Madrid is both the physical and administrative center of Spain. It is also the center of the two Castiles, of León and of La Mancha. These two regions define the Castilian world.
Madrid began as an Iberian Arab and Berber fortress in the 9th century. They founded it to defend the southern Muslim Spain from northern Christian incursions. Madrid was one of four fortresses built at the same time. Thee other three were Elvira in Portugal, Badajoz in western Spain, and Zaragoza further north and east. Together they drew a defensive line across the Peninsula. Madrid was key, then as today, standing right in the center.
Today’s Madrid is also an important cultural capital, not only for Spain but also Europe. It is a fascinating modern city filled with endless energy. The city also never sleeps. Its inhabitants habitually eat dinner around ten in the evening, After all, this is the place whose citizens invented the verb, transnochear: ‘to go all night without sleeping’ to enjoy being out with friends.
Madrid is a also city rich in amazing artistic and creative energy. This alone makes it an exciting and dynamic place to visit.
The best way to get to know Madrid is to take it in at a relaxed pace. Look closely at the colorful details and watch the world go by. Soak up the diverse details of people, conversations, buildings, and gardens. While you’re at it, stop frequently at one of many traditional bars and cafes and join in.
Madrid is an incredibly foot-friendly city. All the historic and culinary icons are within walking distance from each other. As much as Madrid is loaded with world-class museums, allow enough unscheduled time just to be in the city, walking and exploring, to see the expanse of the city’s creative spirit first-hand as it brushes past or unfolds in an impromptu performance on the street.
If you approach Madrid in this manner, the city will spontaneously open itself up and show you her wealth, her beauty. This includes her artists and writers, leaders and laborers, delightful food and wine, and the ancient mythic undertones that weave a full tapestry using colorful threads from medieval to royal to neoclassical to more modern times.
Madrid’s origins began as a Muslim fortress town in the 8th to late 11th centuries. It remained a backwater until 1561 when Hapsburg king Phillip II moved the capital here. He wanted to escape the physical and social claustrophobia of Toledo. Anyone who wanted to be in the circles of influence and power moved with him and the city grew quickly.
Madrid has remained the nation’s capital even when dynasties changed in the early 18th century and the Bourbons took the throne.
Today you will find people from Latin America, other parts of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. All claim a history or kinship with the legacy of Spain’s many-centuries and far reach in the world. Madrid is also a welcoming and all-accepting place with a serious life-savoring orientation. This attracts creative and innovative peoples from all over the globe.
All these influences, past and present, are the glue that define and bind this dynamic Castilian city.
One of the top highlights for a great visit to Madrid is exploring the city’s medieval foundations.
All across the old center you will also enjoy the creative spirit of the elegant Belle Époque.
Here, you will also encounter intriguing unsolved mysteries that still haunt the city.
Madrid also boasts world-celebrated culinary and wine traditions. The best place to begin is on Cava Baja. You can walk from one cafe to the next on this street and widely sample great Castilian food and wine.
Check out the details linked on the yellow bar at the top of this page for When to Go, What it Costs, Transportation, and dive deeper into Madrid’s historic and cultural Background.
Exploring Belle Époque Madrid…a time of prosperity and beauty in Madrid and Spain.
Literary Madrid…walking in the Footsteps of Spain’s Famous Writers.
Medieval Madrid…step into the city’s deep past and foundations.
Art Lover’s Madrid…with of Europe’s most celebrated artists.
Madrid’s Mysteries…for the city’s real whodunits and ghost stories.
The Best of Madrid’s Food and Wine...in historic taverns and restaurants.
Walking Tour of Bourbon Madrid…in step with Enlightenment Madrid and Spain.
Walking Tour of Hapsburg Madrid…with the kings who made Madrid their capital.
