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The Art Walk (Paseo del Prado)
Any visit to Madrid should include a stroll along Paseo del Prado, lined with some world-class museums (whose architecture as well as art are worth admiring), and some wandering in the adjoining Barrio de las Letras, the old literary neighborhood that is now a happening area full of restaurants. You can tour the area in about two hours, longer if you visit the Prado, lounge in any of the Barrio de las Letras's charming tapas bars, or take a stroll in Retiro Park.
The Paseo del Arte (Art Walk) pass allows you to visit the Prado, the Reina Sofía, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza for €17.60. You can buy it at any of the three museums, and you don't have to visit all of them on the same day.
The Paseo del Prado stretches from the Plaza de la Cibeles to Plaza del Emperador Carlos V (also known as Plaza Atocha) and is home to Madrid's three main art museums—the Prado, the Reina Sofía, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza—as well as the CaixaForum, an art institution with fabulous temporary exhibitions. In earlier times the Paseo marked the eastern boundary of the city, and in the 17th century it was given a cleaner neoclassical look. A century later, King Carlos III designed a leafy nature walk with glorious fountains and a botanical garden to provide respite to madrileños during the scorching summers.
The stretch of the Paseo del Prado from Plaza Cánovas del Castillo north to Cibeles houses some notable buildings, but it's the southern end of the Paseo that shouldn't be missed. Start your walk on Plaza Cánovas del Castillo, with its Fuente de Neptuno (Fountain of Neptune); on the northwestern corner is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. To your left, across from the plaza, is the elegant Ritz hotel, alongside the obelisk dedicated to all those who have died for Spain, and across it on the right is the Museo del Prado, the best example of neoclassical architecture in the city and one of the world's best-known museums. It was enlarged in 2007 with the addition of what's widely known as "Moneo's cube," architect Rafael Moneo's steel and glass building that now encloses the cloister of the old Monasterio de los Jerónimos. The monastery, of which now only the church stands, is easily dwarfed by the museum, but this is by far the oldest building in this part of the city, dating to 1503, and was at one time the core of the old Parque del Buen Retiro (the park stretched as far as the Paseo del Prado until the 19th century, when Queen Isabel II sold a third of its terrains to the State) and the reason for the park's name: the monastery is where the Hapsburg kings would temporarily "retire" from their mundane yet overwhelming state affairs. The park, always bustling, especially on the weekends, is a great place to finish off a day or to unwind after some intense sightseeing.
To the right of the Prado, across from the Murillo Gate, is the Jardín Botánico, also a wonderful place to relax with a book or to sketch under the shelter of a leafy exotic tree. Across the street is the sloping plaza that leads to the CaixaForum, a free, impressive arts exhibition center.
The Paseo del Prado ends on the Glorieta (roundabout) del Emperador Carlos V, where you'll find the Estación de Atocha, a railway station resembling the overturned hull of a ship, and, to the west of the Plaza, across from Calle Atocha, in the building with the exterior glass elevators, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid's modern art museum and the current home of Picasso's Guernica.
West of the Paseo del Prado is the lively Barrio de las Letras neighborhood, full of charming and historic streets and popular bars for a snack or a sit-down meal after museum sightseeing—from the Paseo del Prado, just take Calle Huertas, Calle Lope de Vega, or any of the other cross streets from Calle Alameda or Calle San Pedro. Along Calle Lope de Vega are the excellent tapas bars La Dolores and El Cervantes. Near here, at the corner of Calle León and Calle Cervantes is the Casa de Cervantes, where, as the plaque on the wall attests, the author of Don Quijote died on April 23, 1616 (he was buried in the convent and church of the Trinitarias Descalzas, also on Calle Lope de Vega, but his remains were misplaced in the 17th century). Down the street, at No. 11, is the Casa de Lope de Vega, where the "Spanish Shakespeare," Fray Lope Félix de la Vega Carpio, lived and worked. Walk Calle León until it merges with Calle Prado, then make a left and end your tour of this neighborhood at Plaza de Santa Ana, the Barrio de las Letras's lively main square, also crowded with bars, including the Cervecería Alemana, one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite hangouts while he was in Madrid (it's a fine place to sip a beer, but for eating).
If you feel the need to wear out your walking shoes a little more, take Calle Príncipe and then Calle Sevilla to Calle Alcalá, make a right, and head down until you reach Plaza de la Cibeles, then walk up to the Puerta de Alcalá and enter the Parque del Buen Retiro through the entrance on that square.
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