Madrid’s most famous square was designed to hold 50000 people. Most of the buildings now house government offices. The floor of the square is surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist information kiosks and shops. In the center you’ll find the horse-seated statue of Felipe III. The square, although always humming with people and music, is a lot more staid than it used to be – it was previously used as a bullring, open-air theater and an execution ground. Now, eat an ice-cream in the sun and watch old men playing chess, browse through a book stall and gawk at the mimes.
4. El Escorial
A day trip from Madrid, El Escorial is stately and unique – one part palace, one part monastery and one part mausoleum. Built by Felipe II to house the remains of his father, he instructed his architects to design it with “simplicity in construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation”. One of the complex’s most beautiful aspects is the library which is held in esteem for its possession of important holy writings dating between the fifth and 18th centuries, housed under intricately painted vaulted ceilings inspired by Michelangelo. El Escorial has been deemed one of the modern wonders of the world and has been declared a Monument of Worldwide Interest by UNESCO.
5. Art Galleries
Madrid is renown for its three biggest art galleries – Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The Prado is housed in a large, low building situated along a leafy avenue. Among its claim to fame is its collection of Goya, Velazquez and Rubens masterpieces.
Not far up the avenue the smaller Museo Thyssen Bornemisza can be found, which houses paintings by Van Gough, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Rembrandt and Dali. For visitors who become footsore, the charming garden café is the perfect place to refresh.
The last of the three main galleries (there are plenty more!) is the Arte Reina Sofia which boasts Picasso’s Guernica. Not only is the finished canvas displayed – an adjoining room also contains the artist’s rough sketches of the design and other Picasso works.
Eating and Drinking
Madrid being the city of eating out, bars and restaurants are abundant, well-priced and always full of interesting people. Almost without exception, the bars serve delicious tapas and the restaurants boast adjoining bars. Aside from great wines and European beers, the drink of choice is Anis, preferably from Chinchon. This clear spirit made from aniseed has a liquorice taste and can be likened to Sambuca. Those in a celebratory mood should try Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine.
After tapas, the most delicious and Spanish of Madrid food is paella – made with rice, veg, seafood and other meats, and usually served straight from the pan. Restaurant or bar recommendations are fruitless – there is so much to choose from. Walk down a street in any busy area and wander into places that catch your eye. Most have menus posted outside so you can see whether the food appeals, and whether their prices are inside your budget.