City of Madrid
Madrid is the capital of Spain and so much more. In the minds of most foreigners, Madrid is the Spanish capital – the seat of government, the main residence of the Spanish royal family and the home of one of the of the world’s most successful (and expensive) football clubs.
But the lesser known wider Madrid, a single-province autonomous region at the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, offers many diverse attractions and places of interest from ski resorts and wonderful walking country to sumptuous palaces and important World Heritage sites.
Discover a different sort of Madrid
One of the top tourist attractions in the region is the magnificent El Escorial Monastery of San Lorenzo, 50 kilometres North West of the capital. It was built in the mid-16th century on the orders of King Felipe II who wanted a monastic base from which to rule his Spanish empire.
The empire’s greatest theologians, philosophers, architects and astrologers were called upon to advise on both the location and design of the palatial monastery in the Guadarrama mountains more than 1,000 metres above sea level. The King’s royal status and deep-rooted religious beliefs led to an extraordinary blend of grandeur and austerity in this mighty granite building which was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 1984.
Nine kilometres north of El Escorial you’ll find Spain’s most dramatic tribute to those who died in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos (the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen – Left) is reputed to be the largest cross in the world. It towers above the tomb of 40,000 people who died in the war, including the nationalist dictator Francisco Franco. The site includes a Benedictine monastery and a huge cave church excavated from the mountain beneath the granite cross.
The Guadarrama mountains
The beautiful Guadarrama mountains are a magnet for hikers, nature lovers and bird watchers. Madrileños make a beeline for these mountains in the summer, to escape the blistering heat of the capital and weekend skiers head for the small ski resorts of Valdesqui, Cotos and Navecerrada during the winter months.
The province of Madrid is home to several royal ‘bolt holes’ from centuries past including the splendid El Pardo Palace, 15 kilometres North of the capital. Built in 1405 on the site of a 9th century Moorish castle, the Pardo was originally used as a royal hunting lodge and became the favoured holiday retreat for successive Kings. It was the one time residence of General Franco and these days is still used by King Juan Carlos to impress visiting royals and heads of state.
Another former royal retreat which attracts hordes of 21st-century visitors is the Palace of Aranjuez, 47 kilometres south of the capital. Declared a World Heritage site in 2001, the palace offers an insight into the opulent world of 17th, 18th and 19th-century Spanish monarchs who spent their summers here, relaxing in gilded salons and exquisite gardens littered with fountains, monuments and formal flower gardens.
Yet another World Heritage site in the province of Madrid can be found at Alcala de Henares, 30 kilometres East of the capital. Purpose-built in the 16th century, it’s the world’s oldest university town which served as a model for centres of learning all over Europe and America. It’s also the birthplace of Spain’s most famous literary giant, Miguel de Cervantes whose Don Quixote became the best selling book of all time after the bible. The house where the author was allegedly born (though this is a matter of some dispute) is now a museum which serves as both a shrine to the errant knight and as a depiction of 16th-century life.
If there is one thing, however, that characterises Madrid, it is the deep, contagious passion for life reflected in its friendly, welcoming people. Visitors can be tempted by the finest Spanish and international cuisine or be enchanted by its bars and taverns. As you get to grips with this urban Mecca you soon realize that it’s the inhabitants – the madrilenos – that are the capital’s key attraction. To truly appreciate what Madrid has to offer you must experience it, most visitors leave surprised and few leave disappointed.
Gran Via and Paseo de la Castellana
This is where modern Madrid is located. Along the Gran Via (Right) is a nerve centre of shops, leisure establishments, and hotels and the Paseo de La Castellana, a magnificent avenue that crosses the city from North to South, which houses more modern and avant-garde buildings.
With a huge variety of activities to choose from and an endless number of attractions to visit, (as well as Madrid’s enticing social scene), it is easy to understand how visitors can easily miss the opportunity to discover all of what Madrid has to offer. These following have been recommended as being of cultural importance and all are open to the public:
Other places of interest in Madrid
The Plaza de Toros
Spain’s largest bullring, where regular bullfights are still held.
The Plaza de Oriente and Palace Gardens
An impressive and elegant pedestrian area.
The Mercado de San Miguel
This market is housed in a 19th-century building with wrought iron columns. The market sells a variety of food and household goods.
Home to Madrid’s loveliest gardens; and the Juan Carlos I Park along with others make Madrid one of Europe’s greenest capitals.
The Plaza Mayor
A majestic, perfectly preserved and extremely beautiful area that can be found in the old quarter. Historically it was a venue for state ceremonies, bullfights, ritual condemnations of heretics and executions. Nowadays it is prized as an excellent place to people watch with visitors taking a break in one of the numerous cafes that line the square, all of which serve a range of tapas and wines.
The Royal Palace of Madrid
An enormous construction that dominates the skyline over the western part of city. Inside are some 2800 rooms but the tours only include around 50. The most outstanding of these are the Alabarderos Hall, Columnas (Columns) Hall, Espejos (Mirrors) Hall and the King Charles III of Spain’s room. There are paintings by Velazquez, Goya, Rubens, El Greco and Caravaggio that adorn the walls of this immense establishment.
Although Madrid grew under Arab rule for two hundred years, little is left of their presence and only some ruins are preserved. The coming of the Austrias in the 16th century influenced the oldest part of the city the most, now commonly known as ‘Los Austrias’.
The Plaza Mayor
An elegant arcaded square (Right) where the greatest festivals and ceremonies of imperial Madrid were held, as well as bullfights and carnivals. Now, it hosts markets on Sundays and lively dance bands during fiestas. There are also many outstanding churches and convents full of art and atmosphere. Journeying on, we come across the site of the Moreria (the Muslim quarter) and medieval Madrid.
The museums of Madrid
The most famous museums in Madrid are the Museo del Prado (The Prado museum Madrid) on the city’s ‘museum mile’, which houses important works by Spanish and European masters from the Renaissance onwards and is one of the world’s greatest art galleries, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemiza which houses one of the most extensive private collections in the world and The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, devoted to 20th century Spanish art with works by Miro, Dali and Picasso. Collectively they form what is commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Triangle’.
Huertas and Santa Ana
Today it is known as the theatre district but this used to be the stamping ground of Madrid’s Golden Age literary set. The author of Don Quixote himself lived here and he was buried in the convent of the Trinitarias Descalzas which is not too far away.
Salamanca is where the most affluent families built their houses and palaces in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are places of artistic and architectural importance dotted along the Paseo de la Castellana.
Sol is Madrid’s most photographed square and home to the emblematic bear and strawberry tree statue.
More sights to see in Madrid City
- Madrid Royal Palace
- Pantheon of Important Men
- Monastery of Las Descalzas Reales
- Royal Monastery of La Encarnacion
- El Pardo Royal Palace
- Aranjuez Royal Palace
- Royal Monastery of El Escorial
- Prince’s Cottage at El Escorial
- Infante’s Cottage at El Escorial
- Benedictine Abbey of Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos