For this question, I think I cannot give you a precise answer. Madrid may lack the fame of Paris, the charm of Amsterdam, or even Berlin’s urban grittiness. But Spain’s crowning capital is simply beautiful and it has nothing to be envious of.
Located right at the center of the Iberian peninsula, Madrid had been shuffled by empires and dynasties throughout most of its history. The city was first an Arab bastion, named Mayrit, before being conquested by Christians in the 11th century. Yet the Spanish capital was a mere rural town at the time, with nothing to offer except its strategic position. Even by the 16th and 17th centuries, when Madrid was the epicenter of a vast empire, there were no buildings or landmarks that can truly reflect its grand status.
During the reign of Bourbon kings, the city had undergone a massive makeover. Plazas, gardens, and the Royal Palace were built, which, in turn, enhanced the city’s overall appearance. Since then, Madrid has grown into a city of elegant boulevards, gorgeous mansions, and expansive parks. It has also become a gourmet temple where both traditions and revolutionary ideas are embraced. For a few days, it was nearly impossible to do everything the Spanish capital city has to offer. But here are some highlights of my trip.
1. Plaza Mayor
While buzzing Puerta del Sol is the heart of today Madrid, the center of old Madrid lies at the portico-lined Plaza Mayor. Constructed in the 16th century during the reign of Philip III, this plaza was the venue for public ceremonies and events. For instance, markets, tournaments, symphonies, and occasional auto-da-fé (execution in the name of faith). These days, the square is the first stop of many visitors to Madrid. It works well as a navigation point because many streets in Madrid’s old quarter intersect here.
Graceful in design, this Herrerian-style plaza has nine archways and is surrounded by five-story buildings. All feature vivid red facades and balconies facing the square. The main structure is elaborately decorated with angel paintings and topped with steeples. In the middle of the square stands the statue of King Philip III on horseback, one of the most valuable artworks to be found on the street of Madrid.
2. Royal Palace of Madrid
Not far from Plaza Mayor is the stunning Royal Palace (Palacio Real), the official residence of the Spanish royals in the city of Madrid. The construction started in the 18th century under the reign of Phillip V who wanted to build a new palace on the location of a 9th-century Alcázar (Arab fortress). With more than 3400 lavishly furnished rooms, Palacio Real is the largest royal palace in Europe by room area. It is often seen as the Spanish rival of Château de Versailles.
Despite its elaborate design and colossal size, King Felipe VI and the current royal family do not reside here. In fact, the palace is only used for state ceremonies. Several rooms in the palace are opened to the public, and thus visiting is possible. The admission fee costs 10€, but it is free for EU citizens or students of EU universities. Directly opposite the palace is the beautiful Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid.
3. Calle de Acalá
My second day began at Calle de Acalá – Madrid’s longest and probably most prestigious boulevard. It runs from Puerta del Sol to the northeastern outskirts of Madrid, passing by a wide range of magnificent buildings. For example, the beautiful Metrópolis, the Banco de España (Bank of Spain), and the iconic Plaza de Cibeles. Completed in the 1910s, this neo-classical complex comprises the Fountain of Cibeles, which portrays the Roman goddess of fertility, and the spectacular Palacio de Cibeles – the current seat of the City Council.
The boulevard also runs through a triumphal arch, the Puerta de Acalá. This 19.5 meters tall gate was erected in 1778 to celebrate the arrival of King Carlos III at the capital. Despite its size, the granite monument features delight sculptures, ornaments, and reliefs. Nevertheless, my favorite building on this boulevard is the Círculo de Bellas Artes. On the seventh floor of the so-called “Circle of Beautiful Art”, I found myself standing atop of Madrid as the entire city stretches out under my feet.
4. Buen Retiro Park: Madrid’s Oasis
Still mesmerized by the beautiful cityscape, I set foot in the Buen Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro). Meaning “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”, this place resembles an oasis in the heart of bustling Madrid. The park had belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until 1868 when it became a public park and a recreational area for the Madrileños, as well as the venue for a variety of events. With over 125 hectares, it is one of the largest parks in Madrid. And together with the adjacent Paseo del Prado, the park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since July.
Aside from enormous green spaces, Buen Retiro Park is filled with beautiful sculptures, monuments, and galleries. Yet the park’s most extraordinary architectural element must be the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal). Designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco in 1887, this building is an outstanding example of cast-iron architecture in Spain. It housed a collection of exotic plants from the Philipines, then a Spanish colony. Today, the building was mainly used for temporary exhibitions.
5. Dining in Madrid
When it comes to food, Madrid is the crowning capital. This city treasures both the olds and the news, resulting in an infinite variety of Spanish dishes. From sleek gourmet hall to old-fashioned chocolatier, dining in the city is simply a guilty pleasure.
Mercado de San Miguel
Situated in the center of Madrid, Mercado de San Miguel does exceed the usual definition of a food market. Originally built in the 1910s and reopened in 2009 after several years of construction, it is one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful markets. The market is not a traditional grocery market but rather a gourmet hall. Inside the fancy glass wall, tourists mingle with Madrileños to enjoy delicacies from every corner of Spain. For example, tapas, jamón, seafood, paella, to name a few. Beer, champagne, and sweets are also available.
Chocolateria San Gines
Elsewhere, churros might be an ordinary snack. But at Chocolatería San Ginés, it is a gourmet experience. Opened in 1894, Chocolatería San Ginés is counted as one of the oldest cáfes in Madrid. It is small, yet easy to be recognized thanks to the queue of customers who eagerly try their signature dish: chocolate con churros – unsweetened deep-fried dough dipping in hot dark chocolate. An incredibly good match…