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Castellana/Recoletos/Paseo del Prado
Not a real city district, this long continuous avenue is Madrid's north-south axis, its name changing along the way. In summer its large medians serve as home to open-air terraces filled with animated crowds. Many restaurants and other hotels are located both on it and along its side streets.
The Castellana is the longest and most modern section, descending from Plaza Castilla to Colon Square and including the skyscraper AZCA business center, huge Santiago Bernabeu soccer stadium, and a choice of top hotels en route.
Shorter and more intimate is Recoletos, linking Colon with Cibeles. Its central median is often reserved for antique book fairs and its most famous buildings include the National Library and Gran Café de Gijón.
The Paseo del Prado is the elegant final stretch leading from Cibeles down to Atocha. Tree shaded and maturely beautiful, it's home to such incomparable city gems as the Neptune statue, Bolsa (Stock Exchange), Ritz hotel, Museo del Prado, and Botanical Gardens.
The center of the Spanish capital is a huddle of medieval alleyways and squares whose most elegant reminder of old Habsburg Madrid is the zone between the Royal Palace and Plaza Mayor. Dissecting it is the Manhattan-style Gran Vía, while across the wide modern Castellana avenue leading north to the Plaza Castilla, the spacious charms of the Retiro Park spread out, surrounding 19th-century residential areas. Fanning out around Madrid, expanding new suburbs and fashionable American-style satellite towns are gradually absorbing much of the capital's booming five-million-plus population.
Every new arrival must find the Gran Vía, which cuts a bow-shaped east-west swath across the city between the neoclassical Metrópolis building near the Banco de España and the Plaza de España, where you'll find one of Europe's tallest skyscrapers, the Edificio España. As you walk along it noting the changing styles of buildings on either side, you're actually time-traveling through the four decades it took to construct the avenue between the early and mid-1900s. Home to the largest concentration of department stores, hotels, restaurants, and movie houses in the city, it's superseded only by Calle Serrano for chic quality shopping.
South of the Gran Vía lies the Puerta del Sol, the starting point for all road distances within Spain. Dominated by the 18th-century Casa de Correos (seat of the regional government), whose New Year clock chimes are traditionally witnessed by exhilarated crowds, all eating their 12 grapes in time with the chimes, the crescent-shaped square is perennially lively and its symbolic statue of the Bear and the Madroño Tree is a favorite rendezvous spot. It's also a prime hunting ground for pickpockets and purse snatchers so take care. Calle de Alcalá begins here at Sol and runs for 4km (2 1/2 miles)
The Plaza Mayor lies at the heart of Old Madrid and is an attraction in itself with its mix of Habsburg, French, and Georgian architecture. Pedestrians pass under the arches of the huge square onto the narrow streets of the old town, where you can find some of the capital's most intriguing restaurants and tascas, serving tasty tapas and drinks. The colonnaded ground level of the plaza is filled with shops, many selling souvenir hats of turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish sailors or army officers. On the weekend, stamps and rare coins are sold at stalls. Concerts, shows, and exhibitions are often held here, and at Navidad it's a child's delight with a proliferation of Christmas trees and stalls selling gifts. The lavish Reyes (or Three Kings) processions start from here on January 6 amid much excitement.
The area south of the Plaza Mayor -- known as barrios bajos and including the zones of Lavapiés and Embajadores -- is made up of narrow cobblestone streets lined with 16th- and 17th-century architecture. To the west is the elegant historic barrio of the Austrias, most of whose buildings sprang up during the Habsburg rule. From the northwest corner of Plaza, follow the Arco de Cuchilleros, a street packed with markets, restaurants, flamenco clubs, and taverns, to explore this zone. In narrow atmospheric street called the Cava Baja, just before you reach the Plaza de la Cebada, you'll find the largest concentration of trendy wine bars, homely tabernas, and posada (inn) style restaurants in all Madrid. The nearby Plaza de la Paja, close to the city's two oldest churches, was actually the heart of the city and its main marketplace during the medieval period.
