Madrid has excellent art museums, phenomenal food, enormous parks and Europe’s largest palace, but its inclusive atmosphere is what really makes the city soar.
Madrid vs Barcelona? I live in both cities but my heart loves this one
5 min read — Published Aug 9, 2021
Writer Daniel Welsch divides his time between Madrid and Barcelona. Which city is better to visit? Find out his thoughts and which one has his heart.
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Crowning Madrid ’s oldest neighborhood of La Latina is an architectural and visual masterpiece that is the Basílica de San Francisco el Grande (Basilica of Saint Francis the Great) — as much a place of Catholic worship as it is a temple paying homage to Spanish art. Its several marble and gold inlaid chapels and sacristy are home to an impressive collection of paintings by Spanish masters, the most famous of which is Francisco Goya’s St. Bernardino of Siena preaching to Alfonso V of Aragon. With a diameter of 33 meters and height of 58 meters, the Basilica’s great dome is the largest in Spain and the fourth largest in Europe, after those of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon in Rome, and the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Side view of the Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, a Roman Catholic church in central Madrid, Spain © AndresGarciaM / Getty Images History of the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande This treasured Spanish heritage has been through multiple incarnations, the earliest of which goes back to the 13th century. Legend has it that when Saint Francis of Assissi passed by Spain on his pilgrimage to the tomb of the St. James the Apostle in Compostela in 1214, he built a modest home for himself and his companions near a hermitage where the church stands today. From these humble beginnings, the structure was expanded and enriched over the years, and eventually exceeded the splendor of all the churches in Madrid, until it was completely demolished in 1760 in order to build an ever bigger and more beautiful church to replace it. The ambitious work was then assigned to a Franciscan monk, Fray Francisco Cabezas, who had envisioned a dome covering a circular temple housing several chapels. He worked on it for seven years until the project was suspended because of a disagreement over the proposed plan for the dome. Years later, under the rule of King Carlos III, construction recommenced under the guidance of the famed Italian architect Francesco Sabatini (who likewise designed Madrid’s Puerta de Alcalá and oversaw the reconstruction of the Plaza Mayor). The royal church was finally consecrated on 1784, and nearly two centuries later in 1963, was officially conferred the status of Basilica Minor by Pope John XXIII. View of the Royal Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, it is a Catholic church within the historic center of Madrid © NurPhoto / Getty Images Museum highlights Once you step through the doors of the Basilica, it is impossible to not be awestruck by its floor-to-ceiling opulence and assembly of art under one dome. Underneath a celestial scene of frescoes and stained glass windows with biblical motifs, guarded by sculptures of the apostles and prophets, trompe-l’œil paintings of saints, and carved cherubim, are six chapels embracing a main altar. Each of these chapels have a different theme and is a mini museum unto itself, featuring altars surrounded by large oil paintings depicting religious scenes, mosaics, and intricately carved moldings. While the Basilica’s predominant architectural style is NeoClassical, these lavishly decorated chapels showcase different distinct periods, from Baroque to Byzantine, Renaissance to Rococo. The Chapel of St. Bernardino of Siena, one of the chapels situated on the left side of the Basilica, features Goya’s famous St. Bernardino of Siena preaching to Alfonso V of Aragon, which was commissioned in 1781. As selfies were non-existent at that time, Goya managed to incorporate the closest thing — his self-portrait on the right-hand side of the painting (he’s the one dressed in yellow). While visiting the main church area is free during morning Mass hours, it is certainly worth paying for a ticket (5 euros, from Tuesday to Friday) to access the museum in the inner sacristy. These hallowed halls exhibit 49 large paintings depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, by renowned Spanish artists such as Alonso Cano, Francisco Zurbarán, Antonio González Velazquez, José Moreno Carbonero, among others. It is no less opulent inside — the hefty carved seats, mahogany and oakwood floors, gold candelabras and ornate ceilings could make you pause and wonder just how far the church has come from its humble origins. One room of interest is the ante-sacristy, a red-painted sanctum bordered by 17th century walnut-carved benches with Plateresque style backs. Six mirrors framed in gold gilded pinewood actually serve a purpose — when you stand in front of them, they perfectly reflect the central medallion painted on the ceiling, The Triumph of the Church, so you don’t need to strain your neck! A guided tour in Spanish is offered during these times and is included in the ticket price. Nearby attractions The Basílica de San Francisco el Grande is conveniently located in the southwestern corner of the historic La Latina barrio. If you happen to find yourself here on a Sunday, you could also catch the 400-year old flea market, El Rastro, or take part in a favorite local pastime — a Sunday tapas crawl along the cobblestone streets, in particular Cava Baja, long after the sun sets.
