A few minutes away our bus took as past the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square that was built during the Habsburg period. From here it was not far to another major square in Madrid: the Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s busiest public spaces and the place where the annual New Year’s celebrations take place.
The Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s most popular square
Following along the impressive early 20th century buildings on the Calle de Alcala and the Gran Via, we made our way to the Paseo del Prado, where Madrid’s museum row begins. Madrid is a major centre of arts and three important museums are located right here in the “Golden Triangle of Art”: the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum with its collection of paintings by Old Masters and its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works; the Museo Reina Sofia which is mainly dedicated to Spanish Art; and the Museo del Prado, which houses one of the finest collections of European art from the 12th to the early 19th century.
The historic Atocha railway station
We turned at the Atocha Railway Station, an impressive building from 1892 that was the victim of the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 which killed 191 people and wounded 1,800. Further north we passed by Madrid’s largest public green space: the Parque del Buen Retiro, and then made our way back on the Gran Via, Madrid’s biggest shopping street that is celebrating 100 years of its existence.
The opulent Gran Via, Madrid’s most popular shopping street
I now had returned to my starting point, so I exited the bus and started walking. On the Calle de Alcala a large number of oversized photos by an African photographer had been set up. The expressive faces and strong colours of this temporary outdoor gallery were captivating and a great decoration of this stately street.
One of the gorgeous oversize photos on Calle de Alcala
From here I walked over on the pedestrian Calle Arenal to the Royal Palace and the Opera House. I also admired the interior of the recently completed Cathedral La Almudena before I started walking back east again on the Calle Miguel. By accident I stumbled upon the Mercado San Miguel, a beautiful early 20th century market building that is a popular gathering spot. The locals and tourists alike obviously love this spot to buy their fruits, vegetables, seafood or meat here, or they simply come to hang out and enjoy a coffee.
The Mercado de San Miguel
Then I hopped back on the sightseeing bus, stopped off at the historic Atocha Train Station. Opened in 1892 this is the second train station in this location as the earlier one from 1851 had been destroyed by fire. In 1992 the station’s concourse level was completed redesigned and actually holds a 4000 square metre large garden now, flanked by several restaurants and bars, while the commuter train platforms are now underground. The adjacent new terminal building now is home to the high speed AVE trains.
The interior of the Atocha railway station now holds a huge garden
A few minutes further north I entered the Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s scenic urban park. With 350 acres, Buen Retiro Park represents the “Lungs of Madrid” and is a huge attraction for locals and visitors. Formerly part of the royal gardens, the park features many beautiful sculptures, monuments and buildings like the Palacio de Cristal, a late Victorian-era glass palace. A large pond, the Estanque, is where families, couples and street artists congregate. There are even row boats on the pond.
El Estanque, the big pond inside Buen Retiro Park
After a ride back downtown on the sightseeing bus I enjoyed a delicious vegetarian dinner at a place called Salad and Co. before I embarked on a sunset walk through the Puerta del Sol area which was thriving with locals, tourists and street performers. Downtown Madrid is definitely a happening place, and Madrileños are known for their ability to party until the morning. Unfortunately I had to catch a bit more rest than that. So as night fell I headed back to my hotel on the grandly illuminated Gran Via for another day of explorations in Madrid.
Madrid at night is a gorgeous place