Spaniards will tell you that while the rest of the world lives to work, they work to live. Nowhere is that more evident than in the capital, where the free-spirited Madrileños (Madrid’s denizens) provide the main attraction for visitors. The unrivaled number of bars, cafés, discos, restaurants, and live music venues, combined with the locals' enthusiasm for enjoying themselves, make this the place to come for fun. Although Madrid may not have as many historical sites as Paris, Rome, or even Barcelona, you'll still find plenty of intellectual stimulation at some of the best museums in Europe like the
The heart of it all! You should start your tour of the city at the lively
This long, tree-lined boulevard is the backbone of Madrid. It's so long that it even has three official names. Come here to relax, take a coffee break, or sightsee. Starting from
Suddenly, the boulevard turns into the
Traffic surges through this long, noisy avenue, along with swarms of locals and tourists. Look up and admire the eccentric 20th-century architecture built during the Franco era. You'll find every style represented, from neo-baroque to art-deco. As you follow the
Madrid de los Austrias
Walk around this historic district, named after the Austrian Hapsburgs, and lose yourself amongst the cobbled, winding alleys, iron balconies and old, leaning buildings. It's easy to imagine you're back in the 18th Century, especially at night when the street lamps give the place a romantic feel. Visit the
La Latina (The Rastro)
Right next to Madrid de los Austrias, this old district is known for its huge array of bars, cafés, and restaurants, and Spain's largest flea market, the
Escape the city in huge, lush, green
Moncloa and Argüelles
Nightlife, nightlife and more nightlife! This area is dominated by great tapas bars that don't even open until 9p or later.
Huertas and Plaza Santa Ana
This is yet another lively spot for cafés, bars, and nightlife action. It is centered around
Malasaña and Chueca
This is a fairly quiet area during the day, with winding streets and 19th-century architecture. At night, it's transformed into a busy nightlife spot as young and old mix in the many bars, discos, and cafés. Malasaña is dominated by
In 1561, Madrid - with a population of 15,000 - became the capital of Spain by decree of King Felipe II. He chose Madrid because of its central location, his aim being to unify the disparate regions of the peninsula and his vast empire.
Some historians claim that Madrid stands on the site of a Roman town, Mantua Carpetana. Although there's no proof to support this theory, archaeological remains do confirm that there has been continuous human settlement in this area for as long as any other part of Europe. The Museo Nacional Arqueológico displays archaeological artifacts left by prehistoric settlers.
The Moorish invasion of the peninsula is clearly documented. During the 9th Century, the Moors built a military outpost to guard against a Christian attack from the Guadarrama mountains to the north, on the rock where the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) now stands. They called this settlement Mayrit, and you can still see remains of the original defensive walls, below the Almudena Cathedral.
Christian forces unsuccessfully attacked Mayrit in 932, and again in 1047, in an attempt to regain the land they had lost. But it wasn't until 1086 that the Christian king, Alfonso VI, was able to capture Madrid (Mayrit) along with nearby Toledo. During the following decades, the city (which was still no more than a village) was constantly besieged. The Campo del Moro (Moor's Field), located just below the Royal Palace, was named after the Moorish siege encampment.
In the late 13th Century, Madrid was an ordinary medieval village with less than 4000 inhabitants. Two churches still remain from that era, the San Nicolás de los Servitas and the San Pedro el Viejo, both located near the Plaza de la Villa.
The nobility began to gather in Madrid during the 14th Century, and succeeding monarchs saw the growing settlement as a pleasant retreat from ongoing social unrest in other parts of the country. By the 15th Century, Madrid had become a center of trade and finance, and areas like the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor began to develop. The Catholic Monarchs (Isabel and Ferdinand) united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1479, and ruled over a period of relative political stability. During their reign, Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World, and most of the Jewish population was expelled from Spain.
