Central Madrid began to take on its present appearance in the mid-19th century with the modernization of Puerta del Sol. This busy intersection was the first to have electric street lighting, trams and, in 1919, Madrid’s first metro station. Meanwhile Calle de Alcalá was becoming the focal point of a new financial district as banks and other businesses set up their headquarters in showy new premises. Building work on the Gran Vía began in 1910 but was only completed in the 1940s with the remodelling of Plaza de España. To make way for this sweeping Parisian-style boulevard, 1,315 m (1,440 yds) long and designed with automobile traffic in mind, more than 300 buildings were demolished and 14 streets disappeared. The new avenue reflected the American architectural tastes of the jazz age, with skyscrapers, cinemas, glitzy cocktail bars, luxury hotels, theatres and restaurants.
Ten streets radiate from this oval-shaped square, which for most Madrileños is the real heart of the city. The name actually means “Gateway of the Sun” although the gateway itself was demolished in 1570. Of numerous historic events to take place here, the most dramatic occurred during the 1808 insur-rection when snipers fired on one of Napoleon’s soldiers, provoking a massacre. Dominating the south side of the square is the 18th-century Casa de Correos, a post office which later became the Ministry of the Interior, and now houses the regional government. A marker in front of the building indicates “kilómetro cero”, from which all distances in Spain are calculated. In the centre of the square is a statue of Carlos III and, on the corner of Calle del Carmen, is a bronze statue of a bear climbing an arbutus tree (madroño in Spanish) – the symbol of the city.
Calle de Alcalá 5, 7, 9 & 11 • Closed to public
The royal customs house was a cornerstone of Carlos III’s plans to improve the appearance of the city. In 1761, the queen’s stables and 16 houses were demolished to make way for Francisco Sabatini’s Neo-Classical masterpiece. Enormous amounts of money were lavished on the façade alone, the decorative features of which include ashlar columns and a balcony bearing the royal coat of arms. It is now the headquarters of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Calle de Alcalá 13 • Open 10am–3pm Tue–Sun & public hols • Closed Mon & Aug • Adm
Founded in the 18th century, the palatial Academy of Fine Arts houses a collection of paintings surpassed only by the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Outstanding among the Spanish paintings are the Goyas, including the classic fiesta scene, Burial of the Sardine. There are also impressive works by European masters including Bellini, Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Rubens and Titian. Picasso and Dalí studied here for a time.
Calle Alcalá 42 • Open 9am–7pm Mon–Thu (until 5pm on Fri); exhibitions: 11am-2pm & 5–9pm Tue–Sun • Closed 24, 25 & 31 Dec, 1 Jan • Exhibitions closed in Aug • Adm
While the golden age of the Fine Arts Club occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, this cultural organization is still thriving today. The Círculo promotes Spanish and world culture, with exhibitions, theatre and ballet productions, art films, workshops and conferences. It even has a magazine and a radio station.
Calle Fuencarral 3 • Open 10am–8pm Tue–Sun • Closed Mon, 1 Jan, 6 Jan, 25 Dec, public hols
Now headquarters of Spain’s national telephone company, this was Madrid’s first high-rise building. Designed by American architect Lewis Weeks and constructed by Ignacio de Cárdenas in 1929, it reflects the values of the Chicago School, then much in vogue. The Telefónica building played an important role in the Civil War when it was used by the Republican army to observe enemy troop movements in the Casa de Campo. Franco’s forces found it an ideal range finder for their artillery. The Fundación de Arte y Tecnología Telefónica has an exhibition on the history of communications as well as a splendid art collection, with works by Picasso, Juan Gris and Antoni Tàpies. Another room on the ground floor hosts temporary exhibitions.
Calle de Preciados 3
The story of the founder of Spain’s premier department store, Ramón Areces Rodríguez, is a classic tale of rags-to-riches. At the age of 15, Areces emigrated to Cuba and worked as a shop assistant before returning to Spain in 1934. The following year he opened a small tailor’s in Calle de Preciados and never looked back. It’s hard to miss the distinctive white shopping bags with the green logo. There are numerous branches in the capital.
Corner Gran Vía & Calle de Alcalá
It was La Unión y el Fénix insurance company, the original owners of this Madrid landmark, who commissioned the striking statue on the cupola. Known as “Ave Fenix”, it represents the fabled bird that died on a funeral pyre but rose from the flames once every 500 years. When the Metrópolis company moved into the building, it inherited the sculpture, which then lost its significance.
Calle de Alcalá 48
The Bank of Spain was founded in 1856, and 20 years later acquired the exclusive right to issue bank notes in its name. The most impressive part of these headquarters is the corner section, decorated with typical Neo-Baroque ornamentation, a marble clock and the distinctive golden globe. Spain’s gold reserves are locked away in the vaults beneath Plaza de Cibeles. Apart from gold, the bank’s main treasure is its art collection, with works ranging from Goya to Tàpies. It can be viewed only by written application to the bank.
The look of this busy square reflects the sleek modernist architecture of 1930s America. Good examples are the Edificio Cine Callao (No. 3), the Palacio de la Prensa (No. 4), the former headquarters of the Press Association, and the Palacio de la Música (Gran Vía 35), which today houses both the Cine Capitol cinema and the Hotel Vincci Capitol.
Calle de Alcalá 15
This exclusive gentlemen’s club was founded in 1910. The florid architecture is typical of the period, but the lavish interior is rarely open to the public. Non-members are allowed in the restaurant, La Terraza Del Casino, which has two Michelin stars.
The famous American writer Ernest Hemingway arrived in Madrid in March 1937 to find a city under siege. He stayed in the Hotel Florida (since demolished) on Plaza del Callao, and recalled dodging shells and sniper bullets on Gran Vía as he made his way to the Telefónica building to file his stories.
Start the walk outside the Casa de Correos in Puerta del Sol, a popular meeting point for Madrileños. Cross the square in the direction of the bus stops, then turn on to Calle de Alcalá. This busy street is lined with fine examples of 18th- and 19th-century architecture. Two examples on your left are the Real Casa de la Aduana and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Take time to visit this often overlooked gallery, with its small, but quality, collection of paintings. Next door is the showy façade of the Casino de Madrid.
Cross Calle de Alcalá when you reach the junction with Gran Vía, then head for coffee in the Círculo de Bellas Artes. As you make your way back to Gran Vía, look up to admire the Edificio Metrópolis building, then take a stroll along Madrid’s bustling main avenue.
When you’re ready for lunch, escape the crowds by turning into Calle de Hortaleza, then Calle Reina. At No. 29 is La Barraca, famous for its paellas.
After a leisurely browse around the shops, return to Puerta del Sol as it begins to liven up for the evening.
Costanilla de los Ángeles 20 • Closed Mon
This is one of Madrid’s best venues for live music, with an eclectic programme which features everything from salsa and reggae to jazz and flamenco. Concerts are followed by DJ sessions.
Calle Marqués de la Casa Riera 4
The cinema of the fine arts centre (see Círculo de Bellas Artes) shows classic movies by 20th-century directors such as Eisenstein, Fassbinder, Francis Ford Coppola and John Huston.
Gran Vía 35
The Palacio de la Música occupies a landmark cinema from 1926, which closed after almost 80 years. Its Art Deco façade remains unchanged, but the building’s future purpose has yet to be decided. Around 80,000 people have signed a petition calling for it to be restored and reopened, as its name suggests, as the Palace of Music.
Gran Vía 13
Inaugurated in 1916, this building has Modernista twirls and is home to a military cultural association. Its salons are used for concerts, dances.
Gran Vía 41
Located in the Art Deco Carrión building, this cinema’s greatest moment occurred early in the Civil War when Eisenstein’s stirring movie Kronstadt was shown to an audience that included the President of the Republic and leading military figures. Films are screened in Spanish. There are three screens that include digital 3D technology.
Calle de Jovellanos 4
Purpose-built to showcase Spain’s unique light opera form, Zarzuela, this theatre also hosts international opera, music recitals and other events.
Calle San Alberto 1
An emporium near Sol, dealing in all things spiritual – everything from amulets and birth charts to tarot cards, icons and books on white magic.
Calle de los Jardines 3 • Closed Sun & Mon
Venue for concerts by Spanish and international bands, El Sol dates from the Movida period of cultural change in the late 1970s.
One of the most popular shopping streets in central Madrid, this pedestrianized artery is home to El Corte Inglés, FNAC and Zara.
Calle Carmen 10
This 17th-century church contains a venerated statue of the Virgin, which is paraded around the city on the saint’s feast day (16 July), and a rather gory, but equally revered, Baroque statue of the Recumbent Christ.
Gran Vía 34
This Spanish fashion phenomenon is now also a household name throughout Europe and the United States. Stylish clothes for all the family at very reasonable prices.
Calle de Preciados 28
This useful store, just a few minutes’ walk from Puerta del Sol, sells everything from CDs and sound systems to cameras, DVDs, books and mobile phones. There are helpful floor staff, some of whom speak a little English.
Calle de S Onofre 3
The decor of this traditional Madrid bakery borders on the palatial. The products are just as good – every conceivable type of bread, as well as seasonal specialities such as roscón de Reyes and turrón.
Calle Carmen 3
A place of pilgrimage for Real Madrid’s army of fans, Los Blancos (The Whites), this shop sells football strips, footballs and plenty of souvenirs.
Calle del Carmen 16
Raid this store near Puerta del Sol for glitzy costume jewellery and equally showy accessories. Head for the first floor for imaginative gift ideas.
