Overview

Madrid, Spain, strikes a balance between constant, almost chaotic motion and uncompromising leisure. Madrilenos, as Madrid's residents are called, seem always to be on the go, except when they're taking long breaks to eat, drink and enjoy life. The competing urges to move or sit for hours are cleverly reconciled in the Madrid institution known as ir de tapas, which entails leisurely hopping from one tapas bar to the next.

As a visitor to Madrid, you'll invariably be drawn into the city's stream of movement as you rush to see one more art collection, taste Castilian, Basque or Galician dishes at neighborhood restaurants, or buy tickets for an evening performance. But take a cue from Madrilenos and incorporate some quiet time into your hectic schedule: People-watch at a terrace cafe, study the mystical quality in El Greco's paintings, savor the subtle hint of saffron in a dish, and appreciate the mournful beauty of flamenco. Take a deep breath, then move on to the next stop.

Geography

Madrid sits roughly in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula and occupies a plateau (2,165 ft/660 m above sea level) that makes it the highest capital in Europe. Though the city covers a large area, travelers will be glad to know that most attractions lie in the central part of the city, known as El Centro. Roughly speaking, this area is bordered by Retiro Park on the east, Palacio Real on the west, Gran Via on the north, and Rondas de Atocha and de Toledo on the south. El Centro is less than 1 mi/1.6 km wide, which makes it relatively easy to rely on your feet for transportation.

The epicenter of this area, and of the city as a whole, is the Puerta del Sol (Gateway to the Sun). Immediately west and south of Puerta del Sol is Old Madrid, also known as the Austrias, a scenic part of the city dating from the 16th century, where you'll find narrow, twisting streets and Plaza Mayor. The city's prize museums—the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia—are in the eastern part of El Centro, near Retiro Park. The castizo (traditional) 19th-century neighborhoods of Malasana and Chueca are just north of Gran Via. The large park space called la Casa de Campo is just west of El Centro.

Modern Madrid surrounds the central city and is most evident to visitors along the boulevard of Paseo de la Castellana, which stretches from the center of town to the financial district of Nuevos Ministerios, then on past Plaza Castilla with its gravity defying KIO buildings and Cuatro Torres Business Area right opposite the northern train station of Chamartin.

One of the best strategies for locating a point of interest in Madrid is to know the name of the nearest metro station. That information is included with each address. Some businesses are located on unnumbered streets and labeled "s/n," or sin numero (without number). Those addresses are described using the closest intersection.

History

The first town of any size in the area now occupied by Madrid was an Arab enclave named Mayrit, or Magerit, established in the 800s when Muslims ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula. The city wasn't considered important until the 1400s, when it was occupied on several occasions by the kings of Castile. In 1561, Philip II moved his court to Madrid, and the small city became the kingdom's capital.

Madrid flourished under the Hapsburg kings and acquired great importance during the 1600s, a period known as the Golden Age. Many fantastically ornate baroque churches and buildings were constructed, and there was a resurgence in the arts as evidenced in the works of Cervantes, Quevedo, Lope de Vega and others. Madrid's growth continued into the next century, when the city's elegance was enhanced by the addition of libraries, museums and gardens.

By the early 1900s, Spain was no longer considered an imperial power, and the country was politically divided. Events reached a head in 1936, when the bitter Spanish Civil War commenced. For most of the war, Madrid was a city under siege, as the Republican forces held off Gen. Francisco Franco's nationalist army. The city finally surrendered to Franco in 1939, and he became the de facto dictator of Spain. Franco ruled from Madrid until his death in 1975.

For the 30 years after the civil war, Madrid began to expand at an impressive rate, and today it keeps sprawling outward. Many of the outlying areas are unattractive, with lots of high-rise apartment buildings. The central city, on the other hand, retains an older flavor—churches and monuments reflect the plundered glories of the nation's past.

In recent years, Madrid has modernized and improved its infrastructure by enlarging Barajas Airport, extending the metro system, laying out extensive riverside gardens and promenades, and creating an improved, pedestrian-friendly traffic system that has made the city cleaner and greener than ever.

The 11 March 2004 al-Qaida bombings of suburban train lines in and near Atocha station were followed three days later by general elections in which the Spanish Socialist Worker's Party (PSOE), led by Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, unexpectedly won and ended the eight-year government of the conservative Popular Party (PP) under Jose Maria Aznar. The PSOE was re-elected by a narrower margin in 2008 but called a snap election amid the financial crisis in November 2011 and was defeated by the People's Party (PP). The current Prime Minister is Mariano Rajoy, who continues to maintain a lead in the polls over the PSOE. The emergence of a new political left wing group called simply Podemos (literally, We Can) in 2014 has posed some threat to his authority.

In 2005, Madrid's then-mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon presided over a seven-year program aimed at transforming the capital into a world-class cosmopolitan destination, with more green zones, wider roads, improved metro and rail transport, and the construction of additional suburbs such as Sanchinarro. As a result, regular visitors to Madrid will notice a considerable improvement in the city's overall appearance.

Since the expansion of Barajas Airport, which includes Terminal 4, a stunning avant-garde building, Madrid now ranks among the top three cities in Europe in terms of international traffic. Between 2006 and 2008, four skyscrapers (rascacielos) were built in the Cuatro Torres Business Area next to the Paseo de la Castellana, the highest being the Torre Caja Madrid at 820 ft/250 m, which is now the tallest building in Spain.

Also impressive—though smaller—is the Caixa Forum museum with its hanging garden, located toward the southern end of the Paseo del Prado between the El Prado and Reina Sofia museums. The Madrid Rio development meanwhile is ambitiously transforming several miles/kilometers of the traditionally neglected River Manzanares' banks into an ecoconscious zone of tree-lined promenades, flower-filled gardens and sunbathing areas crossed by more than a dozen imaginatively designed pedestrian and cyclist bridges. Also worth mention is the transformation of the old and unused slaughterhouse (or matadero) into a designers' museum and contemporary arts center.