One of Spain’s most atmospheric arenas, the Plaza de Toros Las Ventas has hosted everything from Beatles concerts to motocross competitions during its eight-decade history. But it is the controversial sport of bullfighting for which the stadium was built and is best known for, with aficionados of the activity hailing it as Spain’s “Bullfighting Cathedral”. Located east of central Madrid, the Plaza de Toros features a wide public square with a bullfighting ring constructed in the Mudéjar (Moorish) style. Its coliseum-like arena can seat a little over 23,000 people, making it the largest bullring in Spain and one of the largest in the world. Bullfights regularly take place here during the season, which runs from mid-May to September, while daily fights occur during the week-long San Isidro festival, held each May. A visit to the Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) at the back of the bullring offers a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of this divisive Spanish tradition. A statue outside the Las Ventas Bullring that forms part of the monument to scientist Alexander Fleming © Anibal Trejo / Shutterstock History of the Plaza de Toros Known officially as the Plaza de Toros de Ventas del Espíritu Santo, the arena is simply referred to as “Las Ventas” because the area upon which it stands used to be an enclave of several wayside taverns, known as “ventas” in Spanish. The stadium was built in 1929 and officially inaugurated in 1931 with a charity bullfight. However, the area surrounding the plaza remained a shanty town. A mass clean up operation, coupled with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, meant that the Plaza de Toros was officially re-inaugurated in 1939, a decade after its initial construction. Apart from the annual roster of bullfights during the season, the Plaza de Toros has also hosted opera performances, weddings, traveling circuses, car shows and rock concerts – this is where the Beatles held their first concert in Spain when they came to Madrid in 1965. Other high-profile artists who have performed here include Prince, Sting and B.B. King. Highlights of the Plaza de Toros Certainly not bereft of hyperbole, the main entrance of the bullring that features a grand Moorish arch is called “The Doorway to Eternal Glory.” To be carried through here, high on the shoulders of aficionados, is the ultimate dream of any young torero (bullfighter). Outside the arena are several statues paying tribute to important figures in the Spanish bullfighting world. Right by the main entrance are the monuments of two bullfighters, Antonio Bienvenida, a celebrated torero during his heyday in the 1970s, and José “El Yiyo” Cubero, a beloved matador who was only 21 when he was gored by a bull through the heart. Curiously, standing alongside these icons of the bullfighting world, is a bronze bust of Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming. Fleming’s discovery of the antibiotic penicillin helped save the lives of many bullfighters who suffered deep wounds after being stabbed by bull horns. Consequently, in 1964, bullfighters collected money to erect a monument in Dr Fleming’s honor. The monument includes a statue depicting Fleming, and a matador tipping his hat to the scientist in appreciation of his work. Inside, the plaza’s bullring is divided into ten tendidos (sections), radiating from the sandy central ring. The rather uncomfortable stone seats are distinguished in price according to the amount of sunlight each gets, with the most expensive seats being in the sombra (shade), the cheapest under the sol (sun) and the midrange ones in the sol y sombra, or partial shade. The most diehard bullfighting aficionados sit in Tendido 7, under the sun. The interior of the Las Ventas bullring © Richard Nebesky / Lonely Planet Museo Taurino Situated at the back of the arena in the “Patio de Caballos” is the Bullfighting Museum, which is dedicated to the history and culture of bullfighting. Three large rooms exhibit fancy bullfighting dresses, accessories, busts and portraits of famous bulls and toreros, as well as the original posters advertising historic fights. In the Trajes de Luces (Costumes of Lights) section, you’ll see the walking capes of well-loved bullfighters, such as the pink and gold ensemble worn by Manolete, one of the most famous matadors of all time, who died in the ring in 1947. Some other features to watch out for in the museum include a series of bullfighting-themed etchings (“La Tauromaquia”) by Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya, as well as a framed copy of a – aptly named – papal bull (public decree) issued by Pope Pius V, in 1567, that forbade Catholics from participating in bullfights on punishment of excommunication, and prohibiting a Christian burial to anyone killed in a bullfight. Guided tours Guided visits (in English and Spanish) will take you out onto the sand and into the royal box. Tours must be booked in advance through Las Ventas Tour. Access to the Museo Taurino is free of charge.