Calle Mesoneros Romanos 4
This charmingly old-fashioned shop has been in operation for more than 150 years. The beautiful wood-panelled interior is packed with umbrellas and elegant walking canes, along with traditional fans, shawls and pretty hair combs.
Gran Vía 8
If you are a fan of the Spanish brand Loewe, then head to Gran Vía 8. This is the original store that opened in 1939. Check out its guestbook whose signatories include Grace Kelly.
Calle de Preciados 25
Quirky Spanish clothing brand, specializing in colourful styles for men, women and children, as well as home accessories.
Calle La Sal 2
Established in 1880, this inviting shop specializes in watches. Its interior still has original 1930s wooden cabinets and drawers, and there’s a clock featuring a jolly watch-maker outside.
Gran Vía 1
This famous jeweller occupies one of the signature buildings of the Gran Vía dating from 1916. The gleaming window displays of rings, watches and other items (all original designs) are equally distinguished.
Calle de Tetuán 12 • 915 31 00 81 • €
A Madrid institution, this was where Pablo Iglesias Posse founded the Spanish Workers’ Party in 1879. Try the house speciality, soldaditos de pavía (fried cod).
Calle de las Tres Cruces 4 • 915 21 87 21 • €
This well-known vegan and gluten-free restaurant features a nettle purée among other imaginative dishes. It has organic wines and herbal teas.
Calle de las Hileras 17 • 915 59 99 57 • €
This lively Asturian tavern serves regional specialities such as fabada (bean stew) and chorizo a la sidra (sausage stew in cider).
Gran Vía 12 • 915 32 67 37 • Closed Mon • €€
Ernest Hemingway put this cocktail bar (see Museo Chicote) on the map in the 1930s; other famous visitors included Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles.
Calle de la Cruz 17 • 915 23 21 31 • €
This Andalucían tavern (see Fatigas del Querer) was built in 1920. There is an excellent range of tapas on offer, including hearty raciones, Iberian ham, seafood and fresh, fried fish. The atmosphere is always lively, especially at night.
Calle Alcalá 15 • 915 32 12 75 • Closed Sun, Mon & public hols • €€€
This two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid’s historic casino features a terrace with panoramic views, and some of the finest cuisine in Spain. Formal attire is required and children under 12 are not allowed.
Calle de Bordadores 3 • 915 99 48 05 • Closed Sun D • €
This bright, cheery café offers vegan, vegetarian, and coeliac-suitable fare. Leave room for their delicious homemade desserts.
Calle de la Reina 16 • 915 32 28 26 • €€
This tastefully decorated late-night bar with a range of cocktails, is a good place to round off the evening.
Carrera de San Jerónimo 6 • 915 21 03 46 • €
Snack on delicious cold cuts, cheeses, cakes and sandwiches at this restaurant and delicatessen.
Calle de la Montera 42 • 915 31 40 37 • €
A friendly, arty, simple café, where you can enjoy inexpensive drinks and snacks and admire the changing art exhibitions on the walls.
Calle de Zorilla 11 • 913 69 47 09 • Closed Sun D • €
Great vegetarian cuisine is served at this down-to-earth, unpretentious eatery. The house speciality is tarta de setas y espinacas (mushroom and spinach tart).
Calle Barbieri 8 • 915 32 20 74 • Closed Mon, Sun, public hols, Aug • €
Just off the Gran Vía, Zara has been a rallying point for Cuban exiles since the 1960s. It serves Caribbean standards such as ropa vieja (stewed meat in a rich tomato sauce) and great daiquiris.
Calle de la Abada 2 • 680 24 72 17 • Closed Mon • €
This taco joint is always packed, but it’s well worth the wait. At just €1 per taco, you’ll find authentic flavours of Mexico in every bite. Wash your meal down with a spicy michelada (beer mixed with Clamato juice).
Calle de Pez 6 • 915 22 32 08 • €
Formerly a tasca, this friendly eatery is excellent for enjoying beer or wine along with a range of delicious tapas. Order the aubergines and you won’t be disappointed.
Calle Victoria 2 • 910 80 49 29 • €
Specialities at this Galician restaurant include pulpo a feira (octopus), cooked in front of the customer, and empanada (filled pastry baked in wood-fired oven).
Calle de Arenal 7 • 915 32 38 99 • Closed Sun • €
This charcuterie near Sol has the usual range of jamón Ibérico, pâtés and cheeses, as well as sandwiches. Eat at the bar or take away.
Calle Jardines 5 • 915 23 41 64 • €
Range of spicy tacos, burritos and other Mexican specialities are available here. Wash your meal down with a flavoured margarita.
Calle Reina 41 • 917 37 14 41 • €
A popular spot, which often draws long queues. The flavour here is a Japanese-Spanish fusion.
Calle Alcalá 42 • 915 31 33 02 • €
For a small entrance fee, you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner in the Círculo de Bellas Artes café.