Sightseeing

As you walk the streets of Madrid, you never know what you'll find around the next corner—a festive tapas bar, a wedding party spilling out of an old church, even a pack of meandering troubadours. The most indelible sight in the city is likely to be a spontaneous one, so keep your eyes open.

Though Madrid is best known as a museum city, we suggest you begin your visit by getting to know the older sections of town. Start with Calle Mayor and Plaza Mayor, which are lined by beautiful and historic buildings. Explore the many narrow and winding streets south and west of Puerta del Sol (plan several hours to see this area). Then visit Palacio Real, the royal palace, with its own art treasures and crown jewels. At night, view the illuminated fountain at Plaza de Cibeles and the action pulsing around Puerta del Sol.

Finally, set aside some time for museums—a lot of time. Days could be spent in the halls of the Prado alone. Housed in an 18th-century building, the Prado features the works of Rubens, Goya, El Greco, Bosch, Velazquez, Titian and many others. Madrid's most famous contemporary-art museum is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Its centerpiece is Picasso's enormous antiwar (and anti-Franco) masterpiece, Guernica. The fabulous works of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection are displayed at the Villahermosa Palace.

You can purchase a combination ticket called the Abono Paseo del Arte for 27.20 euros. This allows you to visit all three museums once, at any time during the year.

Other artwork can be seen at the 16th-century Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a cloistered Hapsburg-era convent in the heart of downtown known for its collection of religious art, tapestries and wood carvings. (Don't miss the rather bizarre collection of infant Jesus dolls wearing baby clothes made by nuns.) Near the Plaza del Oriente is a similar Hapsburg gem, the Monasterio de la Encarnacion, with an ornate facade and some evocative relics, paintings and polychrome sculptures.

It's very possible to get museumed-out in Madrid. If this happens, take a rest at one of the beautiful parks and lakes in the city. One of the most charming parks—first laid out in the 17th century—is El Retiro, near the Prado. Rent a rowboat and glide among the ducks that rule the park's small lake (known as El Estanque). On weekends, the park becomes a hive of activity with musicians, painters and street theater. Retiro is also a favorite haunt of Madrid's immigrant community.

The Madrid Card grants entry to more than 50 museums, including the "Big Three"—the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza—without queuing beforehand. It costs 47 euros for 24 hours and 60 euros for 48 hours. It is also possible to add a transportation pass (beginning at 8.40 euros for one day covering one zone) and the Madrid tourist bus from 21 euros for one day. You can purchase it at the tourist office at Plaza Mayor, on Madrid Vision buses, at its kiosks and in Barajas Airport, but it is better to prepurchase online for a discount. http://www.madridcard.com.

A metrobus ticket covering 10 journeys on bus or metro train throughout the city is also available at all metro stations and some newspaper kiosks for 12.20 euros. A single metro or bus trip costs 1.50 euros.

Nightlife

Madrid is a nocturnal city: There's almost more to do in the early hours than in the daytime, and traffic jams at 4 am aren't unusual. Bars tend to shut down around 3 am on weekends, but some discos and clubs are open until after breakfast time. During summer months, terraza bars spring up throughout the city center and along busy Paseo de la Castellana and Paseo de Recoletos, especially close to Plazas de Colon and de Cibeles, and are open until early morning.

Cafe theaters provide a variety of shows, and you can readily find live music, such as the traditional flamenco, along with jazz, blues, R&B, rock 'n' roll, punk rock and even salsa. After about 9 pm, a dressed-to-impress crowd flocks into the streets.

Visit the cafes, tapas bars and terraces in Chueca or along the Cava Alta and the Cava Baja, just next to the Plaza Mayor. After dinner go for drinks anywhere along Calle Huertas and around Plaza de Santa Ana. Chueca has the highest concentration of gay and lesbian bars, though straight guests are also welcome. After-hour clubs are called "afters" in Madrid. They are illegal and change name and location all the time. If you must go, however, ask around in hip record stores.

Smoking is prohibited in all indoor restaurants, bars, taverns, discos and pubs, so if you need a smoke, simply go out onto the pavement, indulge and then go back to mingle with the crowds inside.

Dining

Madrid overflows with dining options, from sophisticated restaurants specializing in cocina alta (haute cuisine) to intimate tabernas and small eateries serving a full plate of Spain's regional specialties. International cuisines are also well-represented.

Before lunch or dinner, Madrilenos like to consume tapas—small snacks attractively displayed on the bar or counter and eaten as appetizers. Tapas can be anything from a few olives or a Spanish omelette to a dish of calamari. The custom is to hop from one bar to another to sample each place's specialty. Old Madrid is thick with tapas bars, especially around Plaza Mayor, in the vicinity of Puerta del Sol (Calle de Tetuan) and a few blocks southeast, near Plaza de Santa Ana (Calle de la Victoria and Alvarez Gato).

Dining hours run relatively late: 7-11 am for breakfast, 1-4 pm for lunch and 9 pm-midnight for dinner. Making reservations for lunch and dinner in most restaurants is a good idea, especially on weekends. Most central restaurants offer set-price menus at midday Monday-Friday for office workers and tourists, but evening menus are usually a la carte. Upscale restaurants require men to wear jackets and ties.

A service charge is sometimes included on the bill, and this is indicated on the menu. Tipping is certainly well appreciated, although not obligatory, especially if you're not happy with the service.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 25 euros; $$ = 25 euros-40 euros; $$$ = 41 euros-80 euros; and $$$$ = more than 80 euros.

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