The French-born Felipe V was crowned king in 1700. By this time the capital had been in decline for many years and he set about regenerating it with the help of the Marquis de Vadillo and architects and engineers like Teodoro Ardeman and Pedro Ribera. They walled in the banks of the river Manzanares to make it look grander and built baroque masterpieces like the Puente de Toledo bridge, San Fernando Hospice (now the Museo Municipal), and Monte de Piedad.
Carlos III, who came to the throne in 1759, was known as the "mayor" because of all the building work and improvements to the city he commissioned. Not only did he finish the construction of a new royal palace, Granja de San Ildefonso, he also renovated the area around the Prado by building the Plaza de Cibeles, Neptune's Fountain, and the Puerta de Alcalá.
Historians divide this century into two periods: decline and recovery. The French invasion, which installed Napoleon's brother on the Spanish throne, led to a period of decline in Madrid. King Joseph Bonaparte tore down a number of churches during his reign, leading to wider boulevards and generally broader streets as a result. When Fernando VII was returned to the throne, he restored the Church's property and began rebuilding what had been destroyed during the war.
During the reign of Queen Isabel II, the construction of the Isabel II Canal and the arrival of the railway expanded the city's transportation and communications network.
During Madrid's period of recovery, the city slowly regained its lost urban splendor. The prospering bourgeoisie started to build small residential palaces like the Palacio de Linares and the Palacio de Gaviria. The demand for housing grew, and new neighborhoods like Chamberí, Argüelles, and Salamanca were built outside the old town.
Madrid suffered the same feeling of defeat as the rest of the country when Spain lost its last remaining colonies (the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico) in 1898. Alfonso XIII was crowned king in 1902 and brought in a new period of parliamentary monarchy, which had to cope with the economic and political crisis resulting from the losses of 1898.
The only example of Modernist architecture, popular at this time in Europe and North America, is the Palacio de Longoria, which now acts as headquarters to the Sociedad General de Autores. The urban development program, Ciudad Lineal (Linear City), designed by engineer Arturo Soria, was the only progressive project of its kind to be carried out in a stagnant late-19th Century Madrid.
The most exciting architectural event of the early 20th Century in Madrid was a gathering of international architects to design the first stretch of the Gran Vía, from Calle Alcalá to San Luis.
The university campus (Ciudad Universitaria) was built during General Primo de Rivera's dictatorship (1923-1930) in a similar style to projects in the U.S. and other parts of Europe.
The Republican coalition won the elections of April 1931. Thousands of supporters celebrated the victory and the Declaration of the Second Republic in the Puerta del Sol.
Increasing social unrest and political instability led to a bloody civil war after a military uprising against the democratically elected Republican government. The civil war lasted from 1936-1939 and during this time the Republican-held city was under constant siege. The streets became war zones. The area between the Plaza de España, along Calle Princesa and Calle Rosales to the Parque del Oeste was most damaged by the constant bombings by the Nationalists. The park itself was the frontline. The Republicans cleverly managed to protect monuments like the Cibeles statue, the Puerta de Alcalá, and Neptune's fountain on Paseo del Prado under mounds of bricks and sandbags. The Republican barricades and cries of No pasarán (They shall not pass) could not stop the advance of the Nationalist forces.
A reconstruction program began after the civil war, and the Gran Vía was eventually completed. A massive influx of immigrants from other parts of Spain - even poorer than Madrid — rapidly increased the city's population.
During the 1960s, many new districts were built on the outskirts, spreading further and further out into the surrounding plains. The economy began to grow and speculative construction became common and damaging to districts like the Paseo de la Castellana where many historic palaces were demolished to make way for tall, modern apartment blocks.
There has been constant architectural change and renewal in Madrid since the end of the dictatorship in 1975. The Gran Vía is no longer the elegant avenue it once was. It's now a busy commercial street full of shops and cinemas. The Paseo de la Castellana, once home to the wealthy upper-middle classes, has been taken over by banks and embassies. The once rundown and seedy Chueca district has been transformed by the gay community into a lively and stimulating place to live, work and have fun.
