Inside the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Visitors study "Garden of Earthly Delights" on display at the Prado.

Photograph by Krista Rossow

By Meg Weaver

Spain's capital city since 1561, Madrid is now its bustling heart, in the geographic center of the Iberian peninsula, and home to over three million souls. Cradle of Spain's social and cultural renaissance, the movída in the first decade of democracy after Franco's death in 1975, Madrid boasts some of the country's best museums, most beloved fútbol (soccer) clubs, vivacious nightlife, and over 40 parks and gardens. Around Plaza Mayor, a maze of streets reflects the city's 16th-century origins. Elsewhere in the city, the neoclassical merges with the modern, reflecting Madrid's youth and success as Spain's manufacturing, electronics, publishing, and financial hub. The terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004, in which 191 were killed and over 1,800 injured, have not dampened the spirit of the Madrileños. An old proverb speaks of the perpetual fondness Madrileños feel for their city: "From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven a little window from which to see it."

Jump into Madrid from Es Madrid, the city council's web portal that provides a comprehensive and hip overview of all Madrid has to offer. It's sophisticated, up-to-date, and lists tons of tourist services, must-see sights, special events, restaurant and hotel listings, and handy practical stuff like weather forecasts, maps, and metro info. Plus, it's in Spanish, English, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.

While we try to list only websites that are in English, some, unfortunately, are not. If your Spanish is a little rusty, use Google's advanced language tool that enables you to drop in a site's URL and it'll translate the entire page.

Art and Culture

Most museums in Madrid are free at least three full days each year: May 18 (aptly, International Museum Day), October 12 (Hispanidad [Hispanicity] Day), and December 6 (Constitution Day).

Spain's most popular tourist attraction and home to a collection of Spanish art that spans five centuries, the 14th to the 19th, the Museo del Prado (Prado Museum) is free in the evenings. Tuesday through Saturday, admission is waived from 6 to 8 p.m. On Sundays, the Prado is free from 5 to 8 p.m. The museum is always free for those under 18, over 65, and the unemployed. Stop by to see classics by Goya, Velásques, Rubens, El Greco, Bosch, and many more masters. As there's so much to see, follow one of the museum's three routes past the most iconic of its works.

Housed in a 16th-century hospital, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (National Museum and Art Center, Queen Sophia) is Spain's premier modern-art gallery. Trace the history of Spanish art from the 20th century forward, from representational art to the vanguard of Picasso and Gris's cubism to Dalí's surrealism and everything in between. Picasso's Guérnica is housed here, returned to Spain in 1981 as Picasso stipulated once democracy returned after Franco's death in 1975. Admission is free Saturday afternoons from 2:30 p.m and on Sunday mornings until 2:30 p.m.

Once an electric power station (1899) that now seems to levitate over its plaza, the Caixaforum Madrid, one of Madrid's newest landmarks, is a sociocultural center that hosts art exhibits, film screenings, lectures, and musical performances. It's free to go inside, check out an exhibit, and marvel at the building's cutting-edge architecture and the "living" plant wall outside. Some family and educational programs are free; some charge an admission fee of 4 euros. Schedules and event listings are available on Caixaforum's site.

Formerly the headquarters of the Royal Guard, the 215,000-square-foot municipal Centro Cultural Conde Duque is home to libraries, an artisanal press, the museum of contemporary art, and performance space. The lectures, concerts, and exhibits it hosts are free and open to the public but for a few shows.

The Museo Arqueológico Nacional (the National Archaeology Museum), affectionately known as M.A.N. is free Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. Stop by to see a replica of the stunning prehistoric Altamira cave paintings; the Lady of Elche, a bust of a 5th-century Iberian woman; an elaborate astrolabe from 11th-century Islamic Spain found in Toledo; plus Greek vases, Roman mosaics, Visigoth votive crowns, and many other fascinating items.

Madrid's Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) traces the history of the controversial sport from ancient times to the present day through gory objects (the traje de luces [literally, suit of light] Manolete was wearing when he was gored to death at age 30) and cultural artifacts including Goya's painting of a matador.

The Museo de América (the Museum of America) contains over 25,000 pre-Columbian, ethnographic, archaeological, and colonial objects, tracing the history of Spain's turbulent relationship with the American continent from its discovery to the contemporary era. Admission is free each Sunday.

Food/Drink

Tapas, Spain's signature dish, are smallish portions of food, anything from deep-fried baby squid and shrimp in a decadent garlic butter sauce to tender manchego cheese, flavorful chorizo, and aged, paper-thin jamón serrano. Though tapas aren't Madrid's typical fare (tapas actually originate in Andalusia), a wide variety awaits hungry drinkers and diners.

