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Old Town Madrid and Nearby Attractions

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Madrid, considered a “green city”, is committed to nature and to a generally healthy lifestyle. Its combined parks and historic gardens cover an area that is more than two thirds the size of New York’s Central Park.

The largest and most popular of these is the Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro Park) which is the home of some 15,000 trees, a working observatory, three exhibition halls, a rose garden and a large lake where lovers and families with young children enjoy rowing under Madrid’s bright skies.

Retiro Park, one of the most attractive city center parks in Europe, was once playground of the rulers of the country. Today, park visitors can jog, picnic, have their fortunes told, hear a chamber music concert or jazz performance, see a puppet show, rollerblade, bicycle, stroll hand in hand or relax with a Mahou cerveza (local Spanish beer) or glass of vino at one of several outdoor pavilions.

The Real Jardin Botánico (Royal Botanical Gardens), designed 250 years ago, also invites visitors to enjoy a pleasant stroll surrounded by thousands of live plant species. Particularly astonishing is the garden’s collection of lithops or living rock cacti that disguise themselves as boulders as a defense mechanism for survival. Also drawing interest from visitors is a collection of carnivorous plants and cypress trees dating from the period when the garden was founded.

Madrid Plaza MayorMadrid’s open spaces also include its two primary public squares - the Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol - along with numerous other plazas. Plaza Mayor, formerly the site of bullfights, public executions, pageants and Inquisition trials, is the principle square in Madrid. Street entertainers, painters and musicians draw hoards of locals and visitors who just hang out or order paella or tapas and dine alfresco at the wide selection of cafes and bars at the perimeter of the plaza.

Nine streets lead up to Plaza Mayor’s gigantic traffic free, cobble stoned bustling square which can hold up to 50,000 people. At the center stands a statute of Felipe III who was king when the square was inaugurated in 1620. Entering the plaza through the huge archways, visitors are greeted by a wide open space more than twice the size of a regulation NFL football field with three story walls in varying shades of purple and ornately decorated with murals and reliefs.

Located on the ground in Puerto del Sol (Gateway of the Sun) is the Kilometre Zero, the center of Spain’s road network. From this point, all major road distances in Spain are measured. Ten Metro lines and four main traffic arteries converge here making it a major center of activity.

Madrileños (Madrilenians), as residents are called, gather in Puerto del Sol to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Similar to the ball dropping in New York’s Times Square, television cameras focus on the big clock to count down the seconds until midnight. Beginning precisely at midnight, revelers eat 12 grapes on each stroke of the clock to represent good luck for the next twelve months.
Madrid Puerto del Sol
Both locals and visitors cite the area under the clock as a social gathering point to kickoff an evening of fun. Puerto del Sol is also the site of many big political demonstrations. Standing near this popular spot on Calle del Carmen is a 20-ton bronze statute of the symbol of Madrid – the Oso y Madroño (the Bear and the Tree), a bear reaching for the fruit of the madroño or strawberry tree.

In addition to being the starting point for many of the city’s pedestrian streets, this area is also a major shopping destination. The flagship store of Spain’s biggest department store, El Corte Ingles, located on Calle Preciados, sells everything from shoes, electronics and house products to bicycles, groceries and insurance. Standalone bookshops, small shoe stores, music and video stores as well as gift and souvenir shops are plentiful.

PacSafe Bags

While wise shoppers can find great bargains in leather and ceramic goods in this shopping district, the broadest selection and best prices can be found at El Rastro, Europe’s largest flea market. Open only on Sundays from 7:00 AM until 2:30 PM, flea market connoisseurs will find pure delight in the bargaining bonanza that spans ten street blocks in every direction around the Plaza de Tirso de Molina.

When they tire of walking, many tourists who want to avoid Madrid’s endless traffic congestion and metered cabs choose to go underground to Madrid’s Metro trains. The second largest metro system in Western Europe, Madrid’s system is color coded and numbered, relatively cheap, clean, fast, and safe with easy to understand signage. Stations are clearly marked above ground with signs displaying a red diamond with “Metro” emblazoned on a blue background. The system works similar to metro systems in Paris and Washington, DC.
Cine Callao
Most Madrileños use Metro as they head out for an exciting evening of vibrant entertainment and succulent meals. Madrid’s night life begins late when the mind-boggling concentration of tapas bars, tabernas, restaurants, dance halls and nightclubs come alive. Sidewalk tables along the narrow winding streets near Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor are full even on the chilly fall evenings. Most of the bars have standing room only space and people queue up at the nightclubs and theaters. During the week, many Madrileño don’t head home until the Metro stops running at 1:30 AM. On weekends, many Spaniards stay up all night and create a 5:00 AM traffic jam as they head for home.

Visitors will enjoy Madrid regardless of the time of the year. However, spring and fall are the more pleasant times to visit. Madrid is essentially a dry city. Rain is rare and high heat in early summer is often not as oppressive as some might expect primarily due to the region’s low humidity. And with so many Madrileños on holiday during August, visitors will experience fewer lines and less traffic. The downside is that many of the bars and restaurants are closed. Winter months can be quite cold with a dusting of snow during a brief couple of weeks. However, with such mild winters, many visitors are choosing Madrid as their Christmas shopping destination.

In many ways, Madrid is a city of contrasts. On the one hand, it is a city of immense energy, constantly growing and sizzling with life. On the other hand, it offers an array of large and small city parks, quiet places and artistic venues where you can relax, enjoy the scenery and proceed at your own pace. In short, it is one of the most exciting capital cities in Europe.

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