Madrid is one of Europe’s most historically rich cities. Its documented history traces back to the ninth century, but the area in fact has been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times.
Here are some highlights from the history of Spain’s capital city:
The area now known as Madrid was inhabited by prehistoric humans. Numerous ancient objects have been uncovered in excavations along the banks of the River Manzanares, such as axes and large mammal remains, as evidence.
Originally named Mayrit, the city of Madrid was founded by the emir Muhammad at the close of the ninth century CE.
However, Madrid as such does not achieve a mention in chronicles until the late tenth century, at which time there was already a fort or castle where the Royal Palace, Palacio Real, stands today. This fort was occupied by the Moors, who having named the River Manzanares, al-Magrit, meaning "source of water", referred to the area as Mayrit. This name later changed to the Majerit or Magerit in Spanish, and later spelled Madrid. The old arab walls (citadel) surrounding this settlement can still be seen today. The city came to prominence during the Arab occupation of the Iberian peninsula, but passed into Christian hands during the Reconquest of Spain by the Christians.
The present location of Madrid, in Spain’s center, was established in 1083 by King Alfonso I. All prevalent symbols of Muslim influence and rule were removed during this period.
In 1329, King Fernando V assembled the famed Court of Madrid for the first time ever. This preceded one of the darker periods in Spanish history, the Spanish Inquisition.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, in the wake of the Reconquista, Moors and Jews banded together and formed a concentrated population in Madrid, named Moreria to this day. In 1494 they were all denounced as “unbelievers” and expelled from Spain. Mosques and other Muslim imagery once again disappeared from the area.
On May 2nd, 1808, a revolt began in the Puerta de Sol, thus beginning the War of Independence. The large scale war, in which the Spanish fought against Napoleon and their former allies in France, has given rise to a number of patriotic memorials in the city of Madrid. The Plaza Dos de Mayo is the most famous of these.
In 1835, the world famous University of Alcala de Henares was transferred to Madrid. The Faculty of Science was added to it, and the academy became the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM).
After centuries of historical tumult, Madrid has made tremendous urban progress in recent years. It is considered one of Europe’s most progressive, modern, and beautiful cities. It has a vibrant local arts culture and boisterous nightlife, along with constant reminders of the city’s rich history. It is deservedly renowned as one of the continent’s best tourist destinations.
Full of energy and packed with cultural attractions, Madrid is a modern metropolis that offers a taste of the real Spain. Wide avenues are congested with traffic, but beautiful parks break up the urban sprawl. Madrid does not have the traditional charm of Andalusia or the beauty of Barcelona, instead, it offers exciting atmosphere. The city is constantly buzzing with activity and there are so many things to see and do that tourists will be spoiled for choice.
The world class Prado Museum displays an endless array of masterpieces created during the Golden Age of Spain, and the 18th century Royal Palace rivals the magnificent Château de Versailles. Save energy for the evening, when the city really comes to life. Madrileños love going out on the town, and the paseo por la noche (evening stroll) is a cherished ritual. If possible, avoid visiting during summer when the heat is oppressive. Spring or fall are the best times to appreciate Madrid.
Take in all the historic sights and get the background on the Spanish Empire that spanned the globe in the 16th and 17th centuries. There are also countless little things that make Madrid memorable, whether that is a café con leche in a stately square, drinks at a rooftop bar or a wander through the Retiro or Casa de Campo on a sunny day.
Fuente de Cibeles
1. Prado Museum
A truly world class museum, the Prado Museum has a collection of more than 5,000 paintings that rivals the Louvre collection in Paris. There is an overwhelming collection of masterpieces by renaissance and baroque masters. Spain is represented by Velázquez and El Greco, the low countries by Rembrandt, Brueghel, van Dyck and Rubens, while Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli and Tintoretto form the Italian contingent. Of the many must see works are Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. The artist with most works hanging at the Prado is the Spanish Romantic Goya, whose 14 Black Paintings are a Spanish cultural reference point.
2. Royal Palace and Gardens
Built in the mid 1700s for King Philip V the Royal Palace is on the site of Madrid’s Moorish Alcázar fortress palace, which burned down in 1734. It is the largest royal palace in western Europe, and has a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles. You have to go inside for the full experience because the royal collections and frescoes are sublime. There are works by Goya, Caravaggio and Velázquez, as well as stunning displays of watches, tapestries, porcelain and silverware. You can see the only string quartet of Stradivarius instruments in the world, and the Royal Armoury that includes the personal weapons used by Charles V in the 16th Century.
Behind the palace, and a good place for quiet strolls, are the Sabatini Gardens, formal beds and hedges laid out in the geometric Neoclassical style, with fountains, statues, and a pool.