If you're hankering for tapas but don't want to sacrifice your beer fund on food, hop on over to El Tigre, a postage stamp-sized bar decorated with strands of red sausage dangling from the ceiling and dead animals on the walls. Don't let the décor scare you, it's quintessentially Spain, with cigarette butts and discarded napkins galore on the floor. El Tigre's saving graces, of course, are the free (yes, free!) tapas that come with each drink order and the bar's proximity to the buzz of Gran Vía and El Retiro Park. Plus, El Tigre on 30 Calle (Street) Infantas, is know for its icy, sweet cider; just the thing to wash down some albóndigas (meatballs) and olives. Best to visit Monday-Wednesday to avoid the heaping crowds.

Families

Parque Juan Carlos I (Juan Carlos I Park) is truly the stuff dreams are made of: It covers 544 acres; contains over eight miles of trails; 19 outdoor sculptures; a bunch of playgrounds, slides, swings, and springy things; and offers a slew of activities for the young in years and the young at heart. Some of our favorites are the free tourist train that departs every hour from the exit. While on board, a recording describes all you see before you. The park also provides bikes free of charge. If you'd like to borrow one for an hour, head to an info booth and exchange your ID for some wheels for a jaunt around the park. The park also hosts activities for kids on a variety of topics including art, the environment, and sports. On weekends, it puts on lively puppet shows.

Searching for a very different museum? Check out the Museo Tiflológico, Madrid's Blind Museum, devised and maintained by ONCE (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles; National Organization of the Blind, Spain). The word tiflológico, of Greek origin, references the study of cultural aspects of the blind experience from a historic perspective. The museum is for the blind, not necessarily about them, and its innovative presentation of sculpture and painting allows the blind and visually impaired to experience the artwork. For the sighted, it's a chance to better appreciate the daily struggles of the blind and visually handicapped. It's closed Sundays and Mondays but always free.

It's free to enter all but the projection hall of Madrid's Planetario (Planetarium). Kids can discover the marvels of the night sky and the instruments scientists use to explore it. There are also interactive exhibits that enable them to experience science hands-on. Exhibits change regularly; at the time of this writing, they ranged from exhibits on black holes, Mars, and Sputnik: 50 Years Later.

Each December, as the weather cools and Madrileños head indoors, the City Council puts on Juvenalia, a ten-day event packed with kid-friendly activities including performances, painting, and magic.

Outdoors

Once the Royal family's playground and later campground of Napoleon's invading troops over 200 years ago, the Parque de El Retiro (El Retiro Park) is massive at 350 acres and full of whimsical buildings (a cowshed cum exhibit hall), tranquil spaces, quirky monuments (one to the devil of all things), sparkling fountains, and 400-year-old trees. Pack a lunch and picnic by the lake, take a moment to read El País on one of the park's many benches, or pass through the park on your way to the zoo or the Crystal Palace, all within its grounds. Though the park's open until midnight, staying away once night falls may be wise as some drug dealing and petty crime have been known to happen in El Retiro.

If you're in Madrid on Sunday morning, you can't miss El Rastro (literally translating as "the trail"), one of Europe's largest open-air flea markets, where you can buy anything from a parakeet to an antique armoire and all the funky clothes, accessories, books, magazines, and stamps you can imagine. For the best deals and fun haggling, arrive early. The market gets busy around 11 a.m. and empties by 3 or 4 p.m. Nearby restaurants offer specials for lunch on Sunday, too.

Music

As the weather warms, Madrid heads out to its multitude of terrazas (terraces) where you can eat, drink, laugh, chat, flirt, and even enjoy some live music in a sophisticated ambience for the cost of a drink or tapa. Es Madrid lists the city's best on its website, broken down by style ("pure glamour," artsy, New York City inspired).

Madrid claims to be the world capital of flamenco. While some in Andalusia may (pretty passionately) disagree, most flamenco musicians do indeed pass through Madrid as it's the hub of Spain's recording industry. By buying dinner or a drink, you can spend a full evening wallowing emphatically in the heart-wrenching pain of cante jondo (deep song) and get happy with giddiness of sevillanas and rumbas. Here's a handy listing of over a dozen tablaos (flamenco clubs) and salas to keep you busy enjoying flamenco—the perfect trifecta of toca (guitar), canta (song), and baila (dance)—hasta que salga el sol (until the sun comes up). Be sure to contact the establishment you're interested in before going to inquire what their price structure is; for some, just a drink is required to enjoy the show but be careful it's not a 24 euro glass of house vino tinto (red wine).

For More Information

Madrid travel guide

Madrid city guide

Madrid in Traveler's Places of a Lifetime

Maps of Madrid's neighborhoods and commuter and subway lines

Official website for tourism in Spain

Official Spain tourism site: Madrid

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