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 the 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 traditions and revolutionary ideas are embraced. It was nearly impossible to do everything the Spanish capital city had to offer for a few days. But here are some highlights of my trip.
1. Plaza Mayor
While buzzing Puerta del Sol is the heart of today’s 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 examples, 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-meter tall gate was erected in 1778 to celebrate the arrival of King Carlos III at the capital. Despite its size, the granite monument features delightful 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 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 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 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 old and the new, resulting in an infinite variety of Spanish dishes. From sleek gourmet halls to old-fashioned chocolatiers, 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, and 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 dipped in hot dark chocolate. An incredibly good match…
49 thoughts on “Madrid: What makes the Spanish capital unique?”
Love the post, Len! It really gets you wanting to go to Madrid someday. Good job!
Thanks a lot! I am glad that you like it 🙂
Already on my bucket list for this summer. Thanks for the advices 🙂
You will love it, dear 😉 Especially the food. So delicious and affordable. If you intend to visit many museums, choose Sunday. They are mostly free.
Thanks for this post. My upcoming trip to Madrid brought me here.:)
You welcome and have a wonderful trip! 🙂
Good photos praise writing, of my old town/ Have you heard: From Madrid to Heaven and a hole in the sky to look down on it everyday ::)
Brilliant! I like this quote. Your comment made my day. Thanks for visiting 🙂
This post was great! It was nice to read about all these places that I wish to go to one day. And your photos are amazing must I say!
my blog ♡
Thanks a lot! 🙂
Nice article! Everyone tells me Madrid is nothing special and a normal european city so I gave up on the idea but your article convinced me to go one day 😋
Before my trip, I also heard the same thing. But things turned out differently. I even felt safer in Madrid than Barcelona, and the churros alone are already worth a trip 🙂
Lovely post and collection of shots. Thanks for sharing!
Many thanks 🙂 I am glad that you like it
My best friend who lived in Spain for nine months said to me that he loved Madrid more than Barcelona. Judging from your photos I guess he’s right. Your photos are so sublime, but that image of Palacio de Crystal with the autumn foliage is really special.
Thank you very much, Bama! 🙂
I agree with your friend. Madrid is somehow more lovable than Barcelona. Additionally, the chance that your wallet or bag got stolen in Madrid is lower than in Barcelona. You can see it very clearly through the way locals wearing their bags 🙂
The article says everything….place, people, and especially if you are on a road trip you feel hungry so crunch your hunger from delicious breakfast, tasty lunch, and mouth licking dinner.
Indeed. Spanish food left strong impression on me. They are not only tasty but also affordable 🙂 Thanks for visiting!
Beautiful photos that I feel like going there now haha!
Many thanks! 🙂
Hope you can check my blog too. Cheers 🙂
Lovely captures & highlights of Madrid – thank you for this glimpse into a beautiful city I’ve never been to.
My pleasure 🙂
Many thanks! 😉
Nice post, Len, and a beautiful selection of images! When we were last in Madrid, we enjoyed a pleasant retreat in Parque del Buen Retiro. We didn’t try churros though – gourmet churros sound intriguing! I don’t think I’ve actually ever tried them: when we were in Argentina, we tried to, but accidentally ordered something else 😀 hahah. The perils of traveling! (In Finland, you can’t get churros, as far as I know)
I want Churros, LOL
So do I 🙂 They taste so good, especially on a cold day
I know, very high in calories too, LOL.
It’s always nice to see your own city through the eyes of someone who sees it for the first time! Glad you liked Madrid! I wouldn’t compare it with Barcelona, for me, they are completely different cities!! It somehow reminds me to Paris, but Madrid is not as grandiose… and still, it’s very welcoming! 🙂
Indeed. The Metro in Madrid is nicer and shop-keepers are friendlier than in Paris 🙂 I also like the fact that I can explore the city without much concern about the touts sticking to me like glue. There are some in Plaza Mayor, but they are not so intrusive.
I enjoyed reading your post!
Thank you, Sarah! 🙂
Great post on one of my absolute favourite cities! And churros!
Those churros are heavenly 😛 Thanks for visiting, Leya!
I’ve never been to Madrid, so this post was a wonderful introduction. I’ve never forgotten one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had while travelling – fresh squeezed orange juice, and churros with dipping chocolate sauce, in Barcelona. heaven.
I’m surprised that our favourite Spanish breakfasts were identical, Alison 🙂 The only difference was location. Who could have thought that churros match so well with chocolate sauce. Much better than the savoury version.
I’ve never tried the savoy version, but just the sound of it is unappealing.
I simply adore Madrid, and I miss this city so much. Thanks for sharing your amazing photos. I studied here for 6 months and to this day this time counts amongst one of the best times of my life. I often feel the city is underrated, with the south of Spain being a huge attraction for tourists seeking sun bathing and Barcelona stealing the thunder with Gaudi 🙂
Totally agree. I don’t know why Madrid is less known than other Spanish cities. Its museums, architecture, park are just extraordinary. No Gaudi, no sunny beaches, but it doesn’t matter 🙂
Wonderful you got to visit Madrid, Len. Enjoyed walking along with you in this post. It does seem like Madrid is a walkable city for some part. It has stunning architecture as you showed through your photos and explained through your words. Interesting to read that the Royal Palace is only used for state ceremonies and not a place of residence, and perhaps it’s to preserve the palace as it is. Very luck you got the have churros and chocolate at one of the oldest cafes in Madrid. What a treat 😊
It tastes heavenly! The bitter sweet chocolate matches so well with the crunchy churro. Even now I can recall its taste 😛 It was so good that I came here everyday during my trip. Btw, thank you for sharing 🙂
Happy to share, Len. Great photography and writing 🙂 Now you make me want to try the churros in Spain. A perfect churro with the perfect balance of flavours and texture of dipping chocolate is hard to come by 😄