As soon as you land at Barajas Airport, you will notice one thing: Madrileños, apart from a short afternoon siesta, barely sleep. You will wonder if it's due to the young age of the city or if it's due to the lively character of its people. Probably both...Capital of the nocturne life, Madrid is the capital of arts too: any art-a-holic will be able to find his paradise, among the artworks exposed at the Prado Museum, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen Bornemisza, among others. But, whatever you're looking for, be it fun, arts, gourmet, shopping or relax, Madrid will be able to provide them all.
As we said, Madrid is rather young. Only in 852, its history begins, as soon as the Moors build an alcazar (fortress) near the river Manzanares, and just in 1202 Madrid gains the status of city, after that it goes back into the hands of Christians. It's in 1561 that Philip II (whose great grandmother was Isabel of Castile who, together with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon reunited Spain under the holy cross, hence chasing the Moors and giving sparks to the Inquisition) moves the capital to Madrid, deciding to build El Escorial. In 1701 Philip V comes to Madrid, as the first Bourbon dynasty king of Spain. In his dream to give to Spain a touche français, he is the king who decides to build the Palacio Real, where the actual king of Spain doesn't live, but where the State ceremonies still take place. In the XIX century Madrid sees a series of coups, after the occupation by the Napoleonic army, that reach an end with the Bourbonic restoration of Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II of Spain (who acceded to the throne only because his father had convinced the Cortes to put the Salic law aside). Political upheavals characterize the next century too. In 1923 Primo de Rivera seizes power, transforming himself in a dictator, and in 1936 the civil war begins, ending three years later when the Caudillo takes hold of the reins of power, with his troops entering Madrid. Although Spain remains neutral during WW2, the sympathies of Francisco Franco for Mussolini and Hitler are clear, hence isolating Spain at the end of the war from the International community, a isolation that only ends when - in 1953 - Spain accepts to host American military basis on its territory. It's in 1975, with the death of the Generalisimo, and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, with Juan Carlos I, that the projects to reconcile Spain with the world and transforming the system in a democracy, take off, among a tentative of seizure of power from the Rights, and an encouraging economical growth.
As a rough indication, Madrid is divided into four zones: the Old Madrid, the Bourbonic Madrid, the zone of the Castellana and the outskirts. The Old Madrid extends from Plaza de la Villa to the Puerta del Sol, where you will always find movement. Center for festivals too, and where people meet at New Year's Eve, eating a single grape for every bell ringing, Puerta del Sol is usually packed from tourists. It's in plaza Mayor that, during the Inquisition, the executions used to take place, attracting public. And it's in this zone of the city that you will find the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a Medieval building transformed into convent for women coming from monarchic families. The same zone is occupied by the Palacio Réal, whose construction was decided in 1738 and whose erection ended 26 years later. Usually the Palacio can be visited. Do not miss this opportunity!
On the Plaza de Oriente, where the kings, queens and dictators would appear in fron of the public, from the balcony of the Palacio, there is the Teatro Réal. The Teatro Réal was built in 1850 and restructured from 1991 to 1997. It has some impressive interiors, among which the auditorium, where 1746 seats are distributed providing excellent visibility, and the several rooms such as the Goya Room, or Vergara Room. Before living the Old Madrid, remember to visit the Catedral de la Almudena, the Muralla Arabe - sole remaining of the Moors in Madrid, and do not forget El Rastro, where on Sunday and festivities, you will have the chance to buy, in one of the most outstanding flea-market, the most desparate things, ranging from second hand dresses to furniture.
The Bourbonic Madrid has a lot to offer too, among which three impressive museums, that will make any art estimator...faint. The Thyssen - Bornemisza Museum, was born from a private collection - that in 1992 was moved from Lugano to Madrid - and acquired in 1993 by the Spanish State for the sum of 350 million $. Its artworks range through history, from the Italian primitives of the XIV century to the last decades of XX century, with late Surrealism, German Expressionism, Russian Avant-garde and Pop art, hence complementing and completing the collections found at the Prado and at the Reina Sofia. To this already huge collection, were later on added other 200 artworks from the collection of Carmen Thyssen Bornemisza, as - among other chef d'oeuvres - four sculptures by Rodin.
