Madrid became Spain’s capital simply by virtue of its geographical position at the heart of Iberia. When Felipe II moved the seat of government here in 1561, his aim was to create a symbol of the unification and centralization of the country, and a capital from which he could receive the fastest post and communication from every corner of the nation. The site itself had few natural advantages – it is 300km from the sea on a 650m-high plateau, freezing in winter, boiling in summer – and it was only the determination of successive rulers to promote a strong central capital that ensured Madrid’s survival and development.
Today, Madrid is a vast, predominantly modern city, with a population of some four million and growing. The journey in – through a stream of soulless suburbs and high-rise apartment blocks – isn’t pretty, but the streets at the heart of the city are a pleasant surprise, with pockets of medieval buildings and narrow, atmospheric alleys, dotted with the oddest of shops and bars, and interspersed with eighteenth-century Bourbon squares. Compared with the historic cities of Spain – Toledo, Salamanca, Seville, Granada – there may be few sights of great architectural interest, but the monarchs did acquire outstanding picture collections, which formed the basis of the Prado museum. This, together with the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, state-of-the-art homes to fabulous arrays of modern Spanish painting (including Picasso’s Guernica) and European and American masters, has made Madrid a top port-of-call on the European art tour.
Aside from these heavyweight cultural attractions, there is a host of smaller museums and palaces which can be almost as rewarding. Sports fans will inevitably be drawn to the Santiago Bernabéu, home to one of the most glamorous and successful clubs in world football, Real Madrid, while a scattering of parks and gardens provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
However, monuments and sights are not really what Madrid is about and as you get to grips with the place, you soon realize that it’s the lifestyle of the inhabitants – the madrileños – that is the capital’s key attraction: hanging out in traditional cafés or summer terrazas, packing the lanes of the Sunday Rastro flea market or playing hard and very late in a thousand bars, clubs, discos and tascas. Whatever Barcelona or San Sebastián might claim, the Madrid scene, immortalized in the movies of Pedro Almodóvar, remains the most vibrant and fun in the country.
The city centre is also now in better shape than for many years as a result of the impact of a series of urban rehabilitation programmes – funded jointly by the European Union and local government – in the city’s older barrios (districts). Improvements have been made to the transport network, with extensions to the metro, the construction of new ring roads, and the excavation of a series of road tunnels designed to bring relief to Madrid’s congested streets. The area around the River Manzanares, in particular, has been subject to an ambitious regeneration scheme aimed at turning the river into a focal point for leisure and recreation. The downside to all the redevelopment is that the city still appears to spend much of the time belly-up because of the interminable roadworks and civil-engineering projects.
A brief history
Madrid’s history dates back to the ninth century when Muslims established a defensive outpost on the escarpment above the River Manzanares which later became known as “Mayrit” – the place of many springs.
It remained a relatively insignificant backwater until 1561 when Felipe II designated the city his imperial capital by virtue of its position at the heart of the recently unified Spain. The cramped street plan in the city centre provides a clue as to what the city would have been like at this time and the narrow alleys around the Plaza Mayor are still among Madrid’s liveliest and most atmospheric. With the Bourbons replacing the Habsburgs at the start of the eighteenth century, a touch of French style, including the sumptuous Palacio Real, was introduced into the capital by Felipe V.
It was the “King-Mayor” Carlos III, however, who tried to convert the city into a home worthy of the monarchy after he ascended to the throne in 1759, ordering the streets to be cleaned, sewers and lighting to be installed and work to begin on the Prado museum complex.
The early nineteenth century brought invasion and turmoil to Spain as Napoleon established his brother Joseph (or José to Spaniards) on the throne. Madrid, however, continued to flourish, gaining some very attractive buildings and squares, including the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Santa Ana. With the onset of the twentieth century, the capital became the hotbed of the political and intellectual discussions that divided the country; tertulias (political/philosophical discussion circles) sprang up in cafés across the city (some of them are still going) as the country entered the turbulent years of the end of the monarchy and the foundation of the Second Republic.
