Madrid is a regal city that never forgets how important it is to have fun. It is packed with galleries, museums, and classy shops, and it is also full of people who really know how to live life to the full - so, no matter what your reason for visiting, you're sure to have a ball in Madrid.
Parque del Buen Retiro
Just east of Madrid city centre, not far from the Prado Museum, the Retiro is often called the "lungs of Madrid". A 350-acre oasis of greenery and water, the park was once the property of the royal family and is scattered with statues, gardens, and galleries. A peaceful lake at its centre provides the focal point. The main entrance for the Retiro is close to the Alcala Gate, at the Plaza de la Independencia.
Museo del Prado
The Prado houses one of the world's most remarkable art collections, featuring thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from the 12th through the 19th century. (Visit the Reina Sofia Museum for post-19th century art). The most famous work on display is Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas. Velazquez gave many of his own works to the museum and was also involved in obtaining several works from great Italian painters. You'll find a statue in his honour at the entrance to the museum.
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol is the hub of all activity in Madrid. Once just another city gate, with an image of the sun on it (hence the name), today it marks the centre of Spain's national road network (0km). Come here on New Year's Eve and you will find thousands of revelers gathered to count down the clock chimes for the New Year. Clustered around the clock tower on the Real Casa de Correos, they eat a grape on each chime of midnight for good fortune in the coming year.
The main thoroughfare in Madrid, Gran Via was built to connect Calle de Alcalá to Plaza de España. It is lined with bars, restaurants, and swanky shops, making it a lively destination in the evenings, when Madrileños and tourists alike come out to eat, drink, and socialise into the small hours. Gran Vía is also graced by some landmark 20th-century architecture, including the Edificio Metropolis, which is topped by a magnificent statue of the Goddess Victory.
The Spanish royal family no longer uses Madrid's Palacio Real, but it remains the venue for state functions and is the largest and one of the most impressive royal palaces in Europe. Be glad you're not doing the vacuuming: It has more than 2,000 opulent rooms, 50 of which are open to the public. Of these, you simply cannot miss the Reception Room, the State Apartments, the Armory, or the Royal Pharmacy. Just say "inglés" to the person who takes your ticket, and you will be given an English-speaking guide.
Not only does Madrid have arguably Europe's most impressive palace, it is also home to what may be the continent's most majestic public square. The Plaza Mayor is bordered on three sides by regal ochre-toned apartments with wrought-iron balconies, slate spires, and delicate frescoes on the square's northern facade. Constructed in 1619, this square has been the stage for everything from the beatification of St. Isidro to bullfights and the executions of suspected heretics.