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Madrid sightseeing guide
palaces, places, museums, history, tourist information

Article added on August 1, 2003
Spain's capital Madrid offers many sights to visit. This is a short presentation of a few of them, in their historical and artistic context.

At the place of today's Palacio Real (Royal Palace) was originally an Arab castle, which was temporarily inhabited by the Spanish kings since the 11th century. When the Habsburg monarch Philip II declared Madrid the new Spanish capital in 1561, the Alcázar became the seat of the government and was therefore substantially enlarged by Juan Bautista de Toledo and later by Juan de Herrera and Francisco de Mora. Soon after coming to power, the Bourbons began to build the Royal Palace on the ruins of the Alcázar-Palacio, which was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Day, 1734. It took the new kings some seventeen years, from 1738 to 1755, to complete the palace in the late Baroque style with façades of granite and limestone. Initially, the Italian architect Filippo Juvara (1678-1736) was charged with the mission to plan the new palace. After his sudden death, his collaborator Giovanni Battista Sacchetti (1700-1764) took over and carried it out, under Charles III. Sacchetti simplified the palace's design to a square and executed the façades after the sketches for the Louvre in Paris by Lorenzo Bernini. Sachetti built the grand stairway in the Imperial style and added the palace wing on Calle Bailén. The Palacio Real used to be the residence of Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII, Isabel II, Alfonso XII and Alfonso XIII. Since 1950 the palace is partially open to the public because the Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, resides at La Zarzuela. The Palacio Real is used for official receptions and ceremonies today. The Royal Palace houses works by Gian Battista Tiepolo and his son Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Matías Gasparini Saleta de Gasparini, Anton Raphael Mengs, Corrado Giaquinto, Mariano Salvador Maella, etc. Since 1962, in the north-western wing of Palacio Real, in the former private rooms of Isabel de Bourbon, you can find the Nuevos Museos with works by Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch, Roger van der Weyden, Caravaggio and others. In the Museo de Tapices, in the former private rooms of Charles IV and his wife Maria Luisa in the east-wing, the royal collection of French, Flemish and Spanish gobelins awaits the visitor. The Royal library on the ground floor has a collection of some 300,000 books, 4000 manuscripts, 2000 graphics, 3500 maps, 3000 notes of sheet music as well as coins and Stradivari violins. The Real Armería with its weapons and the Real Oficina de Farmacia with its chemist tools of the 17th to the 19th centuries are some of the other attractions of the Royal Palace.
Opposite the Palacio Real alongside the Plaza de Oriente, built during the reign of Joseph Bonaparte to protect the palace from uprisings, you can find the Teatro Real, Madrid's Opera House. The initial building opened in 1708 and closed down just nine years later. In 1816 it was demolished and Antonio López Aguado, chief architect of the Municipality (Ayuntamiento), began to build a new opera house at its place. Finished by Custodio Moreno, the new Teatro Real opened in 1859 with Donizetti's La Favorita. Closed down in 1925 because of its poor condition, it was renovated in several steps and permanently reopened in 1997, the new roof being its most visible new addition.
The Plaza Mayor is Madrid's most important Renaissance monument. The marvelous square was initially built by Juan Gómez de la Mora from 1617-20 on the request of Philip II. It was inaugurated with the beatification of St Isidro, who was later declared the official Patron of Madrid, by none other than Spain's famous writer Lope de Vega. After a terrible fire, Juan de Villanueva, the architect of the Prado, totally redesigned the square in 1790. The eight streets initially ending at the Plaza Mayor were overbuilt and gave the square its compact appearance. The impressive houses surrounding the Plaza Mayor and the square itself were restored in 1992, the year Madrid became the European City of Culture. For instance, the Casa de la Panadería regained its colorful murals. Juan de Villanueva's square became again a center of festivals, theatrical performances, allegoric plays (autos sacramentales) and other popular festivities. On the last day of the academic year, students come here to celebrate the the beginning of their holidays.
The chapel (ermita) of San Antonio de la Florida was built by the Italian architect Filippo Fontana in 1791, based on drawings by the master of Spanish Neo-Classicism, Juan de Villanueva. It is famous for its cycle of frescos decorating the dome by Francisco de Goya, Miracles of Saint Anthony (El ciclo de los milagros de San Antonio), painted within five months in 1798.
The monastery La Encarnación was initially conceived as a complement to the Habsburgs' Alcazar. It was connected by a gallery to the Treasure house. Founded by Margaret of Austria, the wife of Philip III, the convent contains a notable collection of artworks. Among them are sculptures by Luis Salvador Carmona, Gregorio Fernández and Pedro de Mena as well as paintings by Lucas Jordán, Carreño Miranda, Antonio Pereda and José Ribera.
The granite Puerta de Alcalá was designed and built from 1764-78 under the direction of Francisco Sabatini with the collaboration of Roberto Michel and Francisco Gutiérrez, who carried out the arch's Baroque limestone sculptures. The columns and capitals were built after the model of the gate that Michelangelo designed for the Capitol in Rome. The symbol of the era of Charles III, the Neo-Classical Puerta de Alcalá, was the gate through which European travelers reached Spain's capital. Today, the structure is one Madrid's most emblematic monuments.
The Plaza de la Cibeles is named after the Greek goddess of fertility and love, Cybele. She is the mother of Jupiter, the king of the gods. Cybele is seated in a chariot drawn by two lions, in the middle of the monumental fountain which dominates the square. Fuente de Cibeles was built by Francisco Gutiérrez and Robert Michel in 1782 after a plan by the architect Ventura Rodríguez. Initially, the fountain situated at the beginning of Paseo de Recoletos was viewing in the direction of Paseo del Prado. In the early 20th century, it was moved by 90 degrees in the direction of Puerta de Sol. Whenever the Real Madrid soccer club wins a title, its supporters and players gather at Fuente de Cibeles to celebrate.
The Real Parque del Buen Retiro (Royal Park of Buen Retiro), Madrid's most popular park, extends over 120 hectares of land, forming one of the city's main lungs. The Count-Duke Olivares (Conde-duque de Olivares), Philip IV's favorite, handed over the estate El gallinero (The Henhouse) for its use as a place of spiritual retreat to the monastery of Hieronymites (Jerónimos). Over the centuries, the park grew in a disorderly way to become what it is today. A great pond is its center. In the reign of Charles II, an Astronomical Observatory was built. Ferdinand VII endowed it with the Montaña de los Gatos (Cat Mountain; now an exhibition hall), the Casa del Contrabandista (Smuggler's House; today a night club) and the Casa del Pescador (Fisherman's House). Isabel II built the Promenade of Sculptures, one of the park's walkways with the Fallen Angel (Monumento al Ángel Caído) as its most famous monument. At the end of the 19th century, the Palace of Velázquez, decorated with ceramics by Zuloaga, was added. The Crystal Palace, inspired by its homonym in London, is the city's most remarkable iron and glass building. Facing a small pont, it was built by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco in 1887 for the Philippine Exposition.

