Madrid, the Spanish capital since 1561, celebrates itself and life in general around the clock. A vibrant crossroads, Madrid has an infectious appetite for art, music, and epicurean pleasure, and it’s turned into a cosmopolitan, modern urban center while fiercely preserving its traditions.
The modern city spreads east into the 19th-century grid of the Barrio de Salamanca and sprawls north through the neighborhoods of Chamberí and Chamartín, but the Madrid you should explore thoroughly on foot is right in the center, in Madrid’s oldest quarters, between the Palacio Real and the midtown forest, the Parque del Buen Retiro. Wandering around this conglomeration of residential buildings with ancient red-tile rooftops, punctuated by redbrick Mudejar churches and grand buildings with gray-slate roofs and spires left by the Habsburg monarchs, you’re more likely to grasp what is probably the city’s major highlight: the buzzing activity of people who are elated when they’re outdoors.
Then there are the paintings—the artistic legacy of one of the greatest global empires ever assembled. King Carlos I (1500–58), who later became Emperor Carlos V (or Charles V), made sure the early masters of all European schools found their way to Spain’s palaces, and this collection was eventually placed in the Prado. Between the Prado, the contemporary Reina Sofía, the eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, and Madrid’s smaller artistic repositories—the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, the Convento de las Descalzas Reales, the Sorolla Museum, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, and the CaixaForum—there are more paintings than you could admire in a lifetime.
The attractions go beyond the well-known Baroque landmarks. Now in the middle of an expansion plan, Madrid is making sure that some of the world’s best architects will leave their imprint on the city. This is certainly the case with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who are responsible for the CaixaForum arts center, which opened in 2008 across from the Botanical Garden. Major renovations of the Museo del Prado and the Museo Reina Sofía are by Rafael Moneo and Jean Nouvel, respectively. Looming towers by Norman Foster and César Pelli have changed the city’s northern landscape. Other projects include the Madrid-Río project, which has added new green spaces along the banks of the Manzanares River; the controversial and sustainable Museum of Art and Architecture that Argentinean architect Emilio Ambasz plans to build across from the Prado, and the new Museo de Colecciones Reales (Royal Collection Museum), by Tuñón and Mansilla.
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This massive 1884 building, Spain’s central bank, takes up an entire block. It’s said that part of the nation’s gold reserves is held in vaults that stretch under the Plaza de la Cibeles traffic circle all the way to the fountain. (Some reserves are also stored in Fort Knox, in the United States.) The bank is not open to visitors, but the architecture is worth viewing.
A plaque marks the private home where Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, committed his final words to paper: Puesto ya el pie en el estribo, con ansias de la muerte (One foot already in the stirrup and yearning for death). The Western world’s first runaway bestseller and still one of the most widely translated and read books in the world, Cervantes’s spoof of a knightly novel playfully but profoundly satirized Spain’s rise and decline while portraying man’s dual nature in the pragmatic Sancho Panza and the idealistic Don Quijote, ever in search of wrongs to right.
Considered the Shakespeare of Spanish literature, Fray Lope Félix de la Vega y Carpio (1562–1635) is best known as Lope de Vega. A contemporary and adversary of Cervantes, he wrote some 1,800 plays and enjoyed great success during his lifetime. His former home is now a museum with an intimate look into a bygone era: everything from the whale-oil lamps and candles to the well in the tiny garden and the pans used to warm the bedsheets brings you closer to the great dramatist. The space also accommodates poetry readings and workshops. There is a 35-minute guided tour in English starting every half hour (reservations are necessary either by phone or email) that runs through the playwright’s professional and personal life—including his intense love life—and also touching on 17th-century traditions. Don’t miss the Latin inscription over the door: Parva Propia Magna / Magna Aliena Parva (Small but mine big / Big but someone else’s small).