Since democracy returned to Spain, Madrid's fantastic metro system has expanded, numerous historic buildings have been restored, parks and public squares have been properly maintained, trees have been planted all over the city and new fountains built. Major construction projects like the Picasso Tower demonstrate what a modern place the city has become, eager to contribute to the European Union and benefit from the euro zone economy.
Good food and drink are central to life in Madrid, and there's no shortage of either anywhere in the city. The bars are full of people having tapas along with a drink. Two of the most popular tapas are boquerones en vinagre (marinated anchovies) and empanadas (pastry filled with tuna and tomato or quite possibly anything). Or you might find people sharing raciones (larger versions of tapas) such as plates of chorizo (sausage), jamón serrano (cured ham), tortilla de patata (potato omelette), and champiñones con ajos y jamón (mushrooms with garlic and ham). Bars usually have both tapas and raciones menus to choose from.
Tapas have an interesting history dating back to the 13th Century when stagecoach drivers used to stop off in taverns to take a break and have a glass of wine after an exhausting journey transporting merchandise. They would get so drunk and become such a menace on the "highways" that the government introduced a law forcing them to eat something while they drank. They would usually be given a piece of bread and ham placed on top of their glass or jar of alcohol. These tapas (tops or lids) became a sensible and healthy custom that continues today.
Spaniards in general, and the people of Madrid in particular, are proud not to be bound by the rigid timetables that other nationalities follow. They're happy to sit down to a three-course lunch with wine and coffee at three o'clock in the afternoon before returning to work. Many foreigners see it as "wasting" two whole hours when they could be working, and they wonder how anyone could eat and drink so much and then continue to do any constructive work. Visitors are also often surprised, and a little alarmed, at the sight of everyone in the bar throwing used toothpicks, rolled-up napkins, cigarette ends, peanut shells and prawn heads onto the floor. No Spaniard will be offended at seeing a bar full of rubbish, but that custom, like hanging a leg of ham from the ceiling to slice jamón ibérico from, sometimes has a profound impact - and not a very pleasant one - on the visitor.
Huertas & Santa Ana
The area around Plaza de Santa Ana is a popular place to tapear (have tapas in more than one place). The Cervecería Alemana is located here and it's usually full of tourists. La Dolores is at the end of Calle Huertas just before it joins the Paseo del Prado and offers a great range of delicious tapas. There are similar bars on the same street that are just as good, such as Naturbier, a great micro-brewery not to be missed. Also in Huertas is Las Bravas, one of the best places in the world for patatas bravas (fried chunks of potatoes in a delicious, spicy, secret-recipe sauce), a specialty that no one outside Madrid seems to do properly.
La Latina & Lavapiés
The Plaza de la Cebada has lots of good tapas bars, as well, such as El Almendro. Plaza de Alonso Martínez and Calle Conde Duque are both recommended for a tapas crawl. The best callos is served in Botillería Maxi on Calle Cava Alta and the best wines to accompany it are reds from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions, although wines from the Madrid area are becoming increasingly popular. Other popular dishes include: caracoles (snails), tortilla de patata and sopa de ajo (garlic soup). Fish is brought fresh to the capital from the coast daily.
Plaza Mayor, Ópera & Sol
After you've toured a few bars and tried their tapas, it's time for lunch or dinner. You'll find the best local dishes in La Bola Taberna and Botín near the Plaza Mayor. The Madrid specialty is cocido madrileño, a stew with noodles, chickpeas, meat, and vegetables. It's perfect for a cold winter afternoon. Another Madrid favorite is callos madrileños, tripe with chickpeas, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and bacon fat in a slightly spicy sauce. You'll love it or hate it. If you want to try a delicious leg of lamb, book a table in the charming restaurant La Posada de la Villa, built in 1642.
The Castellana district is best in summertime when the tree-lined avenues are crowded with outdoor terrazas (sidewalk cafés) that remain busy until very late with trendy, well-dressed young professionals. Some of Madrid's oldest literary cafés like the Café Gijón are here, and you can still see tertulias (discussion groups) taking place today.