Each season holds a special mood but winter can be bitterly cold and summer brutally hot, reminding you that this city was built upon the meseta, the high plateau that defines central Iberia and that helps cold winds pick up speed in winter and hot days swelter in summer. Spring and fall, then, are climatically ideal times to go. But if you like drama, consider the Christmas markets and festive cheer of winter, or summer’s nonstop outdoor party of cafes and food and wine and live music on many streets and squares. In all seasons, from an outdoor café or indoor window seat, enjoy watching the dynamic and colorful world go by.
You could spend as little as three days or as much as two weeks and find new and engaging vistas to explore each day, especially if you factor for the many exciting day-trips you can take from Madrid as your home base, such as to Toledo, Segovía, the Escorial, and Ávila. Consider also a hike in the nearby hills an hour north by bus (bus 725 from the Plaza Castilla) in Millaflores de la Sierra. High speed trains now connect Madrid to Barcelona, Valencia, Córdoba and Sevilla and have made it conceivable to do these cities as whirlwind day-trips as well.
In a city that never sleeps in a culture that has a festival almost every other day, there really is no low season.
January and February are probably the mellowest times of year, though the winter temperatures will demand good layers (and regular stops for drinks and tapas).
High season is definitely July and August, and in August you’ll find more visitors as many locals try to escape the city’s heat by heading off to their own vacations in the surrounding mountains and further afield to Spain’s ample Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts.
The prettiest times of year can be spring for the sweet air and numerous flowering public gardens. Equally beautiful is the Advent season with Christmas markets and festive preparations for the holiday season, which is more about gathering in bars and restaurants with family and friends than about shopping and gifts, though these too take on a festive flavor.
Madrid is a fascinating destination any time of year but being on the high central plateau, weather can be unpredictable and capricious with freezing winters and blisteringly hot summers. As nearly any popular destination in Europe, July and August can be packed with visitors and coupled with the heat, this may be the least ideal time to go. Any time of year, you’ll enjoy the warmth and creativity of the culture and people.
There are the usual holidays in Madrid observed elsewhere in Europe, such as the Advent season in December where numerous colorful markets and festivities appear, and culminating with the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany (January 6). But there are also holidays unique to Madrid. Among the most important and worth making are:
The feast day of San Isidro, on May 15 but really lasting nine days leading up to the day, all centered on and radiating out from the Plaza Mayor and offering concerts, food, open air performances and the citizens herself in colorful attire out for a great paseo, evening saunter, where watching people itself is a great performance.
The feast day of Our Lady of the Almudena, one of Madrid’s feminine divinities, on November 9.
If you love flamenco, Madrid holds an annual Flamenco Festival in February.
The city-wide, multi-venue, Festival of Autumn to Spring, Fiesta de Otoño a Primavera, runs mid-October to mid-June with theater, music, exhibits, and diverse activities at many places throughout the city.
Never forget the weekly Sunday flea market, El Rastro. As always and in all places, but especially here, watch your pockets and leave all valuables but the cash you plan to spend back at your lodging or in a safe deep inner pocket. Then, have a great time. Flea markets are like an unofficial historical tour of a city and its people’s colorful lives. In Madrid, you will find anything and everything, from Moroccan carpets to fashion overstock to vintage boots and bags, to brass wild boar statuary and marble classical Greek remakes to every imaginable kitchen accessory and gadget, and far far more.
Major holidays to consider in your planning include:
January 1st New Year’s Day
Good Friday and Easter Monday
May 1st or the first Monday in May
August 15th Assumption Day
December 25th: Christmas Day
December 31: New Year’s Eve. Celebrated with very festive and extravagant dinners and eating 12 grapes at midnight, a tradition you see most prominently at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. If you are with friends or in a restaurant on this night and at midnight, don’t be surprised when your host hands you a cup filled with twelve grapes. You are to eat one for every strike of the clock at midnight.
