Although Madrid is the capital of Spain it doesn’t perhaps have as many world famous attractions as some of the country’s other great cities. Having said that it is an architecturally stunning city with all roads leading to the beautiful Plaza Mayor. Madrid is home to some of Europe’s greatest art museums including the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia. And many weekend visitors arrive to see a game at Real Madrid’s legendary Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Here are a few of the highlights of a visit to Madrid:
Puerta del Sol
It’s more than likely that you’ll be staying in the vicinity of Puerta del Sol when you stay in Madrid as it is not only the geographical centre of the capital but also the centre of Spain. Look out for the marker on the pavement in front of the Ayuntamiento (Council) building as all road distances in Spain are measured from this spot (Kilometre Zero). “Puerta” means gate and it got this name historically because in the 15th century it was the city’s main, easternmost gate when under the Habsburg Kings it was surrounded by churches and monasteries. It was rebuilt in its present form in 1854-62. Today it is the hub of the city’s transport system and is Madrid’s most popular meeting point.
More impressive on a monumental level is the great Plaza Mayor just a two minute walk from Puerta del Sol. Initially it served as a small market square when it was first built in the 15th century. It was completely rebuilt after Phillip II made Madrid the capital of Spain and became the city’s focal point as bullfights, carnivals and all the great festivals and ceremonies of imperial Madrid were held there. Large sections were rebuilt after a fire in 1790. Today you’ll find a selection of pricey bars and restaurants on the outskirts of the square along with novelty shops selling hats and coins. There are artists working outside the tourist office and tourists from all over the globe hanging around this grand plaza.
Royal Palace (Palacio Real)
The Spanish Royal Family don’t reside at this 3,000-room palace so apart from on the date of an official state function it is open to visitors. You can buy tickets at the Royal Palace and take an independent tour or if you prefer to see the Palace with an official local guide you’ll find various options on our Madrid City Tours page.
Parque del Retiro
The Retiro park is an important part of the life of the people of Madrid. Lying within walking distance of the main attractions of the city centre it is a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. On Sunday mornings in particular you’ll see Madrileños enjoying their leisure time with some simply wandering around before their ‘aperitivo’ (pre-lunchtime drink), others jogging, some reading the paper on benches or in a café and others rowing around the lake in rented boats.
El Teleférico de Madrid
This is a cable car that runs from Rosales in the west of the city to a restaurant in the Casa de Campo park. The 10 minute ride gives great views of Madrid’s skyline.
Main Art Galleries in Madrid
Prado Museum (Museo del Prado)
The Prado is one of the world’s greatest galleries and is Madrid’s premier tourist attraction with a higher concentration of masterpieces than any other museum in the world. There are many works by Goya, El Greco and Velázquez, the great Spanish painters as well as celebrated works by Bosch, Botticelli and Rubens amongst others. Such is the wealth of art here that it is only possible to display about 1,500 works of its 9,000-piece collection at any one time. Check the weekly ‘Guia de Ocio’ magazine to check whether any special exhibitions are on display during your visit. Highly recommended is a private tour of the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace accompanied by a licensed, English speaking tour guide. Other Madrid City Tours which include the Prado are also available.
This collection has been installed in chronological order to allow the visitor to take a historical walking tour of European Painting from the 13th Century to modern times. The most outstanding works are from the Italian and German Renaissance, the 17th Century Dutch School, 19th Century North American Painting, Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism.
The collection dates back to the 1920s when Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza acquired Old Masters for his villa overlooking Lake Lugano in Switzerland. After he died in 1947, his son expanded the collection to include many modern masterpieces. In 1993 the Spanish government outbid the Getty Foundation to secure the collection for $350 million when its true value was estimated at over $1 billion.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
The Reina Sofia acquired Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in 1992 which is the most visited individual work of art in Madrid and indeed in Spain. The rest of the permanent collection contains works by virtually every noted Spanish artist of this century, together with many others by non-Spanish artists.
A much lesser known museum but a “must see” for the art enthusiast in Madrid is this elegant former home of the Valencian artist Joaquín Sorolla who lived and worked here. Today the mansion guards the works of Spain’s foremost Impressionist painter.
Museo de América
This is the finest collection of pre-Columbian art and artefacts in Europe. It contains articles that were brought back at the time of the Spanish Conquest as well as others that have been donated by various Latin American countries. Highlights include Inca stone sculptures and funeral offerings from Peru, gold ornaments and finely modelled figurines from Colombia, Aztec masks and a Mayan illustrated manuscript from Mexico telling the story of the arrival of the Spaniards.