Quality foreign restaurants in Madrid can be somewhat of a hard thing to find. The Italian, Argentine, Mexican, and American restaurants are acceptable, but the Chinese are not very good (except for Tse Yang, which is excellent but prohibitively expensive for most), and there are few affordable "exotic" restaurants.
The Prado is one of the most renowned museums in the world, featuring works by Spanish masters such as Velasquez, Goya and Picasso as well as other European artists like Raphael, Botticelli and Caravaggio. In the same area can be found the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and Thyssen Bornemizsa, forming a triangle with the Prado known as the “Golden Triangle.” You'll find another important city landmark that was built during the reign of Carlos III nearby in the middle of Plaza Cánovas del Castillo, Neptune's Fountain. When you get tired from all those museums, you can stop in to the nearby Gran Café de Gijón, the historic café where some of the world's best writers like Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado have come to wet their whistle. Another option for an little escape from the city is the close by Parque del Buen Retiro, which lies behind the wrought-iron fence. This park is a green and peaceful oasis in the middle of the busy city and it's a great place to take a break from sightseeing.
The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) was once the home of Spanish monarchs for centuries and is located in Old Madrid, in the 16th and 17th Century district known as Los Austrias. However, the Royal Family no longer lives in the 18th Century building as it is now used for official functions and as a museum. The Palacio Real stands just beyond the Plaza de Oriente, which stands opposite the Teatro Real, the Opera House. The Plaza de Oriente is lined with elegant cafés like the Café de Oriente, an ideal spot to sit and relax. Nearby, on Calle Segovia where the Papal Nuncio used to be, are a number of cafés and restaurants in former ecclesiastical buildings, such as Café del Nuncio and the Taberna de los 100 Vinos.
Plaza de España
The busy Plaza de España has become the new gateway to the city. From here, you can easily get to many popular and historic destinations like the Royal Palace and the Puerta del Sol as well as the area known as Argüelles. In the Plaza de España, you'll find a monument to Cervantes with statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, his most famous characters along with lots of people relaxing on the grass and the park benches. A few blocks away along the Calle Conde Duque, you will find the Cuartel de Conde Duque. It was built during the reign of Felipe V to house the Royal Guard. Today it's a cultural center that organizes excellent exhibitions of contemporary art, open-air concerts, theater performances, and educational workshops. Another nearby spot to visit is the Casa de Campo. On the perpendicular Paseo del Pintor Rosales, you'll soon come to the oldest building in Madrid, the Templo de Debod. The Egyptian government saved this temple from destruction during the building of the Aswan Dam, and presented it to Spain in 1960. The temple, dedicated to the goddess, Isis, is open to the public and worth visiting. Bars and restaurants abound in the areas surrounding the Plaza de España, such as Prada a Tope, which serves up the traditional, rustic cuisine of Spain's Léon region, or Dantxari, which serves up a taste of the Basque region.
Puerta del Sol
If you take the metro to Sol and leave by the Calle Carretas exit, you'll come out at the Puerta del Sol. Here, you'll see the famous clock tower, whose chimes officially announce the New Year on Spanish TV and radio. The statue of Carlos III is across from the clock tower, and the emblem of Madrid, the bear and arbutus tree (el oso y el madroño) is behind the statue. Within a couple of blocks and you'll come to Plaza de Santa Ana. The square is full of bars and restaurants and the area in general is crowded and lively at night. Many writers, painters, and intellectuals have lived and worked here and have been inspired by their surroundings. To your right is a small street called San Sebastián where you'll find a church by the same name, The Church of San Sebastián. The church archives hold the death certificates of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Ruiz de Alarcón, among others. The most famous bar in the square is the Cervecería Alemana, which you'll find next to the Teatro Español. It's a quaint old-fashioned café where people sit, relax, read the newspaper, and have a bite to eat. Down the street you will find the intersection of Calle Cervantes and Calle León; this is where Cervantes lived during the last few years of his life. Unfortunately, his house was demolished in the 19th Century and he was buried on the grounds of the Trinitarias Convent on Calle Lope de Vega. Much of the area surrounding the Puerta del Sol has a very lively nightlife and sports interesting restaurants, cafés and bars such as Los Gabrieles. Each room of the bar is wonderfully decorated in colorful ceramic tiles depicting a different scene. The most famous room has a recreation of Velázquez's painting Los Borrachos (The Drunkards).
