Madrid may be lacking in architectural beauty compared with some other major Spanish cities, but it makes up for this with its boundless energy, blue skies, art, culture, and an exhilarating and exhausting nightlife which will delight party animals. The city is compact and easy to navigate on foot; most of the touristic sights of interest are found in the downtown area between the Royal Palace and Parque del Retiro.
The capital of Spain since 1562, Madrid sits in the geographic centre of the Iberian Peninsula and has long been an important stop on any art tour through Europe. The famous Museo del Prado on the city's 'Museum Mile' houses important works by Spanish and European masters from the Renaissance onwards, while the Museo Thyssen-Bornemiza houses one of the most extensive private collections in the world. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is devoted to 20th century Spanish art, with works by Miro, Dali and Picasso, and completes the holy trinity of Madrid's art world.
Visitors wishing to take a break from all that art may want to see the Plaza de Toros, Spain's largest bullring, where regular bullfights are still held. Sports fanatics who like something a little less blood-thirsty can watch Real Madrid, or Atletico Madrid, two of Spain's most famous football teams, kick off. Madrid is also home to some gorgeous plazas and parks which are worth exploring.
One of Madrid's most famous attractions is the 19th-century Prado Museum, one of the world's greatest art galleries, with more than 7,000 paintings that include masterpieces by Fra Angelico, Botticelli, El Bosco, Titian, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. The museum began as a Royal collection, which succeeding dynasties have added to. The collection naturally focuses on the Spanish masters, particularly Goya, whose exhibited works fascinatingly follow the development of his painting from the sun-soaked early scenes of joyful festivities to the grim madness characterising his 'black period'. The Prado has few equals - and whether you are an art lover or not, you should check out this magnificent Madrid attraction. The collection is vast so cater at least a few hours to really be able to appreciate it. There is a cafe and restaurant in the museum, as well as a gift shop and bookshop. Tickets can be booked in advance online, allowing the prepared to skip entrance queues. Guided tours are available, but groups wanting a tour must make reservations at least 24 hours in advance. Audio guides are available for hire in multiple languages. No photography is permitted in the galleries.
The second gallery in Madrid's golden triangle of art museums is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Housing the former private collection of the Thyssen family, the works were bought by the city of Madrid to enrich its impressive collection of art treasures. The collection, housed in the restored 18th-century Palacio de Villahermosa near the Prado, contains more than 800 paintings, sculptures, carvings, and tapestries, ranging from primitive Flemish works to contemporary pieces. Among the highlights are works by Renoir, Durer, and Van Eyck, but many masters are represented in the Thyssen, including Claude Monet, John Sargent Singer, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Edvard Munch. The collection includes some major American works as well. Guided group tours with experts are available both during opening hours and when the museum is closed, but these must be booked in advance. The museum also hosts lectures, workshops, courses, and concerts, check the official website for details. For many people, the Thyssen is the favourite of the three famous Madrid galleries due to its compact nature, variety, attractive building, and atmosphere. It is also usually the least crowded of the three major galleries.
One of Madrid's famed art galleries, the Reina Sofia is dedicated to 20th century Spanish art, having been designed to give Spain a museum to equal France's Pompidou Centre and London's Tate Gallery. The museum was opened by Queen Sofia in 1986 and is housed in the former Hospital de San Carlos. The artworks displayed here include those of Spanish masters Juan Gris, Julio Gonzalez, Salvador Dali, Equipo Cronica, Gerardo Rueda, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso, among others, and there are also international artists on display. The star attraction of the museum is Picasso's controversial Guernica, depicting the Nazi bombing of the Basque town in 1937 in support of Franco's cause in the Spanish Civil War. Until 1980, this famous painting hung in New York's Museum of Modern Art. The top floor of the museum is a library dedicated to art, and there is a bookshop and a cafeteria. There is also outdoor sculpture garden, which is pleasant to stroll through. The museum is immensely popular, especially when there are high-profile temporary exhibits, and the queues can get very long making it well worth booking your tickets online in advance.