January 1: New Year’s Day
January 6: Epiphany (the day gifts are traditionally exchanged)
For more information on European holidays and events, consult: http://www.feiertagskalender.ch/
All of Spain (and Portugal) is an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (London) and in the same time zone as France, Belgium, and Holland.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday inOctober at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
Pack and wear what makes you feel your best and most comfortable at once. Madrileños, people living in Madrid, can dress quite dapper but dressing for one-individual character and personality also go over well. Be sure to pack a nice looking pair of very comfortable walking shoes, for Madrid is a city easy for walking and most of your site-seeing and exploring can be best done on foot with rare reliance on the metro or taxis.
Madrid is a wonderful urban European destination for any budget. You can eat, drink, and sleep here for very little, and at the other extreme, the sky is the limit for real value for real luxury.
The Spanish, as a rule, believe everyone should be able to afford to eat and drink well. You will see this reflected in most cafes and restaurants except the ones reputed for being more exclusive destinations of the rich and famous (not too many of these, which is a indicative of the democratic foodie culture).
This was most dramatically witnessed during the onset of the recent economic downturn, known as La Crisis, where several bars and cafes across town advertised 1 Euro drinks and tapas to keep people eating out and to take the pinch out of harder financial times.
Airfares to Madrid are not too different than to other European capitals and can soar in summer but become almost reasonable in fall, winter and early spring. (By “reasonable, I mean based on past prices once paid since my first visit to Madrid in 1986! While those days are gone, I think the higher prices are a good reminder of our carbon footprint and that when we travel, we should make it matter, especially now that it costs more to do so.)
Car rentals are costly, as elsewhere in Europe, but I rarely advise that people rent a car in Spain, and one is most definitely not needed in Madrid.
Spain has the best connected train and bus system in much of Europe, and very reasonably priced taxis, so getting anywhere is possible, convenient, well scheduled, and affordable. This includes day-trips from Madrid to such destinations as Ávila, Segovia, the Escorial, Toledo, and for nearby hiking in the Milaflores de la Sierra or the Escorial.
Spain operates on the Euro, which over recent years has fluctuated anywhere between $1.07 and $1.42 per US dollar.
ATM machines are numerous throughout the city. Many have windows right on the sidewalk outside the bank, but during banking hours check for ATM machines just inside, making your transaction more private and secure from unwanted observers on the street.
Some banks may charge a fee (typically 1.5 or 2% per transaction) but not always. (Often it is worth the fee for the convenience and it is still less than the commission charged to change currencies.)
If arriving by plane at Barajas airport, you can exchange some currency there if you need money to get into the city, at one of two or three bank windows that are usually open. While the commission is more than at an ATM, it is still more reasonable than in the airports in Paris and London and can be convenient if you need some cash in your pocket right away.
(Many banks in your home country also hold Euros in their vault and you can consider exchanging a small amount of your native currency to Euros before departing. After that, ATMs are the best way to go, plus credit cards for hotels, restaurants. Have a little extra cash from home tucked in a separate pocket for emergencies, which you can exchange at banks.)
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout Europe. Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card â which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access. You should also reconfirm this information when you call your company by asking, What is the number I should call from Spain in the case of loss or theft?
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Enjoy being in a culture that pays its wait staff enough money to make a real living and therefore tipping is not as much an issue as in places such as the USA. This fact also means that the person serving you is likely a professional for life as a waitperson and is very proud of it. And it shows. A great part of the pleasure of eating out in Spain in general and Madrid in particular is the utter art and skill of the professional server.
All this said, tipping is still important but not as much needs to be left. It is always good to leave a little change after a good drink with tapas. For meals, around 5% of the total bill for a good meal is what locals leave, less for a less stellar meal. The 5% rule applies also to taxis. At hotels, leave a 1 Euro/night for the cleaning staff. Likewise, bellboys or a concierge who gets you a cab will appreciate a 1 Euro coin, or more if they really went out of their way to help you with something.
Madrid is well and efficiently connected to destinations abroad or another Spanish city is by plane, train, or bus.
