As Spain’s capital city, Madrid mixes cultural and culinary influences with politics, commerce and royalty. I got to spend a few days there recently, wandering along streets and plazas and visiting museums, landmarks and districts. Here are some of the places I went that I definitely recommend checking out.
With museums, Madrid has a good standing. In the city center, there is a section known as the Golden Triangle of Art, which consists of three important art museums located along the street, Paseo del Prado.
First, the most recognized art museum in Madrid is Museo Nacional del Prado. In comparison in size to the Lourve Museum in Paris, the Prado contains a massive collection: around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. It’s one of the best collections of European art. Pieces date from the 12th to early 19th century, a number made by artists who were assigned to create works specifically for the Spanish royal crown.
It can feel a bit daunting to try get through a lot of the Prado in one visit. I got there on a Monday afternoon, still recovering a bit from my early-morning flight, and, due to my jet lag, I decided to stick to about two floors. Or perhaps focus on a certain artist or join in a tour. Francisco de Goya has a high representation, as well as Diego Velázquez, Titian, and El Greco, among others. Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and French masterpieces are also well featured. If all else fails, one painting I recommend seeing is Velázquez’s Las Meninas.
For those who like modern art, the second museum is this “triangle” is also worth a visit. Across from the train station, Estación de Atocha, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is located in a former hospital and holds works by 20th century masters.
It’s similar to what you would see at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of its most significant pieces is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which Picasso painted in protest of the Spanish Civil War. Major works by fellow Spanish artists, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, are also here. The museum is also open late on Friday nights, with free admission.
In addition to these museums, consider checking out the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, once a baron’s private collection, and a great navy museum called Museo Naval, run by the Spanish Navy. (Bring your passport with you for this one, as it’s in a government building. An ID is required for admission).
Along with public buses and the Metro, Madrid can be great to explore on foot. In fact, there are different squares you can walk through to reach landmarks as well as stop for a meal or people watching.
Plaza Mayor is cobblestone-lined section is literally squared away, and its remote feeling is like stepping back into a different era. Buildings with beautiful balconies line this square and its different arches open out different streets. Yet, Plaza Mayor has an interesting history. Trials by the Spanish Inquisition took place here, but the location also has been a setting for bull fighting. Nowadays, there are cafes, restaurants and shops here.
Plaza del Sol is a well-trafficked pedestrian area, quite lively in both day and particularly at night. Likewise there are shops and restaurants, in this older section of Madrid. On New Year’s Eve, people gather here to conduct the tradition of eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight for good luck for the incoming year.
With dining, if you want to try a mix of everything, from tapas to seafood and even something sweeter, pay a visit to The Mercado de San Miguel. Located near Calle Mayor, this older building houses a nice mixture of delicatessens, restaurants and bars. For a few Euros, you can purchase different small plates and appetizers to try. During my visit, I dined on everything from stuffed olives to croquettes to fried calamari and even sampled a few pastries. My entire bill for the evening averaged out at most to 15 Euros.
Traditionally, the Spanish eat dinner late, so it’s possible you might have to wait until 8 p.m. or so for your restaurant reservation. One place I went to Reservante Botin, a restaurant that has been in existence for almost 300 years (it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records). Down the street from the Mercado, and in existence since 1725, Botin’s specialty dish is a roast suckling pig that is quite tasty.
One final place that might be of interest to you ties into Spain’s royal history. Palacio Royal is Madrid’s royal palace is built upon an old fortress and is now mostly used for ceremonial occasions. You can check out the views on the patio area, but definitely take a tour of its lavish interior and exquisite rooms!
Hope my suggestions get you started!