As visitors have been discovering for decades now, there's much more to Madrid than just the Prado Museum. In fact, you're spoiled for choice. Cultural amenities run the gamut from grandiose palaces and churches to information-crammed museums and art galleries.

Green belts continue to expand, with kilometers of new grassy and tree-filled areas annually added to the city's outskirts, river banks, and historic central parks and gardens. Leisure and sports facilities also abound, whether you want to participate or simply sit on the side as a spectator.

Traffic, as in all European cities whose centers were originally designed for the horse and carriage, is a problem, especially at rush-hour times. Best therefore to avoid driving downtown yourself unless you absolutely need to. But don't let the traffic stop you from getting out and exploring. It's easy to get around with the inexpensive and well-run combination of bus, metro (subway), and cercanías (suburban line train) transport. Taxis too are still a good value. So dive in and enjoy the fun.

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Tip:
A cheap way to see many of the Spanish capital's cultural attractions is the Madrid Card, which combines a transportation pass (including Madrid Vision bus tours) with free entry to various museums and art centers. The cost is 47€ for a day, 60€ for 2 days, and 74€ for 3 days. Buy it at the main Plaza Mayor tourist office, on Madrid Vision buses, at newspaper kiosks, or online at www.madridcard.com.

Arts District & Paseos

 

The Paseo del Prado between the Atocha and Banco de España Metro stops is the mother lode for art lovers, with the Museum del Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the CaixaForum just a few blocks from each other. Practically just around the corner on the Carlos V traffic circle (glorieta in Spanish) stands the Museo Nacional Centro de Art Reina Sofía.

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Puerta del Sol & Barrio de las Letras

Puerta del Sol is the hub of old Madrid and the principal crossroads of the city’s transport systems. It is also the square where madrileños have always flocked when trouble is afoot—from the uprising against Napoleon in 1808 to the economic protests of May 2011—and when there is a party to be had (on New Year’s Eve, for example).

 

Just uphill to the southeast are the old streets of the Barrio de las Letras, or literary district, which you’ll also hear referred to as Las Huertas. These narrow streets and shady alleys, now embedded with literary quotations, are the same paths walked by playwright Tirso de Molina (1579–1648), novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the greatest rascal of all, Félix Lope de Vega (1562–1635). Now as then, the neighborhood is home to many of Madrid’s liveliest bars and theaters.

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Plaza Mayor & La Latina

 

Madrid was born in La Latina. The neighborhood’s boundaries conform closely to the walled medina of the 10th-century citadel known as al-Majrīt, or “place of water” in Arabic. When Alfonso VI of Castilla y León conquered it in 1085, he turned the mosque into a church and left the walls in place. Four centuries would pass before they were fully torn down to let the village grow, and even today, its narrow streets follow the original Moorish pattern, punctuated almost randomly by little plazas. So, why is it called La Latina? It has nothing to do with the Romans but is named after a hospital founded in 1499 by Beatriz Galindo, a learned woman known as “la Latina.” Plaza Mayor was originally the market square outside the city walls, but since the 17th century it has been Madrid’s main square.

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Opera & Palacio Real

 

As you approach Madrid’s regal quarter, the narrow streets of the old city open into sun-splashed plazas and the vast formality of the Palacio Real. Comparisons to the Paris Opera and the palace of Versailles are inevitable. Everything you see here was created under Bourbon kings with French taste, or by another Frenchman. During his brief reign, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte earned the nickname “El Rey Plazuelas,” king of the squares, because of his penchant for demolishing houses to make way for open spaces. The broad expanse between the Teatro Real and palace is Plaza de Oriente, laid out at Bonaparte’s behest in the first half of the 19th century. The rearing equestrian statue of Felipe IV employs the same trick as the levitating “living statues” you might see in Plaza Mayor: The horse’s hind legs and tail are heavily weighted, while its head and front legs are hollow. It was based on drawings by Velázquez, with scientific advice from Galileo. A crescent of elegant cafés faces it, frequented by ladies who lunch.

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Gran Vía, Chueca & Malasaña

 

The slashing diagonal of Gran Vía was built to represent progress. Alfonso XIII inaugurated the work in 1910 with the announced intention of creating a boulevard to rival any in Paris. Gran Vía was Madrid’s first street built for motorcars, and for much of the 20th century, movie theaters, banks, and upscale businesses lined its broad expanse between the Cibeles fountain and Plaza de España. The street, however, began a long, slow slide in the 1970s and has never fully recaptured its former glamour, although the opening of some good hotels and a recent partial pedestrianization have been steps in the right direction. The formerly downbeat neighborhoods of Chueca and Malasaña, immediately to its north, are much further along in their regeneration and have become desirable destinations for shopping, dining, and clubbing. Madrid’s street life, rather than monuments, is the main attraction here.

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Salamanca, Retiro & Chamberí

After the bustle of Madrid’s old city, Salamanca offers a welcome change of pace. The Marqués de Salamanca began constructing this quarter in the 1870s and, by the time it was completed around 1920, it was Madrid’s most exclusive address. Situated east of Paseo de la Castellana and north of Parque del Retiro, its broad, tree-lined avenues are laid out in an orderly grid, lined with designer boutiques, high-end shopping malls, and fashionable restaurants. The area around the Retiro park is also leafy and exclusive, while trendy Chamberí to the northwest has become a magnet for Madrid’s young professionals.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.