Strategically located in the geographic centre of the Iberian Peninsula at an altitude of 646 m above sea level, Madrid has one of the most important historic centres of all the great European cities. This heritage merges seamlessly with the city's modern and convenient infrastructures, a wide-ranging offer of accommodation and services, and all the latest state-of-the-art technologies in audiovisual and communications media. These conditions, together with all the drive of a dynamic and open society –as well as high-spirited and friendly– have made this metropolis one of the great capitals of the Western world.
It has been populated since the Lower Palaeolithic era, although it was not until 1561 that King Philip II made Madrid the capital city of his vast empire. The historic centre, also known as the "Madrid of Los Austrias" (in reference to the Hapsburg monarchs), and the spectacular Plaza Mayor square –inaugurated in 1620 and one of the most popular and typical sites in Spain– are a living example of the nascent splendour of the city in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Near the Plaza Mayor is the area known as the "aristocratic centre" where the jewel in the crown is the Royal Palace, an imposing building dating from the 17th century featuring a mixture of Baroque and classicist styles. Beside it is the Plaza de Oriente square, the Teatro Real opera house, and the modern cathedral of La Almudena which was consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II. The Puerta del Sol square is surrounded by a varied and select area of shops and businesses, and the "Paseo del Arte" art route –whose name derives from its world-class museums, palaces and gardens– are further elements in an array of monuments which includes particularly the Bank of Spain building, the Palace of Telecommunications, and the fountains of Cibeles and Neptune.
Art and culture play a key role in Madrid's cultural life. The capital has over 60 museums which cover every field of human knowledge. Highlights include the Prado Museum, one of the world's most important art galleries; the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, with over 800 paintings ranging from primitive Flemish artists through to the avant-garde movements. And the Reina Sofía National Art Centre, dedicated to contemporary Spanish art and containing works by Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Juan Gris, among others.
Madrid's extensive and beautifully maintained parks and gardens –like the Retiro park, formerly the recreational estate to the Spanish monarchs, the Casa de Campo and the Juan Carlos I park– offer inhabitants and visitors the chance to enjoy the sunshine, stroll, row on its lakes or feed the squirrels, in one of the greenest capitals in Europe. The importance of its international airport, which every week receives over 1,000 flights from all over the world, its two Conference Centres, the modern trade fair ground in the Campo de las Naciones, and over 80,000 places in other meeting centres make Madrid one of Europe's most attractive business hubs.
But if there's one thing that sets Madrid apart, it must be its deep and infectious passion for life that finds its outlet in the friendly and open character of its inhabitants. Concerts, exhibitions, ballets, a select theatrical offering, the latest film releases, the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of the best Spanish and international gastronomy, to savour the charms of its bars and taverns... all these are just a few of the leisure options on offer in Madrid. There is also a tempting array of shops and businesses featuring both traditional establishments and leading stores offering top brands and international labels.
Madrid's lively nightlife is another key attraction of Spain's capital, due to its variety and the exciting atmosphere to be found in its bars, pubs, clubs and flamenco halls. Other daytime entertainment options include traditional outdoor dances, popular festivities and the San Isidro bullfighting festival, regarded as being the most important in the world.