This imposing early-20th-century Italianate stone mansion, set discreetly back from the street, belonged to Don José Lázaro Galdiano (1862–1947), a successful businessman and passionate patron of the arts. His astonishing private collection, which he bequeathed to the city upon his death, includes 13,000 works of art and objets d’art, a quarter of which are on show at any time. It can be difficult to believe the breadth of masterpieces that Señor Lázaro Galdiano gathered during his lifetime, and there’s enough here to merit this museum’s inclusion among Madrid’s best art galleries. The highlights include works by Zurbarán, Claudio Coello, Hieronymus Bosch, Esteban Murillo, El Greco, Lucas Cranach and John Constable, and there’s even a painting in Room 11 attributed to Velázquez. As is often the case, Goya belongs in a class of his own. He dominates Room 13, while the ceiling of the adjoining Room 14 features a collage from some of Goya’s more famous works. Some that are easy to recognise include La maja desnuda, La maja vestida and the frescoes of the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. The ground floor is largely given over to a display setting the social context in which Galdiano lived, with hundreds of curios from all around the world on show. This remarkable collection ranges beyond paintings to sculptures, bronzes, miniature figures, jewellery, ceramics, furniture, weapons… clearly he was a man of wide interests. The lovely 1st floor is dominated by Spanish artworks arrayed around the centrepiece of the former ballroom and beneath lavishly frescoed ceilings. The 2nd floor contains numerous minor masterpieces from Italian, Flemish, English and French painters, while the top floor is jammed with all sorts of ephemera, including some exquisite textiles in Room 24. The labelling throughout the museum is excellent, appearing in both English and Spanish, and is accompanied by photos of each room as it appeared in Galdiano’s prime. Born in Navarra in northeastern Spain, José Lázaro Galdiano moved to Madrid as a young man. He would later become a hugely significant figure in the cultural life of the city. During WWI he was an important supporter of the Museo del Prado, and later built his own private collection by buying up Spanish artworks in danger of being sold overseas and bringing home those that had already left. He lived in exile during the Civil War, but continued to collect and upon his return he set up a respected artistic foundation in his former palace that would ultimately house the museum.
A Sunday morning at El Rastro flea market, Europe's largest, is a Madrid institution. You could easily spend the entire morning inching your way down the hill and the maze of streets. Cheap clothes, luggage, old flamenco records, even older photos of Madrid, faux-designer purses, grungy T-shirts, household goods and electronics are the main fare. For every 10 pieces of junk, there’s a real gem (a lost masterpiece, an Underwood typewriter) waiting to be found. The crowded Sunday flea market was, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely a meat market ( rastro means ‘stain’, in reference to the trail of blood left behind by animals dragged down the hill). The road leading through the market, Calle de la Ribera de los Curtidores, translates as 'Tanners’ Alley' and further evokes this sense of a slaughterhouse past. On Sunday mornings it's the place to be, with all of Madrid here in search of a bargain. Antiques are also a major drawcard with a concentration of stores at Nuevas Galerías and Galerías Piquer; most shops open 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 8pm Monday to Saturday and not all open during El Rastro. A word of warning: pickpockets love El Rastro as much as everyone else, so keep a tight hold on your belongings and don’t keep valuables in easy-to-reach pockets.
