Madrid Travel Guide


Moorish quarter
Just to the south of Palacio Real is the Moorish quarter, one of Madrid's oldest districts. There's a short stretch of city wall here, built by the early-medieval Muslim rulers in the 9th century. In summer the area is a venue for open-air theatre and music performances.

Museo del Prado
Converted in 1819 from a natural history museum to a repository of Spanish art held in royal collections, the Museo del Prado hosts over 7000 works. The strongest collections are the 17th- and 18th-century Spanish paintings on the first floor, featuring the likes of Velázquez, Goya and da Ribera.

There's also a fair sprinkling of Flemish and Italian masters. Of course, with a museum this size you really should visit more than once, particularly as fewer than half of the collection are ever on view at any given time.

Museo Municipal
If you can't tell your Felipe II from your Alfonso XIII, head to this interesting (but hardly masterful) museum. Pedro de Ribera's Baroque entrance to the former hospice building is a highlight, as is the huge model of the city dating from 1830.

The collection begins with Iron and Bronze Age artefacts, with odds and ends from the Visigoths and Muslims thrown in for good measure. The Habsburg and Bourbon periods are brought to life with paintings, models and period furniture, and there are a couple of Goyas on display.

Parque del Buen Retiro
After a heavy round of the art galleries and city sights, a stroll in Madrid's loveliest public gardens is one of the best ways to end the day. There are boats for hire on the lake, summertime puppet shows for kids, and a plethora of buskers and tarot readers at weekends.

The artificial lake at the park's centre is watched over by Alfonso XII's massive mausoleum and the sphinx-laden Egyptian Fountain. The park has a particularly beautiful rose garden, La Rosaleda, and a somewhat sinister statue of El Ángel Caído, said to be the first statue ever dedicated to the dark lord.

Off the Beaten Track

Palacio Real de El Pardo
Just 15km (9mi) north of Madrid is the nearest of several regal escape hatches. This particular palace ended up as Franco's favoured residence, and was also enjoyed by Felipe II in the 1550s. Several hundred tapestries are displayed, some based on cartoons by Goya. In the grounds is an elaborate 'cottage', built for Carlos IV in 1786.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial
This majestic palace/monastery complex was designed between 1562 and 1584 by Renaissance master-architect Juan de Herrera, on the orders of Felipe II, who died there in 1598. It includes a basilica, Felipe II's palace, the royal mausoleum, several art collections, a library and a museum.

The complex nestles against the protective wall of the Sierra de Guadarrama, one hour northwest of Madrid by bus or train. The site's mild and healthy climate has for centuries made it a refuge for kings and madrileños alike.

Sierra de Guadarrama
The hills of the Sierra de Guadarrama offer a welcome escape for madrileños. There are tiny pueblos (villages) to explore and plenty of walking trails for the more energetic. The village of Manzanares El Real is home to a 15th-century castle, and nearby trails lead to gorgeous freshwater pools. The area around the mountain town of Cercedilla is popular with hikers and mountain bikers, and skiing is possible on the pistes of Navacerrada and Costos.

Other Spain Attractions

Barcelona has transformed itself from smug backwater into one of the most dynamic and stylish capitals in the world. Summer is serious party time, with week-long fiesta fun. But year-round the city sizzles - it's always on the biting edge of architecture, food, fashion, style, music and good times.

The wild and whimsical architecture of Gaudí dominates the streets of Barcelona and makes for some of the finest city-walking in the world. The art will beckon you from museums and streetsides. The vibrant central drag, La Rambla, will lead you to the city's marvellous medieval quarter, Barri Gòtic.

Post-industrial Bilbao, the largest city in Basque Country (the País Vasco) is transforming itself with ambitious urban-renewal projects, most notably the marvellous Museo Guggenheim de Arte Contemporáneo. This twist-up of glass and titanium, designed by US architect Frank Gehry and inspired by the anatomy of the fish and the hull of a boat, is the city's showpiece. The contents of this sardine can are no less stunning than its exterior: works by Serra, Braque, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol and more line its walls and halls. The Museo de Bellas Artes, just 300m up the road, is also worth a look. When you tire of art riches, wander over to the restaurants and bars of the medieval casco viejo.

During the period of Muslim domination of Spain, Granada was the finest city on the peninsula. Today it is still home to the greatest Muslim legacy in Europe, and one of the most inspiring attractions on the Continent - the Alhambra.

