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We rediscover Madrid with increasing pleasure each time we visit. Madrid (the highest capital in Europe) is a big, vigorous city-comparable in size to other western European capitals-but yet a comfortable one for the first-time visitor. Madrid's attractions will not overwhelm you if you have only a few days to devote to the city, but offer more than enough diversity and stimulation for a longer stay. If you are experiencing Madrid for the first time, a popular method of familiarization is to take a double-decker bus tour (ask at the front desk of your hotel). You will get an idea of the city layout, and can return at your convenience to spend more time in places that pique your interest. Or you may prefer to strike out on your own from the start, armed with a detailed sightseeing guide, a good city map (available at your hotel), and your sense of adventure.

RECOMMENDED PACING: Allow at least two nights for Madrid sightseeing, more if you are an avid art-gallery person.

A car is more trouble than it is worth in Madrid, which shares the traffic problems common to all large cities. If your visit here is at the outset of your trip, we suggest that you not pick up your rental car until you are ready to leave and, if Madrid is your last stop, that you turn your car in the day you get here. Otherwise, leave your car in a protected parking lot for the duration of your stay.

The major things to do and see are often within walking distance of downtown hotels, or readily accessible by "metro," the easily understood and extensive subway system that transports you swiftly and inexpensively to every important intersection in the city. Cabs are also reasonable for trips around town. But walk when you can, because downtown Madrid is made for wandering, with wide, bustling boulevards lined with gracious, old-world buildings, lively outdoor cafés, and narrow, old streets winding through colorful neighborhoods and picturesque plazas. Below we mention a few of our favorite sights.

Probably the greatest attraction in the city is the world-class Prado Museum, housed in a splendid 18th-century building. Its facilities are constantly being expanded and upgraded, and it boasts one of the finest permanent art collections in Europe, as well as popular and well-presented special exhibitions. Most of the private collections of the Spanish monarchs are here. As with the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi in Florence, you could spend days here and still not do justice to its treasures. Depending on your knowledge of and interest in the arts, we suggest you either take a tour of the museum's highlights (private if possible), or purchase a guidebook, study the directory, and set out in search of your particular favorites. The best of Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, and Murillo are here and should be seen, if nothing else.

Just across the street from the Prado is another rare prize, the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. Here you find a stunning collection of over 800 paintings that span the range of great masters from the 13th century to the present day. Much of this art was the collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza who sold it to the nation in 1993. It is an outstanding collection of western art from Italian and Flemish primitives to modern and pop. You'll delight in seeing masterpieces by Holbein, Rubens, Hockney, Constable, Winslow, Picasso, Hopper, Sisley, Degas, Titian, Canaletto, Degas, Van Gogh, and Constable, to name but a few.

A few minutes' walk away down Paseo del Prado is Reina Sofia, a museum of 20th-century art, housed in an 18th-century hospital. Exterior glass elevators were added in 1990 when the building was converted to the National Museum. Highlights include works by Miró, Picasso, and Dali.

For a stroll in the park, head for Parque del Buen Retiro behind the Prado, an enormous Central Park-like haven where madrileños stroll, bike, boat, and relax at all hours. The park also hosts outdoor concerts and theater.

A short distance south of the Retiro Park, near the Atocha train station on Calle Fuenterrabía, is the fascinating Royal Tapestry Factory (Real Fábrica de Tapices) where tapestries are being made as they have been since the 18th century. There are also some original tapestry drawings by Goya.

The neo-classic Royal Palace, at the west end of downtown, was conceived by Phillip V, but first occupied by Charles III. Napoleon proclaimed it the equal of Versailles, and it is definitely worth a visit. The extensive grounds and rooms, each a veritable art museum, provide a glimpse of how the Bourbons lived during their heyday in Spain. The beautiful Plaza de Oriente (so named because it lies on the east side of the palace) is downtown's largest and is adorned with over 40 statues of Spanish and Visigothic royalty, with an equestrian statue of Phillip IV at its center.

For archaeology buffs, the Museo Arqueológico emphasizes Iberian and classical material and includes the famous Dama de Elche.


If you are traveling with children, don't miss a visit to the huge Casa de Campo where there is a zoo, an amusement park, and a lake. The area used to be the royal hunting grounds.

Just southeast of the Royal Palace is the heart of the old city and one of the most monumental squares in the country, the 17th-century Plaza Mayor. An excellent place to people watch from an outdoor café, the old plaza is completely enclosed by tall historic buildings and has a statue of Phillip III in the middle. If you leave the plaza through the Arco de los Cuchilleros (on the south side), you will discover many typical bars and restaurants, tucked on streets that take you back in time.