Opened in 1992, the Thyssen occupies spacious galleries filled with natural light in the late-18th-century Villahermosa Palace (itself finished in 1771). This ambitious collection of almost 1,000 paintings traces the history of Western art with examples from every important movement, from the 13th-century Italian Gothic through 20th-century American pop art. The works were gathered from the 1920s to the 1980s by Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his father. At the urging of his wife, the baron donated the entire collection to Spain in 1993, and a renovation in 2004 increased the number of paintings on display to include the baroness’s personal collection (considered of lesser quality). Critics have described the museum’s paintings as the minor works of major artists and the major works of minor artists, but the collection still traces the development of Western humanism as no other in the world.
One highlight is Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII (purchased from the late Princess Diana’s grandfather, who used the money to buy a Bugatti sports car). American artists are also well represented; look for the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, and note how closely the composition and rendering resemble the artist’s famous painting of the Founding Father. Two halls are devoted to the impressionists and postimpressionists, including many works by Camille Pissarro and a few each by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. Find Pissarro’s Saint-Honoré Street in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain for a jolt of mortality, or Renoir’s Woman with a Parasol in a Garden for a sense of bucolic beauty lost.
Within 20th-century art, the collection is strong on dynamic German expressionism, with some works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth along with Edward Hoppers, Francis Bacons, Robert Rauschenbergs, and Roy Lichtensteins. The temporary exhibits can be fascinating and in summer are sometimes open until 11 pm. A rooftop restaurant serving tapas and drinks is open in the summer until past midnight. You can buy tickets in advance online.
A Moderniste palace commissioned in 1902 by the businessman and politician Javier González Longoria, the Palacio de Longoria was built by a disciple of Gaudí. The winding shapes, the plant motifs, and the wrought-iron balconies are reminiscent of Gaudí’s works in Barcelona. The building’s jewel is its main iron, bronze, and marble staircase, which is unfortunately off-limits to tourists because the building is now in private hands.
In 1760 Carlos III built this impressive basilica on the site of a Franciscan convent, allegedly founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1217. The dome, 108 feet in diameter, is the largest in Spain, even larger than that of St. Paul’s in London. The seven main doors, of American walnut, were carved by Casa Juan Guas. Three chapels adjoin the circular church, the most famous being that of San Bernardino de Siena, which contains a Goya masterpiece depicting a preaching San Bernardino. The figure standing on the right, not looking up, is a self-portrait of Goya. The 16th-century Gothic choir stalls came from La Cartuja del Paular, in rural Segovia Province.
Spain’s National Museum of Contemporary Art houses works by all the major 20th-century Spanish painters and sculptors. The new collection breaks from the traditional habit of grouping works by major artistic movement and individual artist: the current director has chosen to contextualize the works of the great modern masters—Picasso, Miró, and Salvador Dalí—into broader narratives that attempt to explain better the evolution of modern art and put these works into their historical context. This means, for instance, that in the first room of the collection (201), you’ll find a selection of Goya’s Disasters of War engravings (the proto-romantic and proto-surrealist great master serving as a precursor of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century) next to one of the first movies ever made, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, by the Lumière brothers. And you will find that the Picassos or Dalís are not all displayed together in a single room, but scattered around the 38 rooms of the permanent collection. You’ll also find works by other big local names, such as Juan Gris, Jorge Oteiza, Pablo Gargallo, Julio Gonzalez, Eduardo Chillida, and Antoni Tàpies.
The museum’s showpiece—and a must-see—is Picasso’s Guernica, in Room 206 on the second floor. The huge black-and-white canvas, suitably lighted and without distracting barriers, depicts the horror of the Nazi Condor Legion’s bombing of the ancient Basque town of Gernika in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The work, something of a national shrine, was commissioned from Picasso by the Republican government for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in an attempt to gather sympathy for the Republican side during the civil war. The museum rooms adjacent to Guernica now reconstruct the artistic significance of the Spanish participation in the World’s Fair, with works from other artists such as Miró, Josep María Sert, and Alexander Calder. Guernica did not reach Madrid until 1981, as Picasso had stipulated in his will that the painting returns to Spain only after democracy was restored.