The Alhambra palace is a must-see. Set against the stunning Sierra Nevada and surrounded by cypress and elms, it's an escape into Granada's Moorish past. There's a lot to see, including the Alcazaba, the Palacio Nazaries (Nasrid Palace) and the Generalife gardens, so allow at least an afternoon.

San Sebastián
San Sebastián is stunning. Famed as a ritzy resort for wealthy Spaniards who want to get away from the hordes in the south, it has been a stronghold of Basque nationalist feeling since well before Franco banned the use of Euskera, the Basque language, in the 1930s. Donostia, as the city is known in Euskera, is a surprisingly relaxed town with a population approaching 180,000. Those who live here consider themselves the luckiest people in Spain and will not hesitate to tell you so. After spending a few days on the beaches and a few evenings sampling the city's sumptuous tapas and nonstop nightlife, you may well begin to appreciate their immodest claim.

The Playa de la Concha and its continuation at Ondarreta is one of the most beautiful city beaches in Spain. You can swim from Ondarreta to Isla de Santa Clara, in the middle of the bay, and in summer, a number of rafts are anchored at the halfway point to serve as rest stops.

The Museo de San Telmo, in a 16th-century monastery, has a bit of everything - ancient tombstones, sculptures, agriculture and carpentry displays, a wonderful fine arts collection - and the squeakiest floors in Spain. Overlooking Bahía de la Concha is Monte Urgull, which is topped by a statue of Christ and has stunning views.

One of the first people to fall in love with Seville (or Sevilla if you prefer) was the poet-king Al-Mutamid, and the city's ability to dazzle has not abated since. It takes a stony heart not to be captivated by its exuberant atmosphere - stylish, confident, ancient, proud, yet also convivial, intimate and fun-loving.

In keeping with the slow-burn nature of the city's charms, two great monuments - the Muslim Alcázar and the Christian cathedral - reveal most of their glories only once you're inside them. These, along with many other buildings and areas around Seville, are World Heritage Sites.

Toledo is an intact medieval city of narrow winding streets perched on a small hill above the Río Tajo. The city is crammed with fascinating museums, galleries, churches and castles. The awesome cathedral harbours glorious murals, stained-glass windows and works by El Greco, Velázquez and Goya.

Unfortunately, it is also crammed with daytrippers, so travellers wanting to enjoy the city should stay overnight and explore in the evening and early morning to see it at its best. The dominant Alcázar has been the scene of military battles from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th century. Other attractions include the city's two synagogues, the Iglesia de Santo Tomé (which contains El Greco's greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) and the Museo de Santa Cruz. Archaeologists working on Toledo's Carranque recently uncovered a 4th-century Roman basilica, Spain's oldest.

Spain's third-largest city, and capital of the province of Valencia, comes as a pleasant surprise to many. Home to paella and the Holy Grail, it is also blessed with great weather and the spring festival of Las Fallas, one of the wildest parties in the country.

One of Valencia's most raved about attractions is the baroque Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas. The facade is extravagantly sculpted and the inside is just as outrageous. The Museo de Bellas Artes ranks among the best museums in the country and contains works by El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and a number of Valencian impressionists. The Instituto Valenciano Arte Moderno (Institute of Modern Art) houses an impressive collection of 20th-century Spanish art. Pulling four million visitors a year, Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias is a huge complex devoted to sciences and the arts that is easily the city's most popular attraction. Valencia's cathedral is also worth a visit. Climb to the top of its tower for a great view of the sprawling city.

Las Hurdes
Nowhere in Spain has been untouched by tourism, but beautiful Las Hurdes in mountainous northern Extremadura comes close. Time has not quite stood still, but it has certainly slowed right down, and many people still live in the traditional stone houses that are unique to this corner of Spain. It's an area of picturesque hamlets, waterfalls and fine walks, but you'll need a car to explore it properly.

Located in the deep south of Aragón, Teruel has maintained an atmosphere all of its own. It is best known for its Mudéjar architecture, overwhelming Moorish flavour, magnificent cathedrals, and medieval belfries. Its kaleidoscope of inlaid stones and colourful tiles speaks of an Islamic tradition inflected with European Gothic.

The appeal of Aragón's capital is that it has been relatively untouched by tourism - even its name has something a little Prisoner of Zenda-rish about it. Most travellers know it only as a train station between Barcelona and Madrid but it hides a wealth of authentic Spanish cuisine and Moorish history behind its coy facade.

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