Once there, walking is the best way to get around Madrid as the main destinations are conveniently concentrated in the center.
To get further afield, or enjoy walking one way and riding back the other, the metro is excellent and convenient, with frequent entrances throughout Madrid.
Taxis are also reasonable and more affordable than most European cities outside of Spain.
Madrid may also be one of the best cities in Europe for fascinating day trips, nearly all accessible by train and the remaining by bus.
From abroad, flights into Barajas Airport are the best way to arrive. Recent building on the airport has expanded it into two main areas a kilometer apart, with terminals 1, 2 and 3 (T1, T2, and T3) in one area and terminal 4 (T4) in another. Be sure to check with your airline which terminal you will fly out of so that when you depart youâll not lose time rushing last minute to the right terminal. From the airport, the metro or a taxi can get you into town efficiently. There are metro entrances at T2 and T4. The airport metro is line 8 to and from Nuevos Ministerios from where you can change to other lines in the city.
Long distant trains and buses also come from other European countries and from all directions, such as from Lisbon in Portugal and from Paris and Bordeaux in France. High-speed trains connect to Madrid from Barcelona, Valencia, CÃ³rdoba and Sevilla.
Your feet are the best way to get around and take in the city as most attractions are within easy walking distance from each other. There are numerous pedestrian areas in the center of the city as well, navigable for pedestrians.
Alternatively, as in all of Spain, compared to much of the rest of Europe, taxis are quite reasonably priced.
The metro is incredibly efficient, well-networked, and has frequent entrances throughout the city.
Madrid may also be one of the best cities in Europe for fascinating day trips, nearly all accessible by train and the remaining by bus. Madrid has two train stations, Atocha and Chamartin. Most southern, eastern, and western destinations leave from Atocha and most northern and northeastern from ChamartÃn. Both stations are well connected with the metro and to each other and each have a stop next to the station. Taxis are also a convenient mode to get to and from stations.
Fui sobre agua
Mis muros de fuego son
Esta es mi insignia y
(Over water I was built
Of fire are my walls
Of this is my insignia and my shield)
This was the poem on Madrid’s coat-of-arms before 1200 AD and it refers to the origins of the city.
Madrid was built by Arab and Berber Muslims in the 9th century over a rich underwater source. They also utilized the natural wealth of the areas flint stone for much of their building and fortified walls. Many people erroneously have believed that the water referred to the nearby Manzanares River, which also had its advantages. However, the real resource that could sustain the town, was this underground water.
But lets go further back. The city’s foundations, the very earth upon which the modern city stands, was the home many thousands of years ago to prehistoric peoples whose stone tools and hunted animal bones have been found in the area. Later, some 6,000 years ago, Spain’s early farmers and Iberian natives lived here, and around 2,500 years ago Celtic-speaking tribes arrived and also lived between the Manzanares and the Jarama rivers. The area also had some quiet Roman influences, most likely impermanent shelters for itinerant merchants and administrators traveling the ancient roads across Iberia, but the first stones of the current city were laid by Arabs and Berbers from North Africa in the 9th century.
You guessed it, they selected the site for its rich underwater source, something far more valuable than gold in this arid central plateau. They brought with them extensive knowledge of irrigation and channel building and were able to adeptly construct underground channels that tapped into the water.
The Arabic word for water source, majrit, gives Madrid its name. Several of the original underground water channels still exist. As late as 1850, they continued to provide the city with water. When the water supply dried, the channels became hiding places, escape routes, and wine cellars. The Muslims also utilized the natural wealth of the areas flint stone for much of their building and fortified walls.
It wasn’t until much later, 1561, that Madrid became the nation’s capital during the rule of Hapsburg king, Felipe II (Phillip II) who also built the Escorial on the outskirts of Madrid.
