The final days of our European adventure were spent in Madrid, Spain! Spain’s illustrious capital city can amaze just about anyone thanks to its never-ending sunshine, scenic streets, and amazing food. For some odd reason Madrid does not always have the best reputation – people tend to compare it to Barcelona far too often. Madrid cannot be beaten when it comes to Spanish culture because it has all the amenities synonymous with a capital city, but still retains much of its charm. If you enjoy soccer, shopping, amazing arts, classic culture, or historic neighborhoods and architecture, Madrid is the place to be.
1. THE MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO
While in Madrid, I had the privilege of visiting the Museo Nacional del Prado, the main Spanish national art museum. Crazy right?! Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture in 1819, the Prado is universally known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of European art. Much of the artwork dates from the 12th century to the early 20th century and is based on the former Spanish Royal Collection. There are numerous works by Francisco Goya, the single most represented artist throughout the museum. Other highlights of the collection include Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Diego Velázquez.
A great museum is one that has breathtaking masterpieces that stand out amidst everything else. I find that a museum is truly unique when it has several paintings that cause me to stand in awe of the beauty of creation. Luckily, the Prado has more of these than most! The collection was predominantly created over a period that coincided with the height of Spanish power and was an exclusive project courtesy of three highly distinguished Spanish kings: Carlos I, Felipe II, and Felipe IV. All of this, combined with the acquisition of Goya’s best work, make the Prado an international collection arranged by people with impeccable taste.
Madrid is not an extremely large city so it is easy to visit everything on foot. Yet, there are so many things to do all throughout the city that it is virtually impossible to see everything this beautiful destination has to offer in one trip! Madrid is the best city in Spain to go shopping, but because it is a big place, it helps to know where to look. Given how fashionable the city is, I found it very hard to resist going on a shopping spree as there are so many tasteful options for everyone.
2. PLAZA MAYOR
In Madrid there are nearly 300 days of sunshine each year, giving locals and tourists even greater reason to enjoy the outdoors! Madrid also has an array of charming squares, like Plaza Mayor, where you can sit outside and order drinks or simply soak up the sunshine. Plaza Mayor is a grand arcaded square in the heart of Madrid and is only a few blocks away from another famous plaza, Puerta del Sol.
The plaza was built during the Habsburg period and although originally named the “Plaza del Arrabal,” it later became known as the “Plaza Mayor.” There are a total of nine entranceways and it is surrounded by three-story residential buildings with a total of 237 balconies overlooking the area. Plaza Mayor is the brilliant work of Juan de Villanueva, an architect who was assigned the responsibility of its reconstruction in 1790 after a series of invasive fires. At the center of the square is a bronze statue of King Philips III that dates back to 1616, although it was not placed in the center until the year 1848.
3. PUERTA DEL SOL
The Puerta del Sol (Spanish for “Gate of the Sun”) is another public square in Madrid, and is one of the busiest places in the city! The plaza is a very important place where many protests and demonstrations take place. Puerta del Sol originated as one of the gates in the city wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century. During the 17th and 19th centuries, the area was an important meeting place visited by those hoping for the latest news. The square connects several commercial and recreational areas, consisting mainly of shopping establishments that cater to locals and tourists alike!
4. THE ROYAL PALACE OF MADRID
During the morning of our final day in Spain, we visited the Royal Palace of Madrid. In my opinion, this is the most impressive monument of the capital. The exterior is so majestic and the inside is even more stunning because of its charming frescoes and luxurious décor. Palacio Real is the official home of the Spanish royal family, although now it is only used for state ceremonies. The palace has a total of 3,418 rooms, making it the largest functioning royal palace in Europe! However, King Felipe VI and the royal family do not live in the palace. Instead, they reside on the outskirts of Madrid in the notably more modest Palace of Zarzuela.
Palacio Real is owned by the Spanish state and administered by the Patrimonio Nacional, a public agency of the Ministry of the Presidency. The palace has several rooms that are regularly open to the public and we were fortunate enough to have time to take a guided tour! The interior of the palace is known for its abundance of art and its strategic use of different types of fine materials in the design of each room. Throughout the palace, there are paintings by famous artists such as Caravaggio, Juan de Flandes, Francisco de Goya, and Velázquez. There are also magnificent frescoes composed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Corrado Giaquinto, and Anton Raphael Mengs.
There are so many reasons to love Madrid! For instance, it is exactly in the center of Spain, which makes it a great place to visit if you want to tack on other destinations. Even though Madrid is a famous city, I never felt overwhelmed by the number of people because it did not feel “touristy” to me. I encourage you to get lost among the lovely streets and wander through the quirky neighborhoods. Make time for yourself and revel in the rarity of your surroundings–soak it in. Believe me, you will be glad you did.