Madrid, the Spanish capital since 1561, celebrates itself and life in general around the clock. A vibrant crossroads, Madrid has an infectious appetite for art, music, and epicurean pleasure, and it's turned into a cosmopolitan, modern urban center while fiercely preserving its traditions.
The modern city spreads east into the 19th-century grid of the Barrio de Salamanca and sprawls north through the neighborhoods of Chamberí and Chamartín, but the Madrid you should explore thoroughly on foot is right in the center, in Madrid's oldest quarters, between the Palacio Real and the midtown forest, the Parque del Buen Retiro. Wandering around this conglomeration of residential buildings with ancient red-tile rooftops, punctuated by redbrick Mudejar churches and grand buildings with gray-slate roofs and spires left by the Habsburg monarchs, you're more likely to grasp what is probably the city's major highlight: the buzzing activity of people who are elated when they're outdoors.
Then there are the paintings—the artistic legacy of one of the greatest global empires ever assembled. King Carlos I (1500–58), who later became Emperor Carlos V (or Charles V), made sure the early masters of all European schools found their way to Spain's palaces and this collection was eventually placed in the Prado. Between the Prado, the contemporary Reina Sofía, the eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, and Madrid's smaller artistic repositories—the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, the Convento de las Descalzas Reales, the Sorolla Museum, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, and the CaixaForum—there are more paintings than you could admire in a lifetime.
The attractions go beyond the well-known Baroque landmarks. Now in the middle of an expansion plan, Madrid is making sure that some of the world's best architects will leave their imprint on the city. This is certainly the case with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who are responsible for the CaixaForum arts center, which opened in 2008 across from the Botanical Garden. Major renovations of the Museo del Prado and the Museo Reina Sofía are by Rafael Moneo and Jean Nouvel, respectively. Looming towers by Norman Foster and César Pelli have changed the city's northern landscape. Other projects include the Madrid-Río project, which has added new green spaces along the banks of the Manzanares River; the controversial and sustainable Museum of Art and Architecture that Argentinean architect Emilio Ambasz plans to build across from the Prado, and the new Museo de Colecciones Reales (Royal Collection Museum), expected to open in late 2015, by Tuñón and Mansilla.