Project Description

Madrid has a varied tourism offer, the result of different styles that have left their mark over the centuries. From the ruins of the ancient Arab walls to the first Renaissance monuments and small Gothic churches, Madrid has accumulated over time a very rich and varied amount of works. Although the city grew under Arab dominance for two centuries, the only things of this presence which still remain today are the ruins of the walls and a tower later transformed into a bell tower. The advent of the House of Austria in the 16th century, and its apogee in the 17th century marked the rise of a district among the most famous of the capital – “El Madrid de Los Austrias” – which display, in addition to the Plaza Mayor, a multitude of monuments, churches and convents, full of art and charm.

It was during a grand tour of Spain (all except the North) that I stopped a few days in the heart of the Spanish capital city. Unfortunately, I ended up spending more time outside the city than inside, the fault to the many charming towns around that request a day trip, sometimes even more! But it’s not as if Madrid was not easily accessible by plane from Switzerland and I’ll take the opportunity to go back there during a nice and sunny summer as I still have a whole lot of stuff to see and do!

  • Hostel very well situated, between the Opera and the Puerta del Sol, close to all the attractions of this part of Madrid.
  • Frankly nice decoration, clean room, cosy single bed in dormitory to isolate yourself, large locker to store your bag and two or three private showers per room!
  • No key in this hostel (WTF?), all the doors can be opened using your fingerprint! I had some thoughts about this system, but it works pretty well and so, we avoid losing keys!
  • Breakfast is extra, it’s a shame given the price of the room, but in the end, it is very cheap considering what’s on offer.
  • No curtain around the bed, so less privacy, but it allows crossing the gaze of someone and then start a conversation! So, it is a con without really being one, especially if you’re travelling alone like me…
  • Slightly noisy with the window opened, but it depends on the room. If the latter overlooks the pedestrian street, take earplugs with you because there are people in this street every single day and night!

Welcome to Madrid

Let’s start this short visit of Madrid by getting up at dawn, followed by a small tour of Los Austrias. This is a traditional district of the Spanish capital, which lists a large number of bars and restaurants where are served tapas, but also the traditional “bocata of calamares” of Madrid (baguette sandwich with breaded calamari). Well, I don’t know about you, but personally I’m not a big fan of fried seafood for breakfast. But if you want to enjoy another Spanish specialty, let’s walk toward the many centuries-old cafeterias that are spread around the neighborhood, especially the most famous, San Ginés, being specialized in “chocolate con churros” (hot chocolate with fried donuts). This constitutes a certainly unbalanced, but so delicious and stodgy breakfast! Besides, this is the house specialty and a safe and cheap bet if you want to be sure to enjoy excellent churros in Madrid.

I digress a little from the tourist center to see the Temple of Debod, one of the most curious monuments of Madrid. Reflections of the building in the pond that surrounds it are said to be a “not-to-be-missed” event in the early hours of the morning, and as showed on the picture on the left, this is something I can confirm! It feels almost like in Egypt! This construction dating from the 2nd century BC was offered by Egypt to Spain in 1968 and is located in Montaña park which I quickly cross because of many homeless people who seem to be living here. Surrounded by a beautiful spring and gardens, you will probably not be surprised to learn that it is the oldest monument in Madrid!

Back on my steps towards the nearby “Plaza de España” (Spanish Square). It is also a frequently used name in Spanish cities, but its most known reference still remains the one of Rome in Italy. Ask Google about it! Once at the heart of the place, I admire two of the most iconic and imposing buildings of the city: the Torre de Madrid (Madrid Tower) and the Edificio España (Spain Building). The first, whose construction was completed in 1957, is 142 meters high and the second, dating from 1953, reaches 117 meters. I feel very small, but it is far from being in the middle of Central Park in New York… Even if I haven’t been there yet! In the center of the square stands an impressive monument in honor of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), shown seated on a throne in height with the statues of its two famous characters below: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It was conducted between 1925 and 1930 and finally completed in 1957. A small pond surrounded by flowering bushes and trees rounds off this setting in which I definitely enjoy walking!

