The glorious gardens of El Retiro are as beautiful as any you’ll find in a European city. Strewn with marble monuments, landscaped lawns, the occasional elegant building (the Palacio de Cristal is especially worth seeking out) and abundant greenery, it’s quiet and contemplative during the week but comes to life on weekends. Put simply, this is one of our favourite places in Madrid.
Laid out in the 17th century by Felipe IV as the preserve of kings, queens and their intimates, the park was opened to the public in 1868, and ever since, when the weather’s fine and on weekends in particular, madrileños (people from Madrid) from all across the city gather here to stroll, read the Sunday papers in the shade, take a boat ride or nurse a cool drink at the numerous outdoor terrazas (open-air cafes).
The focal point for so much of El Retiro’s life is the artificial estanque (lake), which is watched over by the massive ornamental structure of the Monument to Alfonso XII on the east side, complete with marble lions. As sunset approaches on a Sunday afternoon in summer, the crowd grows, bongos sound out across the park and people start to dance. Row boats can be rented from the lake's northern shore – an iconic Madrid experience. On the southern end of the lake, the odd structure decorated with sphinxes is the Fuente Egipcia; legend has it that an enormous fortune buried in the park by Felipe IV in the mid-18th century rests here. Hidden among the trees south of the lake is the Palacio de Cristal, a magnificent metal-and-glass structure that is arguably El Retiro’s most beautiful architectural monument. It was built in 1887 as a winter garden for exotic flowers and is now used for temporary exhibitions organised by the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Just north of here, the 1883 Palacio de Velázquez is also used for temporary exhibitions.
At the southern end of the park, near La Rosaleda with its more than 4000 roses, is a statue of El Ángel Caído (The Fallen Angel). Strangely, it sits 666m above sea level… The Puerta de Dante, in the extreme southeastern corner of the park, is watched over by a carved mural of Dante’s Inferno. Occupying much of the southwestern corner of the park is the Jardín de los Planteles, one of the least visited sections of El Retiro, where quiet pathways lead beneath an overarching canopy of trees. West of here is the moving Bosque del Recuerdo, an understated memorial to the 191 victims of the 11 March 2004 train bombings. For each victim stands an olive or cypress tree. To the north, just inside the Puerta de Felipe IV, stands what is thought to be Madrid’s oldest tree, a Mexican conifer (ahuehuete) planted in 1633.
In the northeastern corner of the park is the Ermita de San Isidro, a small country chapel noteworthy as one of the few, albeit modest, examples of Romanesque architecture in Madrid. When it was built, Madrid was a small village more than 2km away.