The best attractions in Madrid
The main tourist and shopping artery in the centre of the capital starts at C/Alcalá and runs 1.3 kilometres to its end at Plaza de España. Throughout its more than 100 years of history, Gran Vía has had various names depending on the incumbent government. During the Spanish Civil War it was popularly referred to as the Avenue of Mortars because of the shells that ended up on the pavements and buildings. It was in 1981 during the Spanish Transition when they changed and stayed with the name Gran Vía. The street housed the first department stores in the city, and for decades it has become a hub for the best entertainment in the city, thanks to its many cinemas, theatres, hotels and shops.
The residence of the monarchy from Carlos III to Alfonso XIII, this building now functions as a museum where you can admire the glitz and luxury of the Spanish royal elite. The architecture was inspired by sketches made by Bernini to build the Louvre in Paris, and although Filippo Juvarra began working on the plans, it would be his disciple Juan Bautista Sachetti who would eventually finish the job. The décor of the 3,000 rooms inside has been changed to suit the specific tastes of each monarch. Highlights include Sabatini's main staircase, the Throne Room, the Royal Chapel, and the Royal Apothecary.
Located in a spacious neo-classical building, the Prado is the most important art museum in Spain. Its construction began with Juan de Villanueva by commission of King Carlos III in 1785. In recent years, the Prado has undergone a very ambitious expansion programme, and there's a controversial new cube-shaped building, designed by Rafael Moneo and mainly devoted to temporary exhibitions. Among the most notable works within the Prado are 'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez, 'The Third of May 1808' by Francisco de Goya, and 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch (aka El Bosco).
Every Sunday for decades the most famous flea market in Madrid is held around Plaza Cascorro. More than 1,000 street vendors set up first thing in the morning in C/Ribera de Curtidores and spread out over the surrounding streets. A must for tourists and locals alike, the market's stalls offer practically everything you could hope to find, including rare items that can be difficult to find in conventional shops. Set out early, as around midday it can be a battle to get through the crowds. Once you've had your fill, the tradition is to go relax with a beer and a snack at any of the bars in the nearby neighbourhood of La Latina.
This 118-hectare park dates back to the construction of the Monasterio de los Jerónimos by the order of Catholic Monarchs. Currently, it'ss one of the green spaces most used by locals in their leisure time. It's worth visiting monuments that remain from previous centuries, including that to Alfonso XII, a colonnade work by José Grases Riera overlooking the pond; the Casón del Buen Retiro, once majestic ballroom that's now part of the Prado Museum; and the Palacio de Cristal, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition. El Retiro's gardens boast even more beauty, including a rose garden, the Casa de Vacas cultural centre, and numerous fountains and statues, among which is the famous 'Ángel Caído' ('Fallen Angel') sculpture.
This famous square is in the heart of the city's historic district, and was home to the most popular market in the late 15th century. These days the square is the headquarters of the Madrid Tourism Centre. The equestrian statue of Felipe III in the centre of the square was designed by Giambologna and completed by Pietro Tacca in 1616. Another important work in the area is the Arco de Cuchilleros, the most famous of the nine entrances to the square. The archway is the work of Juan Villanueva, who, after the devastating fire of 1790, decided to reduce the façades by two levels, close off the square, and raise the nine arches, so the largest in size with an enormous stairway would give passage to C/Cuchilleros.
You can't leave Madrid without a visit to this museum that, along with the Prado and the Thyssen Bornemisza, forms part of Madrid's Art Triangle. The Reina Sofía's impressive façade features three lift towers of glass and steel that give access to the largest contemporary art museum in the city. The extension on the back section was completed in 2005, adding 30,000 square metres, mainly used for temporary exhibition space. The masterpiece of this museum is without question Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica', a painting commemorating the 1937 destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers who flew in support of Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Located on a large roundabout in Plaza de la Independencia, this neoclassical passageway was one of the five ancient entrances to the city. In fact, it got its name because it stands in the road that led to Alcalá de Henares. Its appearance is similar to the triumphal arches built by the Romans, and it was designed by the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini, who finished its construction in 1778. Since then, the statues, engravings, and columns that decorate the five arches have undergone five restorations. It's currently doing splendidly and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Madrid. It's worth viewing at night, to admire its impressively illuminated façade.
This is the very centre of Madrid and kilometre zero for all roads in Spain. In the 16th century, Puerta del Sol was one of the access points to the city from the outskirts of town. It was named for the sunshine that graced the entrance. The Puerta del Sol was first envisaged as a broad crossing with a constant flow of people, and small traders soon set up there, trying to do business with all those coming and going. Currently, the most important building is the Casa de Correos, government seat of the Community of Madrid. The square is also home to one of the most famous statues in the city, 'El Oso y el Madroño' ('The Bear and the Strawberry Tree'), which stands 4 metres high, weighs 20 tonnes, and is constantly surrounded by groups of tourists.
This is the Nubian treasure of Madrid and the only Egyptian temple in Spain that is fully preserved. Brought stone by stone from Egypt and carefully reconstructed, including with regard to its original orientation, this monument was a gift from Egypt and UNESCO for Spain's part in saving the Abu Simbel temples, which would have otherwise been submerged under water after the construction of the Aswan Dam. In its time it was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Africa, dedicated to the gods Amón and Isis with reliefs and carvings that decorate the inside of the sanctuary. When you visit, be sure to hang around to see the sun set, a spectacular sight from where the temple stands.