Although many people think of Barcelona as THE city to visit in Spain, the capital Madrid is in no way inferior, and in many ways superior to its sister city. The beautiful old district is easily covered by walking. The neighborhood offers an array of plazas, gardens, museums, shops and restaurants. There is much to do here, but if you feel the need to exit city life for a day you can always take a train to go on a day trip. I love to wander the streets here, to discover hidden gems located in the old district. The city is also probably one of the least expensive cities in western Europe, a huge advantage for all travelers.
The Royal Palace of Madrid
Royal Palace of Madrid traces its history back to the 9th century. At the time of the crusades, on this site stood a Muslim era fortress. Madrid fell to the Catholics in the 1500s and the new government rarely put the old edifice to use. However, everything changed in 1561, when Phillip II moved his court to Madrid. Here Phillip transformed the old building into his new palace.
But more changes were coming. The complex completely burned down in a raging fire and was rebuild almost from scratch in 1755. Today the Royal Palace is not occupied but the royal family sometimes uses it for formal functions. You can take a tour here for a €9 fee, and its definitely worth it. The palace is richly decorated in the tradition of Europe’s wealthiest royal families, with beautiful artwork and furnishings displayed through. Even if you chose not to go in, be sure to visit the area. The palace rests on Plaza De La Armeria, and is adjacent to the free Sabatini gardens, both lovely tourist attractions.
The central plaza of Madrid is The Plaza Mayor. Here lies the heart of its tourist district and in many ways the ancient soul of this city. The Square was originally constructed around 16th century. The plaza has a rich, and bloody history. During the inquisition countless supposed heretics suffered auto de fe here (a trial of faith) and many were put to death. Today the plaza hosts restaurants and wandering tourists. If you can, visit here early in the morning or on a weekday. Crowds pack the plaza on weekends, even when the weather isn’t great. To get it this empty you have to come out early, before 10 am is best.
If you ever even thought of visiting Madrid, chances are you heard of the Botin. The world’s oldest operating restaurant, the Botin is one of the most famous spots in Madrid, both for its history and its delectable cuisine. Although the history of the restaurant can “only” be traced back to the 1700s, the history of the inn that stood here, can be traced all the way back to 1500s. I was exceptionally lucky to get a tour from the owner, a charming Spanish gentleman who’s family (the Gonzalez – Martin clan) has owned the restaurant since the 1930’s and is responsible for its current success. Here is one of the stories he told me;
Back in the early 1500s Madrid was just a sleepy little outpost, a halfway point between some major towns on the Iberian peninsula. Then King Phillip II picked Madrid as his capital and the city’s history was forever changed. Back then travel was a means to escape the law, and suddenly the law was everywhere – the king was in town! When the police came knocking the Inn’s door there was no escape for the trapped criminal – until some unsavory inn owners began to dig out tunnels under the city, connecting the houses and creating escape routes. Eventually the tunnels became used less and less, and disappeared altogether. Except here, at the Botin.
The wine cellar you see in this picture was originally part of the tunnel system and led many criminals (and perhaps people fleeing from the inquisition) to escape a dark fate. Can you imagine yourself running down those steps, rushing past the metal gates, into the dark of a tunnel hoping that on the other side you will receive safety?
The Sun Also Rises
Does this dining room looks familiar? Well, if you have ever read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” it might. Remember the last scene where the main characters are dining on a suckling pig? They did so right here, in this very dining room which remains little changed from Hemingway’s time. They still serve the suckling pig here – the house specialty, prepared to perfection in a 300 year old oven.
There are no fancy sauces or modern presentations. The food is delicious country, just like it was in Hemingway’s day. The wine is old and the coffee is strong. There are quite a few more tourists now of course, but even the owner looks familiar. He is after all, the grandson of the man who would seat Hemingway and his friends. The restaurant stands two minutes from the historic Plaza Mayor and is as much part of Madrid as is the Royal Palace.
The Rastro Flea Market
The largest flea market in Europe, the Rastro Flea Market, is located in Madrid and takes place every Sunday from 9 am to 3 pm. Wander here to discover a never ending array of vintage and antique goods. You can spot anything you can think of here, from furniture to paintings to small knickknacks. This cool and quirky flea market is a tourist’s paradise, with an array of merchandise like authentic soviet medals, stamps, vintage cameras, ancient house keys and so many needless but wonderful finds. There are more than three thousand stalls here and some sell perfectly modern goods, like cool handmade leather bags and hand-knit shawls. I very strongly suggest getting here early.
By 11 pm the crowds are overwhelming and it’s difficult to so much as move. We got to the market at 9 when the crowds are light and we covered most of it by about 12. Access the market by metro or a 10 minute walk from Plaza Mayor, it starts at Plaza de Cascorro.
El Retiro, is Madrid’s answer to Central Park and is often called the “lungs” of the city. No trip to Madrid can be complete without a visit here. Among the many things to see in the park is the lake, where you can rent a boat and the Glass Palace, a romantic pavilion created to house exotic plants in the 19th century. Situated through the park are beautiful statues and fountains and no matter the weather you are sure to find both visitors and locals here. Stop by the park for several leisurely hours and enjoy a cup of coffee as you watch the rowers on the lake.
Basilica De San Miguel
Basilica De San Miguel is a small but architecturally significant church in the center of Madrid. It was built in the early to mid 18th century. The basilica is an example of Spanish baroque style, and is famous for its unusual façade. The façade of this church has a “half circle” or a convex shape, practically unseen in Spain and found nowhere else in Madrid. In 1984 this church was declared a national historical monument by a Royal Decree. Its interior is as breathtaking as its exterior is unique, and the church makes a quick but beautiful stop on your walk through the center of Madrid. Be sure to come in, because the church remains open even while there is a wedding and you can have the unusual pleasure of listening to Ave Maria in this living, breathing work of art.
One of the best day trips from Madrid is a visit to the Escorial Monastery, easily accessible by public transport. This huge palace is reminiscent of Hogwarts and even has an on premise elementary school, so the illusion is complete. Wander the grand halls and gardens to witness the place that was a seat of power and glory during the Spanish Renaissance. The library here boasts 4,700 manuscripts and 40,000 printed books, one of my favorite rooms. We were lucky to visit when the weather wasn’t great, lucky because we almost had the whole palace to ourselves, rarely encountering another wanderer in the great rooms. When you walk downstairs watch out for the ghosts – many famous notables rest here, and some, its so told, wander the halls. 🙂
Passage to Hell
The El Escorial site consists of two parts: the main site is the monastery and the royal palace. The secondary site is the royal hunting lodge and monastic retreat a few kilometers away. Since its beginnings in the 16th century, the palace was the home for royal and religious power in Spain. Legend says, that when Phillip the II was looking for a place to build his castle he learned that this place used to host a mine.
Many deep tunnels and long passages ran through the old iron mine. Legend said, that this mine contained a door to hell, and that the devil used that door as a passage between worlds. So Phillip II, a deeply religious man, wanted to build a complex to church and royal power above the mine. He believed that if he put a powerful church here, the devil’s passage between hell and our world would be forever covered. When Phillip II learned that this place was on the same parallel as Rome, he took it as a sign that he must put his new complex right here.
Your Weekend in Madrid
Madrid is a beautiful old city and there is so much to do here. The architecture is stunning, the history is fascinating and the food is delicious. Madrid is also a very affordable city, one of the least expensive major cities in Western Europe. I hope you enjoy your visit to this beautiful city as much as I did. If you enjoyed this post and have more tips to add, please leave a comment, I love reading them!