Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain, as well as the capital of the autonomous community of the same name (Comunidad de Madrid). The population of the city is roughly 3.3 million with a metro area population of almost 6.5 million. Madrid is best known for its great cultural and artistic heritage, a good example of which is the El Prado museum. Madrid also boasts some of the liveliest nightlife in the world.
Madrid is located just northeast of the geographical center of the Iberian Peninsula, in the middle of the Spanish central Castillian plateau (Meseta central), at an average altitude of 650m. Nearly all of the most famous tourist areas are located in the center of the city including Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real, and Plaza de Colón. The major streets in Madrid include the Gran Via, Alcalá Street, and Paseo de la Castellana.
The climate of Madrid is continental; mainly dry and quite extreme at times. Madrid sees perpetual sunshine and a characteristically hot and dry summer, and a fairly cold winter with frequent frosts during the night and the occasional snowfall. Spring and autumn are mild with the most rainfall concentrated in these seasons. Spring and autumn are definitely the best times to visit, especially the months of April, May, June, September and October. There is very little rainfall during summer and also less rainfall during winter. During winter snow occurs sporadically, however snowfall usually lasts only for a few days, but there is abundant snowfall in the adjacent mountain ranges nearby.
The culture of Madrid was dominated by its Royal history, centre of the Spanish Empire. The Royal Palace, big places and buildings used by the Spanish Monarchy, enormous cathedrals and churches are plentiful in Madrid, as well as medieval architecture, although nowadays Madrid is just as much a cosmopolitan city as Berlin or London, full of new architecture, lifestyle and culture.
As Spanish Capital, Madrid has meant the different "establishment" for most Spaniards. During the 2nd Republic (1931-1936) was a bustling city of new ideas. Being capital of the Franquist dictatorship (1939-1975) made the city still seemed to represent a conservative part of Spain to many Spaniards. However, the city is also the epicentre of the famous Movida, Spain's 80s movement that bred personalities such as the director Pedro Almodóvar. The heritage of this era is indeed still visible in the city centre, where a party can be found at all times and one of the most liberal and colourful environments of Spain can be seen. The city is also known for its great gay tolerance.
The citizens of Madrid, who refer to themselves as Madrileños or the more traditional and currently seldom used term "gatos" (cats), live by a daily routine that is heavily influenced by the climate. Due to the typically midday heat during summer, a "siesta" can be still observed during which some citizens take a break to cool off, though Madrileños can usually only afford this 'luxury' during holidays and weekends. Most stores are open during all the day; just small stores are often closed during this time. Workers and those more afflicted by Western lifestyles choose not to observe this long break and work traditional business hours, which are usually between 9AM and 6-7PM. During summer many offices, however, will have a summer schedule requiring workers to start at 8am and finish at 3pm (most commonly without the standard 1-2 hour break for lunch). Offices usually close during the weekend but businesses are often open Saturday morning (downtown stays open until afternoon). Most grocers are closed on Sundays, but some major chain and department stores linked to "culture" (books, music, etc.) will be open throughout the day and all of them on the first Sunday of the month. Shops and department stores in Puerta del Sol area are open every day.
Madrid possibly has the largest number of bars per capita of any European city and a very active nightlife; Madrileños are known to stay up until as late as 5AM-7AM. It is quite common to see a crowded Gran Vía on weekend nights. It is important to note that, due to this lifestyle, lodging located near the fun areas may end up a nightmare for light sleepers if your window faces the street.
Madrid has a very modernized and elaborate transportation network of buses and Metro. The city contrasts with some large European cities in that it is extremely clean, and city employees in bright yellow vests can almost always be seen cleaning the streets and sidewalks. Like most large cities, however, there is a substantial population of vagrants and beggars lining the streets.
Madrid is one of the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Communities of West Africans, North Africans, other Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and (especially) Latin Americans are prominent.
Some popular neighborhoods are:
Alonso Martínez - Many pubs and small discos. Until about 3AM, a very young crowd, and if you′re around here before midnight, and over the age of 20, prepare to feel positively old. Most places close around 3AM, then people move to nearby areas to continue partying (clubs in Gran Vía or Tribunal).
Barrio de las Letras / Huertas - Many of Spain's most famous writers lived there (Cervantes, Quevedo, etc.). It is among Lavapiés, Puerta del Sol and Paseo del Prado. It is an area full of history and interesting buildings and is also well-known because of its concentration of bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels. Plaza de Santa Ana is a beautiful square. It can be considered "too touristic" for some local people.