In the center of Madrid is the Plaza Mayor with its statue of Felipe III in the center. The square used to be used by merchants in the Middle Ages, and later for special occasions during the reign of Felipe II. In the Plaza Mayor you will find the Casa de la Panadería, the plaza's first building. The façade was redecorated in 1980, and the building now houses various exhibitions. One of the most famous bars in the plaza is the bullfighting themed Torre del Oro, where you can pick up a sherry and some tapas to fuel the rest of your day or evening. Don't forget to browse the Tiendas de la Plaza Mayor, shops selling all kinds of goods from bullfighting souvenirs to flamenco costumes. Just a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor in the Plaza de las Descalzas is the Museo del Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Descalzes Reales Museum). The museum of the Franciscan convent houses important paintings, sculptures and other beautiful works of art. Across from the convent is the Café de las Descalzas, an intimate and romantic restaurant featuring live music (mostly flamenco) several days a week. Heading back towards the Plaza Mayor from the Plaza de las Descalzas, you will encounter the Plaza de la Villa, which now houses the Town Hall amidst 15th-17th Century mansions. Finally, after all this sightseeing, you can head down Calle Mayor to get to Casa Ciriaco, a tavern where you can chow down on hearty Spanish food and wines.
Barrio de Salamanca
The Barrio de Salamanca is one of Madrid's most affluent and exclusive neighborhoods. The barrio is packed full of art galleries such as the Galería Alcolea and Galería Jorge Juan, along with some of the world's most exclusive shopping at stores such as Chanel Boutique, Prada and Louis Vuitton to name just a few. Also abundant in the Barrio de Salamanca are museums. The famous Museo Arqueológico, with their reproduction of the Altamira caves in northern Spain and their prehistoric drawings. Here in Salamanca, you will also find the Museo de Escultura al Aire Libre, the outdoor sculpture garden featuring works by artists like Miró and Chillida. Also in the area is the Plaza de Colón, where you'll find two monuments to the discovery of America, one of them a statue of Columbus himself. Running from the Plaza de Colón to the Plaza de Castilla is the Paseo de la Castellana, one of Madrid's most famous streets, lined with grand mansions alongside national and foreign bank headquarters. When you start to work up an appetite, you can try any of the high quality restaurants in the Salamanca such as El Almirezz for Navarran and Basque food or L'Entrecôte for French food. There is also the Mercado de la Paz, designed by Gustav Eiffel, where you can browse the market for fresh foods or dine at one of the two restaurants in the market.
Madrid VISION (+34 91 779 18 88/ http://www.madridvision.es/en/index.php/)
Madrid Guided Tours (+34 917 056 748/http://www.madridguidedtours.com)
Walks of Madrid (+ 34 653 912 879/ http://www.walksofspain.com/)
Madrid Tourism Centre (+34 915 882 906/ http://www.esmadrid.com/descubremadrid_en/portal.do)
Madrid Museum Tours (+34 680 450 231/ http://www.madrid-museum-tours.org)
Walks of Madrid (+ 34 653 912 879/ http://www.walksofspain.com/)
Madrid Guided Tours (+34 917 056 748/ http://www.madridguidedtours.com)
Madrid Museum Tours (+34 680 450 231/ http://www.madrid-museum-tours.org)
Madsegs Tours S.L. (+34 659 824 499/ http://www.madsegs.com/)