”Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” – Ernest Hemingway
Madrid these days is Europe’s liveliest capital. Your first thought, and your parting one, may be that no one sleeps in this town – visit any of the neighborhood restaurants, mesones, or tapas bars around midnight for a loud and friendly confirmation.
The top ten sights:
Bullfights at La Plaza de Las Ventas – Bullfighting has become a controversial sport, but it is an inextricable part of Spanish history, culture, and national identity. Aficionados and the merely curious can experience a Sunday-afternoon corrida at La Plaza de las Ventas and understand something of the Spanish soul, old and new.
Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – Home of Picasso’s Guernica, Madrid’s contemporary arts museum occupies an 18th-century former hospital building located near the Prado. Its collection, separated into two floors – one pre-1939 and one post-, marking the end of Spain’s civil war – includes works by Spanish artists such as Miró, Dalí, Juan Gris, and Antoni Tàpies, as well as Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Jean Dubuffet, and others.
Flamenco at Corral de la Morería – Catering mostly to tourists but respected as the best flamenco nightclub north of Andalusia, Corral de la Morería is flashy, colorful, and drenched in tradition, reflecting the flamenco resurgence that’s been going on since the 1980s. Every night is an event, with first-rate performances and foot-stomping passion that never dissipates.
El Rastro flea market – Sleep late on Sunday morning and you’ll miss the bargains at the famous, sprawling, five-century-old El Rastro flea market, teeming with hawkers and gawkers selling everything imaginable. Everyone eventually winds up at the market’s most famous tapas bar, Los Caracoles – try the delicious snail specialty.
Museo Sorolla – The restored, elegant home of Valencian artist Joaquín Sorolla, Spain’s foremost Impressionist painter, maintains a lived-in feel (right down to his used paintbrushes) while displaying a collection of his works, including portraits of aristocrats and paintings of Spain’s common people.
Palacio Real – Begun in 1738 on the site of the old Moorish Alcázar fortress, the Palacio Real was the royal residence from 1764 until King Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne in 1931, and today functions as the king’s official residence, though he doesn’t actually live there. State business takes up much of the palace, but the rooms occupied by Alfonso and his family are open to the public, as are the Throne Room, the Reception Room, the Painting Gallery (with works by Caravaggio, Velázquez, Goya, and others), the Royal Armoury, and the Royal Pharmacy, all of them chock full of treasures.
The Prado – The key component of the “Golden Triangle of Museums” (with Reina Sofia and Thyssen), the refurbished Prado is a treasure house that could keep Madrid on the European cultural map all by itself. Sculptures, drawings, and works in other media are displayed, but the museum is primarily known for its collection of more than 8,600 paintings by El Greco, Goya, Murillo, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and many others. Eighty percent of Velázquez’s paintings are here, including his Las Meninas, the most visited among the 2,000 works the museum can display at any one time.
Sunday in El Retiro Park– A stroll through El Retiro Park is a Sunday morning ritual for many a Madrileña family. Laid out in the 1630s and once reserved for royals and their guests, the 350-acre park is full of fountains and statues, plus a lake, the Cáson del Buen Retiro (housing the Prado’s modern works) and the Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio Cristal exhibition halls.
The Tapas Crawl – If you want to act like a Madrileño, you must move from tasca to tasca, nibbling as you go, leading up to dinner around 11 P.M. The possibilities are endless, from albondigas (meatballs) to zamburiñas (small scallops).
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – Fills in the Prado’s gaps with more than 800 paintings from the 13th through the 20th centuries, including works by El Greco, Goya, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Picasso. The collection was amassed by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Switzerland and acquired by Spain in 1993.
The Plaza Mayor – The huge cobblestone square was completed in 1619 in the Castillian-Baroque style, and has seen its share of bullfights, hangings, riots, wild carnivals, and the nasty doings of the Inquisition. Today it remains one of the city’s great meeting places, the heartbeat of Viejo Madrid. Choose any of its nine arched exits that lead into streets filled with tabernas, tapas bars, and mesones, sometimes one on top of each other. Listen for the tunas, the wandering troupes of singing students dressed as medieval minstrels.