Royal Palace and Gardens
3. Retiro Park
Madrid’s green heart and full of elegant gardens, the Retiro is just a few steps east from the Prado Museum and was a royal property up to the end of the 19th century when it was opened to the public. If you are visiting with little ones, paddling on the Grand Pond next to the monument of Alfonso XII is a fun option on a sunny afternoon.
This lush 120 hectare park offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Created for the Count Duke of Olivares in the 17th century, the historic park has an elegant ambience with its lovely landscaping and tree lined paths. From the main entrance at the Plaza de Independencia, visitors arrive at the pool in the center of the park. From here, paths lead to the enchanting Rosaleda (Rose Garden) and the formal French Jardín de Don Cecilio.
The Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), a splendid site with its graceful fountain and reflecting pond, often houses art exhibitions. The iron and glass pavilion built to house the Philippine Exhibition in 1887 is magnificent and growing in the pond in front of it are bald cypresses, strange swamp trees that turn a lovely golden brown in summer. The oldest tree in the city is close by: It is a Montezuma Cypress planted in 1633 and ringed by an iron fence.
Visitors will find other interesting fountains including Los Galápagos (The Turtles), El Ángel Caído (The Fallen Angel), and La Alcachofa (The Artichoke). A pleasant pastime among locals is sitting at one of the park's open air cafés, while basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade according to the season. For stargazers, the park has an observatory that was built in 1790.
Retiro Park (Crystal Palace)
4. Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
Whether you are a supporter of the club or not, the truth remains that Real Madrid are Europe’s most successful football team with a record breaking 11 European Cups to their name. So any fan of the game should consider a pilgrimage to their gargantuan 85,000 seater stadium, where history has been made many times down the seasons. A tour will grant you panoramic views of the stadium, you will step inside the dressing room, visit the dugouts and see all sorts of interesting bits including the trophy collection, press room and presidential box.
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
5. National Archaeological Museum
With invaluable pieces gathered from across Spain, this museum is a trip through Spain’s rich history. What may surprise you is the wealth of magnificent items that predate the Roman period. The best of these Iberian treasures and sculptures look almost new, despite being at least 2,500 years old. The Lady of Elche is a bust of a woman with an incredibly detailed headdress and coils over her ears. Much later but no less impressive is the Treasure of Guarrazar a Visigothic set of crosses and votive crowns dating to the 600s.
National Archaeological Museum
National Archaeological Museum
6. Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol was named after the sun emblem on the old city gate, which formerly stood here. This spacious town square aligns with the rising sun. Besides being a hub of public transportation, with several bus stops and Metro entrances, the Puerta del Sol is also the "Kilometer Zero" point from which all distances on the Spanish national road network are measured.
The Puerta del Sol has been the scene of many historic events, including the Spanish resistance to Napoleon on May 2nd 1808, and in 1931, the Second Republic was proclaimed here. Nowadays the square is a place to hang out and enjoy life. Lined with shops and cafés, the Puerta del Sol is still one of the liveliest squares in Madrid. Just off the Puerta del Sol is Madrid's largest department store, El Corte Inglés, which sells everything from clothes, shoes, and swimsuits to traditional Spanish fans. Also nearby is La Violeta, an old fashioned confection shop that offers the Madrid specialty of violet candies
Nearly every Spanish person will recognise the clock at the top of the Casa de Correos, as this marks the televised countdown on New Year’s Eve. There is a tricky ritual involved too: With every chime you are supposed to eat a grape for good luck (12 in total). Also in the square, is the El Oso y El Madroño statue, a symbol for Madrid since the Middle Ages.
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol (Clock at the top of the Casa de Correos)
7. Fuente de Cibeles and Gran Vía
If you would like to get a sense of the city, a walk along the Gran Vía is a superb place to start. It is Madrid’s entertainment, shopping and cultural nerve centre, a buzzing avenue often full of life until dawn.
The famous Cybele's fountain (Fuente de Cibeles) stands in a major traffic intersection and is one of the most emblematic monuments in Madrid. Created in 1782 by Francisco Gutiérrez and Roberto Michel, the impressive traffic stopping fountain depicts the Roman Goddess Cybele riding a lion drawn chariot. Behind the fountain is the Palacio de Cibeles cultural center, which hosts art exhibitions and workshops, conferences and concerts. The Centro Palacio de Cibeles has two restaurants: the Colección Cibeles caféteria and the Cibeles Palace restaurant.
Nearby is one of Madrid's most popular shopping streets, the Gran Vía. Tourists will find many restaurants, hotels, and theaters on this bustling street. Just off the Gran Vía on Calle de Jovellanos, the famous Teatro de la Zarzuela offers renowned performances of zarzuela, a unique type of satirical opera with songs accompanied by classical Spanish guitar music.
