The capital of Spain, Madrid, is situated in the centre of the country, surrounded by the regions of Castilla-Leon and Castilla La Mancha. It's the highest capital in Europe at 646 metres above sea level and has cold winters and extremely hot summers, making the best time to visit in the early spring or autumn when it is pleasantly warm and bright. It's a great city for a short break with so much to see and do and whilst most of the sights can be easily explored on foot there is also a cheap and efficient metro system for when the going gets tough.
Spain's proud and vibrant capital is home to the Spanish parliament, Royal Family and a wealth of architectural and cultural treasures. It is also a city in transformation, with major investment going into its historic heritage and many buildings being carefully cleaned and restored. Among the city's fine buildings, one of the most visited is the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) built on the site of the ancient Alcazar which burned down in 1734. Although not used by the present Royal Family as a residence, it is still used for state occasions and for public guided tours. The showcase of Madrid's historic heritage is the Plaza Mayor, the beautifully preserved 17th Century main square which lies in the old quarter. It was completed under Philip III whose bronze equestrian statue is located in the centre of the pedestrianised plaza. One of the finest buildings in the Plaza is Casa de la Panadería, home of the Bakers Guild. Built in the Flemish style, its twin towers and façade are ornately decorated with colourful fresco paintings. Originally used for bullfights, tournaments, and even public executions, the square is now a popular place to meet or to sit and watch the world go by from one of the many outdoor cafes which line the square. On Sunday mornings a market is held which sells old coins and stamps, and in the period leading up to Christmas the square hosts a colourful flea market where all types of Christmas decorations can be bought. Not far from the Plaza Mayor is the Mercado de San Miguel, last of Madrid's iron and glass markets and where the locals come to buy their groceries. Madrid's most famous treasures lie in the golden triangle of museums, the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia, where some of the world's greatest art collections can be seen.
A short distance away lies Madrid's main park, the Parque del Retiro, a perfect place to rest after visiting the museums. It's a popular place for families especially on Sundays when pavement artists emerge and puppet shows and circus acts are staged and there is also boating available on the lake. 'Madrileños' certainly know how to enjoy themselves with bars, restaurants and clubs open until well into the early hours and colourful carnivals and festivals taking place throughout the year. For shopaholics Madrid also has some of the best shopping in Spain with a huge range of shops to suit all budgets. The main shopping areas lie in the Puerto del Sol area where you can find the well-known department store, El Corte Ingles, and Barrio de Salamanca, the 'chic' shopping area, also known as the golden mile, but don't forget to bring your credit card! For a complete contrast, El Rastro is a vast flea market where just about anything can be found for sale at bargain prices.
Outside Madrid, there are several popular day excursions. One is to El Escorial, the palace and monastery built for Philip II as a retreat from the city and another is to Aranjuez; a fertile oasis bordering Castilla La Mancha. Here you will find the 18th Century Palacio Real (Royal Palace) built by Spain's Bourbon Kings in a style reminiscent of France's Palace of Versailles and acres of wonderful gardens. Also popular with Madrileños at weekends is the pretty little town of Chinchón whose main square is regularly used for bullfights and concerts and where a passion play is staged at Easter.