The fourth floor in the Sabatini building is devoted to art created after World War II, and the Nouvel annex displays paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, and installations from the last quarter of the 20th century.
The museum was once a hospital, but today the classical granite austerity of the space is somewhat relieved (or ruined, depending on your point of view) by the playful pair of glass elevator shafts on its facade. Three separate buildings joined by a common vault were added to the original complex in 2005—the first contains an art bookshop and a public library, the second a center for contemporary exhibitions, and the third an auditorium and restaurant-cafeteria. The latter, although expensive, makes an excellent stop for refreshments, be it a cup of tea or coffee, a snack, or even a cocktail, and in summer there’s also a popular snack bar set up in the gardens.
One of the most comprehensive zoological parks in Europe, Madrid’s zoo houses a large variety of animals (including rarities such as an albino tiger) that are grouped according to their geographical origin. It also has a dolphinarium and a wild bird sanctuary that hold entertaining exhibitions twice a day on weekdays and more often on weekends—check times on arrival and show up early to get a good seat. Reduced ticket prices are available by booking online. The zoo is in the Casa de Campo, a large park right outside the western part of the city. Although the nearest metro stop is Casa de Campo, it’s best reached via the Príncipe Pío stop, then Bus No. 33.
Built between 1792 and 1798 by the Italian architect Francisco Fontana, this neoclassical church was financed by King Carlos IV, who also commissioned Goya to paint the vaults and the main dome: he took 120 days to complete his assignment, painting alone except for a little boy who stirred his pigments. This gave him absolute freedom to depict events of the 13th century (St. Anthony of Padua resurrecting a dead man) as if they had happened five centuries later with naturalistic images never used before to paint religious scenes. Opposite the image of the frightening dead man on the main dome, Goya painted himself as a man covered with a black cloak. The frescoes’ third restoration phase ended in 2005, and visitors can now admire them in their full splendor. Goya, who died in Bordeaux in 1828, is buried here (without his head, since it was stolen in France) under an unadorned gravestone.
This museum traces the evolution of dress in Spain, from old royal burial garments (very few of which remain) through the introduction of French fashion by Felipe V to the 20th-century creations of couturiers such as Balenciaga and Pertegaz. The 18th century claims the largest number of pieces. Explanatory notes are in English, and the museum has a superb restaurant.
Kids love this cable car, which takes you from the Rosaleda gardens in the Parque del Oeste to the center of Casa de Campo in about 10 minutes. This is not the best way to get to the zoo and theme park if you’re with children, because the walk from the cable car is at least 2 km (1 mile) and you’ll probably need to ask for directions. You’re better off riding the Teléferico out and back, then taking the bus to the zoo.
Below the Sabatini Gardens but accessible only by an entrance on the far side is the Campo del Moro. Enjoy the clusters of shady trees, winding paths, and lawn leading up to the Palacio Real. Inside the gardens is the Museo de Carruajes (Carriage Museum), displaying royal carriages and equestrian paraphernalia from the 16th through the 20th centuries.
The stately plaza in front of the Palacio Real is surrounded by massive stone statues of Spanish monarchs. These sculptures were meant to be mounted on the railing on top of the palace, but Queen Isabel of Farnesio, one of the first royals to live in the palace, had them removed because she was afraid their enormous weight would bring the roof down. (Well, that’s the official reason; according to palace insiders, the queen wanted the statues removed because her own likeness had not been placed front and center.) A Velázquez drawing of King Felipe IV is the inspiration for the statue in the plaza’s center. It’s the first equestrian bronze ever cast with a rearing horse. The sculptor, Italian artist Pietro de Tacca, enlisted Galileo Galilei’s help in configuring the statue’s weight so it wouldn’t tip over.
The remains of the Moorish military outpost that became the city of Madrid are visible on Calle Cuesta de la Vega. The sections of wall here protected a fortress built in the 9th century by Emir Mohamed I. In addition to being an excellent defensive position, the site had plentiful water and was called Mayrit, Arabic for “source of life” (this is the likely origin of the city’s name). All that remains of the medina—the old Arab city that formed within the walls of the fortress—is the neighborhood’s crazy quilt of streets and plazas, which probably follow the same layout they did more than 1,100 years ago.