With a city that has been the seat of power since the 16th century, many of Madrid’s historic sites possess Hapsburg northern European styles, Parisian, Neoclassical and Baroque styles from the Bourbon, and Romantic, Belle Époque and Art Nouveau styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As Spain’s capital, Madrid has been the heart center of the people’s creative spirit. Many famous writers and artists at one point in their lives resided here. Their opuses are still here, as are a few of their residences and work spaces.
Madrid also has some serious food and wine history as the capital of a nation of people whose fundamental lifestyle since time immemorial exemplifies the belief that everyone has the right eat and drink well. Madrid possesses the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, a claim reinforced by an official certificate from The Guinness Book of World records in Restaurante El Botín. Other taverns complement this history and tell of a city whose drinking habits were expanded, limited, and dictated by royal decrees as public wine and beer drinking became more common.
Madrid’s history can be summed up as a constant swinging of a pendulum for power. Set geographically in the center of everything, it proved hard not to be a strategic point through all its centuries since its first founding in the 9th century.
Mohammed I (852-886 AD), the fifth emir of the Cordoban Caliphate, founded Madrid, selecting the highest hill and constructing a fortress and an outlying garrison with watchtowers. This was enclosed with thick stone walls and encompassed the ground of the current Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and Catedral de la Almudena (Almudena Cathedral). Just beneath, to the south and east of this enclosure, a small citadel was established and also enclosed with defensive walls.
In 1083 AD, King Alfonso VI of Castile and León succeeded in scaling the formidable walls of Muslim Madrid and took the town. The old 9th century walls were retained and expanded; what survives of them can be seen just south of the Almudena Cathedral at the Muralla Árabe.
Under Alfonso VI, Madrid became a Christian city. Muslims and Jews continued as citizens until 1492 with the arrival of Queen Isabel I of Castile and King Fernando II of Aragón—often called Los Reyes Católicos (because they used Catholicism as their main agenda for unifying Spain and expanding their empire).
In 1516, Carlos I, their grandson, took the Spanish throne. In 1519, he inherited the Hapsburg Dynasty and was named Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Much of the Hapsburg history covered a time of great power, wealth, expansion, war, bankruptcy, weak leadership, religious bigotry, and decline.
Greed at the upper levels and an unrealistic sense that resources from the New World would last forever, coupled with little wealth reaching the lower classes and tremendous poverty of the people back home, guaranteed this decline. Another major contribution to decline was the speedy manner in which Spain acquired vast lands: it is easier to conquer and plunder and far more daunting to actually govern all these places.
Curiously, this was also when Spain’s literary and visual arts flourished and so is often called Spain’s Golden Age. To list but a few luminaries, this was the period of Murillo and Velázquez’s paintings, and of the writing of Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Francisco de Quevedo, Tirso de Molina, and above all, Miguel de Cervantes.
It also marked the time when Madrid was made capital of the nation. Carlos I passed his throne to his son, Felipe II (Phillip II) in 1556. In 1561, Felipe II, tired of the physical and social confinement of Toledo, moved his capital to Madrid. He also ordered the Escorial built and spent much of his time there on the outskirts of the city.
When the final Hapsburg king, Carlos II, died in 1700 without an heir, a succession struggle ensued until Philippe d’Anjou triumphed. Known as Felipe V (1700-1746), he was a Bourbon and the second grandson of King Louis XIV of France. He and his two sons rebuilt and built up the city and did good works for the country and Madrid as a whole, including important institutions for the arts, sciences, and commerce. But it was the second son, Carlos III, who Madrileños often call ‘the best mayor’ Madrid ever had. He modernized Madrid, cleaned and developed public spaces and bettered the lives of the populace. Much of what you will encounter of Bourbon Madrid was built by him.
When Carlos III died, more incompetent rulers flowed in and much of Spain’s history, right up to 1975, reads as violent struggles for power, the worst culminating in the Civil War (1936-1939) that gutted the nation and placed Franco in power. The violence had been horrendous on both sides, the Franco-backed Nationalists and the resisting liberal Republicans, but once Franco and his Nationalists were in full power, they showed little mercy and ordered the murder of many citizens, including multitudes in Madrid.
