Aisling Kraus describes the magic of Madrid and all that the Spanish capital has to offer.
LONDON, Paris, Rome. So many of Europe’s capital cities grace lists of the world’s most beloved tourist destinations. City breakers who elect to visit Spain, however, often overlook the country’s majestic capital, opting instead for her arty Catalan sister, Barcelona. Unlike other cases of disparity between touristic and political capitals, where the lack of tourist attention to the capital in favour of another city is understandable, Madrid has as much to offer as its country’s more popular tourist hotspot. It boasts a blend of vibrant culture, distinctive character and pulsating energy that deserves more attention.
Spaniards have had a profound impact on the history and direction of art, and there is no better place to discover why than Madrid. Countless masterpieces by massively influential Spanish artists such as Picasso, Dalí, Goya and El Greco hang proudly amongst works by a multitude of celebrated international artists on the walls of Madrid’s extensive selection of world-class art galleries and museums. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is a contemporary art-lover’s paradise, while the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza caters well for admirers of the impressionist period.
Most famously, the Museo del Prado is one of the largest art museums in Europe, possessing a collection of European art that is considered one of the world’s finest. With its imposing galleries spanning a long portion of the beautiful, tree-lined Paseo del Prado, the Prado’s sheer scale is sure to be daunting to even the most eager of visitors. The good news is that admission is free to students, so you can leave and return at your leisure.
As it happens, the artistic eye needn’t even venture indoors to find stimulation, as the city’s architectural fare is rich and varied. The Royal Palace of Madrid is Europe’s largest by floor size, and is a beautiful example of the Baroque and Classicism styles. Calle Gran Vía, the city’s principal commercial street, is lined by extravagant belle-époque facades, some of which are white and ornate enough to resemble elaborate wedding cakes. The Basílica de San Fransisco El Grande is home to the fourth largest-diameter dome in the world. The Palacio de Cibeles is in fact the seat of the city council, amongst other things, but the front of the building is a spectacle in itself and together with the magnificent Cibeles Fountain which it overlooks, it represents one of Madrid’s most recognisable aspects. In contrast to more traditional architectural styles, the Caixa Forum on Paseo del Prado is a remarkable piece of modern architecture — the building is designed to appear from the front to be hovering above the ground.
For those who prefer architecture with a more rustic feel, we recommend a stroll through La Latina. This old-town area is filled with charming, narrow streets of typical Mediterranean-style apartment buildings, with beautifully painted shutters and the black wrought-iron balconies, which give them their distinctive madrileño twist. What’s more, La Latina is home to Calle de la Cava Baja, the most renowned street for tapas bars, as well as the delightful Plaza de la Paja, filled with the outdoor tables of several excellent restaurants and a lively atmosphere in the evening time. The Mercado de la Cebada is yet another reason to spend time in La Latina — a more upmarket affair than the average design market, with stalls selling highly original craft ware, while food and live DJ sets make the whole thing even more Spanish.
As far as shopping goes in Madrid, it doesn’t get better than Malasaña. Both high-street and high-end brands jostle for space on Calle de Fuencarral, one of the most major shopping streets in the city. When one strays from the main thoroughfare of Fuencarral, onto its side-streets, they find countless vintage shops and thrift stores waiting to be rummaged through, along with many hip coffee shops and sophisticated bars and eateries. Adjacent to Malasaña lies Madrid’s stylish gay area, Chueca, which is home to elegant residences alongside high-class restaurants, cafés and boutiques offering the wares of up-and-coming designers. These two areas are also nightlife hotspots, with a wide range of bars, nightclubs and live music venues.
One of the best things about Madrid is the surprising greenness of the city, which contains a huge number of peaceful, expertly-maintained parks, providing gorgeous surroundings for a stroll or picnic. Having said this, madrileños love their parks, and make very good use of them — on summer evenings the main avenues cutting through the lush lawns of Parque del Retiro, Madrid’s best-loved park, are just as populated as the main square.
Other highlights include the gorgeous Jardines de Sabatini and Campo del Moro, both with dazzling views of the Palacio Real, and Parque del Oeste, which, bizarrely, comes complete with an Ancient Egyptian temple.
Madrid is beautiful. It is a city connected to a wonderful variety of neighbouring towns and cities, each with something unique and memorable to offer. There’s the legendary nightlife, which gives Spaniards their party animal reputation. Above all, there’s the spirit of Madrid — a throbbing energy which never settles down, the joie de vivre of its inhabitants, a sense of how exciting it is to really live — something which cannot be explained and which has to be experienced to be understood, and once you do, you won’t forget in a hurry.