When a section of Madrid’s ring road was rerouted underground, this 10-km-long (6-mile-long) corridor, west of the Jardines del Campo del Moro (to the back of the Palacio Real), was transformed into a green haven along the Manzanares river. With thousands of young trees, grassy expanses, footbridges across the river, and even an urban beach, it is divided into several stretches (all the way to the Tierno Galván Park) with plenty of activities for kids. It’s a perfect place to stroll, jog, or ride a bike.
The Palacio Real rests on the terrain where the Moors built Madrid’s first defensive fortress in the 9th century. It overwhelms with its sheer immensity against the city’s silhouetted background. The palace was commissioned in the early 18th century by the first of Spain’s Bourbon rulers, Felipe V. Outside, you can see the classical French architecture on the graceful Patio de Armas: Felipe was obviously inspired by his childhood days at Versailles with his grandfather Louis XIV. Look for the stone statues of Inca prince Atahualpa and Aztec king Montezuma, perhaps the only tributes in Spain to these pre-Columbian American rulers. Notice how the steep bluff drops west to the Manzanares River—on a clear day, this vantage point commands a view of the mountain passes leading into Madrid from Old Castile; it’s easy to see why the Moors picked this spot for a fortress.
Named for the arrastre (dragging) of animals in and out of the slaughterhouse that once stood here and, specifically, the rastro (blood trail) left behind, this site explodes into a rollicking flea market every Sunday 9–3, with dozens and dozens of street vendors with truly bizarre bric-a-brac ranging from costume earrings to mailed postcards to thrown-out love letters. There are also more formal shops, where it’s easy to turn up treasures such as old iron grillwork, a marble tabletop, or a gilt picture frame. The shops (not the vendors) are open during the week, allowing for quieter and more serious bargaining. Even so, people-watching on Sunday is the best part: for serious browsing and bargaining, any other morning is a better time to turn up treasures.
This triumphal arch was built by Carlos III in 1778 to mark the site of one of the ancient city gates. You can still see the bomb damage inflicted on it during the civil war.
One of the world’s top museums, the Prado is to Madrid what the Louvre is to Paris, or the Uffizi to Florence: a majestic city landmark and premier art institution that merits the attention of every traveler who visits the city.
When the Prado was commissioned by King Carlos III, in 1785, it was meant to be a natural-science museum. The king wanted the museum, the adjoining botanical gardens, and the elegant Paseo del Prado to serve as a center of scientific enlightenment. By the time the building was completed in 1819, its purpose had changed to exhibiting the art gathered by Spanish royalty since the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. A long-awaited face-lift, completed in 2007, added a massive new wing and a new building around the remains of the Cloister of the San Jerónimo el Real, designed by Rafael Moneo, resurrecting long-hidden works by Zurbarán and Antonio de Pereda and more than doubling the number of paintings on display from the permanent collection.
The Prado’s jewels are its works by the nation’s three great masters: Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum also holds masterpieces by Flemish, Dutch, German, French, and Italian artists, collected when their lands were part of the Spanish Empire. The museum benefited greatly from the anticlerical laws of 1836, which forced monasteries, convents, and churches to forfeit many of their artworks for public display.
Enter the Prado via the Goya entrance, with steps opposite the Ritz hotel, or by the less crowded Murillo door opposite the Jardín Botánico. The layout varies (grab a floor plan), but the first halls on the left coming from the Goya entrance (Rooms 7A–11 on the second floor, or planta primera), are usually devoted to 17th-century Flemish painters, including Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).
