By Greg Aragon
As Spain’s largest and most populous city, Madrid might sound too big and touristy to have an authentic Spanish experience. But as I learned on a recent trip to the ancient, European capitol, if you just take your time and explore, you can encounter a great amount of the history, culture and fun.
My getaway to Madrid began a couple weeks ago when a friend unexpectedly came across an extra plane ticket and invited me on a last-minute business trip (or should I say mini-vacation). Next thing I knew I was strolling around a giant public square, eating tapas and practicing my Spanish on locals.
After landing in Madrid, our first stop was the Holiday Inn Madrid-Piramides, where we made camp for the next three nights. A modern hotel near Madrid’s La Latina quarter and the Pirámides railway and metro station, the place offers easy access to the historic city center by foot or mass transit. Like other Holiday Inn’s that I’ve stayed in, the room was clean and efficient. Ours came with two beds, free Wi-Fi, mini-bar, coffee maker, large TV, office/workstation and friendly staff.
Once settled into the hotel, my friend went to work and I went exploring. As the capital of Spain, Madrid is where the government and the Spanish monarch reside and it is seen as the economic and cultural center of the country. The city sits on the River Manzanares and is full of historic architecture, art museums, beautiful plazas, countless restaurants and shopping, and more.
A few local landmarks include the Royal Palace of Madrid; the Royal Theatre with its restored 1850 Opera House; the Buen Retiro Park, founded in 1631; and the 19th-century National Library building (founded in 1712) containing some of Spain’s historical archives.
One of the highlights of my visit was a walk to Plaza Mayor, one of the most popular public spaces in the heart of Madrid. Originally built between 1580 and 1619, during the Habsburg period of Philip III‘s reign, the rectangular-shaped plaza has hosted public executions, bullfights, and soccer games. Today it is the site of the annual Christmas market and is where locals and tourists meet to shop, walk around, eat, and enjoy being outside.
The architecture of the plaza features hundreds of balconies lining long, three-story residential buildings that are capped by towers. In the center of the square is a large statue of Philip III on horseback from 1848. Near the plaza is the Royal Palace, an imposing building dating from the 17th century and featuring a mixture of Baroque and classicist styles.
Another must-see attraction near the Plaza Mayor is the historic Sobrino de Botín, which was founded in 1725, and according to Guinness Book of Records, is the oldest restaurant continuously operating in the world. Mentioned in an Ernest Hemingway novel, the restaurant is known for its house specialty, suckling pig, cooked in the original ovens dating back to 1725.
Sobrino de Botín was too crowded when we were in town, so we found a tasty alternative called Venta El Buscon. Here we enjoyed a pitcher of sangria and split a plate of paella with shrimp. I also sampled the oxtail soup and it was awesome, with deep, rich flavors and a side of French fries. We had so much food we took some with us back to the hotel.
The next day I walked to another famous public square, the Puerta del Sol. Originally the site of one of the city’s main gates, Puerta del Sol is home to the famous New Year’s eve clock that sits atop the Casa de Correos building. Other interesting things to see at the square include the starting point for Madrid’s longest street, Calle Alcalá; the Oso y Madroño statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree; the King Charles III statue; and the legendary Tio Pepe neon sign, which has dominated the skyline of Madrid’s central square since 1936. The 50,000-pound sign, which promotes a popular sherry brand, sits on top of a building and stands about 26 feet tall and stretches nearly 80 feet wide.