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Vibrant, Cultured Madrid

Both cosmopolitan and traditional, Madrid pulses with vibrant culture and modern comfort. As the capital city of Spain, Madrid draws tourists from all over the world to delight in its culinary, artistic, and historic offerings. A friend and I visited Madrid and nearby towns for a number of days as part of an intense trip across southwestern Europe in 2012. While there, we basked in the sights and sounds of this energetic city and the surrounding countryside.

Cuisine

In recent years, Spain—and the greater Madrid region, in particular—has become a magnet for foodies around the world. There are countless restaurants offering everything from traditional home-style fare in tiny family-run “tavernas” to exquisite fine dining in upscale establishments. While here, we sampled countless tapas (small, appetizer-sized dishes), as well as more exotic fare, such as squid ink paella. Don’t let this odd-looking black rice dish put you off; it’s fantastic!

Madrid

Of course, there’s more to Madrid than the food. The city is rich with art and history. And of course, it throbs with music all day and all night, from traditional flamenco to nightclub techno beats. The people of this city love to stay up late partying!

Plaza Mayor. This is one of the largest public squares in Europe, and it’s been the site of countless historical events, from vast masquerades to bloody executions. Today it provides a wonderful place to relax in a cafe and do a little people-watching. We were lucky enough to catch a goofy act by a local Spiderman, as well as many other street performers, musicians, and artists.

Palacio Real de Madrid. The monumental Royal Palace is as much a symbol of over-the-top grandeur as it is a symbol of Spanish history. It contains around 3,000 rooms, so be prepared to spend a little time on a full tour!

Prado Museum. The famed Prado features works by Spain’s most renowned artists, including El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez. It also houses pieces by several other European artists, and is itself a lovely architectural marvel.

Puerta del Sol. The real heart of Madrid and a major transport hub for the city (the main subway interchange lies right below), this plaza is constantly buzzing with activity. In fact, when we passed through, a huge protest was in the works.

Toledo

The historic heart of religious Spain, Toledo has long drawn pilgrims and tourists alike to take in the peaceful, spiritual aura of the Tagus River that runs through the city and the surrounding hilly countryside.

Toledo Cathedral. Officially known as “Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo,” the cathedral at Toledo is one of the most impressive churches in Europe, if not the entire world. With its stunning bell tower, ornate golden interior, and fabulous treasure room, this was certainly the grandest cathedral we saw on our trip!

Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes. Built in the late 15th century, this church’s gleaming white interior is decorated with gorgeous Spanish heraldic designs.

Alcazar de Toledo. A high stony hill just outside town has been home to an impressive alcazar—or fortress—for over a thousand years, and has been occupied since the Romans arrived over a thousand years before that. Despite countless sieges and battles, the austere defensive structure still stands as a testament to Spain’s turbulent history.

Segovia

Sleepy Segovia overlooks a vast plain, its ancient towers and walls contrasting starkly against the low, rolling countryside.

Alcazar de Segovia. With its pointed parapets, this fairy tale-esque fortress served as one of the inspirations for the famous Disney castle. While here, in fact, my friend tried to take a selfie with a woman doing a photo-shoot dressed as Maleficent, the famous villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, Maleficent was not pleased!

Acueducto Romano. Dominating the town, this breathtaking Roman aqueduct is one of the finest still standing in Europe. It stretches nearly 3,000 feet long, and towers well over 100 feet above the city streets.

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