Sights to spot as you stroll include the vast Telefónica Building, built in 1928 and an early example of a skyscraper.
Fuente de Cibeles
8. Plaza Mayor
This elegant 17th-century plaza was built during the reign of Philip III. The Plaza Mayor was a center of commerce and municipal life, as well as the scene of ceremonial events such as the proclamation of a new king and the canonization of saints. The square also served as a venue for bullfights, dramatic performances, and knightly tournaments. The plaza took on its present appearance after a fire in 1790, when the corners were enclosed and the nine entrance arches were constructed, linking it to Calle de Toledo, Calle Mayor, Calle Postas, and others.
Today, the Plaza Mayor continues to be an important gathering place in Madrid. The expansive cobblestone square is a pedestrian area, surrounded by outdoor cafés and atmospheric restaurants shaded by its arcades. Strolling here or sitting in its cafes is one of the most popular things to do in Madrid at night, for both tourists and Madrileños. Order a coffee, a bit overpriced but necessary because of the location, at an outdoor table and watch Madrid in action for a few minutes. After that you can wander up to the 400 year old bronze statue of King Philip III, who was in power at the height of the Spanish empire.
9. Mercado San Miguel
An easy walk from Plaza Mayor is this gorgeous art nouveau marketplace that dates to 1916. It is less of a fresh produce market, although there are grocery stalls, and more of a gastronomic destination to purchase the best that Spain has to offer, like cava, pimenton (parprika) and saffron. There is a host of tapas bars here serving all the favourites like patatas bravas, gambas al ajillo and boquerones, with a glass of beer, rioja or vermouth. To do your food shopping like a real Madrileño head to the vast Mercado de Maravillas in Cuatro Caminos. It is Europe’s largest municipal market with 200 stalls.
Mercado San Miguel
10. Temple of Debod
In La Montaña Park (close to Plaza de España), visitors can see one of Madrid's most surprising monuments, an ancient Egyptian temple. A gift from Egypt, in thanks for Spain's help in saving the Abu Simbel temples during the building of the Aswan Dam. The Debod Temple was brought to Madrid in 1968. The temple was built for King Adikhalamani in the 2nd century BCE and includes several shrines, a spacious hall, and a terrace on the upper level. Well preserved original decorations are found inside, rare for an archaeological site. Peaceful gardens surrounding the monument feature reflective pools and a fountain, creating a magical effect.
Temple of Debod
11. Puerta de Alcalá
This grand Neoclassical triumphal arch was commissioned by King Carlos III to celebrate the arrival of the monarchs to Spain's capital city. The monument was designed by Francesco Sabatini and built between 1769 and 1778. Nearly 30 meters high, the elegant granite entrance gate makes a grand impression. The facade is adorned with sculptures, capitals, and decorative reliefs.
Just below the monument, at 54 Calle de Alcala, is Madrid's fanciest patisserie shop Pastelería Vait, which offers exquisite cakes, cookies, pastries, chocolate candies, and hot chocolate.
(Address: Plaza de la Independencia, Madrid)
Puerta de Alcalá
12. Churros at San Ginés
Perfect in winter, Spanish hot chocolate is one of the most luxurious things you will ever taste. It can be so rich and thick you sometimes need a spoon to drink it. And the perfect pairing is a sugary churro, which if you do not know, is piped dough, deep-fried. Just off the Puerta del Sol, visit the Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been serving churros and hot chocolate since the 19th century and does it as well as any joint in the city. If you can’t make it to San Ginés there are loads of stalls on the streets in the cooler months of the year.
Churros at San Ginés
13. Beer at a bar terrace
In the summer many of Madrid’s bars and restaurants spill out onto the city’s pavements and squares. This an essential part of going out and socialising in the city. On Plaza de la Cebada on balmy summer evenings it can even be difficult to work your way through the throng. On the rooftops are terraces of a different kind. These bars enjoy jawm dropping views of the city and are a fine way to usher in the sunset. Close to Plaza Mayor is The Hat, which like many of these bars does not give you much of an indication of what you will find on the rooftop, where tables sit beneath a glass canopy and you can feast your eyes on Madrid’s cityscape.
The Hat rooftop Bar
14. Flamenco tablaos
Flamenco is a dance that originated in Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura, and even if it is not strictly native to Madrid the city has some of the most famous tablaos in the country. These are special halls that cropped up in the 1960s, and here you see a show over a candlelit meal with sangria. It is a fine way of killing two birds with one stone: Tucking into Spanish specialities like jamón ibérico, migas (fried bread seasoned with paprika) or roast suckling pig, while seeing one of the country’s most famous art forms expressed by some of the best dancers in the flamenco world.