As a European destination, Madrid
is often passed over for cities with more international cache – Paris, Amsterdam – even its own counterpart – Barcelona. Yet, as a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway
, this is a city of living, eating, partying and shopping. Madrid contains all the things one might want from a European city – history, architecture, museums and galleries, beautiful parks, pavement cafés, great restaurants and a bouncing party scene, all with incredible Spanish flavor and style. Here are five highlights for first time visitors:
Situated in the center of the city, this previous royal residence (now used for state ceremonies) is an architectural and artistic wonder, built between 1738 and 1764. Start off by admiring the
symmetrical façade, equally beautiful when lit up at night or glowing in the morning sunshine. Must-sees inside include the Hall of Columns which is still used for functions, and the pharmacy (an antique collector’s dream, lined with ancient glass bottles and mortars and pestles. Informative placards educate visitors on the scarier aspects of 1800s medicine). Cross the interior courtyard – while imagining you live there – and enter the amoury. As someone who has always been far more interested in dashing knights than amour, it was amazing to see the contraptions that have been worn through the ages!
l Park – bigger than most suburbs and used by all for pet-walking, bike riding, yoga classes and boat rides on the lake – not only serves Madrileños with recreational facilities, but also contains architectural marvels such as the Palacio de Cristal
. Visitors can enter the park through any of the eighteen elaborately designed gates and most of them eventually make their way through the mazes of paths and roads to Estanque, the boating lake. Built in 1631 and overlooked by a towering monument to Alfonso XII
, there are rowboats for hire and plenty of spectators who while away their time buying ice creams and watching some of the 6000 fish to be found in the lake. Don’t miss the beautifully designed rose garden which flowers at impossible times of the year and boasts more than 4000 roses.
3. Plaza Mayor
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.
As a city, Madrid certainly has a unique body clock. Expect lunch to end anywhere before five pm, and supper only to start at 11pm. Although there is early business traffic, the streets only wake up after 10am when people of all kinds congregate in coffee shops for a traditional breakfast – chocolate con churros – fried pastry dipped in thick chocolate or black coffee.