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Travel Guide: Places of Interest in Madrid, Spain

September 7th, 2009

madrid-spain-palacio-comunicaciones.jpgMadrid is an ancient city, centrally located on Spain’s Manzanares River. Since prehistoric times, a community has existed where modern Madrid currently sits. Over the centuries, the city has been inhabited by the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Moors, and Sephardi Jews, and each group has left its own unique footprint, combining into the colorful, multifaceted Madrid of today.

Rich in history, culture, and tradition, Madrid offers an almost endless choice of sights and activities for visitors. Covering over 200 square miles, one could spend weeks, if not months, exploring every fascinating nook and cranny of the old city. Unfortunately, few travelers are afforded such a luxury of time, so the following guidelines cover a broad spectrum of the best of Madrid.

Plaza Mayor: This plaza is practically synonymous with Madrid and is perhaps the most visited tourist site in the entire city. Built in the seventeenth century, the plaza has been the site for executions, bull fights, coronations, and celebrations. Giovanni de Bologna’s famous bronze statue of King Philip III stands guard over the area. Be sure to visit the eighteenth-century Casa de la Panaderia and its amazing murals. While you’re at the plaza, have your portrait drawn by a talented street artist and enjoy a typical bocadillo de calamares – a squid sandwich.

Museo del Prado: One of the world’s first art galleries, this museum is easily one of the most important on the globe. The Prado is home to more than 9,000 works of art, including paintings from the Flemish school, sixteenth-century Italian schools, and the Spanish schools, along with an impressive group of religious art works. Some of the most famous paintings housed at the museum are those by El Greco, Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, Tintoretto, Velazquez, Van Dyck, and Rafael.

Reina Sofia National Museum and Art Center: This museum houses one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world. Perhaps its most famous occupant is Picasso’s Guernica. Works of Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Jose Gutierrez Solana, and Roy Lichtenstein are also on display. Built in 1566, the museum’s building itself is a historical artistic monument. It was once Madrid’s general hospital.

National Archeology Museum: This fascinating museum houses exhibits ranging from prehistoric times through the Renaissance. One of the most popular is the replica of the famous Altamira cave paintings, which depict ancient man’s simplistically beautiful portrayal of the hunt. Other highlights include Renaissance lusterware, Talavera pottery, rare Andalusian glassware, Greek vases, and Roman mosaics. Many ancient religious artifacts are also on exhibit.

Palacio Real: This is the Royal Palace, the official home to the king of Spain. King Juan Carlos does not actually live here, but the palace is still used for important occasions. Located downtown, on Bailen Street, the palace is the largest in Western Europe, with 2,800 rooms. Completed in 1755, the structure contains impressive collections of antique weapons, armor, tapestries, porcelain, furniture, and musical instruments. The walls are adorned with works by Goya, Velazquez, Caravaggio, and other famous artists.

Puerta del Sol: Located near the center of Madrid, this plaza is a popular meeting place for the locals, who refer to themselves as “Madrilenos.” Built in the nineteenth century, this sun-drenched oval houses the large statue of King Carlos III, along with a 20-ton statue of a bear. At night, the plaza looks entirely different, with lights reflecting in the waters of the fountains and colorful neon shop signs inviting visitors inside.

El Retiro: This is Madrid’s answer to New York City’s Central Park. Just behind the Prado Museum, the area includes statues, monuments, and a lovely lake where visitors can ply the calm waters in a rowboat. Many beautiful buildings surround the park, including the all-glass “Crystal Palace.” A number of outdoor bars serve beer and snacks, and on balmy Sunday afternoons, the park comes alive with the music and dancing of street performers. This is a great place to observe the locals and to enjoy a respite from the bustling city.

Catedral de la Almudena: This beautiful cathedral took more than a century to complete. Located next to the Royal Palace, this classical-style building is huge. It’s over 300 feet long and almost 250 feet wide, and the central dome is an impressive 60 feet in diameter. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1993 by Pope John-Paul II, and his statue welcomes visitors.

Corral de la Moreria: You simply cannot visit Madrid without enjoying some of its rich culture. For an evening of flamenco dancing and authentic Spanish cuisine, visit this Castilian-style restaurant. Located next to the Royal Palace, this is the oldest — and according to many, the best — flamenco show restaurant in Madrid. Eighteenth-century furnishings and décor impart the feeling of being in another era, while modern air conditioning keeps guests comfortable.

Templo de Debod: This magnificent structure was constructed in the fourth century BC in Egypt. The temple was built in worship to the deities Amun and Isis. When construction of the Aswan Dam threatened the temple, it was given to Spain in 1971. Located near the Plaza de Espana, the temple is best experienced at night, when its softly-lit reflection can be viewed in the adjacent pool. Get there in time to catch the glorious views of the setting sun.

Zoo Aquarium de Madrid: Located in southern Madrid, this is an excellent attraction for all ages. Six thousand animals represent the wildlife of five continents, including bears, koalas, rhinoceroses, wolves, pandas, gorillas, and the rare Iberian lynx. There are also a large aviary and a dolphinarium. The aquarium is splendid, with many colorful tropical fish and invertebrates. Kids will love the petting zoo, along with the train and boat ride. On-site restaurants offer drinks, snacks, and meals.

Parquet de Atracciones: This shady theme park is located in the downtown area. Forty rides and shows keep visitors of all ages entertained. The park provides three water rides, thrilling roller coasters, a huge Ferris wheel, a jungle boat ride, puppet shows, a house of horrors, and special rides and areas just for little kids. Traveling street performers add to the fun and excitement, and there are snack bars on site.

Bullfighting: Along with Andalusia, Madrid is one of the two major centers for bullfighting in Spain. The best place to experience the tradition is at La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, located in the eastern part of the city. Typically held on Sunday evenings, performances are held every day during the Festival de San Isidro, beginning in May. True aficionados might want to attend a fight then because the world’s most famous matadors will be in town.

Calle Gran Villa: This is perhaps the most famous street in all Madrid. Constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, the buildings lining the thoroughfare provide a grand display of lavish architectural designs. Sprawling theaters, plazas, and statues grace the “Great Road.”

La Plaza de Cibeles: Located on the Paseo de Recoletos, the famous Fountain of Cibeles is found at this plaza. The adjoining statue of Cibeles, the Greek goddess of fertility, rests in a chariot pulled by two lions. The statue was fashioned by Francisco Gutierrez and Roberto Michel, and the fountain was designed by Ventura Rodriguez and was completed in 1782. The site is a favorite gathering place for football players and fans, especially after an important victory.

Castle of the Mendoza: Just 30 miles north of Madrid, in Manzanares el Real, lies this imposing medieval fortress. Perhaps you remember it from the movie El Cid, which was filmed at the castle. Towers, turrets, courtyards, massive stone walls, and arrow loops adorn the edifice and are perfect for exploration by visitors. Depending on your mode of transportation, it might take almost an hour to reach Manzanares el Real, but this is a definite must-see and is certainly worth the trip.

Madrid is one of the most amazing cities in the world, and these are just a sampling of all it has to offer. Be sure to plan your trip carefully in order to get a real taste of the city’s diverse culture, its rich history, and its exciting attractions. Also, take time to meet some of Madrid’s fascinating natives at one of the numerous plazas. The locals are friendly and usually glad to offer information and advice.


Holle Abee is a retired teacher and currently a successful freelance author. She has produced eight articles and made two sales at Constant Content.


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