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Madrid, Spain

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ABOVE: Madrid's Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral overlook the Manzanares River and the western part of the city.

Sightseeing in Madrid

For most visitors, sightseeing begins and ends in central Madrid. This area's boundaries can be defined as the Royal Palace and the Plaza de España on the west, the Retiro Park or possibly the Plaza de Toros at Ventas on the east, the Rastro flea market and Atocha railway station to the south, and--to the north--however far the tourist wanders up the Paseo de Castellana (which can be as far as the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu for Real Madrid soccer fans).

photoThe Puerta del Sol is the official center of Madrid--and of Spain, since the country's highway distances are measured from this local version of Times Square, where Madrileños pop grapes into their mouths between the clock tower's chimes on New Year's Eve.

photoA couple of blocks southwest, through arches leading from the Calle Mayor, the Plaza Mayor is a stone-paved pedestrian square with arcaded passages on all sides. (The Madrid Tourist Office is at #27, on the north side of the square.) The Plaza Mayor was begun in 1590, completed in 1619, and rebuilt in 1790 after a fire. (Other fires occurred during the Inquisition, with alleged heretics being used as fuel.)

Head west along the Calle Mayor, and you'll reach the Plaza de la Villa with its Casa de la Villa or old City Hall from 1630. You can visit the building (including the historic City Council chambers) on Mondays at 5 p.m. Call +34 91480236 or e-mail [email protected] to book the free guided tour in English and Spanish.

A few blocks farther west are Almudena Cathedral (begun in 1879, completed in 1993) and--next door, sharing a courtyard with the cathedral--the Royal Palace, which was built in the mid-1700s after the old converted Moorish alcázar was destroyed by fire.

photoOther highlights of the city center include the Gran Vía with its ornate office buildings and hotels, the winding neighborhood streets of the barrio popular south of the Puerta del Sol, the beautiful Retiro Park to the east of the Paseo del Prado, the Royal Botanical Garden next to the Prado Museum, the tropical garden of the glass-and-wrought-iron Atocha Railway Station, and the assorted churches and convents that you'll encounter (usually by accident) as you wander through the city center.

For walking intineraries, pick up Spain Tourism's 60-page Madrid booklet or refer to a guidebook such as DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Madrid, Insight City Guide: Madrid, or the Fodors/AA CityPack Madrid.

The Madrid Tourist Board's free Map of Madrid is another useful resource, with listings of monuments, parks, etc. that are keyed to the grid and shown as pictorial icons on the map. A more detailed map, CM's Mapa Turístico Tourist Map: Madrid Centro, is available at the El Corte Inglés bookshop on the Puerta del Sol. But my favorite map of central Madrid is the "Restaurant Map Guide" that's tucked inside the back cover of Insight City Guide: Madrid. This compact, cardboard-covered map fits into a shirt pocket, opens and closes quickly, and is easy to read--even with middle-aged eyes.

If you'd like to print out an itinerary from the Web, try the self-guided walking tour from a site called "Madrid: The Capital of Spain."

Guided city tours

photoThe Madrid Tourist Board offers a comprehensive program of guided walking tours in Spanish, English, and other languages. Prices are extremely reasonable: just a few euros for a tour lasting up to 1½ hours. For details, visit www.esmadrid.com or request the free Descubre Madrid Guided Tour Programme for Madrid booklet when you're in the city.

The Wellington Society runs private tours for families and other small groups, at prices that are considerably higher than Descubre Madrid's.

photoMadridVision has "hop-on, hop-off" double-deck sightseeing buses that operate on two routes: one in the historic center, and one to the Real Madrid football club's Bernabéu Stadium and other parts of "modern Madrid." (If you have the Madrid Card, you can travel free on MadridVision buses.)

Other tours--both in Madrid and to neighboring cities--are available from Viator, our advertising partner, which lets you prebook tours, airport transfers, etc. in euros, pounds sterling, U.S. dollars, or Australian dollars.

Finally, if you're adventurous (or in a hurry), Madsegs will take you on a three-hour "glide" or Segway scooter tour of the city center.

Next page: Museums

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