From the heart of the old city to the showpiece architecture, Madrid can rival Paris, Rome and Barcelona for the breadth of its monuments. Start your tour in Paseo del Prado, a beautiful boulevard lined with museums and gardens.
Parque del Buen Retiro
Laid out in the 17th Century by Felipe IV, the gardens of El Retiro were opened to the public in 1868 and are now a favourite haunt of madrileños. Just south of the lake is the Palacio de Cristal, a beautiful steel and glass pavilion, and in the northeast of the park is Ermita de San Isidro, one of the few examples of Romanesque architecture in Madrid.
This extraordinary structure near the southern end of the Paseo del Prado is one of Madrid’s most eye-catching and certainly one of its most unusual architectural innovations. The brick edifice is topped by a summit of rusted iron. On an adjacent wall is the jardín colgante (hanging garden), a lush vertical wall of greenery. Inside there are four floors of exhibition and performance space awash in stainless steel and with soaring ceilings.
Plaza de Cibeles
Of all the grand roundabouts on the Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Cibeles most evokes the splendour of imperial Madrid. The jewel in the crown of this stirring celebration of Belle Époque is the Palacio de Cibeles (1917) – built by Antonio Palacios, Madrid’s most prolific architect of the era – which serves as Madrid’s City Hall. The fountain of Cibeles, named after Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, lies at the centre of the plaza and is one of Madrid’s most beautiful statues.
The monumental heart of the city, the Plaza Mayor was completed in 1619 by Juan Gómez de la Mora. It’s built in typical Herrerian style, of which the slate spires are the most obvious expression. Ochre-hued apartments with wrought-iron balconies and 17th-century frescoes overlook the plaza, which has borne witness to bullfights and executions during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Royal Palace, finished in 1764, is an Italianate Baroque landmark. Around 50 of its 2,800 rooms are open to the public – it’s popular, so try to visit at 10am before the tour buses arrive. From the northern end of the Plaza de la Armería, the main stairway leads to the royal apartments and the Salón del Trono (throne room) – a lavish space with a ceiling painted by the Venetian Baroque master, Tiepolo (Calle Bailén; £8.50).
Plaza de la Villa
The Plaza de la Villa is enclosed on three sides by fine examples of 17th-century barroco madrileño (Madrid’s Baroque architecture: an amalgam of brick, exposed stone and wrought iron). On the western side of the square is the 17th-century former town hall, in Habsburg-style Baroque. On the opposite side is the Gothic Casa de los Lujanes, while the Baroque Casa de Cisneros, built in 1537, with later Renaissance alterations, also catches the eye.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Several villages were razed to make way for this formidable palace-monastery complex, conceived by King Felipe II in the 16th century as a royal palace and mausoleum. It’s a one-hour train trip from Madrid to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, now a prim town complete with quaint shops and restaurants (closed Mon; £8.50).
Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas
Las Ventas was opened in 1931 and is the heart and soul of Spain’s bullfighting tradition. One of the largest rings in the world, it has a neo-mudéjar (a Moorish architectural style) exterior and a huge arena able to seat 23,000 spectators. Tours take you out onto the sand and into the royal box (Calle de Alcalá, 237; £8.50).
With its signature plaza, old-style shops and unmistakeable barrio feel, Chamberí is one of Madrid’s most authentic neighbourhoods. Wander the tree-lined avenues, admire the mix of architecture – from neo-Gothic to modern – and visit the Estación de Chamberí: abandoned in 1966, this Metro station has reopened as a museum that recreates the era of the station’s inauguration in 1919 (free).