Madrid was a Republican stronghold during the Civil War, with fierce battles raging around the capital as Franco’s troops laid siege to the city, eventually taking control in 1939. The Civil War, of course, caused untold damage, and led to forty years of isolation. The city’s great spread to suburbia began during the Franco era and it has continued unabated ever since, with unbridled property speculation taking its toll on the green spaces that surround the capital. Franco also extended the city northwards along the spinal route of the Paseo de la Castellana, to accommodate his ministers and minions during development extravaganzas of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Spanish capital has changed immeasurably, however, in the three decades since Franco’s death, initially guided by a poet-mayor, the late Tierno Galván. His efforts – the creation of parks and renovation of public spaces and public life – left an enduring legacy, and were a vital ingredient of the movida madrileña “the happening Madrid” with which the city broke through in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, the centre-right Partido Popular has been in control, bringing with it a more restrictive attitude towards bar and club licensing. Unfortunately, there has also been a simultaneous tendency towards homogenization with the rest of Europe as franchised fast-food joints and coffee bars spring up all over the place. Nevertheless, in making the transition from provincial backwater to major European capital, Madrid has still managed to preserve its own stylish and quirky identity.Read More
There are dozens of fiestas in Madrid, some of which involve the whole city, others just an individual barrio. The more important dates celebrated in the capital are listed below.
Also well worth checking out are cultural festivals organized by the city council, in particular the Veranos de la Villa (July–Sept) and Festival de Otoño (Sept–Nov). Many events are free and, in the summer, often open air, taking place in the city’s parks and squares. Annual festivals for alternative theatre (Feb), flamenco (Feb), books (end May), dance (April & May), photography (mid-June to mid-July) and jazz (Nov) are also firmly established on the cultural agenda. Full programmes are published in the monthly what’s-on magazine esMadrid, free from any of the tourist offices and from the city’s tourist website (esmadrid.com).
5: Cabalgata de los Reyes To celebrate the arrival of the gift-bearing Three Kings there is a hugely popular evening procession through the city centre in which children are showered with sweets. It’s held on the evening before presents are traditionally exchanged in Spain.
Week before Lent: Carnaval An excuse for a lot of partying and fancy-dress parades, especially in the gay zone around Chueca. The end of Carnaval is marked by the bizarre and entertaining parade, El Entierro de la Sardina (The Burial of the Sardine), on the Paseo de la Florida.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Celebrated with a series of solemn processions around Madrid, although for a more impressive backdrop head for Toledo (routes and times of processions are available from tourist offices).
2: Fiesta del Dos de Mayo Held in Malasaña and elsewhere in Madrid. Bands and partying around the Plaza Dos de Mayo, though a bit low-key in recent years.
15: Fiestas de San Isidro Festivities to honour Madrid’s patron saint are spread a week either side of this date, and are among the country’s biggest festivals. The fiestas also herald the start of the bullfighting season.
End June/beginning July: La Semana del Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride Week) Week-long party throughout Chueca, culminating in a massive carnival-style parade that brings the city centre to a standstill.
6–15: Castizo (Traditional fiestas of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo and La Virgen de la Paloma) in La Latina and Lavapiés barrios. Much of the activity – processions, dancing and live music – takes place around Calle Toledo, the Plaza de la Paja and the Jardines de las Vistillas.
25: Navidad During Christmas, Plaza Mayor is filled with stalls selling festive decorations and displaying a large model of a Nativity scene. El Corte Inglés, at the bottom of c/Preciados, has an all-singing, all-dancing clockwork Christmas scene (Cortylandia), which plays at certain times of the day to the delight of assembled children.
31: Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve) is celebrated at bars, restaurants and parties all over the city. Puerta del Sol is the customary place to gather, waiting for the strokes of the clock – it is traditional to swallow a grape on each stroke to bring good luck in the coming year.
Fútbol in Madrid
Fútbol in Madrid
The “Galactico” era may be over following the departure of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luís Figo, but Real Madrid remains one of the most glamorous teams in club football with an ample quota of superstars including the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo. The nine-time winners of the European Cup and thirty-one-time Spanish champions play at the Bernabéu, venue of the 1982 World Cup final and a ground that ranks as one of the world’s most fabled sporting arenas.
