Spain’s sunny summers make it a magnet for travelers seeking a laid-back relaxing holiday, but the country’s capital and largest city is no place for lazing about. Whether exploring the Madrid’s world-class art museums, gazing at architectural marvels while sipping a café con leche at a sidewalk café or rollicking the night away at tapas bars along on the Gran Vía, the many attractions in Madrid are simply too captivating to miss.
Fortunately, Madrid’s most popular destinations are centrally located. The heart of the city is Puerta del Sol, a large plaza serving as the scene of festivals, important gatherings and street performers as well as a hub for the public transportation network. Another important square is Plaza Mayor, known for its many souvenir shops, cafes and the lively San Miguel Market. Visitors won’t want to pass up the opportunity to see these top sights.
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía was designed as a modern complement to the historical Prado Museum. It was officially inaugurated by Queen Sofia in 1992. Originally built as a hospital, the museum was expanded in 2005 with a structure designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The Museo Reina Sofia is home to a broad array of works created by Spanish artists, including extensive collections of artwork by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Picasso’s masterpiece, El Guernica, which conveys the horrors of the Spanish civil war, is alone worth the price of admission.
Situated within walking distance of the Plaza Mayor, the Mercado de San Miguel is a popular shopping destination for local foods and delicacies. Its intricate cast-iron architecture features glass walls that showcase goods ranging from salted fish and oysters to fresh pasta and cakes. Because the market stays open as late as 2 a.m. on weekends, it’s become a popular nightspot where visitors and locals gather to enjoy drinks and tapas, or appetizers. The site also plays host to events like concerts, cooking classes and private parties.
The Temple of Debod is one of the most unusual sights in Parque del Oeste, a park near the Royal Palace. The temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis once stood on the banks of the Nile. The construction of Egypt’s Great Dam of Aswan meant that several historical monuments had to be moved in order to preserve them from flooding. Spain stepped in to assist, and as an expression of gratitude, the Egyptian government gave the Temple of Debod to Spain in 1968. The four-thousand-year-old building is etched with bas-reliefs depicting the gods Ammon and Isis.
One of the most beautiful plazas in Madrid the Plaza de Cibeles is surrounded by several buildings constructed in the Neo-Classical style, including the stunning Palacio de Cibeles, formerly known as the Palacio de Comunicaciones, which was designed by architect Antonio Palacios. At the center of the plaza is a statue that is also considered a symbol of the city: the Fuente de la Cibeles. The magnificent fountain depicts the Roman goddess Cybele on a chariot drawn by lions. Sculpted in purple-colored marble by Francisco Gutiérrez and Roberto Michel in 1780, the fountain once served as a source of domestic water for nearby houses.
Located in the center of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol, or “Gate of the Sun,” is a crossroads where thousands gather each New Year’s Eve to welcome in the new year. Recent improvements to the square have limited car traffic and transformed the square into a spot where visitors can stroll and admire the architectural wonders. Central to these is the clock that chimes in the new year at Casa de Correos, the city’s governmental headquarters. In front of the building is Kilometer Zero, a plaque showing the point where the measuring of the national highway system begins. The statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree standing on one side of Puerta del Sol is considered a symbol of Madrid.
The Gran Vía is known as the Broadway of Madrid because it’s “the street that never sleeps.” The grand boulevard runs through central Madrid from the Plaza de España to Calle de Alcalá. Although the street now seems integral to the bustling capital, it’s actually a fairly recent addition to the city. Completed in 1910, the Gran Vía is lined with hundreds of shops, restaurants and businesses. The most famous building on the boulevard is the Telefónica Building, which was the tallest building in Europe when it was completed in 1929. The clock at the top of the Baroque-American style structure is a local landmark.
Known as the Parque del Buen Retiro or El Retiro, the park is a 350-acre spread of gardens, fountains and buildings located at the edge of the city center. Retiro Park began as a monastery in the 1500s. It was expanded into a royal park when Phillip II moved his court to Madrid in 1561. It’s been part of the public domain since 1868. A favorite spot for tourists and locals alike, the park features a large artificial pond where people can rents kayaks and canoes. An arcing colonnade structure on the east shore is the Monument to Alfonso XII. The Paseo de la Argentina, known as the Statue Walk, is ornamented with statues from the Royal Palace depicting Spanish kings through the ages.
The Museo del Prado is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Madrid. The 18th century structure designed by architect Juan de Villanueva houses one of the world’s finest art collections. A 2007 expansion has made the famed museum easier to navigate. With more than 7,000 works of art representing culture and history from the 12th century to the early 19th century, however, it’s impossible to see everything in a single visit. Visitors may wish to focus on the museum’s collection of Spanish artists, including Goya, El Greco, da Ribera and Velázquez, which is inarguably the best collection of Spanish paintings in the world.
The most famous of Madrid’s many stately plazas, the Plaza Mayor dates back to 1619, when it lay outside the city’s bounds and was used to host bullfights. During the Spanish Inquisition, many accused heretics met their death there. Three sides of the rectangular cobblestone plaza are bordered by block-long rows of three-story apartments completed in the late 18th century. The structures are decorated with frescoes, ornamented with balconies framed with wrought-iron railings and topped with elegant slate spires. A statue of Philip III on horseback stands in the middle of the plaza. Facing the plaza is the Casa de la Panadería, which houses a tourist information center.
The massive size of the Palacio Real is its most imposing feature. Madrid’s Royal Palace boasts more than 2,500 ornately decorated rooms. Built in 1764, the palace served as the royal residence beginning with Carlos III. The last royals to reside there were Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie in the early 1900s. Although the palace is still used for official ceremonies, 50 of the structure’s elegant rooms are open to the public, including an armory, pharmacy and the palace’s lavish throne room, or “Salón del Trono,” which features a ceiling painted by the Baroque artist Tiepolo. A fresco in the grand dining hall depicts Christopher Columbus presenting gifts from the New World to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.