Madrid, the Spanish capital since 1561, is Europe's city that never sleeps. A vibrant and increasingly international metropolis, Madrid has an infectious appetite for art, music, and epicurean pleasures yet remains steadfast in its age-old 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 part of Madrid that draws visitors the world over is its historic center, situated between the Palacio Real and the city's green lung, the Parque del Buen Retiro. A conglomeration of Belle Époque buildings with intricate facades, terra-cotta-roofed residences and redbrick Mudejar Revival churches, Madrid is a stately stunner, but the city's most memorable aspect may be its culture of being outdoors as much as possible: restaurant patios, flea markets, and parks and plazas are always abuzz with madrileños.
Then there are the paintings—the artistic legacy of one of the most important global empires ever assembled. King Carlos I (1500–58), who later became Emperor Carlos V (or Charles V), set out to collect the best specimens from all European schools of art, many of which found their way to Spain's palaces and, later, to the Prado Museum. Between the classical Prado, the contemporary Reina Sofía, the wide-ranging Thyssen-Bornemisza, 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, to name a few—there are more paintings here than you could admire in a lifetime.
Not all of the city's most memorable attractions are centuries old. The CaixaForum arts center is an architectural triumph by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Futuristic towers by Norman Foster and César Pelli have changed the city's northern landscape. Other newly finished projects include Madrid Río, which has added nearly 20 miles of green space along the banks of the Manzanares River, and the Conde Duque cultural center, a multidisciplinary haven that hosts film screenings, dance nights, poetry readings, and more.