The massive Royal Palace on the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid dates from 1734, when the 3,000-roomed royal residence was commissioned by Philip V. The imposing palace was built on the site of a Moorish fortress which dated back to the 9th century. It was last called home by the royal family in 1931, but is still an official royal residence and is used for some royal events. Most of the rooms are now open to the public, and others are used for state business. English tours are run regularly, lasting about two hours, taking visitors to the reception room and state apartments, the impressive armoury, and the royal pharmacy. The grandiose state apartments are filled with art treasures, antiques, and opulent Rococo décor that could even rival Versailles. The palace gardens, in their current reincarnation, date from 1890 and contain a number of sculptures. The palace affords visitors great views over the city and there is plenty to explore in the vast palace complex. Apart from the guided tours, visitors can self-guide with a rented audio guide, or simply purchase a brochure in their language of choice.
Madrid's famous central arcaded square dates from 1619 and was built by Philip III, whose statue still stands in the centre of the cobbled expanse. In medieval times, the Plaza de Arrabal, as it was then known, was the venue for numerous public spectacles including knights' tournaments, festivals, and executions. The buildings surrounding the square were burnt completely to the ground three times in 1631, 1672, and 1790. The most famous building on the square is the Casa de la Panaderia, which predates the plaza, but has also been rebuilt several times. The Plaza Mayor was always intended to be a public gathering space, and has been used for bull fights, royal events, and military parades. It's still the epicentre of certain celebrations in Madrid, but the majority of people who congregate in the sidewalk cafes to sip sangria on summer nights are tourists, enjoying impromptu music performances and watching the passing parade. The Plaza Mayor is invariably a stop on sightseeing tours of Madrid and well worth a visit.
The Panteon de Goya (Goya's Tomb) is situated in the Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida, and is known as Goya's Sistine Chapel. The artist decorated the dome and cupola of the little chapel with a fresco depicting the miracles of St Anthony, with the use of sponges, a project that took six weeks to complete. Amazingly, Goya persisted with the project despite the fact that he was struggling with deafness and apparently felt dizzy most of the time he was working on the ceiling. Mirrors have been placed in strategic places to provide better glimpses of the art. The chapel also contains the artist's tomb. The art work in his final resting place is more bright and cheerful than is typical of Goya. But his inclusion of ordinary working class people, not to mention prostitutes and beggars, angered the Spanish nobility. Luckily his patron, King Carlos IV, approved of the fresco. Next door to the Ermita there is a replica of the chapel, which is used for religious services, so as to preserve the original as a museum.
Madrid's lush central park covers 350 acres (142 hectares) and was originally laid out as the private garden of Philip IV. Opened to the public in 1868, it remains a favourite spot with locals and tourists. The vast park features formal gardens, statues, fountains, lakes, exhibition halls, children's playgrounds, and outdoor cafes. Visitors can stroll among the trees, admire the rose garden, and take a boat ride on the lake. Although usually quiet during the week, at weekends the park comes alive with buskers, clowns, fortune-tellers, and sidewalk painters. Thanks to its size, even when the park is crowded it is possible to find a quiet nook. There is a lot to see and do in the park, but favourite attractions include the metal and glass Palacio de Cristal, among the trees to the south of the lake, which was once a greenhouse but is now used as a space for temporary exhibitions; and the Bosque del Recuerdo (Memorial Forest), in the southwest of the park, which is a simple memorial to the 191 victims of the 2004 train bombings. For exercise, relaxation on the lawns, and picnics, the Parque del Buen Retiro is ideal.
Listed as one of Madrid's top ten sights, the tablao flamenco (flamenco show restaurant) is renowned as the oldest and most famous flamenco show in the world. The multi-award winning establishment draws kings and queens, international presidents, film stars, and well-known artists and writers. They all come to witness the nightly performances of top flamenco stars, receiving excellent service and dining on exquisite meals prepared by some of the best chefs in Madrid. The Corral de la Moreria was opened in 1956 and is widely lauded as the best flamenco venue in the world. It has hosted some of the finest professionals of the flamenco discipline, as well as world-class singers and musicians. Shows last for about an hour and 15 minutes and feature about 10 artists. Prices vary slightly depending on the time and day. The restaurant is also superb, serving up some exciting interpretations of traditional Spanish and international fare, but visitors should note that food is not included in ticket prices. Check who is performing and buy tickets online via the official website listed below. You can find the venue right in the centre of Madrid, next to the Royal Palace.