From the Spanish Square, I head to the Royal Palace which I can already distinguish beyond the trees a few hundred meters away. However, instead of following the concrete road, I take another path, covered with cobbled stones, toward a charming setting created in the thirties on the spot that was then occupied by the stables of the Royal Palace – I speak of course about the Sabatini gardens. Designed in a geometric style, their privileged position makes these gardens one of the most beautiful places of the neighborhood of “Los Austrias”.

A large rectangular pond, itself surrounded by greenery, fountains, areas planted with conifers and white marble sculptures, all dominated by the imposing north façade of the Royal Palace – this is what we can see once at the heart of this place. Stunning! After a few minutes of rest on a bench from where I gaze at a large circular fountain with tritons, I finally join back the road that I have left a little earlier. The view of the north facade of the Royal Palace from the top of the wall around the gardens is beautiful and I realize at that time the impressive size of the building.

Besides, the Royal Palace is next on my list and according the current time, I expect to be one of the only tourists to visit the building at its opening. This is quickly confirmed, because we are just a small group of 5 people! Built in the 18th century by order of Philip V in the location of a former fortress of Muslim origin, the Royal Palace is now the main attraction of this part of Madrid. The complex is guarded by many policemen and after having crossed the gate of Príncipe (only access to the site for tourists), we have to go through an important security check for which even the contents of my small backpack is a potential threat! Once past the gate, we find ourselves in the huge main courtyard of the Palace (still unenlightened as it is quite early) which I quickly take a picture of before storing my camera in the bottom of my bag for the rest of the tour.

We then enter the main building and arrive after a few meters at the foot of the Grand Staircase designed by Sabatini himself. Photos and videos are forbidden inside as I expected, but that does not prevent me from admiring the beautiful decoration once on top of the stairs. The tour continues in different rooms of the Palace opened to the public such as the Hall of Halberdiers, the Hall of Columns, the Room of Mirrors and the bedroom of King Charles III, all of them deserving a special mention for their atmosphere, and for many paintings by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, El Greco and Caravaggio that are spread along the corridors.

Barely out of the Royal Palace, I continue directly with the visit of the Almudena Cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin, patron saint of Madrid. Its construction began in the late 19th century on the site of the ancient church of Santa María la Mayor. The first stone of this impressive monument was laid in 1883, but the implementation process was very slow and the cathedral was only consecrated for worship in 1993 by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. Also, a statue of the clergyman can be seen a few meters of the side entrance, through which I’m entering the cathedral. The exterior of classical style is somewhat different from the Gothic interior, but once facing the altar, I notice something quite odd: the stained glass frescoes on the ceiling! I’ve seen some original elements in religious sanctuaries, but this is new and I love it! The ceiling is therefore brighter and more visible, which is a nice change from dark and “cold” churches.

I retrace my steps and cross the beautiful Plaza de Oriente, which opened in 1844 and is located opposite the eastern facade of the Royal Palace. Surrounded by gardens and a painstaking route of twenty figures representing different spanish monarchs, the place looks just like a small open-air museum!

On the other side of the square is the Teatro Real, home of the Opera in Madrid based of the project of the architect Antonio López Aguado during the reign of Ferdinand VII and Isabella II. The building is a mix of architecture which the true gem is the scene with its 1472 square meters. It allows changes in complex designs with 18 articulated platforms that offer multiple combinations for the stage and the orchestra pit. In addition, the theater has an impressive flexible capacity (between 1748 and 1854 seats) according to the needs of the assembly, and distributed over 28 multi-storey boxes, as well as eight proscenium and the Royal Loge. The only floor devoted exclusively to the public is called “La Rotonda”. There are four large rooms decorated in different colors with objects of national heritage and from the Prado Museum. A beautiful building indeed!

After a walk on the square right behind the Opera, I now head to the Plaza de la Villa, one of the  best preserved monumental sets of Madrid. Located in the historic center and close to the “Puerta del Sol”, it was until recently the seat of the Mayor of the Spanish capital. All around, I admire the facades of three main buildings of great historical and artistic value, all built during different centuries. The oldest is the “Casa-Torre de los Lujanes” (15th century), which was built in a Mudejar Gothic style and currently houses the headquarters of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. The two newest buildings are the “Casa de Cisneros” (16th century), a plateresque palace and the “Casa de la Villa” (17th century), of Baroque style. At the center of the square stands a monument surrounded by a large flower bed and dedicated to Álvaro de Bazán (1526-1588). The building is not open to the public, but you can freely stroll the pretty square.