Chueca - Near Malasaña and Gran Vía, it is the gay district (although no one is ever excluded) with a very strong personality. New design, trendy shops, cool cafes. Pop and electronic music. By far, the most cosmopolitan place in town. Has become quite chic and expensive.
Tribunal / Malasaña - Alternative area. You can enjoy a café, a dinner, a book or just some drink. Mainly rock and pop music clubs, some of them still open from "La movida madrileña" (beginning of 80's). Calle Manuela Malasaña is a great place to eat, Calle del Pez a great place to have some drinks and Plaza Dos de Mayo is the heart of the district.
Conde Duque - Like Malasaña, this district shares a similar audience. Calle Conde Duque is full of cafés and restaurant. Between the main squares in the district, Plaza de Guardias de Corps and Plaza de las Comendadoras, you will also find other options to have drinks, cafés or tapas. The Conde Duque Cultural Centre usually hosts shows, concerts and exhibitions.
Gran Vía - The place that never sleeps. Major street that includes many popular nightclubs, usually open from 1AM to 6-7AM.
La Latina - Near Lavapiés, it is the place to go for tapas and full of bohemian young people looking for stylish bars. In the old section, many small bars and pubs, a generally older crowd (late 20s, 30s - you know, "adults"). Contains La Cava Baja street. Avoid places in the Plaza Mayor but for sunbathing and beers. Multiple bars serving fantastic tapas in the Cava Baja and Cuchilleros. It's surprisingly very crowded on Sunday mornings, from 11AM to late in the afternoon due to its close location to the flea market El Rastro.
Lavapiés - Multicultural quarter of the city, with more than 50% foreign residents, mostly from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Plenty of world music bars and many alternative theaters and art galleries. Lavapiés is maybe the most cosmopolitan and hippy area at the same time in Madrid. Indian restaurants, alternative cafés, African music and South American shops. Walking around for a coffee is well worth it.
Moncloa - Due to its proximity to the main University in Madrid (Universidad Complutense), Moncloa is associated with students and a student lifestyle, many cheap bars and discos as it is near the university, although some of the places are best avoided.
Salamanca - Plenty of expensive boutiques, unique shops with impossible prices and department stores.
Torre Europa. A very posh or "pijo" crowd, full of pubs and clubs. Quite expensive and virtually uniform music, places, and people.
Ciudad Universitaria. This area is where most of the students reside as there are several dorms in this area. There are many, many cheap bars with great nightlife starting from Thursdays.
Landmarks and architecture
Puerta del Sol, (Metro: Sol (lines 1, 2 and 3)). This plaza is the heart of Madrid and one of the busiest places in the city - a hub for the local transit system, a favorite meeting spot for locals, a visible area for festivals or political demonstrations, and a opportune location for tour guides, street performers, pickpockets and anyone else looking to take advantage of all the tourists on hand. In the center of the plaza sits the Statue of King Charles III on horseback, facing the Royal Post Office (Real Casa de Correos), the red-and-white building adorned with a clock tower on the plaza's south side. Originally the building served as Madrid's first post office, then the police headquarters under Franco before being transformed into it's current use as the office of the President of Madrid, the head of the regional government. The clock tower is noteworthy for being the center focus of New Year's celebrations every year, which are broadcast across Spain and mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes (one for each ring of the bell) and the beginning of a new year. In front of the building is Kilometer Zero (Kilómetro Cero), a plaque showing the point where the measuring of national highway system begins. On the east side of the plaza is the famous Bear and the Madroño Tree Statue, a bear climbing a madroño tree, which is the symbol of Madrid. Nearby the giant neon Tío Pepe sign sits above the plaza and is a famous fixture of this area.
Plaza Mayor, (Metro: Sol (lines 1, 2 and 3) or Opera (lines 2, 5 and R)). Perhaps the best known plaza in Madrid, this impressive square is now one of the main stops on any tourist visit. Originally built outside the city walls, this enclosed square has played host to bullfights, markets, symphonies, tournaments and executions. Today it is ringed with tourist shops, cafes and restaurants. The statue of Philip III sits in the middle across from the Casa de la Panadería, a beautifully painted building with two towers on the north side of the square (not to be confused with the other building with two towers on the opposite side) which once served as the headquarters of the bakers' guild and now houses a tourist information office. Access to the square is via one of the many arcades which connect to the surrounding pedestrian streets.
Mercado de San Miguel, (Metro: Opera (lines 2, 5 and R)). Near Plaza Mayor is this indoor market, identifiable by its ornate iron posts. Built in 1913, it's full of a wide range of high quality food. Even if you're not buying anything, it's worth entering for the sights and smells of dried ham, fine wine, freshly baked goods and other treats from the vendors inside.