Tickets to games – which have become more difficult to get hold of in recent years – cost from €40 up to €300 for big matches and usually go on sale in the week before a game; Real runs a telephone and online booking service (t902 324 324, wrealmadrid.com – see section titled “proximo partido” for online bookings). They can be purchased by credit card on the ticket line or online for all but the biggest matches. You can also get them through online ticket agency wservicaixa.com. Pick the tickets up from Servicaixa cashpoints (11am–8pm) or the automatic tills in the shopping centre at the corner of the Bernabéu (Las Esquina del Bernabéu) on the day of the match. If you don’t get lucky, you can still catch a glimpse of the hallowed turf by taking the stadium tour.
The capital is also home to another of the country’s biggest teams, Atlético Madrid (t902 530 500, wclubatleticodemadrid.com; tickets from around €30, bought via the website or wservicaixa.com), who play at the Estadio Vicente Calderón in the south of the city (mPirámides). The more modest Getafe (t916 959 771, wgetafecf.com; tickets from around €30 available via wentradas.com) and Rayo Vallecano (t914 782 253, wrayovallecano.es) are both based in working-class suburbs of the city.
- Pedro Almodóvar
Business hotels apart, most of Madrid’s accommodation is pretty central. With increasing competition, many hostales and hotels have been busy upgrading their facilities and a new breed of stylish, design-conscious, medium-priced hotel has emerged. Many of the expensive hotels do special weekend offers, and prices drop substantially in August when temperatures soar towards 40°C (air-conditioning is usual and a welcome extra). You’ll notice that buildings in the more popular hotel/hostal areas often house two or three separate establishments, each on separate floors; these are generally independent of each other. One thing to bear in mind is noise; bars, clubs, traffic and roadworks all contribute to making Madrid a high-decibel city, so avoid rooms on the lower floors, or choose a place away from the nightlife if you want a bit of peace and quiet. Madrid has just one campsite, located well out of the centre, but there are two very handy backpackers’ hostels right in the heart of the city. There are accommodation services at the airport (Viajes Aira in T1, T2 and T4; 913 054 224; no fee), the Estación Sur de Autobuses, and Atocha and Chamartín train stations.
If you want to be at the heart of the old town, the areas around Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Santa Ana and Plaza Mayor are the ones to go for; if you’re into nightlife, Malasaña or Chueca may also appeal; for a quieter location and a bit of class, you should opt for the Paseo del Prado, Recoletos or Salamanca areas; if you have children the areas around the parks are good options.
Madrid’s range of eating establishments is legion, and includes tapas bars, cafés, marisquerías (seafood bars) and restaurantes. At almost any of our recommendations you could happily eat your fill – money permitting – though at bars, madrileños usually eat just a tapa or share a ración of the house speciality, then move on to repeat the procedure down the road. While cafés do serve food, they are much more places to drink coffee, have a copa or caña, or read the papers. Some also act as a meeting place for the semi-formal tertulia – a kind of discussion/drinking group, popular among Madrid intellectuals of the past and revived in the 1980s.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
Madrid nightlife is a pretty serious phenomenon. This is one of the few cities in Europe where you can get caught in traffic jams in the early hours of the morning when the clubbers are either going home or moving on to the dance-past-dawn discos. As with everything madrileño, there is a bewildering variety of nightlife venues. Most common are the discobares – bars of all musical and sexual persuasions, whose unifying feature is background (occasionally live) pop, rock, dance or salsa music. These get going from around 11pm and stay open routinely until 2am, as will the few quieter cocktail bars and pubs.
For discotecas, entry charges are quite common (€5–18), but tend to cover you for a first drink. Free passes can often be picked up from public relations personnel who hang around in the streets outside, in tourist offices or bars. Be aware that many discotecas are fairly ephemeral institutions and frequently only last a season before opening up somewhere else under a different name, so it’s a good idea to consult listing magazines La Guía del Ocio, Metrópoli, esMadrid or the website clubbingspain.com for the very latest information.