If Madrid is the capital of Spain, its most touristy city is Barcelona. For the traveller who has visited the harbour city, Madrid may look a bit severe far from the charming medieval streets and eccentric Gaudi buildings of the capital of Catalonia. Follow us and walk Madrid with a local to find the real soul of Madrid, behind its wide avenues and majestic façades…
In 1561, the king of Spain Felipe II moved the court from Toledo to the small village of Madrid that instantly became a capital. Its infrastructures had to be updated. Rather than trying to fit in the old, the village was pretty much wiped out and a modern city built. From 9,000 inhabitants, Madrid soon was home to 90,000 people. This is why today, Madrid feels very different from most cities with a strong medieval history such as Barcelona or Paris. Its streets are much wider, its squares ample, and its buildings majestic.
One of the best examples may be the Plaza Mayor where the proud Felipe II sits majestically on his horse. Originally a lake, it got dried out to host a small market square that was turned into the main trading point of the city with the beautiful headquarters of the guilds all around the square where people sold and bought their bread, meat, wine and tobacco. If now the buildings are a lot quieter, the square is filled with tourists still trading the same goods at the numerous terraces bordering Plaza Mayor.
Just a stone’s throw away is another very popular square: the Puerta del Sol. What feels like the beating heart of the Spanish capital used to be on its outskirts as indicated by its name, a gate to get in and out of town. Surprisingly, this square on which the kilometre 0 can be found happens to mark the real geographical centre of the country, a rare phenomenon for a capital.
Another rare phenomenon is a strawberry tree! This is the English translation of the local madroño tree and symbol of Madrid. If what it has to do with strawberries remains uncertain, its statue of the female bear reaching for its fruits, a symbol of fertility, is very appreciated by tourists taking selfies on the always busy Puerta del Sol maybe Madrid’s most well known public squares.
On the charming and more intimate Plaza de Villa, the oldest building still standing despite the many destructive fires that that have impacted the city retains some Moorish details. Madrid was in fact founded by the Moors with the centre of their settlement located where the Royal Palace stands today.
All these squares are connected via a network of streets bearing names referring to the activities carried out in these specific areas: the street where one washes his feet, the street of the post office, salt street… If the scope of these streets has broadened, Spaniards love their traditions: many plaques in the ground in front of stores indicate that the exact same business has been carried out for more than 100 years on that same location.
Walking heads down, we notice a plaque with 1610! This is Posada del Peine (the inn of the comb), Madrid’s oldest hotel that used to be cheap and very trendy as every room had a comb for the guests to use, a very precious item back then. Today, as this is a high-end hotel, combs are probably still provided!
Another plaque: 1725! This is world’s oldest operating restaurant: Sobrino de Botín. Its wood oven has been on since 1765, and the legend has it that the famous Spanish painter Goya worked there washing dishes while he was an art student.
Today, Goya can be found on the other side of the city: the Paseo del Prado aligns some of the finest Spanish museums and has a very different feel with its refined architecture. After the 17th century secession war, the French Bourbons who were fond of a delicate architecture took over from the Austrians Habsburg who invested in arts, infrastructures, wars and colonies.
Beyond Central Madrid also known as the Austrias, every neighbourhood conveys its very own vibes. The hipster Malasaña with its bars and its vibrant Mercado de San Ildefonso to grab a drink on its top floor, La Latina and its famous Calla Cava Brava that could be dubbed tapas street, the very authentic Lavapiés with its secret gardens and excellent Tabacalera, a former tobacco factory turned into a modern art platform for up and coming artists, the gay Chueca, the Retiro with its magnificent park,… Madrid is full of surprises!
Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau and Marcella van Alphen
- Find out more about Madrid’s vibrant history and take a tour with the knowledgeable Javier or Tatiana from Ogo Tours! A local business, they know Madrid like the back of their hand and you will have a great time!
- To get the GPS-powered version of this article in GPSmyCity, click on this link!
- More time to spend? Make sure to make a day trip to Toledo from Madrid.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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