Spain's capital has enjoyed a serious boom as a city break destination on the last decade. The proliferation of cheap flights has made more and more European cities accessible to weekend travellers. Often overshadowed by the Catalan capital, Barcelona , Madrid is now showing what it has to offer and, more importantly, sharing it with foreign visitors.
"Los Austrias" is as good a place as any to start; the oldest part of the city and still bearing the stamp of the Hapsburg dynasty that had such a dominating influence on Madrid until 1700. The "Plaza Mayor" is the focal point of the area; built by Phillip III between 1617 and 1619, it's an elegant square with a rich and varied history.
This is where the great festivals and celebrations of imperial Madrid took place. Visitors these days won't see quite so much excitement but the square hosts a coin and stamp collectors market on Sundays and hosts live bands and performers during festivals. Expect to pay through the nose in the cafés and restaurants which line the square; some however, will be willing to part with a little extra cash just to be able to soak up the atmosphere of one of Madrid's most famous sites.
Next stop is the "Palacio Real"; Madrid 's royal palace is a monument to the classical Italian baroque style. Charles III was the first king to take residence here in 1714. The grand building has a, seemingly absurd, count of 3,000 rooms. The most famous of these is the Throne Room with its sumptuous decorations. Visitors should also pay heed to the gardens, in particular the "Jardine de Sabatini", which was added to the Palace complex in the 1930's and can provide a bit of peaceful seclusion away from the bustle of the city centre.
Another one of the city's most celebrated landmarks is the "Puerto Del Sol" - originally the location for one of the gates marking the eastern entrance to the city. The gate is reported to have been erected around 1440 to control the comings and goings of merchandise in the Spanish capital.
These days the gate is long gone but the square behind it has taken on the name. It's a lively place, equivalent to Times Square and Trafalgar Square in the US and England respectively, as on new year's eve Madrilenos come here in their thousands to hear the clock chime midnight and see in the new year. It is also the centre point of Spain , kilometre zero is in the centre of the square and the six main highways of Spain radiate from this point.
For a bit of greenery and a shaded stroll then there's no better place than the magnificent "Parque del Buen Retiro"; Madrid's most central park. This verdant expanse covers 350 acres and includes formal gardens, fountains, playgrounds and cafes. There is even a lake where locals and tourists can clash oars on the water. All in all, the perfect place for a picnic or for the kids to let off some steam - bear in mind that the park closes at 10.30pm every evening.
The "Panteon de Goya" is a small chapel that serves as the final resting place to the celebrated artist. The man himself decorated the intricate dome and cupola depicting the miracles of St Anthony and it is certainly one of the city's lesser known attractions that is well worth a visit.
One final stop on our tour takes us a little way out of Madrid 's centre to the home of one of the world's most famous football teams. The Santiago Bernabeu stadium has been home to Real Madrid CF since 1947 and the 80,000 seater stadium is an impressive site whether you're a fan of football or not. The stadium houses and excellent museum and is open most days for tours where you get the chance to see the stadium from the main stand and entrance into the playing tunnel and even the changing rooms.
About the Author
Mike McDougall works for Babylon Idiomas, a Spanish language institute with schools in Spain [Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia], Argentina [Buenos Aires] and Costa Rica. Click here to learn more about Spanish courses.
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