Madrid's most famous museum is the Prado. It opened in 1818 and contains the world's best collection of Spanish painting of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries with works by Francisco de Goya, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, José Ribera, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and others. The Prado is a museum where one can understand the influence of the painting of Spain's Siglo de Oro (Golden Age, the 17th century) on the great European artists of the times such as Pieter Paul Rubens (influenced by Velázquez). Other Flemish artists on display are Hieronymus Bosch, Van Dyck, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden. Dutch art, which strove hard to distinguish itself from the Flemish style in the 16th century, is also represented with works of art, e.g. by Rembrandt.
The Prado however lacked representative masterworks of the 19th century. This void was filled with the arrival of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in 1992. Two years later, the Spanish government bought the collection from Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, who died in 2002. Previously on display in the Baron's Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland, the collection presents over 800 paintings, sculptures and tapestries form the Middle Ages to the present. The museum is located in the Villahermosa Palace, a noble palace built in the first half of the 19th century and situated at Paseo del Prado, not far from the Prado Museum (check our articles about former exhibitions at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: American landscape painting and Canaletto).
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) also inaugurated its permanent collection in 1992. However, its activity as a center of temporary exhibitions began six years earlier. The Reina Sofía Art Centre, situated in the former Hospital General de San Carlos, is devoted to contemporary art. It holds of course an important collection of 20th century Spanish artists including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró (article in German), Juan Gris, Antoni Tàpies and others. Foreign artists are of course also represented. In the hall dedicated to Surrealism, you can find works by Dalí, Óscar Domínguez, Max Ernst (article in German), René Magritte and Man Ray. The museum's most famous exhibit is Pablo Picasso's anti-war painting Guernica, which formerly was on display at Casón del Buen Retiro.

Fuente de Cibeles. Photograph copyright: Baedecker Allianz Reiseführer Madrid.

For information in German about Madrid and its history, monuments, sights, palaces, places and more, check the Baedecker Allianz Reiseführer Madrid. Get it from
Articles about Madrid (more to come!)
Hotel Hesperia Madrid
- Hotel HUSA Princesa + history of the HUSA group
- Hotel Ritz Madrid
- Hotel Wellington Madrid
- Goya Restaurant 
- Restaurante Goizeko Wellington 
- Malvasía Restaurant

For translation problems check the Oxford Spanish Dictionary. Get it from, Amazon Canada,,,

Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Photo copyright: Spanish Tourist Office.

Calle Alcala - Granvia, Madrid. Photo copyright: Spanish Tourist Office.

Puerta del Sol, Madrid. Photo copyright: Spanish Tourist Office.

Palacio Real, Madrid. Photo copyright: Spanish Tourist Office.

Puerta de Alcala by night, Madrid. Photo copyright: Spanish Tourist Office.