Madrid is really like most other international metropolitan areas of the world. It is the biggest Spanish conurbation with the largest number of inhabitants, Spain’s capital city and its main business hub. But, one should consider all the little details that shape such a great travel destination. Once you leave the airport and enter the city, amidst the barrage of sky-scrappers and the uproar of the almost perpetual traffic, pay attention and then you will hear the faint guitar tunes, the rustling of the Flamenco dresses, the classic "olés" of the Matadors and the laughter of hordes of tourist who have perhaps had one too many a glass of Tinto de verano.
Madrid may not be as appealing as Andalusia's many highlights, as bustling as Barcelona and it may not have the charm of Toledo or Saragossa (Zaragoza). But in Madrid you can see the Prado, one of the foremost museums in the world, or Santiago Bernabéu, the stadium of a world-class football team, a myriad of splendid parks and an overwhelming number of castles, palaces, churches and cathedrals. Setting off from Spain’s busiest airport, Barajas, to the Museo del Prado, Madrid offers a unique atmosphere, with architecture and art playing an important role. The airport itself is big, always busy and crowded, with 4 terminals; the first three being placed near to one another, with the 4th a short distance away. If you come by plane, Autoclick's staff will be at the airport to greet you, offering you a free transfer from the airport to the car hire office in Madrid to pick up your own vehicle.
Even if you have booked your accommodation within the city itself, the main advantage of having a car at your disposal is the option of being able to get out of the city in no time - and there are plenty of things to do outside Madrid. If, on the other hand, you are in Madrid on a business trip but have some spare time, a car will be a huge time saver and enable you to see some of the main sights. But let's take a look at the most important places to see in Madrid first. Using a rented car will allow you to get about a bit faster.
Churches, Chapels and Cathedrals
The Cathedral (Santa María la Real de La Almudena) in the vicinity of Palacio Real de Madrid is a much-acclaimed place, built by Philip II of Spain in 1561 when Madrid acquired capital status from Toledo. There is an interesting story around the building of this wonderful construction. Toledo was, at that time, the capital city and the people of Toledo were angry and put out because another church would most likely overcome the beauty and the size of their own. The cathedral offers free entrance and stays open in the winter from 09:00 AM to 08:30 PM and in July and August from 10:00 AM to 09:00 PM. Its size is impressive, 100 m in length and 76 m in width, with a central nave over 20 m wide. Although this cathedral is not as spectacular as the one in Toledo, it is well worth a visit if you are on your way to the Royal Palace.
If you would like to visit the museum as well, there is a small fee of about 6 € per person. The museum is open during the week between 10:00 AM and 08:30 PM and is closed on Sundays.
San Jerónimo el Real, located a few hundred steps from the Prado Museum, is rather special because it the chosen site of worship for Spain’s royal family. This is where Juan Carlos I was crowned in 1975. Initially part of the same Buen Retiro Palace, which hosts El Prado, it features beautiful Elizabethan architecture with a Neo-Gothic exterior. Plaza Major hosts some of the most beautiful churches in Madrid with the Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande being a particular highlight. Carlos III constructed it on top of an older Franciscan monastery during the 18th Century. A tour of the main cathedrals and churches in Madrid will probably include Las Calatravas, Las Descalzas Reales, the San Andres church, San Cayetano, San Isidro, Santa Barbara and San Marcos. For such a tour it would be easier to leave your car in a car park and explore on foot.
Your best choice of a sacred place in or near Madrid is probably the mighty El Escorial, both, monastery and royal residence. El Escorial offers a church as well as a museum, it has a chapel as well as a torture chamber; it is a monument listed by UNESCO and is situated just outside Madrid. El Escorial is definitively one of the places you should not miss when visiting the Spanish capital and easy to find if you are using the GPS provided with the car you have been allocated when booking with Autoclick. El Escorial is impressive, gorgeous and overwhelming, both, in size and beauty; to see all of it you would probably need more than one day. Should you manage to see it all, your vision of Catholicism, Spanish culture in general and civilization as such will most likely change forever after your visit.
