This tour is best done before 2 p.m., when the market and shops are at their liveliest. Begin in (1) Plaza Colón; the massive clay-colored sculptures pay homage to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Beneath the plaza is a cultural center and a city tourist office. Across from the southeast corner, the (2) Museo Arqueológico Nacional (http://man.mcu.es/) houses an impressive collection of Iberian prehistoric artifacts, including Dama de Elche, a rare stone bust of a fourth-century B.C. Iberian woman.
Turn left onto Calle Serrano, and into Barrio Salamanca, Madrid’s most upscale neighborhood. Its tidy grid of streets, populated by Madrid’s wealthiest families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are lined with graceful apartment buildings, posh shops, and sophisticated cafés. Follow Serrano two blocks to Calle Ayala and turn left to number 28 and the (3) Mercado de la Paz, a bustling market founded in 1882. Shimmering fish plucked from the Basque coast that morning, mounds of jewel-colored fruit, ropes of garlic, burlap sacks of beans, and ceramic vats of olives are kept company by several charcuterie stalls, including the gourmet vendor La Boulette. Join the locals at the always crowded Casa Dani for toast with fresh tomato, olive oil, and a slice of jamón (cured Spanish ham).
Turn right out of the market onto Calle Lagasca. Along with Calle Serrano and the parallel Claudio Coello, this is Madrid’s most exclusive shopping zone. Top Spanish designers, including Ángel Schlesser, Amaya Arzuaga, and Josep Font, have their showrooms here. Those with thinner budgets can take a left at (4) Calle Goya for mass market retailers Zara, Mango, and H&M.
After shopping, continue south on Calle Serrano to (5) Puerta de Alcalá, one of Madrid’s most emblematic monuments and one of several gateways into 18th-century Madrid.
Cross the plaza to enter the Retiro Park, a 350-acre (141.6-hectare) swath of tranquility in the center of the city. Go up the stairs, following Avenida Méjico to the (6) Estanque, a large artificial lake with canoe rentals. On weekends the boulevard fronting the lake teems with multigenerational families, musicians, mimes, and five-minute masseurs. On the far side of the lake is the 1922 Monumento de Alfonso XII, a favored spot for bohemian drum circles on weekends.
Follow the Paseo Salon del Estanque to the Plaza de Honduras, veer left, and follow the diagonal path about five minutes to the (7) Palacio de Cristal (the path is not well marked, so consult a park map). Built as a royal greenhouse in 1887, this gorgeous wrought iron and glass palace is now an extension gallery for the Reina Sofía.
On the other side of the palace, take Paseo Julio Romero de Torres to Paseo del Uruguay. Directly in front is (8) La Rosaleda, a lovely rose garden. Turn right to come to the (9) Ángel Caído, “The Fallen Angel,” reputed to be the only public statue of Lucifer in the world.
Turn right on Avenida de Cuba to Paseo del Paraguay, then left to the 18th-century manicured gardens of (10) El Parterre. The top of the steps affords a lovely view of some of Madrid’s most exclusive apartments.
Exit the park through the Calle Felipe IV gate and straight onto Calle Felipe. Follow it to Paseo del Prado and turn left. At the end of the Museo del Prado is the (11) Real Jardín Botánico, a lush botanical garden containing over 30,000 species of plants, flowers, and trees.
From the garden, cross the Paseo del Prado to (12) Faborit, a modern coffee and juice bar for a much-deserved break.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!