Despite its pre-eminent importance for the country, Madrid is a relatively young capital compared to other European capitals. The Emirate of Córdoba didn’t have a Moorish castle built here until the ninth century. The village of “Mayrit” grew up around it, which is probably the origin of the later name Madrid. The Arabic presence of the time, however, is barely visible today. Following bloody battles, the Christians took over the dominant position in a region where the cities of Toledo and Segovia were significantly more important than little Madrid at the time.
The hamlet eventually received a boost in 1561 when King Phillip II decided to move his residence to Madrid. He chose the city because it was a clean sheet from a political perspective and yet had a castle. In other words, there were no long-established family clans that could have represented competition for the King. He immediately had the castle converted to a palace. However, the new capital didn’t even have a charter when the King moved to Madrid. For this reason, among others, the city has few reminders of the King to whom it owes its status – apart from Retiro Park in the heart of the capital. It is three times the size of Central Park in Manhattan and, remarkably, it is the location of the only statue in the world dedicated to the fallen angel Lucifer – none other than Satan himself. Rather fittingly, the base of the statue stands precisely 666 meters above sea level.
The golden years brought Spain a great deal of wealth thanks to the colonies in America – and from an architectural perspective Madrid evolved into the global city that we know today. In 1808, when French power had reached its zenith, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte moved to Madrid as the King of Spain. The French demolished cloisters and entire city districts and brutally crushed an insurrection on May 2, 1808, which triggered further revolts throughout Spain. The day is now a non-working holiday in the city. The unpopular – and alcohol-dependent – Joseph Bonaparte fled Madrid in 1812.
The reign of Francisco Franco was another inglorious chapter, which began in 1939 after the Spanish Civil War. The fascist dictator ruled the country for almost four decades. Spain only made the transition to a democracy after his death in 1975. The new freedoms allowed the people of Madrid to turn their city into one big colorful and free party location for everyone. This movement called itself La Movida Madrilena. Even the former university professor and later mayor of Madrid Enrique Tierno Galván offered his fellow citizens of Madrid the following advice: “a colocarse y ponerse al loro” – “Party as much as you can!”
They didn’t need telling twice and still heed the advice to this day: Each evening at 5 p.m. the city mutates into a buzzing metropolis that Christina Buth from the broadcaster ARD once compared to a city going through puberty. When comparable cities had already “grown up,” Madrid was still half-asleep 700 meters above sea level on its high plateau (making it the most elevated capital in the European Union). And while London already had a subway system, Madrid had to wait another century before it got its own. That said, Madrid’s subway system has more escalators than any other in the world (1,656).
On New Year’s Eve in Madrid there is a tradition that differs from Germany‘s custom of casting lead shapes to tell people’s fortunes or Italy’s midnight feast of lentils, which is said to bring prosperity. Around midnight, the people of Madrid gather in the square known as Puerta de Sol and eat twelve grapes on the stroke of midnight, one for each bell chime. Only afterwards do the grape eaters fall into each other’s arms and celebrate the New Year with copious amounts of fermented grape juice. Yet there is reason enough to celebrate in Spain anyway – particularly when it comes to soccer.
The “royals” of Real Madrid have been a big name in international soccer since the end of the Second World War. With the signing of Alfredo di Stefano, the first of many club legends, the foundations were laid for the “White Ballet.” The world’s best players still move to Madrid to this day. Real was the first club to successfully defend the Champions League title since the competition was founded – and even managed to do so twice in succession. City rivals Atlético also deserve a mention: The club that plays in red and white has won the Europa League, the little brother of the Champions League, no fewer than three times since 2010 – most recently in 2018. So this year the title-holders of both major European club competitions come from the same city.
Madrid is also home to the world’s oldest restaurant, the Sobrino de Botin. It was established in the 18th century and is naturally a tourist magnet. Yet Madrid has even more to offer: Here are our unmissable tips.
Anyone who wants to discover culinary delights from across Spain all at once is in the right place at this wholesale food market, which first opened its doors over 100 years ago. Almost every Spanish delicacy can be found on more than 20 stands, including shellfish, Iberian ham and specialty cheeses. Don’t miss out on the tapas!
You can realize your dream of dining in style in the stadium of kings at Puerta 57. With a view of the pitch, light snacks and meals can be ordered in an elegant atmosphere – all served with the finest wines.
Although situated a little outside the city center, this restaurant is famous for its relaxed atmosphere and cozy tables. It serves international cuisine, burgers, tapas, and exclusive salads.
If you want to enjoy flamenco song and dance shows alongside traditional national dishes, then this is the place to be. The Arabian décor alone transports guests to the magical realm of One Thousand and One Nights.
This restaurant was established in 1860 and achieves the fine balance between the traditional and the modern. Lean against wood-paneled walls in relaxed fashion and dine at marble tables dating from the last century. The famous cod recipes have been passed on from one generation to the next. Meat and tapas dishes complement the menu.
Hot spot: “La Latina” quarter
This is a very interesting and cosmopolitan quarter with plenty of bars and taverns that serve tapas. It is easy to reach by public transport, making it an excellent option for relaxed evenings. “El Rastro” is a unique flea market that is held every Sunday, selling everything from rummage to clothing.
Hot spot: Parque Madrid Rio
The Manzanares flows through Madrid and since 2012 Madrid Rio has stood beside it. The beautiful Spanish weather attracts many locals and tourists to the nicely kept park with its impressive flowers and green spaces. Anyone looking for a bit of calm away from the hustle and bustle of Madrid will find a relaxing space here.