The real Madrid is not to be found along major arteries like the Gran Vía and the Paseo de la Castellana. To find the quiet, intimate streets and squares that give the city its true character, duck into the warren of villagelike byways in the downtown area that extends 2 km (1 mi) from the Royal Palace to the Parque del Buen Retiro and from Plaza de Lavapiés to the Glorieta de Bilbao. Broad avenidas, twisting medieval alleys, grand museums, stately gardens, and tiny, tile taverns are all jumbled together, creating an urban texture so rich that walking is really the only way to soak it in.
Madrid is composed of 21 districts, each broken down into several neighborhoods. The most central district is called just that, Centro. It stretches from Recoletos and Paseo del Prado in the east to behind the Royal Palace in the west, and from Sagasta and Alberto Aguilera in the north to Ronda de Valencia and Ronda de Segovia in the south. Within this district you'll find all of Madrid's oldest neighborhoods: Palacio, Sol, La Latina, Lavapiés, Barrio de las Letras, Malasaña, and Chueca. Other well-known districts, which we'll call neighborhoods for the sake of convenience, are Salamanca, Retiro, Chamberí (north of Centro), Moncloa (east of Chamberí), and Chamartín. Petty street crime is a serious problem in Madrid, and tourists are frequent targets. Be on your guard, and try to blend in by keeping cameras concealed, avoiding obvious map reading, and securing bags and purses, especially on buses and subway and outside restaurants.
Museo del Prado
When the Prado was commissioned by King-Mayor Carlos III, in 1785, it was meant to be a natural-science museum. The king wanted the museum, the adjoining botanical gardens, and the elegant Paseo del Prado to serve as a center of scientific enlightenment. By the time the building was completed in 1819, its purpose had changed to exhibiting the art gathered by Spanish royalty since the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. The museum's long-awaited facelift was begun in 2002, and completed after five years of work. It features a massive new wing together with a new building around the remains of the Cloister of the San Jerónimo el Real, designed by Rafael Moneo, that has resurrected long-hidden works by Zurbarán and Pereda and more than double the number of paintings on display from the permanent collection.
The Prado's jewels are its works by the nation's three great masters: Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum also holds masterpieces by Flemish, Dutch, German, French, and Italian artists, collected when their lands were part of the Spanish Empire. The museum benefited greatly from the anticlerical laws of 1836, which forced monasteries, convents, and churches to forfeit many of their artworks for public display.
Enter the Prado via the Goya entrance, with steps opposite the Ritz hotel, or by the less-crowded Murillo door opposite the Jardín Botánico. The layout varies (grab a floor plan), but the first halls on the left, coming from the Goya entrance (7A to 11 on the second floor, or planta primera
), are usually devoted to 17th-century Flemish painters,
including Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), and Antony van Dyck (1599-1641).
Room 12 introduces you to the meticulous brushwork of Velázquez
(1599-1660) in his numerous portraits of kings and queens. Look for the magnificent Las Hilanderas
), evidence of the artist's talent for painting light. The Prado's most famous canvas, Velázquez's Las Meninas
(The Maids of Honor
), combines a self-portrait of the artist at work with a mirror reflection of the king and queen in a revolutionary interplay of space and perspectives. Picasso was obsessed with this work and painted several copies of it in his own abstract style, now on display in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
The south ends of the second and top floors (planta primera
and planta segunda
) are reserved for Goya
(1746-1828), whose works span a staggering range of tone, from bucolic to horrific. Among his early masterpieces are portraits of the family of King Carlos IV, for whom he was court painter—one glance at their unflattering and imbecilic expressions, especially in the painting The Family of Carlos IV,
reveals the loathing Goya developed for these self-indulgent, reactionary rulers. His famous side-by-side canvases, The Clothed Maja
and The Nude Maja,
may represent the young duchess of Alba, whom Goya adored and frequently painted. No one knows whether she ever returned his affection. The adjacent rooms house a series of idyllic scenes of Spaniards at play, painted as designs for tapestries.
Goya's paintings took on political purpose starting in 1808, when the population of Madrid rose up against occupying French troops. The 2nd of May
portrays the insurrection at the Puerta del Sol, and its even more terrifying companion piece, The 3rd of May,
depicts the nighttime executions of patriots who had rebelled the day before. The garish light effects in this work typify the romantic style, which favors drama over detail, and make it one of the most powerful indictments of violence ever committed to canvas.
