Madrid is Spain’s political, intellectual, and cultural center—the country’s wild, pulsing heart. While theoretically subject to the earth’s rotations, Madrid seems to transcend traditional hours. In this city, morning commuters collide with stragglers leaving after-hour clubs at dawn. Tourists spend their days absorbed in its monuments, world-renowned museums, and raging nightlife, mingling with the 5.5 million madrileños sprawled in the city’s plazas, tapas bars, and parks. Businessmen scoot along on mopeds, old women compare vegetables at the markets, and teens text furiously in search of the next hot club. Stock up on energy with a late afternoon siesta in the Parque del Buen Retiro or in your hostel; the city only truly comes awake after the sun has set.
Though Madrid witnessed the coronation of Fernando and Isabel, it did not achieve prominence until Habsburg monarch Felipe II moved his court here in 1561. It served as Spain’s artistic hub during the Siglo de Oro (Golden Age), becoming a seat of wealth, culture, and imperial glory, despite its considerable distance from vital ports and rivers. In the 18th century, Madrid experienced a Neoclassical rebirth when Carlos III embellished the city with wide, tree-lined boulevards and scores of imposing buildings, but things took a turn for the worse during the Peninsular wars against Napoleon (1808-1814), the bloody inspiration of some of Francisco de Goya’s most famous canvases. Madrid was the base of the 20th-century Republican government and resisted Franco’s troops until the spring of 1939, when the Civil War had already washed most of the peninsula in blood. It was the second-to-last city in Spain to fall; immediately after, the Nationalists took Valencia and brought the four-year conflict to a close. For the next four decades, Madrid served as the seat of Franco’s government. When the dictator died in 1975, Madrid, and the rest of Spain, came out in what is known today as la movida (“shift” or “movement”) or el destapeo (“uncovering”). A 200,000-strong student population took to the streets and stayed there—and it hasn’t stopped moving yet.