One Day in Madrid | Exploring the City on Foot

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Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is probably one of the best known public squares in Madrid. Literally meaning “Gate of the Sun”, this public square is always filled with throngs of people at any time of the day.

Since 1962, the New Year celebrations of Madrid have been conducted here, where as per tradition, twelve grapes are eaten for each of the chimes signaling the midnight hour.

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Originally one of the gates of the city walls that guarded 15th century Madrid, Puerta del Sol today couldn’t have been more different. It is dominated by the regional government buildings of Madrid, street artists and historic monuments.

The most notable monument is of King Charles III, pictured here against the iconic sign of Tio Pepe. Tio Pepe is owned by Gonzalez Byass Sherry house, famous for its fino style of dry sherry made from palomino grapes. 

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Gran Via

Meaning “Great Way”, Gran Via is characterized by shopping centers, boutique stores, movie theatres, and one of the most active nightlife in Europe. Called the Spanish Broadway, Gran Via is Madrid’s “street that never sleeps”. 

Located in central Madrid, this upscale shopping street is dominated by 20th century architecture. Many notable buildings display a variety of architectural styles such as Vienna Secession, Art Deco, Plateresque and Neo Mudejar. 

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The Gran Via concludes at the Arco de la Victoria, a 49 meter high triumphal arch. It was constructed to mark the victory of Francoist troops in the Battle of Ciudad Universitaria during the Spanish Civil War.

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Plaza Mayor

Built during the rule of Philip III, Plaza Mayor is one of the most photographed squares in Madrid. A few blocks away from the Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor represents the heart of Madrid, and is the gateway into Old Town Madrid.

The current Neoclassical architecture of the plaza is the creative genius of Juan de Villanueva, one of Spain’s most famous architects. Plaza Mayor is surrounded by three-storey residential buildings, with a total of 237 balconies and 9 entrances. 

Plaza Mayor was once the scene of public executions, so-called heretics condemned to death during the Spanish Inquisition. Today, the square is bustling with the smell of freshly baked sweets from the Casa de la Panadería, the clinking of mugs at Sobrino de Botin (world’s oldest eatery), the December Christmas Market, and the Stamp and Coin Market every Sunday. A far cry from its bloody past. 

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Mercado San Miguel

Hungry in Madrid? Check out the Mercado de San Miguel located just a stone’s throw distance from Plaza Mayor. Established in 1916, Mercado de San Miguel is one of the oldest markets in Madrid. A fine example of iron and glass architecture, Mercado de San Miguel was declared Bien de Interés Cultural (Property of Cultural Interest) in the year 2000. 

A gastronomic heaven, Mercado de San Miguel is a neat place to grab a bite. This gourmet tapas market offers everything from baked goods, fresh produce, dry fruits, wine, champagne, ham and of course, freshly prepared tapas!

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Palacio Real de Madrid

The official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, the Royal Palace of Madrid is located on Calle de Bailén in downtown Madrid. The royals however do not actually reside in the palace, choosing instead to live in the more modest Palace of Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. The Royal Palace of Madrid serves only to host state ceremonies. 

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Built on the ruins of a 9th century Alcazar, the Royal Palace of Madrid occupies an area of 135,000 square meters. This makes it the largest royal palace in Europe by floor area.

Another feature of the Royal Palace of Madrid is the Sabatini Gardens. The stunning landscaping has a formal Neoclassical touch to it, and is defined by symmetrical patterns, hedges and trees sheared in geometric shapes, statues of Spanish kings, and fountains. 

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General admission into the Royal Palace of Madrid costs € 10.00. Free admission is always available to:

  • Children under 5 years of age
  • Persons with disability (accreditation)

The Royal Palace of Madrid has free entry on 18th May, International Museum Day. Free admission is also available Monday to Thursday at these timings:

  • October to March: 4pm – 6pm
  • April to September: 6pm – 8pm

Note: Only for citizens of the European Union, residents and holders of work permit in that territory and Latin American citizens.

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Catedral de la Almudena

The Almudena Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. It faces the Royal Palace of Madrid across the Plaza de la Armeria.

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Plans to build the Almudena Cathedral began to take shape when the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid. The cathedral was built on the ruins of a mosque that was destroyed when Alfonso VI reconquered Madrid. If you walk along the Calle Mayor, you can see the remains of Moorish and medieval city walls unearthed by church historians. 

The Almudena Cathedral was only completed in 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. It served as a venue for royal celebrations, when on May 22, 2004, crown prince King Felipe VI married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano.

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The Almudena Cathedral has a Neoclassical exterior facade, in contrast to its Neo-Gothic interior. As you walk through the main nave of the cathedral, you can observe the unique combination of styles, ranging from historical revivals to pop-art decor and mosaics. 

A striking example of the Almudena Cathedral’s artistic beauty is the square cupola. Staring up at the ceiling, one is mesmerized by the vibrant use of colors and patterns. I highly recommend visiting the Almudena Cathedral if you are in Madrid. 

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Museo Nacional del Prado

Museo Nacional del Prado, better known as El Prado, is famous for a number of reasons. Located in central Madrid, El Prado is one of the largest museums in Spain, as well as one of the most visited places in the world.  Featuring some of the finest collections of European art including the works of Francisco Goya and the Spanish Royal Collection, El Prado is one of the greatest art museums in the world.

While El Prado charges a fee for admission, there is free entry at certain times. 

  • Monday to Saturday: 6pm – 8pm
  • Sundays and Holidays: 5pm – 7pm

Start lining up at least half hour before free entry begins. Being the number 1 attraction in Madrid, the lines are super long. You have to also set aside time to go through security and bag check. As a rule of thumb when visiting famous museums, buildings and historic sites, don’t carry huge and bulky bags. They require extra screening and take up a lot of time.

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San Jeronimo el Real

The San Jeronimo el Real of Madrid is the last structure of the Hieronymite monastery. It once stood alongside the Royal Palace of Buen Retiro (a portion of which now comprises El Prado).

This Roman Catholic church has undergone many renovations since the early 16th century and has always maintained a close relationship with the Spanish royalty. For example, King Juan Carlos I was crowned here in 1975 upon the death of Franco.

In 1808, the people of Madrid rebelled against the occupied French troops. Known as the Dos de Mayo, this rebellion triggered the Peninsular War. During the war, most of the original cloisters of San Jeronimo el Real were destroyed. What you see of the church’s interior today is largely a reconstruction. All remains of the former cloisters is now housed in El Prado. 

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Buen Retiro Park

The Buen Retiro Park or “Park of the Pleasant Retreat” belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century. Today, it is one of the largest urban parks in Madrid.

Buen Retiro Park is located walking distance from El Prado. Some of the park’s prominent features include:

  • Estanque del Retiro: A large artificial pond next to the monument of King Alfonso XII.
  • Paseo de la Argentina: Known as the “Statue Walk”, the path is lined with the statues of kings.
  • Forest of Remembrance: A memorial for the 191 victims of the 2004 Madrid attacks. 

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The Fountain of the Fallen Angel in the Rosaleda rose garden is quite interesting. Its main sculpture El Angel Caído represents Lucifer falling from Heaven. That makes this statue the only known public monument of Satan. 

The beauty of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid is best summarized by these lines from Moises Camacho:

“What the park gives us is a place to relax, a place to relieve stress, and at the same time, to appreciate nature. In the urban center, all you see is concrete.” 

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Popular Day Trips from Madrid

Salamanca, Spain

• Córdoba, Spain

Toledo, Spain

El Escorial, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Avila, Spain

Aranjuez, Spain

Cuenca, Spain

Alcala de Henares, Spain

 

 

 

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