Madrid may have failed in its bid to stage the 2020 Olympic Games – Tokyo was hailed as the victorious candidate – but there’s still more than plenty about this city that makes it a thoroughly worthwhile venue for a short break. From art to gastronomy, verdant parks to city-centre shopping, historic architecture and a buzzing nightlife, Madrid ticks all the boxes. And with easy access from the UK there’s simply no excuse not to visit.
The city of Madrid became Spain’s capital city during the Habsburg era in 1561, when Felipe II moved the seat of government to the geographic centre of Iberia, from where he could receive the fastest communications from each corner of the nation. Today, Madrid is a modern, vibrant city where its historic centre houses atmospheric Bourbon squares, hidden, narrow alleyways and impressive medieval buildings.
Exploring the city is easy, thanks to the concentration of tourist must-sees within the relatively compact area between the Palacio Real and the Parque del Retiro. The Puerta del Sol marks the very epicentre of Madrid and it is from here, a popular meeting point and shopping centre, that all distances are measured. Head along the Calle Mayor and you’ll arrive at Madrid’s most important landmark, the Plaza Mayor, the public meeting place of the city and home to a continuous sweep of arcaded buildings in which kings were crowned, bulls were fought and executions took place but where today, it plays host to cafés, restaurants, markets and festivals.
Continue west along the Calle Mayor and you’ll reach the striking Royal Palace, built on the site of the old Alcázar and which claims to house more rooms than any other European palace, one of the world’s largest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores and an impressive armoury with weaponry on display which dates back to the 15th century. Next to the Palace lies the Plaza de Oriente, lined with over 40 statues of past royalty and formerly the meeting point of General Franco and his supporters.
Head east from the Puerta del Sol and you’ll soon find yourself in the artistic heart of Madrid, with the city’s principal three art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia – all lying along the Paseo del Prado. The Prado is famed as Madrid’s premier tourist attraction and houses one of the oldest – and greatest – art collections in the world, particularly its Flemish and Spanish collections. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is best known as the home of Picasso’s Guernica, but also houses works by other well-known Spanish favourites including Dalí and Miró. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza meanwhile contains an impressive ensemble of art dating from the Renaissance all the way through to modern 20th-century art genres.
Being Spain of course, locals tend to dine much later in the evenings so cañas y copas (drinks and nibbles) prove a popular way of dispelling hunger pangs! One of Madrid’s main attractions is the countless number of bars and cafes where you can enjoy a selection of tapas, washed down by a glass or two of vino. Lively areas include Cava Baja and Latina, the Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Santa Ana and the side streets around the Paseo del Prado.