Central Madrid began to take on its present appearance in the mid-19th century with the modernization of Puerta del Sol. This busy intersection was the first to have electric street lighting, trams and, in 1919, Madrid’s first underground station. Meanwhile Calle de Alcalá was becoming the focal point of a new financial district as banks, insurance offices and other businesses set up their headquarters in showy new premises. Building work on the Gran Vía began in 1910 but was only completed in the 1940s with the remodelling of Plaza de España. To make way for this sweeping Parisian style boulevard, 1,315 m (1,440 yds) long and designed with automobile traffic in mind, more than 300 buildings were demolished and 14 streets disappeared altogether. The new avenue reflected the American architectural tastes of the jazz age, with skyscrapers, cinemas, glitzy cocktail bars, luxury hotels, theatres and restaurants.

Ernest Hemingway

The famous American writer Ernest Hemingway arrived in Madrid in March 1937 to find a city under siege. He stayed in the Hotel Florida on Plaza del Callao (since demolished) and recalled dodging shells and sniper bullets on Gran Vía as he made his way to the Telefónica building to file his stories, or took the short tram ride to the front on the edge of Casa de Campo.


  1. Puerta del Sol

    Ten streets radiate from this elliptical square, which for most madrileños is the real heart of the city. The name means “Gateway of the Sun” although the actual gateway was demolished in 1570. Of numerous historic events to take place here, the most dramatic occurred during the 1808 insurrection when snipers fired on one of Napoleon’s soldiers, provoking a massacre. Dominating the south side of the square is the 18th-century Casa de Correos, a post office which later became the Ministry of the Interior and now houses the regional government. A marker in front of the building indicates “kilómetro cero”, from which all distances in Spain are calculated. In the centre of the square is a statue of Carlos III and, on the corner of Calle del Carmen, a bronze statue of a bear climbing an arbutus tree, the symbol of the city.

    Tio Pepe sign, Puerta del Sol
  2. Real Casa de la Aduana

    The royal customs house was a cornerstone of Carlos III’s plans to improve the appearance of the city. In 1761 the queen’s stables and 16 houses were demolished to make way for Francesco Sabatini’s Neo-Classical masterpiece. Huge amounts of money were lavished on the façade alone, the decorative features of which include ashlar columns and a balcony bearing the royal coat of arms. It is now home to the Ministry of Finance.

    • Calle de Alcalá 8

    • Closed to public

    Façade detail, Real Casa de la Aduana
  3. Real Academia de Bellas Artes

    Founded in the 18th century, the palatial Academy of Fine Arts house a collection of paintings surpassed only by the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Outstanding among the Spanish paintings are the Goyas, including the classic fiesta scene Burial of the Sardine. There are also impressive works by European masters including Bellini, Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Rubens and Titian. Picasso and Dalí studied here for a time.

    • Calle de Alcalá 13

    • Open 9am–7pm Tue–Fri, 9am–2:30pm, 4–7pm Sat, 9am–2:30pm Sun–Mon & public hols

    • Adm (except Wed)

  4. Círculo de Bellas Artes

    While the golden age of the Arts Club was in the 1920s and 1930s, this cultural organization is still thriving today. The Círculo promotes Spanish and world culture, with exhibitions, theatre and ballet productions, art films, workshops and conferences. It even has a magazine, Minerva, and a radio station.

    • Calle del Marqués de Casa Riera 2

    • Open 10am–9pm daily (café open until 1am); Exhibitions: 5–9pm Tue–Sat, 11am–2pm Tue–Sun

    • Closed Aug

    • Adm

    Círculo de Bellas Artes
  5. Edificio Telefónica

    Now headquarters of Spain’s national telephone company, this was Madrid’s first high-rise building. Designed by American architect Lewis Weeks in 1929, it reflects the values of the Chicago School then much in vogue. The Telefónica building played an important role in the Civil War when it was used by the Republican army as a vantage point for observing enemy troop movements in the Casa de Campo. Conversely, Franco’s forces found it an ideal range finder for their artillery. The Fundación de Arte y Tecnología Telefónica has an exhibition on the history of communications as well as a splendid art collection, with works by Picasso, Juan Gris, Eduardo Chillida and Antoni Tàpies. Another room on the ground floor hosts temporary exhibitions.

    • Calle de Fuencarral 3

    • Open 10am–2pm, 5–8pm Tue–Fri, 11am–8pm Sat, 10am–2pm Sun & public hols

    • Free

  6. El Corte Inglés

    The story of the founder of Spain’s premier department store, Ramón Areces Rodríguez, is a classic tale of rags-to-riches. Areces emigrated to Cuba aged 15 and worked as a shop assistant before returning to Spain in 1934. The following year he opened a small tailor’s in Calle de Preciados and never looked back. Nowadays you’ll hardly leave your hotel without noticing the distinctive white shopping bags with the green logo. The store at Preciados No.1 sells CDs, No.2 stocks over half a million books and No. 3 specializes in fashion. There are numerous branches in the capital.

    • Calle de Preciados

  7. Metrópolis

    It was La Unión y el Fénix insurance company, the original owners of this Madrid landmark, who commissioned the striking statue on the cupola. Known as “Ave Fenix”, it represents the fabled Egyptian bird which died on a funeral pyre but rose from the flames once every 500 years. When the Metrópolis company moved into the building, they inherited the sculpture which then lost its significance.

    • Corner Gran Vía & Calle de Alcalá

  8. Banco de España

    The Bank of Spain was founded in 1856 and 20 years later acquired the exclusive right to issue bank notes in its name. The most impressive part of these headquarters is the corner section, decorated with typical Neo-Baroque ornamentation – caryatids and medallions, a marble clock and the distinctive golden globe. Spain’s gold reserves are locked away in the vaults beneath Plaza de Cibeles. Apart from gold, the bank’s main treasure is its art collection, with works ranging from Goya to Tàpies. It can only be viewed by written application to the bank.

    • Calle de Alcalá 50

  9. Plaza del Callao

    The look of this busy square reflects the sleek modernist architecture of 1930s America. Good examples are the curved Art Deco façade of the Carrión building (No. 3), the Palacio de la Prensa (No. 4) and the Palacio de la Música (Gran Vía 35), all now cinemas. Madrid is one of only a handful of cities in the world where you can still see hand-painted film posters.

  10. Casino de Madrid

    This exclusive gentlemen’s club was founded in 1910. The florid architecture by Luis Esteve and José López Salaberry is typical of the period, but unfortunately the lavish interior is rarely open to the public. Non-members, however, are allowed in the restaurant, La Terraza Del Casino, which has a Michelin star.

    • Calle de Alcalá 15

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