One of the most well-known plazas in the country, Puerta del Sol is the historical and geographical heart of the city. The 15th-century entryway earned its name by being bathed in the rays of the rising sun due its eastern position. Littered with famous landmarks, Puerta del Sol is home to the famous Spanish clock tower whose bell marks the beginning of the New Year. The official symbol of Madrid (El Oso y El Madroño) is immortalised in a 20-ton statue of a bear eating fruits off a Madrono tree. There's also a large equestrian statue of King Carlos III on display. Unmistakable is the luminous Tio Pepe sign while more discreet is the kilómetro cero marker on the pavement, symbolically placing Puerta del Sol at the centre of Spain. This geographical importance is mirrored politically and socially: the plaza is a popular site for rallies and protests, and remains an important venue for social gatherings, festivals, and events. Puerta del Sol is well worth a visit and the area is popular with tourists, with many hotels nearby.
Located nearby the Prado Museum, the Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid is one of the oldest botanic gardens in Europe. With the foundation of the garden ordered by King Ferdinand VI in 1755, the Royal Botanic Garden has been cataloguing and nurturing rare species of flora for over 200 years. A welcome break after hours of art, architecture, and frenetic streets, the garden is a small haven of natural splendour. Divided into three terraces and extending only eight hectares, the garden boasts an array of 30,000 plants and flowers and 1,500 trees. Not only interested in exhibiting plants, the gardens' initial aim was to teach botany, and to promote expeditions to discover new plant species and classification. Nowadays, the Royal Botanic Garden houses a cutting edge research centre, an extensive herbarium, and a large library. Visit the Classical Romantic Garden, Villanueva Pavilion, the Graells Greenhouse, and the Exhibition Greenhouse. Guided tours can be arranged online. There's also a series of self-guided tours set out on the website, suggesting what to see on a number of trips to the garden arranged by themes like the evolution of the plant kingdom, aromatic plants, and outstanding trees.
A worthwhile visit in a country known for its rich history, the National Archaeological Museum was founded in 1867 with the purpose of being a depository for the collection of coin, archaeological, ethnographical, and decorative art collections compiled by the Spanish monarchs. Situated in a stately neoclassical mansion alongside the National Library, the museum's collection ranges from prehistoric times to the 19th century. One of the major exhibits is the famous Iberian statue, 'The Lady of Elche', a carving from the 4th century BC found on the south-eastern coast of Spain. Other intriguing exhibits are the Islamic collection, outlining the long and influential history of the Moors in Spain, and the replica of Altamira Cave, inhabited over 18,000 years ago, with rock paintings depicting bison, horses, boars, and human handprints. The replica of the cave can be found in the garden and is particularly notable because the original has been closed to the public to prevent deterioration. The museum also holds interesting collections of Visigoth, Roman, and Greek artefacts. With three floors of exhibition space, this museum is a treasure trove for those interested in the archaeological history of Spain.
A hidden gem, the Sorolla Museum was the home of renowned Spanish Impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla and his family. Donated to the government in 1929 by Sorolla's widow, the house now operates as a memorial and museum, displaying a large collection of Sorolla's glowing works and other contemporary collections including sculpture, ceramics, furniture, and jewellery. A fine example of a bourgeois Madrid home from the early 20th century, the attractive museum has an intrinsically Spanish style with brightly painted walls, dark furniture, and a pretty garden. Much of the house remains as Sorolla left it, right down to his stained paintbrushes and pipes. Although known for his portraits of aristocrats, Sorolla's passion lay in depicting the everyday lives of Spanish people, with many paintings depicting Spaniards in their native dress going to the beach and engaging in work or leisure activities. Informative audio guides are available. Afternoon visits are recommended for those wanting to avoid crowds, as school and tour groups usually come in the morning. The museum is delightful but small, and won't require much time to explore.
