Highlights of Madrid
An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983
Highlights of Madrid
Madrid, the capital of Spain, is situated in the geographical centre of the peninsula, on the Meseta Castellana, the Castilian Plateau, around 700 metres above sea level. With its more than three million inhabitants and another two million in its surrounding Comunidad de Madrid, it is indeed one of the liveliest and most exciting cities in Europe.
History of Madrid
Madrid has been inhabited since the Stone Age, but it developed as a medina (Arab town) in the 9th century, growing around the alcazar or castle overlooking the Manzanares River. It was mentioned in historical documents as “Majerit” in 932 AD when the Christian forces of Ramiro II of Leon attacked the city. It was eventually captured from the Muslims by Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon in 1083. Many kings spent time in this city, and in 1309, the Cortes, precursor to the Spanish Parliament, was first called in Madrid.
An earthquake damaged the alcazar in 1466, and various kings, notably Charles I and Philip II, rebuilt and extended the palace and its fortifications. By the 17th century, Madrid had grown to a city of 100,000.
When Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700, the leadership vacuum threatened the balance of power in Europe as his closest possible heirs belonged to the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and the French Bourbon families. The War of the Spanish Succession began in 1701 and lasted until 1714. Madrid sided with the Bourbon Philip V, who eventually acceded the throne. (Barcelona, on the other hand, sided with the Habsburgs and was subsequently sacked by the new king’s forces.)
Philip V set about in developing his new capital, building under his patronage the Royal Spanish Academy, the National Library, and the Royal Academy of History. He also built the 500-room Royal Palace after the alcazar was destroyed by fire in 1734.
Charles III continued expanding the city, setting up, among others, the Royal Botanic Garden and the Puerta de Alcala, a monumental arch sitting on the city’s easternmost area, the present Plaza de la Independencia. He also commissioned a building, originally meant to be a natural history museum that was to turn into the Prado, a major art gallery, under the reign of Ferdinand VII.
The last king of Spain to live in the Royal Palace was Alfonso XIII, who abdicated the throne in 1931 following a municipal plebiscite that abolished the monarchy. The Spanish Constitution of 1931, calling for the democratic election of Spain’s rulers, was legislated in Madrid. The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, and Madrid, a bastion of the Republican forces, was besieged and bombed by Franco’s Nationalist forces. The Nationalist forces were supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and Madrid eventually fell in March 1939.
Following Franco’s death and the end of his dictatorship in 1975, Madrid was confirmed as Spanish capital in the 1978 constitution. The 1978 constitution also established the Spanish government as a parliamentary monarchy, with the monarch as head of state and the prime minister as head of government.
Must-Visit Places in Madrid
The first stop is the Royal Palace, which grew from a Moorish alcazar to the largest functioning royal palace in Europe. Sitting on 135,000 square metres with more than 3,000 rooms, the palace is now only used for official functions. The royal family now resides in the more modest La Zarzuela Palace northwest of Madrid. The Royal Palace is open to the public and is worth a visit for its interior filled with paintings and beautiful décor.
Retiro Park and City Centre Landmarks
Close to the Royal Palace is the Parque del Buen Retiro (“Park of the Pleasant Retreat”) which once belonged to the Spanish monarchy but is now a public park. Also in the city centre is the Plaza Mayor, a major public square in the heart of Madrid, and Mercado San Miguel, a covered marketplace established in 1916.
Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol or “Sun Gate” is Madrid’s most popular square, located next to the Casa de Correos or the city’s original post office building that is now the seat of the Madrid community. Beneath its wall is the zero-kilometre stone, which is a basis for numbering Spain’s roads and measuring distances in the country. This is also where the people of Madrid gather on New Year’s Eve to hear the clock at the top of the Casa de Correos strike midnight.
Museo del Prado
When the building commissioned by Charles III as a natural history museum was finally completed in 1819, Ferdinand VII began filling it with artwork from the royal collection, putting them in one location from scattered palaces. This building became the Museo del Prado, Madrid’s major art gallery, which holds artwork from artists such as Rembrandt, Rafael, and Hieronymous Bosch and Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
Other nearby Spanish art museums are the Reina Sofia, renowned for its collection of modern art; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a former private collection transcending all periods from the Middle Ages to the present.
What impresses the visitor most of all is the experience of the city’s intense night life, which goes on unabated till dawn: cafés, tapas bars, discothèques, live theatre, opera, ballet, zarzuela, flamenco music. Madrid cuisine with its hearty dishes is also an incredible showstopper.
Articles on Spain and Madrid published by Odyssey Traveller.
The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers may also help to maximise your knowledge and enjoyment of Madrid when visiting:
- 15 of the best places in Spain to visit.
- Travel Notes for Barcelona
- Ten of the best books published on Spain
- Ten of the best art galleries in Europe to visit.
- Discovering Spain
- Questions About Spain