Start your walk at (1) Plaza Callao and head east along Gran Vía, buzzing with activity 24/7. Shops from high-end to gritty, hotels for all budgets, cafés, bars, and fast-food chains compete for space with the grand cinemas that host Spain’s red carpet film premieres. Look closely and you’ll notice that several of the theaters still use hand-painted movie posters.
At the corner of Calle Fuencarral stands one of Madrid’s first skyscrapers, the (2) Fundación Telefónica. The clock at the top was used by Franco’s troops during the Civil War to help guide bullets into the city. Today, it is a contemporary arts foundation with an excellent, free gallery. Continue on the north (left) side of the street to (3) Museo Chicote (Gran Vía, 12), an art deco cocktail bar that was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s.
Where Gran Vía ends at Calle Alcalá stands the 1911 (4) Metropolis Building, a Madrid landmark. The French-inspired black slate dome is trimmed in gold and topped by a winged statue of Victory. Get the best view from across the street at the (5) Círculo de Bellas Artes (www.circulobellasartes.com), a lovely multi-purpose arts center.
Continue east to (6) Plaza Cibeles, one of Madrid’s grandest circles. At its center is the 18th-century Cibeles fountain, named for the Greek god of fertility. Directly on your right is the imposing granite Banco de España, Spain’s Fort Knox. Diagonally across the plaza is Casa de América (www.casamerica.es), a Latin American arts center located in an opulent, neo-baroque 19th-century palace built by the Marqués de Linares, who is rumored to now haunt the building. Across the street stands the Palacio de Comunicaciones, a giant wedding-cake of a building dating from 1917.
Cross to the tree-lined (7) Paseo del Prado. The popular Spanish pastime of paseo (an evening walk) was popular here in the 18th century when a crush of women in bustled gowns, noblemen on Andalusian horses, courtiers, servants on their evenings off, vendors, hustlers, royalty, would-be royalty, and visitors would crowd this walkway to see and be seen.
Walk south to (8) Plaza Cánovas del Castillo, nicknamed “Neptuno” after the 18th-century fountain of Neptune at its center. On the southeast end of the plaza is the (9) Museo del Prado (www.museodelprado.es). On the northwest end stands the (10) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (www.museothyssen.org), the third point in Madrid’s “Golden Triangle” of museums (the Reina Sofía is the second). A legacy of the late Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, it is one of the world’s most important privately held collections including works spanning the 12th to the 20th centuries.
Veer right towards the (11) Palace Hotel, a bastion of early 20th-century luxury. The streets leading west from here comprise the Barrio de las Letras, the neighborhood where the great writers of Madrid’s 16th-century Golden Age of letters—Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo—once lived. Notice the golden quotes etched in the pavement. Follow Calle Medinaceli alongside the Palace to Calle Cervantes and turn right. At number 11, the (12) Casa-Museo Lope de Vega is where the prolific playwright lived (temporarily closed). Ironically, his great rival Cervantes lived on the parallel street, Lope de Vega.
Continue to Calle Leon, turn left, and take a break at (13) Casa Gonzalez, (C/Leon, 12), a delicatessen and wine bar tucked within a cheese shop. Then double back the way you came on Calle Leon to Calle Prado, turn left and straight into (14) Plaza Santa Ana, a broad, café-lined plaza that is as popular with locals as it is with the tourists who flock here. It is anchored on the east by the Teatro Español, founded in 1746. The dramatic building on the western end is the Reina Victoria hotel. A Mecca for bullfighters and their fans in the 1930s, it is now an ultra-modern luxury hotel. After nightfall, Plaza Santa Ana and environs comprise one of Madrid’s busiest nightlife zones, with hundreds of bars going strong all night long.
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