A great day out for the kids is a trip to the Safari Park, set in an African-style savannah landscape and home to giraffe, camels, zebras, elephants, hippos, bison, bears, baboons, monkeys, and rhino. The main wildlife attractions are the big cats, including lions, tigers, and cougars. Many of the animals are allowed to roam free, simulating an African safari experience that lets visitors view game from their vehicles. Those who have been on real safaris will find the park disappointing, however. There is a reptile collection, including a number of exotic snakes, and some interesting birds. There are daily lion-taming and bird shows shows, as well as activities like camel rides. Small kids will be delighted with the selection of meek, cuddly animals that they are allowed to interact with. There are two picnic areas in the park and a swimming pool and slide that offer a welcome respite after a day of game viewing. There is even a go-karting track and some paddle boats to play on. It is recommended that visitors bring their own food and also something to feed the animals. Animal food is on sale at the park but it is far cheaper to bring your own.
Home to nearly 3,000 animals from all over the world and an impressive aquarium, the Madrid Zoo is a great attraction for kids on holiday in the city. Highlights of the zoo include koala bears, pandas, zebras, raccoons, bears, reindeers, rhinos, otters, lions, chimpanzees, hippos, lemurs, lynx, buffalo, elephants, wolves, orangutans, baboons, gorillas, giraffes, and tigers. The zoo also boasts a good variety of reptiles and birds. Marine animals include the ever-popular dolphins, seals, penguins, and sharks. There are dolphin and sea lion shows. The queues can get long at the entrance, and there are discounts for booking online, so it is worth booking your tickets in advance via the official website. Luckily, once inside the zoo is so vast that it seldom feels too crowded. Those who have trouble walking or are in a bit of a lazy mood can rent golf carts to get them around. There are plenty of snack kiosks and eateries spread throughout the grounds, but it is also possible to bring your own picnic. It's a good idea to travel to the zoo on the metro, because parking can be a problem on a busy day. The Madrid Zoo can easily keep the family occupied and entertained for a full day.
Parque de Atracciones is a fantastic amusement park in Madrid, and a particularly good option for those travelling with kids. The park is big and modern and offers a number of rides and attractions for all ages. There is plenty for the thrill-seekers to enjoy, but also some more relaxed rides. The park is divided into five large sections: Maquinismo (machinery), where many large rides can be found; the Gran Avenida (main avenue), which boasts shops, restaurants, shows, and street performers; Naturaleza (nature); Tranquilidad (relaxation); and Infantile, an area designed for young kids. There are a number of shows, games, and spectacles to keep everybody entertained. The Virtual Cinema is a simulator with moving chairs that kids will love, and the Spectacle of Sound, Light and Water show has fireworks and lasers that are also a favourite. There are about 15 food outlets in the park, including restaurants, fast food joints, and snack kiosks. Booking tickets online (at least three days in advance) allows you to skip queues at the entrance and earns you substantial discounts. It is best to arrive early as queues can get long in the park.
Madrid has endless fun and entertainment to offer kids on holiday. While it is a bustling city, famous for its art galleries and nightlife, it is also very family-friendly. Kids will enjoy many of the main sightseeing attractions, and will revel in the many fiestas and events held in the city streets. The variety of attractions aimed specifically at children is also impressive and should keep the whole family happy.
Attractions range from palaces and markets to parks and playgrounds. One of the favourite palaces to visit is Palacio Real, with its vast treasure collection (kids always seem to love castles and treasures), and certain little boys and girls will also love seeing Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home to another of Spain's 'treasures' - the Real Madrid football team. The Teleférico, a cable car from Paseo del Pintor Rosales to the Casa de Campo, is another exciting Madrid adventure for children. The Madrid Zoo and Aquarium are perennial favourites and there is a Safari Park for additional animal viewing. One of the other highlights for children (and many adults!) is the Parque de Atracciones amusement park, which is large and modern and offers plenty of thrills as well as amusements for younger children.
