The oldest part of Madrid combines the majestic Royal Palace with the popular atmosphere of Plaza Mayor and surroundings
What to see
Where to sleep
Food and drink
Plaza Mayor, La Encarnación Monastery and Plaza de la Villa, with buildings erected in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – Casa de la Villa (formerly, Madrid City Hall), Los Lujanes Tower, Cisneros House –, are the main architectural complexes built under the Hapsburgs. Another must-see landmark is the Descalzas Reales Monastery, a nunnery that was the royal seat of Charles I of Spain. In it, you can view the permanent collection, containing works of art from the sixteenth century on. Finally, the Santa Cruz Palace, built in 1629, is home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This part of Madrid, peppered with churches and crowned by the Alcázar (a huge building destroyed by fire in 1737), was chosen by the Bourbons to raise the Royal Palace. Nearby are Plaza de Oriente, La Almudena Cathedral, which has a museum that gives access to the dome, affording beautiful views of the sierras, and other buildings from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Some of these sights are the Collegiate Church of San Isidro (Madrid’s cathedral until 1993), the Basilica of San Miguel, the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande and the Teatro Real opera house.
Following your sightseeing tour of the area, head for the Sabatini Gardens, across the north façade of the Royal Palace.
If you want to stay close to the busy, noisy, and lively Plaza Mayor, you can choose from the countless hostels, bed & breakfasts, two- and three-star hotels, traditional or ultra-modern establishments like the Room Mate Mario, luxury properties such as the Petit Palace Plaza Mayor – the result of the rehabilitation of one of the oldest hotels in Madrid, the Posada del Peine –, the Ópera Hotel or the Tryp Madrid Ambassador.
Don’t miss the chance to feel at home away from home in Hapsburg Madrid. There’re lots of serviced apartments – attics offering fabulous vistas of the Sierra de Guadarrama and old buildings that have been refurbished to a very high standard and converted into luxury homes.
The San Miguel Market is a major culinary attraction in Hapsburg Madrid. With an iron and glass structure from 1916, the market sells fruit, fish, bread, tapas and sweets at some 30 individual stalls. By night, you can enjoy the ambience and have a drink. Experience something different any day of the week with the concerts, presentations or press rounds that take place at the market.
The area is one of Madrid’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, with bars and restaurants to eat tapas and try traditional fare like bocata de calamares (squid in batter served between two slices of bread). There’re a few hundred-year-old coffee houses too, such as San Ginés, serving hot chocolate with churros (batter sticks), and more modern establishments selling food to take away
The oldest stores in Madrid lie around Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. They sell everything from homemade sausages and cakes and pastries to fashion, shoes and accessories.
Calles Mayor and Arenal are flanked by modern stores, while the arcaded perimeter of Plaza Mayor and the narrow adjoining alleys are taken over by small shops selling stamps and coins, or old icons like the haberdasher’s Almacenes Pontejos. Casa Hernanz has been selling traditional Spanish espadrilles, or alpargatas, in the same place on Calle Toledo since 1840.
In Madrid de los Austrias you’ll find a wealth of gift shops to buy nice souvenirs and take them back home as reminders of your visit. Spain has a deeply-rooted tradition of pork products, especially Ibérico ham, to make the flavours of Madrid linger on your mouth for a long time.