It’s difficult to imagine Madrid without Gran Vía, the grand boulevard lined with towering belle-époque facades that climbs up through the centre of Madrid from Plaza de España then down to Calle de Alcalá. But it has only existed since 1910, when it was bulldozed through a labyrinth of old streets. Fourteen streets disappeared off the map, as did 311 houses, including one where Goya had once lived. Plans for the boulevard were first announced in 1862 and so interminable were the delays that a famous zarzuela (Spanish mix of theatre, music and dance), La Gran Vía, first performed in 1886, was penned to mock the city authorities. It may have destroyed whole barrios, but Gran Vía is still considered one of the most successful examples of urban planning in central Madrid since the late 19th century. One eye-catching building, the Edificio Carrión was Madrid’s first pre-WWI tower-block apartment hotel. Also dominating the skyline about one-third of the way along Gran Vía is the 1920s-era Telefónica building, which was for years the highest building in the city. During the civil war, when Madrid was besieged by Franco’s forces and the boulevard became known as ‘Howitzer Alley’ due to the artillery shells that rained down upon it, the Telefónica building was a favoured target. Among the more interesting buildings is the stunning, French-designed Edificio Metrópolis, built in 1907, which marks the southern end of Gran Vía. The winged victory statue atop its dome was added in 1975 and is best seen from Calle de Alcalá or Plaza de la Cibeles. A little up the boulevard is the Edificio Grassy, with the Rolex sign and built in 1916. With its circular ‘temple’ as a crown, and profusion of arcs and slender columns, it’s one of the most elegant buildings along Gran Vía. Otherwise Gran Vía is home to around twice as many businesses (over 1050 at last count) as homes (nearly 600); over 13,000 people work along the street; and up to 60,000 vehicles pass through every day (including almost 185 buses an hour during peak periods). There are over 40 hotels on Gran Vía, but, sadly, just three of the 15 cinemas for which the boulevard was famous remain.
This contemporary-arts centre is a stunning multipurpose space south of the centre. Occupying the converted buildings of the old Arganzuela livestock market and slaughterhouse, Matadero Madrid covers 148,300 sq metres and hosts cutting-edge drama, musical and dance performances and exhibitions on architecture, fashion, literature and cinema. It's a dynamic space and its proximity to the landscaped riverbank makes for a non-touristy alternative to sightseeing in Madrid, not to mention a brilliant opportunity to see the latest avant-garde theatre or exhibitions.
Around the back of the Iglesia de San Andrés, the delightful Plaza de la Paja slopes down into the tangle of lanes that once made up Madrid's Muslim quarter. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the city's main market occupied the square. At the top of the square is the Capilla del Obispo, while down the bottom (north side) is the walled 18th-century Jardín del Príncipe Anglona, a peaceful 18th-century garden.
This intriguing museum is devoted to the Romantic period of the 19th century. It houses a minor treasure trove of mostly 19th-century paintings, furniture, porcelain, books, photos and other bits and bobs from a bygone age and offers an insight into what upper-class houses were like in the 19th century. The best-known work in the collection is Goya’s San Gregorio Magno, Papa. The museum occupies a late-18th-century mansion which was converted into a museum in 1924 by the Marqués de la Vega-Inclán (who was involved in the creation of the chain of luxury hotels known as the paradores). There’s a limit of 100 visitors inside the museum at any one time.
This swirling, melting wedding cake of a building is as close as Madrid comes to the work of Antoni Gaudí, which so illuminates Barcelona. It’s a joyously self-indulgent (if slightly grimy) ode to Modernisme (an architectural and artistic style, influenced by art nouveau and sometimes known as Catalan modernism) and is virtually one of a kind in Madrid. Casual visitors are actively discouraged, but what you see from the street is impressive enough. The only exception is on the first Monday of October, International Architecture Day, when its interior staircase alone is reason enough to come and look inside.