Madrid has a Mediterranean climate, with dry, warm and pleasant weather most of the year; winters are cold, but not as chilly as winters in many other European cities, and summers are hot. The city's high altitude and proximity to mountains causes some steep variations in winter and summer temperatures. In summer, between June and August, average temperatures range between 65°F (18°C) and 88°F (31°C) and the heat at midday can be intense, though evenings are often pleasantly cool. Summer temperatures can rise above 95°F (35°C) during occasional heat waves. Winters, between December and February, bring temperatures dropping to just below freezing, averaging between 36°F (2°C) and 50°F (10°C). Rain in Madrid is a rarity and no season is marred by heavy rain, but what rain the city does receive falls mostly in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. The wettest months are April, May, November and December.
The most popular time to visit Madrid is in the summer months between June and August, as this is the peak tourist season in the whole country, but the best time to visit is just before or after summer, in May or October.
A melting pot of cultures and cuisines, many argue that cosmopolitan Madrid does not have its own distinct flavour of gastronomy; the Spanish capital is highly influenced by the contributions of the immigrants who once settled here and the variety of food on offer is exciting.
Madrileño fare can never be called dull or boring with such delicacies as tripe and sausage, or crispy pig's ears and sweetbread (bull's testicles), but plenty of other safer options exist for the less adventurous, such as gazpacho (chilled tomato and cucumber soup), Besugo al horno (baked bream), Cocido (beef, pork, chicken and vegetable stew) and the well-known tapas (savoury tidbits of appetisers). Those with a sweet tooth can enjoy barquillos (rolled wafers), buñuelos (fritters filled with custard and whipped cream) or bartolillos con crema (small pies with custard).
As in most Spanish cities, tapas restaurants can be found all over Madrid and some of the most popular eateries can be found in the area around Plaza Mayor and Sol. Visitors should bear in mind that lunch and dinner start much later than in many other countries. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest evenings for eating out and it is advisable to make a booking in advance to be sure of securing a table.
Madrid's traditional medieval carnival was revived in 1976 after being squashed for 40 years under Franco's regime. Revellers now exult in this plethora of partying and parades every year, with the action centred in venues like the Casino and the Circulo de Bellas Artes. Carnaval opens with a huge parade along the Paseo de la Castellana, and there are fancy dress competitions and an evening concert in the Plaza Mayor. The end of Carnaval, on Ash Wednesday, brings on the bizarre traditional 'Burial of the Sardine' parade, with the participants all dressed in black carrying a cardboard sardine in a coffin to be mournfully buried at the Fuente de los Pajaritos. This strange tradition is apparently symbolic of burying the past and starting anew. Although those is search of sin will find raucous parties aplenty, many of the events at Madrid's Carnival are family-friendly and those travelling with kids will be able to enjoy lots of innocent fun. Dressing up and donning a mask is recommended - the anonymity can be liberating, and being in costume naturally draws one into the celebrations. For more information contact the Madrid Tourist Office on 91 588 1636 or 91 366 5477.
Madrid goes wild each May in honour of the city's patron saint, San Isidro, with a traditional round of partying, feasting and dancing in the streets that goes on for about 10 days around the designated saint's day, 15 May. The city's streets are dominated by music, and each neighbourhood (barrio) chimes in with their own street party or traditional celebration. The city's squares become centres for performances of everything from flamenco to rock 'n roll, while spectators feast on traditional ice cream and doughnuts. Traditional costume is the order of the day and the emphasis in all things is on tradition, with folk dancing and music dominating. Most of the festivities and events are public and free and can be enjoyed just by roaming the right streets. The locals make pilgrimages to the Pradera of San Isidro on the saint's day, where everybody is supposed to drink at the spring. The Pradera is the entertainment hub on 15 May, with people gathering for picnics and lots of food stalls popping up. San Isidro's fiesta also signals the start of the city's bullfighting season at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas. For more information dial the Tourist Information line on 010 (Madrid) or +34 (0)91 540 40404010.
The nightlife in Madrid is varied and exciting with many pubs, tascas (cheap bars), theatres, movie houses and nightclubs to keep visitors entertained. El terraceo (terrace-hopping) is a way of life in Madrid. Most people only start partying at around 11pm and few locals enter a nightclub before 1am. Many places stay open past dawn. Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Gran Vía and Chueca are some of the trendiest nightlife areas.