WWII and shortly thereafter isolated Spain and were years of severe poverty for many Spaniards. Their isolation ended, first when during the Cold War the United States negotiated successfully to set up military bases in Spain, and next when the UN’s invited Spain to join in 1955.
These events helped bring an economic and industrial upturn and by 1965, tourists were flocking into Spain. In 1969, Franco appointed Juan Carlos I, a grandson of Alfonso XIII, as his successor, grooming the future king to carry on the Nationalist’s rule. But when Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos promoted democracy and two years later legalized unions, the right to strike, and political parties. He invited political exiles back and banned Franco’s Movimiento Nacionalista.
In 1977, Spain held its first elections since 1936. People voted in a new parliament to lead the transition to democracy. In 1978, Spain passed a new constitution, making Spain a parliamentary monarchy. Religious freedom was championed. The centralized government gave more power to Spain’s regions. By 1983, Spain had 17 autonomous regional governments in place.
Spain, and Madrid as the capital, has swiftly embraced liberty and the responsibility that comes with it. The Spanish are an influential and creative participant in Europe and the world. Economic, social, and political developments have occurred at lightening speed and still are going strong. There is a remarkable and solid democracy in place. The Spanish have also learned a lot from their history and are very sober about the past. Recently, more reflective and introspective trends are emerging and Spaniards are reviewing their difficult past; people want to free their ghosts.
Castilian to its core, Madrid is also wildly diverse and the home to the far flung peoples who came into the Spanish sphere after the voyages of expansion in South and Central America to the Philippines, to much more recent influences from China, North and West Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The Spanish are by and large a welcoming and open-minded people and see the vast diversity of the immigrants in Spain as enriching and invigorating. In fact, Spain leads Europe in declining birth rates inspiring officials to encourage immigration so as to assure the future of the social security system.
The Spanish and Madrileños (people of Madrid) in general are a wonderful mix of utterly formal politeness with riotous informal public warmth and welcome. What this means is that consideration and respect combined with an openness for fun and being with people will pull you immediately into the good cheer all around you.
When you walk into a place people will welcome you, make room for you, and also expect you to do as they do, being polite while also being warm and engaging. When you enter a place, say hello. It’s simple but wonderfully polite and changes how locals look at you as a visitor. It may also initiate a conversation and a shared glass and snack (tapa).
This points to another important aspect of Spanish culture: It is a very public culture. Friends and family daily and often meet in cafes, bars, and restaurants, much more than at home. Consider the cafe or bar as the Spaniards’ extended living room and enjoy the experience of this being where the social life happens for everyone, every day.
Given the diversity of Madrid’s native and foreign population, all manner of cuisines are found here but still the classic Spanish influences, from Andalucian gazpachos to Catalan and Valencian paellas, but in all this, it is first and foremost the hearty Castilian cuisine of shepherds and farmers that leads the way. You are in the land of open fire roasts and hearty stews (cocidos) and Madrid offers the finest sampling of the meseta‘s traditional high-plateau cuisine.
Take note that lunch is often the biggest meal of the day and takes place around 2pm.
Dinner, smaller and more haphazard, happens anywhere between 9 and 11pm.
I have found that the best tactic to eating well in Spain in general is to eat my large meal at lunch and then enjoy tapas for dinner. An added bonus to this method is that if you are hungry earlier than the Spanish dinner hour, tapas are available at any time of the day. Moreover, lunch fixed-price menus tend to be the most interesting offering of the day and also better priced than dinner even though you will be enjoying a larger meal. (It’s driven by that wonderful idea Spanish culture that everyone has the right to eat and drink well, no matter their economic standing.)
You can quite easily eat anything, anytime of day, for nearly 24 hours in Spain and no one will lift an eyebrow.