There is a colorful Sunday flea market, called El Rastro, a few blocks south of the Plaza Mayor on Calle Ribera de Curtidores. Absolutely everything is sold here, both in permanent shops and temporary booths, and madrileños and tourists alike shop here in droves. You may even find some genuine antiques at bargain prices, but "buyer beware" is the rule here. Haggling over prices (regateando) is appropriate at El Rastro, unlike most other places in Spain.

About halfway between the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum is the huge plaza called Puerta del Sol. This is the center of activity in downtown Madrid and, in a sense, the center of Spain because all of the main highways (those designated with an "N") radiate from here. Inlaid into the sidewalk on one side of the plaza you find a plaque marking Kilometro 0. Some of the city's best shopping is to be found in the immediate vicinity, including a bustling pedestrian street lined with boutiques.

Shopping for antiques can be fun in Madrid. The largest concentration of antique shops is in the area southeast of the Puerta del Sol, especially on Calle del Prado between the Plaza de Santa Ana and the Plaza de las Cortes.

Madrid's night scene has something for everyone-from elegant dining and highbrow cultural events to colorful hole-in-the-wall tapas bars and pulsating, new-wave discotheques. Your best sources for information about what is going on in Madrid are the complimentary What's on Madrid, readily available from tourist offices and your hotel. The concierge at your hotel can make arrangements for you, too-from dinner to bullfights to flamenco shows.

SIDE TRIPS: El Escorial , Avila, Segovia, and Pedraza de la Sierra may be visited in several ways. There are organized bus tours leaving from the Plaza de Oriente early every morning that include visits to El Escorial, Ávila, and Segovia (but not Pedraza) in one day. Your hotel can make the arrangements for you: the price is reasonable and the guides speak English. This method, however, is necessarily a rather quick tour of these wonderful towns and gives you very little flexibility. But if all you want (or have time for) is a quick look, this is probably your best bet.

A better way to go, in our opinion, is to drive yourself. This allows you to allocate your time as you please. These towns are all close to Madrid and close to each other. If you leave very early in the morning and plan just a short time in each, you could see El Escorial, Ávila, and Segovia then drive on to Pedraza, where you could have dinner. But if you decide you do not want to rush, choose whichever town seems most interesting and stay overnight en route.

Head northwest on A6 from Madrid for about 30 kilometers to exit 47, where you take the M600 to reach the Monastery of Saint Lawrence the Royal of El Escorial (Monasterio de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial), better known as just El Escorial and one of Spain's most impressive edifices. Built by King Phillip II in the late 16th century, the building was designed to house a church, a monastery, a mausoleum, and the palace for the royal family. One of Phillip's main motivations was a promise he had made to dedicate a church to Saint Lawrence on the occasion of an important Spanish victory over France that occurred on the feast day of that saint. A second motive was that his father, Charles V, emperor of the largest empire the world had ever known, had expressed the wish that a proper tomb be erected for him. So when Phillip II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid in 1559 in order to put the capital in the center of the country, he began construction of El Escorial on the site of the slag heap (escorial) of some abandoned iron mines. The construction took place from 1563 to 1584 and resulted in a huge complex that measures 206 x 161 meters and has approximately 1,200 doors and 2,600 windows. Perhaps no other building more faithfully reflects the personality of its owner than this.

Phillip II was a deeply religious man, obsessively so in the opinion of many. (It is perhaps understandable, since he spent most of his life in mourning. Seventeen of his close relatives died during his lifetime, including all of his sons but one, and his four wives.) He thus lavished great sums of money on the decoration of the religious parts of the building, while the palace itself was a simple, even austere affair from which Phillip ruled half the world. Subsequent monarchs added some decorative touches to the apartments or installed additional ones, as in the case of the Bourbon apartments. The Pantheon of the Kings, directly below the high altar of the church, contains the remains of almost all the Spanish monarchs from Charles V on (with the kings on the left, queens on the right). The lavishly decorated library contains some 40,000 volumes, and there and elsewhere in the building you discover examples of the works of all the great painters of the 16th century. El Escorial elicits varied reactions from visitors, some seeing it as a morose pile of rock with 2,600 too-small windows, others as a totally unique royal monument built by a unique monarch. There is certainly no denying its interest as a symbol of some important aspects of 16th-century Spain.

Head back toward A6 via M600 and watch for a turnoff to the left leading to the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). If you are a Spanish Civil War buff, you might enjoy visiting this grandiose memorial to the country's Civil-War dead found at the end of a wooded valley and visible from far away-a 120-meter-high by 46-meter-wide cross (which has an elevator on the north side). This is the final resting place of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.