Viva Madrid and Los Gabrieles are two of the most popular bars, but there are also many old tavernas around Los Austrias to explore. Plaza Santa Ana and the surrounding streets have a few good spots and the seven-floor Kapital has a great rooftop bar. For clubbing, the Room is fantastic but only open Fridays, Joy Eslava Disco comes highly recommended, and Lavapiés is popular with the bohemian crowd. There are wonderful flamenco performances at Casa Patas, and the Lope de Vega theatre has excellent shows. Tapas and coffee bars are also very popular in Madrid.
There are various Madrid nightlife coach tours offered, a good way to avoid queues and entrance fees at certain venues. Children are admitted in many bars, cafeterias and restaurants, as well as some pubs. There are flyers available from most hotels which list bar, club and concert information and discounts, as does the Guía del Ocio (available at news stands).
Madrid offers arguably some of the best shopping in not only Spain but also Europe, and with so many shopping districts all touting their own specialities, visitors can find just about anything and everything! With small, specialised stores, boutiques and antique shops as well as the slightly bigger department stores and bustling food markets, Madrid is a shopper's paradise.
The city's answer to Bond Street, dubbed 'the golden mile', Salamanca is one of Madrid's most glamorous places to indulge yourself and stretch your credit card's legs, while Chueca is filled with trendy fashion stores. El Corte Ingles at Sol is by far the most convenient place for shopaholics to get their fix, selling all kinds of goods from high fashion to regional foods like Chorizo (spicy sausage) and Turron (a kind of nougat). One of the most popular markets is Rastro, attracting Madrileños and tourists alike. It has become famous for its antique stalls, second hand goods, jewellery and unreliable electrical goods and is held every Sunday from morning until mid-afternoon.
Most shops close on Saturday afternoons and in July and August some small shops close completely. On Sunday, a handful of shops open their doors as well as some of the larger stores and small cake shops. Practically everything in Spain closes for siesta for at least two hours during the hottest part of the day and the usual reopening hours are from around 4.30pm to 8pm.
Tourists from outside the EU can apply for a tax refund on goods bought within Spain. A sales tax (VAT) of 16 percent is levied on most goods and services in the country and the specified minimum amount spent before claiming a refund is €90.16 in Spain. Shoppers can also purchase goods from shops participating in the 'Europe Tax-free Shopping' programme and they should look out for the ETS logo displayed in shops' windows.
Madrid is easy to get around and is served by an extensive network of buses, a modern and efficient metro, and trains. Taxis are plentiful and cheap although a list of surcharges will increase the fare. Visitors should check that the meter isn't already running and is in working order, as foreigners are often the victims of overcharging. The quickest way to get around is on the fast and very efficient metro that reaches most places and operates from 6am to 1.30am, although it is best to avoid rush hours. Otherwise the comprehensive bus network is there to fill in the gaps from 6am to midnight. Buses have designated lanes so they are able to avoid traffic congestion, and night buses operate after midnight. The 10-trip ticket package allows for cheaper travel and is valid on both the metro and buses. The Madrid Card also entitles the holder to free public transport. Driving in Madrid is best avoided because it is unnecessarily stressful when public transport is so cheap and convenient. The city is very compact and it is best to walk when possible; most of the touristic sights of interest are found in the downtown area between the Royal Palace and Parque del Retiro.
Steeped in history, Madrid is a sightseeing paradise with the arts taking centre stage. It will take visitors several days to explore Spain's energetic capital and see all the historical landmarks, museums, art galleries, and parks the city has to offer.
The Paseo del Arte (Art Walk) links the three art museums that make up Madrid's famous 'Golden Triangle', namely Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornomisza, where the works of Spanish masters like Picasso can be viewed.
The Times Square of Spain, Puerta del Sol is the official centre of Madrid and a must see, where visitors can take in such famous landmarks as the El Oso y El Madroño, a 20-ton statue of a bear eating fruits off a Madrono tree, and a large equestrian statue of King Carlos III. Take a stroll through Calle and Plaza Mayor (medieval Madrid), lined with beautiful old buildings and impressively ornate churches, and visit Goya's tomb at the Panteon de Goya.
