Madrid became Spain's capital simply by virtue of its geographical position at the centre of Iberia. Felipe II moved the seat of government here in 1561, to symbolize the unification and centralization of the country. The site itself had few natural advantages – it's 300km from the sea on a high plateau, freezing in winter, boiling in summer – and only the determination of successive rulers to promote a strong central capital ensured Madrid's survival.
Today, Madrid is a vast modern city, with a population of four million. While the journey in isn't pretty, the streets at its heart are a pleasant surprise, with pockets of medieval buildings and narrow, atmospheric alleys, dotted with the oddest of shops and bars, and interspersed with eighteenth-century Bourbon squares. There may be few sights of great architectural interest, but the monarchs did acquire outstanding picture collections, which formed the basis of the Prado museum. Thanks also to the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, Madrid is a top port of call on the European art tour.
It's the lifestyle of the inhabitants – the madrileños – that's the capital's key attraction: hanging out in traditional cafés or summer terrazas, packing the lanes of the Sunday Rastro flea market or playing hard and very late in a thousand bars, clubs, discos and tascas.
Madrid's main sights occupy a compact area between the Palacio Real and the gardens of El Retiro. The great museums are ranged along the Paseo del Prado, over towards the Retiro. The oldest part of the city, known as Madrid de los Austrias, centres on the gorgeous, arcaded Plaza Mayor, just east of the Palacio Real.
However, monuments are not really what Madrid is about. To get a feel for the city you need to branch out a little, and experience the contrasting character of the various barrios. The most central and rewarding are the areas around Plaza de Santa Ana and c/Huertas, east of Puerta del Sol; La Latina and Lavapiés, south of Plaza Mayor, where the Sunday market, El Rastro, takes place; and Malasaña and Chueca, north of Gran Vía.