Goya's "black paintings" are dark, disturbing works, completed late in his life, that reflect his inner turmoil after losing his hearing and his deep embitterment over the bloody War of Independence. These are copies of the monstrous hallucinatory paintings Goya made with marvelously free brushstrokes on the walls of his house by southern Madrid's Manzanares River, popularly known as La Quinta del Sordo
(the deaf one's villa). Having grown gravely ill in his old age, Goya was deaf, lonely, bitter, and despairing; his terrifying Saturn Devouring One of His Sons
(which Goya displayed in his dining room!) communicates the ravages of age and time.
Near the Goya entrance, the Prado's ground floor (planta baja
) is filled with 15th- and 16th-century Flemish paintings, including the bizarre proto-surrealist masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights,
by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516). Next come Rooms 60A, 61A, and 62A, filled with the passionately spiritual works of El Greco
(Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541-1614), the Greek-born artist who lived and worked in Toledo. El Greco is known for his mystical, elongated forms and faces—a style that was shocking to a public accustomed to strictly representational images. Two of his greatest paintings, The Resurrection
and The Adoration of the Shepherds,
are on view here. Before you leave, stop in the 14th- to 16th-century Italian rooms to see Titian's Portrait of Emperor Charles V
and Raphael's exquisite Portrait of a Cardinal.
Emblematic of the oldest part of the city, and intimately related to the origins of Madrid—it rests on the terrain where the Muslims built their defensive fortress in the 9th century—the Royal Palace awes the visitors for its sheer size and monumental presence that unmistakably stands out against the city's silhouetted background. The Palace was commissioned in the early 18th century by the first of Spain's Bourbon rulers, Felipe V. Outside, you can see the classical French architecture on the graceful Patio de Armas:
King Felipe was obviously inspired by his childhood days at Versailles with his grandfather Louis XIV. Look for the stone statues of Inca prince Atahualpa and Aztec king Montezuma, perhaps the only tributes in Spain to these pre-Columbian American rulers. Notice how the steep bluff drops westward to the Manzanares River—on a clear day, this vantage point commands a view of the mountain passes leading into Madrid from Old Castile; it's easy to see why the Moors picked this spot for a fortress.
Inside, 2,800 rooms compete with each other for over-the-top opulence. A two-hour guided tour in English winds a mile-long path through the palace; highlights include the Salón de Gasparini,
King Carlos III's private apartments, with swirling, inlaid floors and curlicued, stucco wall and ceiling decoration, all glistening in the light of a 2-ton crystal chandelier; the Salón del Trono,
a grand throne room with the royal seats of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía; and the banquet hall,
the palace's largest room, which seats up to 140 people for state dinners. No monarch has lived here since 1931, when Alfonso XIII was deposed after a republican electoral victory. The current king and queen live in the far simpler Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid; this palace is used only for official occasions.
Also worth visiting are the Museo de Música
(Music Museum), where five stringed instruments by Stradivarius form the world's largest such collection; the Painting Gallery,
which displays works by Spanish, Flemish, and Italian artists from the 15th century onward; the Armería Real
(Royal Armory), with historic suits of armor and frightening medieval torture implements; and the Real Oficina de Farmacía
(Royal Pharmacy), with vials and flasks used to mix the king's medicines.
The newest of Madrid's "big three" art centers (not including CaixaForum), the Thyssen opened in 1992 and occupies spacious galleries filled with natural light in the late-18th-century Villahermosa Palace, finished in 1771. This ambitious collection of almost 1,000 paintings traces the history of Western art with examples from every important movement, from the 13th-century Italian Gothic through 20th-century American pop art. The works were gathered from the 1920s to the 1980s by Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his father. At the urging of his wife, the baron donated the entire collection to Spain in 1993. A renovation in 2004 increased the number of paintings on display to include the baron's wife's personal collection (considered of lesser quality). Critics have described the museum's paintings as the minor works of major artists and the major works of minor artists, but, be that as it may, the collection traces the development of Western humanism as no other in the world.
One of the high points here is Hans Holbein's Portrait of Henry VIII
(purchased from the late Princess Diana's grandfather, who used the money to buy a Bugatti sports car). American artists are also well represented; look for the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington's cook, and note how closely the composition and rendering resemble the artist's famous painting of the Founding Father. Two halls are devoted to the impressionists and postimpressionists, including many works by Pissarro and a few each by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Cézanne. Find Pissarro's Saint-Honoré Street in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain
for a jolt of mortality, or Renoir's Woman with a Parasol in a Garden
for a sense of bucolic beauty lost.
