Madrid is a fairly large city. However, to a tourist’s delight, most of the major sights can be found in just a couple of neighborhoods. Centro is one of those.
Centro is the historical city. Puerta del Sol, one of the major squares in the neighborhood, was actually a gate into the old city at one point. The neighborhood is very walkable, and most residents and tourists take advantage of their bipedal natures to do so. The sidewalks are crowded, the pedestrian only streets more so, and the squares even more. Narrow cobblestone streets cut through the area in seemingly random directions (streets that appear parallel may diverge greatly a couple blocks down), flanked by restaurants, bars, and shops of all sorts.
Walking from square to square among the Spaniards is a wonderful experience. Unlike other walking cities like New York, those in Madrid don’t seem to be in a hurry, and always appear to be smiling. This positivity is contagious, and will leave you returning those smiles, even in the densest of crowds.
The highlight of the Centro neighborhood is the Royal Palace. Built in 1755 by King Felipe V, it doesn’t appear all that impressive from the outside. Don’t let that fool you. Inside, it is every bit as lavish as Versailles. While it is officially still a royal residence, it is no longer used in that function, and is open year round for tours. Be sure to stop into the chapel, the King’s personal prayer space. It is stunning!
Just across from the palace is the Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Almudena. Admission is free (always a win for a budget conscious traveler), and the place is nice. Especially impressive is the stonework in the columns and interior arches.
Beyond these sights, though, the neighborhood is best seen by walking through random alleys and tiny streets. Stop into a tapas bar or three. Each will have a specialty item. My favorites are the croquettas de bacalao (cod croquettes) at Casa Labra and the chorizo plate at El Niru. Keep in mind that Spaniards operate on a different schedule than Americans, with lunch starting around 1pm, and kitchens opening for dinner after 8. Tapas is the option in between.
Jamon (cured ham) is ubiquitous here and is incredible.
If you like shopping, Plaza Mayor has many of the more local specialties available (both within the square and just outside), like shoes, hats, and Mallorca pearls. For more upscale fashion, head north of the Gran Via for American and European chains.
To experience Centro, just stroll. Find a hidden plaza that speaks to you, or a back street that calls to you, and enjoy it!