Now let’s go to the Plaza Mayor, a true symbol of Madrid and a must-see spot during a visit of the capital! The construction of this huge plaza in the center of the city started in the 17th century by order of King Philip III, whose bronze equestrian statue adorns the place. Inaugurated in 1620, it is a place of rectangular shape, surrounded by arcades and once the scene of many public ceremonies, from bullfights, processions, festivals and theatrical performances, to the judgments of the Inquisition with even some capital punishments! Porches now house many traditional shops and a host of bars and restaurants. Be careful with these latters, far too often some tourist traps… During my visit, renovations were underway, but it didn’t bother me too much and have not diminished in my eyes the aspect of this square.

After a short walk, I finally reach the lively square of “Puerta del Sol”, one of Madrid’s other symbols and a very frequented spot. Its semi-circular shape makes it the focal point of many historic streets, which may explain why it is so difficult for me to walk around right now… Or maybe it is because of “Mickey Mouse”, “Iron Man” and other “Ninja Turtle” who monopolize the space to attract tourists in order to charge them the pictures they’ll do… On one side of the square is the famous Casa de Correos, headquarters of the Community of Madrid. All the 31st of December, its clock marks the arrival of the New Year with the 12 stroke of midnight before a huge crowd gathered all over the square. According to the tradition, people there are supposed to eat 12 pieces of grapes, one at each stroke, but knowing that this “tradition” was created by some local winemakers to dispose of a surplus of grapes makes it quite less charming!

On the square, one can also find the plate of Kilometer Zero which indicates the starting point of various national radial roads leaving from Madrid, but it’s impossible to approach the plate as dozains of Spanish tourists are being photographed next to it! Instead, I’m heading to the opposite side of the square, to another monument also much appreciated by Spaniard, but much easier to photograph: the statue of “the Bear and the Strawberry tree” (El oso y el madroño). The latter, built in stone and bronze, weighs about 20 tons, is 4 meters high and is based on a cubic pedestal made of granite. It realistically represents the two arms figures of Madrid, with a bear resting his front legs against a strawberry tree overhanging it, his mouth trying to reach a fruit. Finally, it is a popular meeting point of local youth like is the statue of Hachiko in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

After a full day walking in the sun and knowing that I’ve skipped lunchtime, I’m obviously famished, but I’m already heading to a very known place of the district and one of its main gastronomic attractions located close to the Plaza Mayor: the San Miguel market. Built on an iron structure built in 1916 and characterized by an exquisite decoration, it features some 33 stands offering delicious products and excellent raw materials of any kind. True reflection of the gastronomic plurality of Spain, this place also has a central role in the culinary culture and hosts lectures, presentations, exhibitions, concerts, etc. Its schedules also makes it an ideal place for relaxation, day or night, since we can find several wine bars and counters where visitors can savor amazing tapas at bargain prices!

I’ll be honest, I had a great time there and since I came back, I have constantly recommend it to all those who are going to visit the Spanish capital! This is one of the liveliest areas in Madrid and I’ve returned there every day to taste different freshly made and cheap tapas (1-2€ on average). And even if you are not very “tapas”, don’t worry: the choice is wide! Besides, I don’t think we can find a larger grouping of fresh produce in a single place, but have a look on the picture I took below to convince you! That said, they cover only a small part of the culinary wonders of the place and I invite you to go there to see for yourself! Special mention to the different paellas, the delicious yogurts and tapas made of burrata/mozzarella, yummy!

This evening and all the following ones will take place at San Miguel market. This tour of Madrid is now over and was very brief as it covered just an overview of some major buildings and other best-known spots of the capital. I’ve spent more time visiting the nearby cities of Ávila, Toledo or Segovia, so I’ve had little time to discover Madrid itself. However no regret, because I was still able to admire the places for which I had some interests like the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor or the San Miguel market, my favorite part! Of course, I intend to return there soon as there are many places I still want to see, including parks and famous museums such as the Prado Museum. And that’s not all, as there is so much more to do and see in Madrid!