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Rich in culture and tradition, teeming with tapas bars, and boasting a bustling nightlife, Madrid is a world-class capital city with a great deal to offer its visitors. Madrid features a mix of the classic and the modern from its architecture to its attractions. Madrid is well known on the tourist travel map for its celebratory environment with its rich cultural environment. Centrally located on the Iberian Peninsula, this city is home to roughly three million residents and serves as the headquarters to government institutions and organizations. It's a city of restaurants, attractions, live music venues, and locals are known for exhibiting a high quality of life.
Madrid is a modern capital city, renowned for its vibrant culture and entertaining options from its restaurant, bar and café scene to live music, dancing and abounding with attractions from parks and churches to museums and shopping. As the center of the Spanish Empire for many centuries, Madrid's culture is dominated by its royal history with its many palaces and official buildings.
Madrid is famous for its climatic extremes. Although it tends to be sunny all year-round, it can be freezing in winter and is always extremely hot in summer, when the locals who are known as Madrileños take a break from the heat in the mid-day during the typical siestas. It's common for businesses to close down during this time.
Madrid is a manageable city to traverse and boasts plenty of public transportation frequently used by locals and visitors alike, including the metro and buses. The heart of the city is at the Puerta del Sol. This plaza is a true hub for activity, especially for tourists as many tours, guides, and transportation embark from here.
As with most of European's most cosmopolitan cities, Madrid is home to many great museums, many of which are in the city's core museum district known as Museum Triangle at Paseo del Prado. As a day of touring ends, visitors to Madrid must try the famed tapas-style of eating. Do as the Spanish do and wander slowly from bar to bar, sharing just one or two dishes in each. Good areas for tapas-grazing include La Latina (wander from Cava Baja towards Plaza de la Cebada) and the side streets off Plaza Santa Ana. Madrid's nightlife is considered some of the best in Europe and so Madrid is a city that has much to offer for all types of visitors from dawn to dawn.
Valid passport needed for entry
Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician (English is spoken by some)
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.
Sights—The central and symbolic Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun); the lovely Plaza Mayor; Palacio Real and the nearby statue-lined Plaza de Oriente; the 18th-century fountains along Paseo del Prado.
Museums—The Goya, Velazquez, Bosch and El Greco paintings at the Museo Nacional del Prado; the works of Picasso, Dali, Gris and Miro at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; the medieval, baroque, and 19th- and 20th-century masterworks at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Memorable Meals—Tapas at bars in La Latina, particularly any of those near Cava Baja and around Plaza de Santa Ana; roast suckling pig at Sobrino de Botin; Basque cuisine at Zalacain; authentic cocido madrileno at Lhardy; Valencian paella at Casa de Valencia; seafood at Restaurante Rafa.
Late Night—Virtually anywhere around Plaza de Santa Ana, along Calle Huertas or in the neighborhoods of Malasana and Chueca; a flamenco show at Cardamomo.
Walks—Old Madrid, including the Barrio de las Letras; the tree-lined Paseo del Prado; the luxuriant Real Jardin Botanico; the charming Parque del Oeste; the walkways and well-laid-out gardens beside the Rio Manzanares.
Especially for Kids—Amusement-park thrills at Parque de Atracciones; the plants and wildlife at Faunia; the colorful sets at Warner Bros. Park.
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 (Gate of 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 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.
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) under Mariano Rajoy. In 2015, the PP won again, only to be defeated in 2019 by the PSOE, whose leader, Pedro Sanchez, is now president.
Botellones are spontaneous street parties (or collective noisy drinking binges, depending on whom you ask) that are popular with young people and often get out of hand. In 2002, the regional government of Madrid banned consuming alcohol in the streets. After an initial period of compliance, the parties—though still officially illegal—have sporadically returned to some of the smaller plazas (such as Dos de Mayo in Malasana) and their adjacent streets. They are almost as rowdy as before. The lethal concoction in the big bottles is usually calimocho, a mixture of red wine and cola.
Lope de Vega, a famous Madrileno writer of the Spanish "Golden Age," is said to have written no fewer than 1,500 dramas (500 have survived). He also found time to compose 3,000 sonnets and to accompany the Spanish Armada as its "official poet" on its ill-fated expedition against England.
Before Christmas, Madrilenos rush to buy a lottery ticket to win "El Gordo" (the Big One). That could be up to 4 million euros if you bought the whole ticket for 200 euros, but most Spaniards will share the costs of a ticket with family, friends and work colleagues. The Spanish Christmas lottery was created in 1812 and is therefore the oldest in the world.
In summer, when temperatures soar to more than 100 F/38 C, try to plan a trip back to your hotel to enjoy a siesta during that unbearable afternoon heat. Then, at dusk, when everyone is out on the streets, you will be able to sit out and create the illusion of a summery "Costa Castellana," savoring ice-cold beers, tinto de verano (red wine with lemonade and plenty of ice) or cocktails, in a city that is 248 mi/400 km away from the Mediterranean.
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