Parks and more Parks
The Parque del Buen Retiro is Madrid's most popular park and was built by the Royal family as a place of relaxation and meditation. At the time of its inauguration it was situated well beyond Madrid’s city walls. Two artificial lakes were added at a later stage, Estanque del Retiro being the larger of the two. Next to the larger lake there is an enormous statue of Alfonso XII of Spain. The smaller lake can be found in the southern part of the park, next to Palacio de Cristal, a palace that was meant to replicate the similar London edifice. Initially it was used to accommodate exotic plants from the Philippines and over time, it was re-purposed as a temporary art gallery.
Another park in the neighbourhood of Palacio Real is Los Jardines de Sabatini, spreading out over a surface of 3 hectares. This particular park became famous for its statues and the geometrically cut trees, featuring a large number of water fountains.
Here are some other interesting parks within easy reach of Madrid if you use a car:
- Parque del Oeste is a clean, beautiful and well cared-for landmark in the Moncloa area.
- Real Jardín Botánico is Madrid’s botanical garden, hosting a large number of plants since 1775.
- The Campo del Moro gardens is an enchanting public area surrounded by lush vegetation, situated between the Royal Palace and the River Manzanares, named after the Moorish invasion in the 12th Century.
- The Casa de Campo is the largest of all parks of Madrid’s metropolitan area and functions as the green lungs of Madrid, an oasis of greenery and peacefulness within the city. It is the biggest urban park in all of Spain with a history of almost 500 years.
Palaces and Castles in Madrid
In the area of the Cathedral we would suggest taking in the Palacio Real as well. It is open from 10:00 AM onwards; glancing at everything important should not take more than two hours. Unfortunately, one is not allowed to take photos of the interior of the palace, but you will have a chance to do so in the courtyard, on the monumental marble staircase and of the immense hallway at the entrance. From here you will spot the Campo del Moro mentioned earlier. Currently, the Royal family resides in the Palacio de La Zarzuela, initially a hunting lodge some 20 km outside of Madrid. You would find it, exiting the city by way of the Palacio de la Moncloa. Then there is El Pardo, another Royal palace sitting on top of a mountain about 6 km from Madrid.
The Palacio de Santa Cruz is easy to find if you drive to the Plaza de la Provincia area, close to Plaza Mayor. This imperial Hapsburg red-stone edifice initially used to be a prison, in 1629, and was used by the terrible Spanish Inquisition Tribunal. The Palacio de Santa Cruz was transformed at the beginning of the 20th Century into the Foreign Affairs headquarters. Palaciodel duque de Uceda, built between 1613 and 1625, displays the same Hapsburg style, an example of Baroque architecture. The Palacio de Linares is close to the Plaza de Cibeles, the Paseo de Recoletos and Calle de Alcalá; it was built in 1873 by Marquis of Linares to celebrate its nobleness.
Museums of Madrid
El Prado does not need an introduction, it just has to be seen. Carlos III wanted Madrid to be able to compete with other historical capitals of the Old Continent and contributed by building a series of gorgeous-looking buildings and museums. The king wanted a Natural History Museum and this is what he signed for in 1785. Rough times were about to come and the Independence War transformed it into a war arsenal. Later, the building would burn in a fire to be reconstructed by King Ferdinand VII, re-purposed once again as the Royal Painting and Sculpture Museum. The art collection here was enormous, requiring more and more space; so three more wings were added, in 1918, 1959 and 1960 respectively.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza sits in the vicinity of Banco de España, just across the street from El Prado, near the Neptune and Cibeles fountains. If you love impressionism, this is the place to go. On Calle San Isabel there is another very interesting museum, Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (the MOMA of Madrid). Its structure used to be a hospital during the reign of Philip II, starting with 1566, and was transformed in a museum only recently. On display here, among other great names, you will see works of Picasso, Miró or Salvador Dalí. The Parque de la Montana, close to Plaza España, offers the Templo de Debod, a somewhat peculiar gift made by the Egyptian government featuring authentic Egyptian buildings from the village of Debod, 15 km from Aswan.
