Madrid’s structure revolves entirely around the famous plaza Puerta del Sol. Because Madrid has expanded unevenly in every direction, Puerta del Sol is no longer the geographical center of the city, but it is the historic center. A commemorative plaque that marks Km.0, the point from which all four of Madrid’s major roadways begin, is located right in the center of the plaza. If you know where you are in relation to Puerta del Sol, you’ll never get lost.
The historic center is the main shopping, nightlife, cultural, tourism and business area. However, the center is also quite residential. The further you move from the center, the more residential the neighborhoods become, although Madrid is awash in small businesses, shops, restaurants, bars and other places of interest can be found in any neighborhood. Remember, as with all old European cities, the historic center is a tangle of narrow, winding streets, so it’s pretty easy to get lost or turned around if you are not familiar with them. The city takes on a more grid-like format the further away from the center you go, as those areas tend to be newer.
Alcala is one of Madrid’s most important arteries. It runs east from Puerta del Sol all the way to the city limits, making it highly trafficked. Gran Via, although quite short, is one of Madrid’s most well know streets. Just north of Puerta del Sol, it cuts right across the historic center, connecting Alcala with Plaza de España at the western edge of the historic center.
Possibly Madrid’s most transited and important street is Paseo de la Castellana. This large boulevard runs from the northernmost reaches of the city right into the center. The whole way it is flanked by office buildings and high-rises. Technically “la Castellana” ends at the Plaza de Colon, but the boulevard continues, changing names every few blocks.
On the southern edge of the Plaza de Colon, the boulevard is called Paseo de Recoletos. It is here that you’ll find the National Library and many old, beautiful buildings. The Paseo de Recoletos ends at the roundabout in the middle of which Madrid’s emblematic Cibeles fountain is located. Continuing south along the boulevard, now named Paseo del Prado, you can find the old post office, the Bank of Spain and, of course, the building for which it is named, the Prado Museum. The Paseo del Prado ends at Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, where the city’s most important train station, Atocha, is located.