Plaza de la Villa, (Metro: Opera (lines 2, 5 and R)). The main square during Middle Age, as Calle Mayor (High Street) was the main street as well. It houses the former City Hall, the former Academy of Fine Arts and the Archbishopric.
Palacio Real, Calle Bailen (Metro: Opera (lines 2, 5 and R)), ☎ +34 91 4548800, . M-Sa 9:00-17:00, Su and holidays 9:00-15:00, closed occasionally for official ceremonies. The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) is an enormous palace, one of the biggest in Europe, with scorching plains of concrete around it. Though it is the official residence of the King of Spain, the royal family does not actually reside here and it is generally used only for state ceremonies. The Royal Palace is considered to be one of the most emblematic and beautiful buildings in Madrid, not only for its location on a bluff overlooking the river valley but also for its architecture and the artistic treasures to be found in its rooms. A simple one-way tour of the palace (both self-guided and guided are available) takes you up the grand stairway and through the lavishly decorated state rooms with their elegant tapestries, frescoes, porcelain, carvings and added decor like china, silverware, medals, etc. From the courtyard you can access the Farmacia (Pharmacy), which contains hundreds of bottles of early medicines and a reconstructed laboratory, and the Real Armorial (Royal Armory), a two-story collection of medieval weapons and armor. Explanations in the armory are in Spanish only, so do not expect to understand much unless your know the Spanish names for all that medieval weaponry. The lines to get in are very long, especially on Wednesday when the place is free - try to go early. Photography inside the palace is not allowed. Entry €10; Guided tour €11; Students and children €5; free W for EU citizens.
Catedral de la Almudena, (Metro: Opera (lines 2, 5 and R)). This massive cathedral faces the Palacio Real. Finished near the end of 20th century, it is where the Princes of Asturias Felipe and Letizia were married in 2004.
Plaza de España, (Metro: Plaza de España (lines 3 and 10) or Noviciado (line 2)). A prominent square on the northwest side of central district, adjacent to two of the tallest buildings in Madrid: the Torre de Madrid (the taller, white one) and the Edificio España (the red and white one). The square contains a large fountain and a sculpture of Cervantes and his famous Don Quixote and Sancho Panza characters
Gran Vía, (Metro: Banco de España (line 2), Gran Via (lines 1 and 5), Callao (lines 3 and 5), Santo Domingo (line 2), or Plaza de España (lines 3 and 10)). Literally "Great Way" (better translated as "Broadway"), Gran Vía is one of the busiest avenues in Madrid. Running from Plaza de España to Plaza de Cibeles, it is the location of the cinema district and a number of shopping malls and is lined with large billboards and lights. There's a constant buzz of traffic and life - 3-4am early morning traffic jams are not unusual.
Plaza de Cibeles, (Metro: Banco de España (line 2)). A massive roundabout at the intersection of Calle de Alcala and Paseo del Prado, this plaza houses one of Madrid's emblems, the Fountain of Cibeles, which portrays the Roman goddess of fertility sitting upon a chariot pulled by two lions. On the southeast corner dominating the Plaza is one of the world's most beautiful city halls, the Palacio de Cibeles (formerly the Palacio de las Comunicaciones), an impressive structure with a jaw-droppingly spectacular facade. Inside, the building holds a cultural center with changing art exhibits and info on Madrid, and you can climb to the upper floors for some excellent views out the window. On the southwest corner of the square sits the imposing Bank of Spain (Banco de España) building, while the northeast corner is home to the Palacio de Linares, which holds the Casa de América, a cultural center with an art gallery of Latin American works.
Plaza de Castilla, (Metro: Plaza de Castilla (lines 1, 9 and 10); Bus line 27). On the north side of the city and bisected by Paseo de la Castellana, this plaza is in the center of Madrid's skyscraper district. A tall obelisk sits in the center of the plaza while the Gate of Europe (Puerta de Europa) towers, two slanted towers which frame the boulevard, are situated on the north side of the plaza. Taking the 27 bus, which runs along Paseo del Prado and Paseo de la Castellana and ends at Plaza de Castilla, will take you pass several Madrid highrises. North of the Plaza is the Four Towers (Cuatro Torres), four sleek new skyscrapers which are the tallest in Spain.
This is Madrid's museum district, named for the three major art museums clustered along Paseo del Prado east of the old city: the Museo del Prado, one of the finest art museums in the world, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a baron's collection of classical art, and the Reina Sofia, Madrid's modern art museum. However, a couple of smaller museums also occupy the neighborhood which are well worth seeing as well.