Room 12 introduces you to the meticulous brushwork of Velázquez (1599–1660) in his numerous portraits of kings and queens. Look for the magnificent Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), evidence of the artist’s talent for painting light. The Prado’s most famous canvas, Velázquez’s Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), combines a self-portrait of the artist at work with a mirror reflection of the king and queen in a revolutionary interplay of space and perspectives. Picasso was obsessed with this work and painted several copies of it in his own abstract style, now on display in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
The south ends of the second and top floors (planta primera and planta segunda) are reserved for Goya (1746–1828), whose works span a staggering range of tone, from the bucolic to the horrific. Among his early masterpieces are portraits of the family of King Carlos IV, for whom he was court painter—one glance at their unflattering and imbecilic expressions, especially in the painting The Family of Carlos IV, reveals the loathing Goya developed for these self-indulgent, reactionary rulers. His famous side-by-side canvases, The Clothed Maja and The Nude Maja, may represent the young Duchess of Alba, whom Goya adored and frequently painted. No one knows whether she ever returned his affection. The adjacent rooms house a series of idyllic scenes of Spaniards at play, painted as designs for tapestries.
Goya’s paintings took on political purpose starting in 1808, when the population of Madrid rose up against occupying French troops. The 2nd of May portrays the insurrection at the Puerta del Sol, and its even more terrifying companion piece, The 3rd of May, depicts the nighttime executions of patriots who had rebelled the day before. The garish light effects in this work typify the romantic style, which favors drama over detail, and make it one of the most powerful indictments of violence ever committed to canvas. Goya’s “black paintings” are dark, disturbing works, completed late in his life, that reflect his inner turmoil after losing his hearing and his deep embitterment over the bloody War of Independence. These are copies of the monstrous hallucinatory paintings Goya made with marvelously free brushstrokes on the walls of his house by southern Madrid’s Manzanares River, popularly known as La Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf One’s Villa). Having grown gravely ill in his old age, Goya was deaf, lonely, bitter, and despairing; his terrifying Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (which Goya displayed in his dining room!) communicates the ravages of age and time.
Near the Goya entrance, the Prado’s ground floor (planta baja) is filled with 15th- and 16th-century Flemish paintings, including the bizarre proto-surrealist masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). Next come Rooms 60A, 61A, and 62A, filled with the passionately spiritual works of El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541–1614), the Greek-born artist who lived and worked in Toledo. El Greco is known for his mystical, elongated forms and faces—a style that was shocking to a public accustomed to strictly representational images. Two of his greatest paintings, The Resurrection and The Adoration of the Shepherds, are on view here. Before you leave, stop in the 14th- to 16th-century Italian rooms to see Titian’s Portrait of Emperor Charles V and Raphael’s exquisite Portrait of a Cardinal.
Buy tickets in advance online; you can also reserve an audio guide online and pick it up in the main foyer in the Jerónimos building. If you don’t buy tickets online, another time-saving option is the two vending machines outside the Goya entrance.
After being closed for more than six years, this newly renovated museum, enclosed in a massive neoclassical building, reopened in 2014 with three large floors filled with Spanish relics, artifacts, and treasures ranging from ancient history to the 19th century. Among the highlights are La Dama de Elche, a bust of a wealthy, 5th-century-BC Iberian woman (notice that her headgear is a rough precursor to the mantillas and hair combs still associated with traditional Spanish dress); the ancient Visigothic votive crowns discovered in 1859 near Toledo, which are believed to date back to the 7th century; and the medieval ivory crucifix of Ferdinand and Sancha. There is also a replica of the early cave paintings in Altamira (access to the real thing, in Cantabria Province, is highly restricted). Consider getting the multimedia guide offering select itineraries to make a visit more manageable.
Designed by José Churriguera in the waning baroque years of the early 18th century, this museum showcases 500 years of Spanish painting, from José Ribera and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Joaquín Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga. The tapestries along the stairways are stunning. The gallery displays paintings up to the 18th century, including some by Goya. Guided tours, by very qualified and amenable guides, are available on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 11, except during August. The same building houses the Instituto de Calcografía (Prints Institute), which sells limited-edition prints from original plates engraved by Spanish artists. Check listings for classical and contemporary concerts in the small upstairs hall.