On the western edge of this area is the diminutive Muslim Madrid zone, which is centered on Las Vistillas, just below the Almudena cathedral and Royal Palace -- the zone enjoys views towards the distant Guadarramas. Below it to the west is the Campo del Moro park, the Manzanares River with its bordering walkways, and the great green expanse of the Casa del Campo.
Close to the beginnings of the Gran Vía and just below its junction with Calle Alcalá, you'll find the grand Plaza de la Cibeles, with its fountain to Cybele, "the mother of the gods," and the main post office (known as "the cathedral of post offices"). From Cibeles, the wide Paseo de Recoletos begins a short run north to Plaza de Colón. From this latter square rolls the serpentine central artery of Madrid: Paseo de la Castellana, flanked by expensive shops, apartment buildings, luxury hotels, and foreign embassies.
Heading south from Cibeles is Paseo del Prado, where you'll find one of Madrid's major attractions, the Museo del Prado, as well as the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden). The paseo leads to the Atocha Railway Station. To the east of the garden lies Parque del Retiro, a magnificent park once reserved for royalty, with rose gardens, wide walkways, terrace cafes, fountains, statues (including the only one in the world dedicated to the devil), musicians and entertainers, a rowing lake (the Estanque), and Madrid's finest homage to the Industrial Revolution era: the iron-, tile-, and glass-built Casa de Cristal (Crystal Palace) inspired by its 19th-century London namesake.
Plaza Mayor (1)
In 1617 the Plaza Mayor became the hub of Madrid, and today it's one of the key nighttime centers of tourist activity. Filled with taverns and bars, it is bounded by Calle Mayor, Cava de San Miguel and Calle de la Cruz. Westwards from the Plaza the above-mentioned Arco de Cuchilleros is filled with Castilian restaurants and taverns; while cavelike touristy locales called mesones -- hewn into the base of Cava de San Miguel's old five-story buildings at the northern end of the plaza -- provide wine, tapas, and musical entertainment.
Puerta Del Sol (1)
Just east of the Plaza Mayor, the semicircular "Gateway to the Sun" is no less thronged with visitors at night, though its attractions are more peripheral, ranging from the shops and department stores of northerly traffic-free Preciados to the countless array of bars and nightspots lining the southerly narrow alleyed district of Huertas.
The Salamanca Quarter (4)
Ever since Madrid's city walls came tumbling down in the 1860s, the district of Salamanca to the north has been one of the most fashionable areas to live in Madrid. Calle Serrano marks the western border of this neighborhood and is lined with international shops, stores and boutiques. The U.S. Embassy is located halfway up the avenue, close to the Lazaro Galdiano Museum.
Gran Via/Plaza De España (1)
Gran Vía is the city's main street, lined with cinemas, department stores, and the headquarters of banks and corporations. It ends at the Plaza de España, where bronze figures of Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, are set in a park beside a fountain overlooked by the stark 1950s Torre España and Edificio Europa buildings.
Just to the northwest of Plaza España is Argüelles, a compact barrio of narrow crisscrossing lanes sandwiched between promenade-like Pintor Rosales (which runs along the edge of the Parque del Oeste) and the shop-filled Calle Princesa leading up to Moncloa.
The latter is home to the kitsch '50s Ministerio del Aire building and a huge university campus area bounded by the green recreational zones of Puerta de Hierro to the north and by Cea Bermúdez and Bravo Murillo avenues to the east. Students haunt its cafes, tascas, and more recently, its wine bars.
This old and atmospheric area north of the Gran Vía includes the main streets of Hortaleza, Infantas, Barquillo, and San Lucas. It is the center of Madrid's gay scene, with dozens of clubs and restaurants of all price ranges and nationalities. At night the whole area is very lively, especially in the tiny main square.
In decay until a few decades back, this former medieval working class quarter south of the Plaza Mayor has seen many of its lanes turned into pedestrian zones, houses tastefully converted into studio flats and a new polyglot ambience born out of the recent immigrant influx from North Africa and the Middle East. The overall blend of the international and earthy bohemian have transformed the area into one of the most evocative and stimulating in Madrid.
Here you can see a map with the districts at central Madrid
Madrid General Information by Districts
This page was last updated: April 16, 2011