Within 20th-century art, the collection is strong on dynamic German expressionism, with some works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth along with Hoppers, Bacons, Rauschenbergs, and Lichtensteins. The temporary exhibits can be fascinating, and in summer, are sometimes open until 11 PM. A rooftop restaurant serving tapas and drinks is open in the summer until past midnight. Note that you can buy tickets in advance online.
Spain in general has become a popular foodie pilgrimage and Madrid showcases its strengths with a cornucopia of cuisine, cutting-edge decor, and celebrated chefs that put the city on par with Europe's celebrated dining capitals.
Top Spanish chefs, who often team up with hotels, fearlessly borrow from other cuisines and reinvent traditional dishes. The younger crowd, as well as movie stars and artists, flock to the casual Malasaña, Chueca, and La Latina neighborhoods for the affordable restaurants and the tapas bars with truly scintillating small creations. When modern cuisine gets tiresome, seek out such local enclaves as Casa Ciriaco, Casa Botín, and Casa Paco for unpretentious and hearty home cooking.
Young chef Renedo surprises even the most jaded palates in this unique setting—hiss mother's Asian antiques furniture store, which used to be a ham-drying shed. Renedo brings to his job a contagious enthusiasm for cooking and experimentation as well as painstaking attention to detail. Sit among a Vietnamese bed, a life-size Buddha, and other merchandise for sale while enjoying an eclectic 10-dish fixed menu, which perfectly balances the Spanish, East Asian, and Peruvian cooking traditions. The sommelier is also Japanese, and one of the best in the city. If you're willing to forfeit exclusiveness but want to indulge in a milder version of the chef's creations, try the adjacent and much more affordable Asiana Next Door.
Aware of the more sophisticated palate of Spain's new generation of diners, the owners of the madrileño traditional dreamland that is Goizeko Kabi have opened a new restaurant that shares the virtues of its kin but none of its stuffiness. The menu delivers the same quality Northern white fishes, house staples such as the kokotxas de merluza
(hake jowls), and the chipirones en su tinta
(line-caught calamari cooked in its own ink), and also includes pastas, risottos, and hearty bean stews. The interior is warm and modern with citrus-yellow walls, lattices, and screens.
Mercado de la Reina
Plentiful and inexpensive tapas and succulent larger portions—scrambled eggs with a variety of meats and vegetables, tasty local cheeses, and salads—make this large and tastefully decorated bar-restaurant a handy stop for people who want to replenish themselves without having to sit through a long meal. And where else can you sip a beer standing next to an olive tree? There's also a more formal dining area with long tables where groups can share some of the more elaborate meat and fish options; a lounge downstairs—with an extensive gin menu—accommodates those who want to keep the night rolling.
At the end of 2007, celebrity chef Sergi Arola—Ferran Adrià's most popular disciple—left La Broche, the restaurant where he vaulted to the top of the Madrid dining scene, to go solo. The result is a smaller, less minimalist though equally modern bistro space crafted to enhance the dining experience, just 30 customers at a time. At the height of his career and surrounded by an impeccable team—which now also includes a talented and talkative bartender in the lounge—Arola offers only three sampler menus (a short one, a long one, and one entirely made up of cheeses), which include some of his classic surf-and-turf dishes (such as the rabbit filled with giant scarlet shrimp), nods to its Catalonian roots (the sautéed broad beans and peas with blood sausage), and more than 600 different wines mostly from small producers, all available by the glass.
Las Tortillas de Gabino
Few national dishes raise more intense debates among Spaniards than the tortilla de patata
(Spanish omelet). Deceivingly simple, some like it soft with the eggs runny, others spongy yet evenly cooked. At this lively restaurant, decked out with subdued light wooden fixtures, you'll find heaps of Spaniards gobbling up one of the city's finest, as well as some other unconventional tortilla creations like potatoes with octopus, potato chips with salmorejo
(a gazpacho-like soup), with garlic soup, with codfish and leek stew, with truffles (when available) and a potato mousse, etc., that are best enjoyed when shared by everyone at the table. They also have plenty of equally succulent non-egg choices and a green-apple sorbet that shouldn't be missed.