Return to the A6 freeway and continue northwest to Villacastin, leaving at exit 81 where you take the A51 for the fast drive to Avila. Approached from any direction, Ávila is a dramatic sight, but the most stunning view is when you arrive from the west. Enclosed by stone walls, it stands today as it must have appeared to potential aggressors in the Middle Ages. The 11th-century fortifications (the oldest and best preserved in Spain) are over 2 kilometers long, 3 meters thick, and average 10 meters in height. They have 9 gates and 88 towers. Circle the walls to find parking, for it's a town easily explored on foot. A stroll along the sentry path atop the walls gives you a close-up view of the many storks' nests perched in the towers and rooftops of the city.

Within the medieval city, the fortress-like Ávila cathedral is a particularly fine one: mostly early Gothic in form, it contains some beautiful stained glass and ironwork. The Convento de Santa Teresa, a few blocks southwest of the cathedral, is built on the birthplace of the famous 16th-century mystic writer, who is generally credited with defeating the Reformation in Spain by carrying out reforms of her own. Inside there are relics related to the saint and some fine altars. In the immediate vicinity are some lovely, picturesque 15th-century houses. You will enjoy strolling around this ancient town with its tiny plazas and cobbled streets.

Just outside the walls on the northeast corner is St. Vincent’s Church, founded in 1307. Noteworthy are the Tomb of the Patron Saints (12th century), a crypt with the stone where Saint Vincent and his sisters were martyred (in the 4th century), and the west entrance with its rich Romanesque sculpture.

Also outside the walls, via the Puerta del Alcázar gate and across the Plaza de Santa María, is Saint Peter’s Church, with its impressive rose window. To the left is the Calle del Duque de Alba which leads (400 meters) to the Convento de San José, the first convent founded by Santa Teresa-now home to a museum of mementos about her life.

To reach Segovia, return to the A6 freeway and cross over it to continue on the N110. Segovia was an important city even before the Romans came in 80 B.C. It was occupied by the Moors between the 8th and 11th centuries, and was reconquered by the Christians in 1085. Segovia claims one of the finest Roman aqueducts in existence today, and it still functions to bring water from the Riofrío River to the city. Thought to have been built in the 1st or 2nd century A.D., it is constructed, without mortar, of granite from the nearby mountains. It is almost a kilometer long and over 27 meters above the ground at its highest point as it crosses the Plaza de Azoguejo. Park by the aqueduct and head into the town.

In the old city are narrow, picturesque streets that deserve a half-day walking tour and intermingled with the sightseeing, you find lots of interesting shops. The Church of Saint Stephen is a lovely Romanesque building from the 13th century. Farther down is the Segovia cathedral, said to be the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. East another block is Saint Martin's (12th century), and a couple of blocks farther on is one of the most unique mansions in Segovia, the Casa de los Picos, a 15th-century home adorned with diamond-shaped stones. Northwest of there is the Plaza del Conde de Cheste with its numerous palaces. If you head south from here, you find yourself back where the aqueduct crosses the Plaza del Azoguejo.

The highlight of Segovia is the 14th-century Alcázar Castle. Dramatically situated like a ship on the high sea, it is a sight not soon forgotten. This is the castle used in the film Camelot, from whose ramparts Lancelot launches into the song C'est moi before crossing the English Channel to join King Arthur's knights of the round table. Probably the most-photographed edifice in Spain, it is surprisingly barren inside-the tour is most memorable for its views. In 1474, Castilian King Henry IV's sister, Isabella, was here proclaimed Queen of Castile (which at that time included most of the western half of Spain and Andalusia). Isabella's marriage to Ferdinand, heir of Aragón, laid the groundwork for the creation of the modern nation.

A tour around the outside of the city walls to the north affords some excellent perspectives on the setting. Bear left from the aqueduct and you pass the old Moneda (Mint) and the Monasterio del Parral, on the left bank of the Eresma River. After crossing the bridge, bear left, then right to the Church of the Vera Cruz, from where you can enjoy a spectacular view of the city. To wind up your sightseeing with more city views, return to town via the Cuesta de los Hoyos.

Drive northeast on N110 for about 25 kilometers and turn left, following the signs for Pedraza de la Sierra, which is about 10 kilometers farther. Whereas El Escorial, Ávila, and Segovia are well-known tourist destinations, many have never heard of Pedraza, a fact that makes it even more fun to visit. This walled, medieval, hilltop village is a jewel. From the moment you enter through the lower gate, time stands still as you meander through the maze of little streets. There are no well-known sights to visit, although there is a brooding castle where the sons of King François I of France were once held captive. The main attraction here is the town itself. The heart of Pedraza is its picturesque Plaza Mayor, faced by houses that date back to the 16th century. The small side streets have restaurants and a couple of boutiques.

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