying power is fine cochinillo (roast suckling pig) and cordero asado (roast lamb) cooked in wood-fired ovens; the angulas (baby eels) at €101 a dish is probably beyond the reach of most. Eating in the vaulted cellar is a treat. Yes, it’s filled with tourists. And yes, staff are keen to keep things ticking over and there’s little chance to linger. But the novelty value is high and the food excellent. Contact Insider's Madrid for guided tours (The Botín Experience) of the restaurant.
Snug yet loud, a favourite of Madrid’s hip young crowd yet utterly unpretentious, La Musa is all about designer decor, lounge music on the sound system and food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that will live long in the memory and is always fun and filled with flavour. The menu is divided into three types of tapas – hot, cold and BBQ; among the hot varieties is the fantastic jabalí con ali-oli de miel y sobrasada (wild boar with honey mayonnaise and sobrasada – a soft, mildly spicy sausage from Mallorca). It doesn’t take reservations, so sidle up to the bar, add your name to the waiting list and soak up the ambient buzz of Malasaña at its best. If you don’t fancy waiting, try the sister restaurant nearby, Ojalá Awareness Club.
We could go on for hours about this long-standing cafe-bar, but we’ll reduce it to its most basic elements: nursing an exceptionally good mojito or three on a warm summer’s evening at Delic’s outdoor tables on one of Madrid’s prettiest plazas is one of life’s great pleasures. Bliss. Due to local licensing restrictions, the outdoor tables close two hours before closing time, whereafter the intimate interior is almost as good.
This glorious old Madrid cafe proudly fights a rearguard action against progress with heavy leather seats, abundant marble and old-style waiters. Café Comercial, which dates back to 1887, is the largest of the barrio’s old cafes and has changed little since those days, although the clientele has broadened to include just about anyone, from writers on their laptops to old men playing chess.
The founder of this Madrid landmark is said to have invented more than a hundred cocktails, which the likes of Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra all enjoyed at one time or another. It’s still frequented by film stars and top socialites, and it’s at its best after midnight, when a lounge atmosphere takes over, couples cuddle on the curved benches and some of the city’s best DJs do their stuff (CDs are available). The 1930s-era interior only adds to the cachet of this place. We don’t say this often, but if you haven’t been here, you haven’t really been to Madrid – it’s that much of an icon.
Posada de la Villa
This wonderfully restored 17th-century posada (inn) is something of a local landmark. The atmosphere is formal, the decoration sombre and traditional (heavy timber and brickwork), and the cuisine decidedly local – roast meats, cocido, callos (tripe) and sopa de ajo (garlic soup).
A gastronomic temple that combines stellar cooking with clean-lined sophistication, Sula Madrid – a superstylish tapas bar, top-notch restaurant and ham-and-champagne tasting centre all rolled into one – is one of our favourite top-end restaurants in Madrid and we're not the only one - when master chef Ferran Adrià was asked to nominate his favourite restaurant, he chose Sula. The kitchen, its seasonal menu and the extensive wine list is overseen by wunderkind Quique Dacosta (voted Spain’s best chef in 2005) and there's a leaning towards Navarran cuisine, the finest jamón (ham) and creative twists on old staples. Design touches added by Amaya Arzuaga help to make this one of Madrid’s coolest, black-clad spaces. Despite the clientele, there’s nothing snooty about the atmosphere, especially at lunchtime when the menú del día is a great way to sample what all the fuss is about.
Most places to eat along or around the Paseo del Prado are either tourist traps or upmarket temples to fine dining, but this place bucks the trend. A slick but casual tapas bar attached to the NH Paseo del Prado hotel, Estado Puro serves up fantastic tapas, many of which have their origins in Catalonia’s world-famous El Bulli restaurant, such as the tortilla española siglo XXI (21st-century Spanish omelette, served in a glass). The kitchen here is overseen by Paco Roncero, the head chef at La Terraza del Casino, who learned his trade with master chef Ferran Adrià. Most of the tapas involve spectacular riffs on traditional Spanish themes. The outdoor tables are often reserved and have higher prices, and the long opening hours are a treat for those whose appetites don’t conform to Spanish eating hours. There's another branch up the hill just off Plaza de Santa Ana.