Madrid is a city so full of life and culture that it’s hard to do justice to it in a few paragraphs. Artistically the city holds its own against any in Europe, with the of the best art museums on the continent where renaissance masterworks and seminal 20th-century pieces are waiting to captivate you.
Take in all the historic sights and get the background on the Spanish Empire that spanned the globe in the 16th and 17th-centuries. There are also countless little things that make Madrid memorable, whether that’s a café con leche in a stately square, drinks at a rooftop bar or a wander through the Retiro or Casa de Campo on a sunny day.
Puerta del Sol
Eduardo Ortín Madrid, Puerta del Sol
This grand square next to the Casa de Correos (Post Office Building) is a popular meeting place, suffused with meaning for both city and country. Nearly every Spanish person will recognize the clock at the top of the Casa de Correos, as this marks the televised countdown on New Year’s Eve. There’s a tricky ritual involved too: With every chime, you’re supposed to eat a grape for good luck (12 in total). Also in the square is El Oso y El Madroño statue, a symbol for Madrid since the Middle Ages.
If you’d like to get a sense of the city, a walk along the Gran Vía is a superb place to start. It’s Madrid’s entertainment, shopping, and cultural nerve center, a buzzing avenue often full of life until dawn. By day it throngs with shoppers stopping by the many malls, high-street stores like H&M and Zara and luxury boutiques. In the evenings there are couples arm-in-arm, stepping out to the cinema or a musical. And after dark the street pulses with many of Madrid’s top nightclubs. Sights to spot as you stroll include the vast Telefónica Building, dated in 1928 and an early example of a skyscraper.
Plaza Mayor Square
Another of Madrid’s “musts”, Plaza Mayor is a handsome renaissance square, laid out in the early-1600s and completely sequestered by historic three-story-high residential buildings. There are nine entrances to the square and within the porticoes at the bottom of the buildings are several cafes. Order a coffee (overpriced but necessary because of the location) at an outdoor table and watch Madrid in action for a few minutes. After that you could wander up to the 400-year-old bronze statue of King Philip III, who was in power at the height of the Spanish empire.
Churros at Chocolate Shop
Perfect in winter, Spanish hot chocolate is one of the most luxurious things you’ll ever taste. It can be so rich and thick you sometimes need a spoon to drink it. And the perfect pairing is a sugary churro, which if you don’t know, is piped dough, deep-fried. Just off the Puerta del Sol, visit the Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been serving churros and hot chocolate since the 19th century and does it as well as any joint in the city. If you can’t make it to San Ginés there are loads of stalls on the streets in the cooler months of the year.
Visit the 18th-century Royal Palace
Paulo Valdivieso Palacio Real de Madrid View from the Plaza de Almería
Built-in the mid 18th century for King Philip V the Royal Palace is on the site of Madrid’s Moorish Alcázar fortress-palace, which burned down in 1734. It’s the largest royal palace in western Europe and has a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles. You have to go inside for the full experience because the royal collections and frescoes are sublime. Here are works by Goya, Caravaggio and Velázquez, as well as stunning displays of watches, tapestries, porcelain and silverware.You can see the only string quartet of Stradivarius instruments in the world, and the Royal Armoury that includes the personal weapons used by Charles V in the 16th Century.