This Madrid walk includes historical sites and the spot where all Spanish roads are measured. If you have a sweet tooth, order a treat from an order of cloistered nuns.
The (1) Puerta del Sol has been the bustling heart of Madrid since the 17th century. On the southern side, embedded in the ground, is Kilometer Zero, the absolute center of Spain—all major highways are measured from this point. On the western edge, gear up for your walk with a café con leche and a fresh-baked pastry at (2) Mallorquina, a Madrid institution since 1894. Continue clockwise to the Oso y Madroño (the bear and the madroño tree) [Calle Carmen at Sol], the symbol of Madrid. From here, the pedestrian shopping havens of Calle Carmen and Calle Preciados branch north.
Continue east to Calle Alcalá, on the left of the century-old Tío Pepe sherry sign. On your left, the (3) Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (http://rabasf.insde.es) was founded as a fine arts academy in 1744—Picasso and Dalí were both students in the 20th century. It houses an impressive collection of work—don’t miss Goya’s Entierro de la Sardina.
U-turn back to Sol, cross it diagonally to Calle Mayor and then into (4) Plaza Mayor. Built on the site of a ramshackle 15th-century market, through the centuries the plaza has served as a bullring, royal parade field, executioner’s stage, and central meeting place. The colorful building on the north side of the square is the 17th-century Casa de la Panadería; today it houses a tourist office. Amid the souvenir shops and tourist restaurants under the 114 stone arcades, don’t miss Torre del Oro (Plaza Mayor, 26), a tiny Andalusian tiled bar with spectacularly gory bullfighting photos.
Exit the plaza through the southwest corner, down a medieval flight of steps and through the (5) Arco de Cuchilleros (the knife-maker’s arch). If you make a right, you’ll pass several mesones, centuries-old taverns dug into caves under the plaza. Head south onto Calle Cuchilleros. At number 17 is the world’s oldest restaurant, (6) Botin (www.botin.es); it has served roasted suckling pig from its stone ovens since 1725.
Continue down Calle Cuchilleros to Plaza Puerta Cerrada, turn right and then right again onto Calle Goméz de Mora. Take the first left into the shady (7) Plaza Conde de Barajas. In Madrid tradition, the vicaria was located here so you would have to come through here first before getting married. Exit the plaza on the far right past the flamenco restaurant Las Carboneras (www.tablaolascarboneras.com) to enter Plazuela del Conde de Miranda. At number 3 stands the 17th-century (8) Convento del Corpus Christi, home to an order of cloistered nuns. On the door to the right of the main entrance is a plaque stating Venta de Dulces (Sweets for Sale). Buzz for entry and place your order at the elaborate turnstile designed to let the nuns maintain their privacy. Try yemas, candied egg yolks that were a favorite of Saint Teresa of Ávila back in the 16th century.
Turn left out of the convent and follow the narrow Calle Codo into the elegant (9) Plaza de la Villa, a comparative history lesson of Spanish architecture. To your left is the 15th-century Torre de los Lujanes, an excellent example of the mudéjar style. The elaborate palace next door is the Casa de Cisneros, built in 1537 in plateresque style. It is connected via an arch to the Casa de la Villa, a 17th-century example of classic Hapsburg architecture—baroque and imposing.
Turn left onto Calle Mayor and grab a snack at (10) Horno La Santiaguesa (Calle Mayor, 73), an oven-warmed and sweet-smelling Old World bakery. Continue walking west, past the monument to the victims of a 1906 bomb attack on the wedding procession of King Alfonso XIII.
Turn right on Calle Bailén to arrive at (11) Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid’s main cathedral. Begun in 1879, the construction of the building was halted first by the Civil War, then by lack of funding. It finally opened in 1993. Most recently it was the site of the 2004 royal wedding between Prince Felipe and Letizia Ortiz, a former journalist.
Commanding several city blocks next door is the (12) Palacio Real (www.patrimonionacional.es). Built on the site of a ninth-century Moorish fortress, the solid granite structure comprises 2,800 rooms spread out over nearly 1,500,000 square feet (139,354 square meters), making it Western Europe’s largest palace.
In front of the palace, the (13) Plaza Oriente is an oasis of elegance, lined by manicured gardens and grand statues of Spain’s early rulers. During summer, it is the site of evening picnics when the (14) Teatro Real broadcasts live operas on giant outdoor screens. End your walk with the spectacular view from the terrace of (15) La Botillería, a Belle Epoque café with savory tostas (tapas served on bread) and good wines by the glass. The terrace sits in front of the house where Velázquez painted his masterpiece “Las Meninas” in 1656.
Shop National Geographic