If food and drink are among your top aspirations for Madrid, here are the top legendary and historic bars and restaurants, many specializing in their own tapas and dishes, in the city. All are accessible from the old historic center near the Plaza Mayor.
Religious openness and freedom rule. Moreover, while most
Spaniards are traditionally Catholic, most also claim to be secular.
Madrid has the broadest cross-section of all spiritualities and religions that exist in Spain and is very religiously diverse and accepting of its diversity. You can find anything from Santería to Mormonism to mosques, synagogues, temples, and shrines, not to mention shamanic practitioners, and best of all, Spain’s own indigenous traditional of sacred healers, curanderas/os.
In this modern mix, the city has a rich historic offering of beautiful churches and sacred sites worth visiting, especially springing from the medieval, Hapsburg, and Bourbon eras, some that were central to Madrid’s artists and writers, and some that are embedded in old unsolved mysteries that Madrileños still like to talk about with a glass in hand at cafe gatherings around town.
Madrid also has more than one patron saint. While one may be
loved more by one person over another, all are held dear and have feast days at different times, spreading the cheer. There are especially five to watch for: San Isidro (May 15), La Virgen de la Almudena (November 9), and La Virgen de la Paloma, La Virgen de Atocha, and La Virgen de las Maravillas.
Castilian/Iberian Spanish is the language of Madrid through and through. At the same time, you will probably find nearly every language spoken on the planet here in Madrid. English is becoming more common but still the Spanish are shy to speak it even though it is taught in school.
If you make even the smallest effort to learn some rudiments of Spanish you can open doors and receive an even warmer welcome than the warm welcome locals give visitors, whether they speak the language or not. So why not give it a shot: twenty polite phrases can open doors and facilitate deeper experience in the city.
Historic Walking Guides: Madrid (DestinWorld) by Beebe Bahrami
A great and light guide with eight walking intineraries through Madrid’s different historic periods (medieval to modern) and expressions (arts, literary, food and wine, even mysteries) with all the information found here and more.
The Spiritual Traveler Spain, (Paulist Press) by Beebe Bahrami
Especially Chapter 1, which covers Madrid and Castile.
Skip forward also to Literary Madrid to read all teh writers who influenced the city and many who lived and died there. Similarly, if art history is your passion, head to the Madrid for Art Lovers itinerary.
Madrid is one of Europe’s great art capitals where amazing art in many venues can be seen, from the deep past to the edgy present, from a remake of Altamira at the National Archaeology Museum to the medieval and Renaissance and modern worlds in the Prado, Reina Sophia and many, many more venues, including numerous churches. See Artistâs Madrid here for a full exploration.
Anything by Almodovar. He uses the city so beautifully in so many of his films that it is one of the main characters.
If you wish to see a movie that beautifully recreates the world of Hapsburg Madrid during the era of Felipe IV (17th century Madrid) and that also gives you a taste for one of Spain’s most famous historical novelists who happens to be a Madrileño, Arturo Peréz-Reverte, then view Alatriste. It will help you fully see the historic center as it once may have been, identifying key buildings and personalities of the time. That Vigo Mortenssen plays the hired sword Alatriste, and does it beautifully in his impeccable Spanish, adds to the visual feast.
To fully immerse yourself in the mood of the Spanish Belle Époque, view the film, Belle Époque, which beautifully recreates the period in the rural outskirts of Madrid, including the paradox of Spainâs monarchal struggles (Carlist Wars) with the average person’s optimism of the times. This film is set right before the mood completely shifted, bringing on the Civil War. It includes a good dose of zarzuela as well, a delightful Spanish form of operetta, musical, and acrobatic dance all in one.
Yes, flamenco defines Spain even if it is really a southern art identified especially with AndalucÃa, but in Madrid, do not miss the zarzuela, especially if you are a fan of opera, operettas and even Broadway musicals, not to mention the Cirque du Soleil. And if flamenco is your passion, plan to visit Madrid in February for its annual flamenco festival.