If some of the above attractions need to be paid for, the city's superb plazas can be admired for free - Plaza Mayor, Plaza Castilla, Plaza de España, Plaza del Sol, Plaza de Cibeles, Plaza de la Independencia with the Puerta de Alcalá. The Atocha train station could be a view, as well as the grandiose buildings lining Gran Vía or Arco de la Victoria, a highlight between Plaza Moncloa and Parque del Oeste. Keep in mind, most of the museums and sights presented here could be seen for free, in certain periods of the year, some even during the evening, when the crowds are much reduced. One more time, some of these attractions are worth seeing in one combined outing, depending on the area, with plenty of secure places to park your car.
Things to do outside of Madrid
Get into the car and escape the downtown traffic congestion in no time at all. Start with a visit to the mountains, in Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), 30 km away from Madrid and only 10 km from El Escorial, where one gigantic funerary monument is honouring the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The idea of building this monument was Franco's, the Spanish dictator of the 20th Century, aiming to offer a "national monument of atonement ". It is not just the monument, but the whole area around it, including one of the biggest monasteries the world has ever seen, carved in granite just above the valley. The size is impressive, bigger then St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Also here is the highest memorial cross in the world - 152 metres of stone, visible from more than 30 kilometres distance on a sunny day.
In the opposite direction, 48 km southeast, we have Chinchón, one of the most picturesque towns in Spain, a typical old Iberian settlement. It was built around the locally popular Plaza Mayor, a unique square you would not want to miss; there are 234 wooden balconies, named "claros", dominating the enormous range of restaurants and bars below. Also used as an open-air theatre for events or as a bullfighting arena, Plaza Mayor is the spiritual heart of the town and a favourite gathering place for residents. Do not leave Chinchón without seeing some of its interesting attractions as well: Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the Teatro Lope de Vega, the Convento de San Agustín, the Museo Etnologico La Posada, the Convento de las Clarisas, the Casa de Cadena or the Castillo de Casasola.
Toledo is simply amazing. It is situated about 70 km southwest of Madrid, in the heart of the Castilla-La Mancha region in the very centre of Spain. The whole province counts more than 2.5 million inhabitants. Cabañeros National Park is well known in Spain and even abroad. Spread along a hill, overlooking River Tagus (or Tajo - yes, the one that flows into the Atlantic Ocean, passing through Lisbon in Portugal on its way), Toledo has a long and dark history, starting in 192 B.C. when, according to the archaeological discoveries, there was a small community living here within the walls of a strong fortified village, with a Roman amphitheatre that could have hosted 13,000 spectators at any one time. Starting in 400 A.D., the "concilios" (councils) were kept here - around 30 ecclesiastic synods that transformed the city into the Catholic Centre of Spain, during a time when the Christian Church gained in importance all over Europe as the official religion in most of the civilized western world.
Why not seeing Madrid and the surrounding area by car?
It really depends on the season: during the summer, temperatures are high, making the public transport sweaty and bothersome. During the winter, it is more comfortable to escape the cold and see Madrid, its metropolitan area or surrounding cities by car. Spring and autumn are ideal, temperature-wise, for travelling to Madrid regardless of the means of transportation. If on a business trip, given the enormous size of the city and the limited time you may have available, a car hire service will make things so much easier. Moving from place to place by public transport could be a struggle, even with a map. Most of the markings are in Spanish. You will appreciate the GPS equipment that comes with our cars. One aspect you would definitely take into consideration is the Wi-Fi connection available inside your vehicle, skipping mobile phone roaming charges, which often are a bit on the high side.
And let's not forget about the free transfer from the airport to the car rental office, an enjoyable trip, under the care of our friendly drivers.