The art tour continues at the Museo Nacional del Prado, where the collection of 8600 artworks is divided into eight sections, among which some masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco and Goya, such as "La Maya desnuda" (The Naked Maya) and "La Maya vestida" (painted in response to the scandal that the previous one had created, being the first depiction of a naked woman with visible pubic hair in the arts, in the West. Goya refused to dress her, and instead painted another one. Today, the identity of the woman is still a mystery). One of the buildings in which the museum is - the Villanueva - was built under Charles III, considered the..."best mayor of Madrid".
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, closes the artistic axe, with masterpieces of contemporary art. Opened in 1986, with temporary exhibitions only, it hosts today a permanent one too, with works by Dali, Miro, Solana and Picasso. Inside, the Guernica by Picasso (painting that was to be found at the Museum of Modern Art of New York, until the government of the Caudillo held the reins of power) and several sketches made for it, along with some erotic works by the same artist. Out of the museums, in the same are a must is for sure the Parque del Buen Retiro, a wonderful place to relax in the open air. Just in front of the Colonnade dedicated to Alfonso II, you will have the chance to be portrayed by the "street artists", to be told about your future by the several tarot tellers, or to rent a boat and unwind on the lake. The Garden opened to the public only in 1869, being reserved to the aristocracy before.
Calle de Alcala starts at its Puerta, built by Charles III to embellish Madrid (on the smaller one projected by Philip III to welcome his wife to be - Margaret of Austria - to Madrid) and goes to Plaza de Cibeles, with its Fuente - a symbol of the city and one of the most beautiful squares of the city- to continue there after. The Palacio de Comunicaciones, the Palacio de Linares, the Banco de España and the building of the HQ of the Army are on the Plaza, facing Cybele.
Before leaving the city center, in the zone of the Castellana, do not miss to take a stroll in Calle de Barquillo, if you are a new-tech addicted, Calle de Serrano if you're looking for some hip boutiques, and, as soon as you have had enough of shopping, remember that in Plaza de Chueca, the bar bodega de Angel Sierra, will be happy to welcome you for a jump in the past...past century.
A number of beauties can be found in the "alrededores" of Madrid too. The neighborhood of Azca, on the Paseo de la Castellana, holds the complex of the Nuevos Ministerios and the Palacio de Congresos y Exposiciones, along with the Torre Picasso, the highest building of the city. If the Torre Picasso is the highest building in Madrid, the Twin Towers of Puerta de Europa, are among the best examples of modernism. A huge number of shops and a Corte Inglés can be found here, for a second round, as the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu , where Real Madrid plays. In Calle de Alcala, the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is among the must see of the city. Theather of the corridas (bullfighting), the Plaza hosts a Museum too, with either several portraits of the Matadores, or the heads of the killed bulls. The "toro da corrida" must at least be four years old in order to fight and, at least until that day, has a peaceful life. The Palacio de Deportes, if bullfights are not for you, will be able to offer you other kinds of matches, from basket to boxing.
Once in Madrid, a visit to the El Escorial is a must - see too. Even if it's located roughly 40 km away from the center, with its royal apartments, the church, the monastery, the pantheon and the library is enough to make you busy for a full day, learning about the life during the reign of Philip II. Finally, the Palacio Real de Aranjuez (20 km away from the city center), whose construction was decided by Carlos III, will plunge you into another era, while walking in the Gabinete de Porcelana, into the Salón de Espejos, or into the Gardens. Remember to listen to the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, in order to understand where its beauty came from. Once back to Madrid, do not forget to try the tapas. You will have hundreds to chose from, from the Jamon Serrano to the Tortilla Española, from the Baderillas to the Albondigas. And later in the evening, go for a Paella: the night has just began...
If you will have been distracted by nightly life, forgetting to buy that present for your beloved, and you haven't done all your shopping before leaving the center, do not fret: Barajas Airport has a huge range of shops, where you will find anything you're looking for...