The best, and most old-fashioned way to see the city is by foot as there are so many tucked away places to explore as well as many to appreciate en route to the next attraction, and with plenty of green lungs dotted throughout Madrid, exhausted sightseers can relax and rest their legs on a park bench.
Visitors to Madrid are advised to purchase the Madrid Card which offers free entry to more than 40 museums, and discounts in many shops and restaurants, as well as free public transport. It is available from tourist offices.
The magnificent hilltop city of Toledo, about 43 miles (70km) southwest of Madrid, was immortalised by Spain's renowned artistic genius El Greco in a cityscape that currently hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The city has changed little since El Greco captured it on canvas in 1597, with its golden spires and Gothic buildings spreading across the Tagus River Gorge, overlooking the plains of New Castille. Toledo was established by the Romans in about 192 BC and some Roman ruins are still visible outside the city walls. The ancient city was later the capital of Visigoth Spain in the 5th and 6th centuries and as time passed Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities all left their mark on the city's rich architectural heritage, from the Moorish Gate to the Gothic convent of San Juan de los Reyes. Toledo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of all these wonderful cultural attractions throughout the city. Pride of place is held by El Greco's 'Burial of the Count of Orgaz', painted on the wall of the Santo Tome. Be warned that the town's attractions and its main street are packed with tourists throughout the summer.
Topped by four spiral towers, the huge granite edifice of the monastery is a foreboding sight in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. About 30 miles (50km) northwest of Madrid, El Escorial was a marriage of Roman Catholic power and Spanish. Once a monastery and a royal palace, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was completed in 1584 and took almost 21 years to build. The complex was built by Philip II as a memorial to his father, Charles V, as a summer residence and as a final resting place for Spanish royalty. The complex is similar to the Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada in layout, but the architectural style and decor is far more austere. It also operates as a gallery with paintings and tapestries, containing works by El Greco, Hieronymus Bosch, Titian, and Tintoretto. Additionally, a magnificent vaulted library, covered in frescoes, contains a priceless collection of more than 60,000 ancient manuscripts. No photography is permitted in the complex. El Escorial is best explored on a guided tour or with the audio guide as the basic ticket doesn't grant access to as many areas and the majority of textual explanations are in Spanish.
Lying on a slope of the Guadarrama Mountains with the confluence of the Eresma and Clamores Rivers below, the ancient town of Segovia is a delightful taste of the glorious past of Castile in central Spain. Segovia is 54 miles (91km) northwest of Madrid and is well worth visiting for its reputation as being the most beautiful city in Spain; the journey only takes about an hour by bus (and only 30 minutes by high speed train), making it the perfect excursion. The ancient town has been awarded a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list and is a joy for photographers, with its historic pedigree proudly displayed. The ancient Romans turned the town into a military base, leaving behind Segovia's famous aqueduct, which begins nine miles from the city and until fairly recently still supplied the town with water. The other main attraction in Segovia is the Alcazar, a massive fortified citadel, built in the 11th century, perched on the edge of town. It is said to be the fortress that the Walt Disney castle is modelled on. The town overflows with Romanesque churches, 15th-century palaces, narrow streets, and small fountain-splashed plazas, and is best explored on foot.
Just two hours southeast of Madrid lies Cuenca, one of the most charming small towns on the Iberian Peninsula. Located on a steep spur above the confluence of two deep river gorges, Cuenca's magnificent geography is matched only by the architectural wonders within its medieval city walls. In fact, the entire town centre of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and visitors to Spain who are looking for a romantic town to wander around for a few days are strongly encouraged to give Cuenca a try. Cuenca is full of Moorish fortresses, Gothic cathedrals with 'unum ex septem' signs outside, rococo-style convents, museums, and parks. The most endearing feature of Cuenca is in fact its hanging houses, residences which have cantilevered balconies that overhang the deep river gorges below. The strange angularity of these buildings is said to have inspired the artistic movement known as Cubism. A wonderful place to ramble around for a couple of days, Cuenca is an ideal stop for those travelling to Barcelona from Madrid.