Autumn Colors in Retiro Park

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Palacio del Cristal in Retiro Park

Growing up in a small city, where green spaces and parks were abundant, I always assumed – in my adolescent frame of mind – that these giant playgrounds existed solely for our enjoyment and always promised to be there without any commitment from us.

But as often is the case with pleasures we don’t have to work for, I ended up taking them for granted.  As I got older, I became more interested in discovering the street corners of the big city, the life inside its cafes, bars and restaurants, the history of locations and monuments centuries older than anything I had known – or could have understood – while growing up.

Retiro metro entrance next to Church of San Manuel y San BenitoThe parks that came attached to these new cities were an added plus, but nothing that ever prompted more than a casual visit.  Visits that seemed like the right thing to do on a brisk Sunday in the fall, when the excitement of other venues took a rest and it was either, go to the park or stay home.

the pond in front of the Palacio de Cristal

Despite their beauty and the peaceful environment they provided, I had trouble appreciating these visits, and I realized I’d lost the ability to simply enjoy parks the way children can.

two girls racing each other through the park

It would take my brother Hayden, who at 21 years old, still happily held on to that childhood excitement, and knew what a magnificent space like the Retiro park could offer.  Having decided to spend his junior year of college studying in Madrid – I like to think I played a small role in the decision – he moved here at the end of summer, and soon started spending many an afternoon exploring the park.

Around the start of fall, his study-abroad program took him on a walking tour of Madrid that included the park.  When I saw his pictures of the changing colors, I realized what I’d been missing, and I set off to find out more about Madrid’s most cherished green space.

criss-crossing branches

The first sign of life for the park came about in the late 15th century, when the Catholic Monarchs – Ferdinand and Isabela of Columbus New World fame – founded a monastery outside the city walls to be occupied by the Order of Saint Jerome.  Several rooms were constructed nearby where the royal family could find accommodation during their visits to the city, as Madrid had yet to become capital, and Spain had yet to become a country.

Starting with King Phillip II, Madrid became the permanent capital of a now united Spain in 1561, and the royal rooms originally built by his great-grandparents, were expanded and embellished.  The area soon became known as un lugar de retiro, a place to retire.

a solitary bench

Jumping forward to the 17th century, Spain’s prime minister would oversee the expansion of those royal rooms into a pleasure palace with their attached gardens for King Phillip IV.  In just over two years, an enormous complex was thrown together from wood and brick, the only materials thought affordable by a country heavily in debt (although it still cost the equivalent of roughly 180€ million).  Despite the ruinous state of the economy, the palace complex continued to expand and eventually occupied close to half of the surface area of 17th century Madrid.

dense group of trees

The palace grounds became the center of royal festivities, and in the Estanque Grande, the large pond that you still find today, naumaquias were often held.  These were reenactments of naval battles – only victories of course – with fireworks and full-scale ships all to the king’s amusement.  Today, the most action the Estanque Grande sees are lovers who paddle around quietly in rowboats, overseen by the expansive 1920’s monument to King Alfonse XII.

Monument to King Alfonse XII in Retiro Park

The Estanque Grande was recently cleaned in 2001, and a host of random objects were found.  Items included two safes (contents not disclosed), a few hand guns, funerary urns, several pairs of dentures, and some 50 mobile phones, possibly the result of a romantic paddle-boat ride turned sour.

Columns surrounding monument to King Alfonse XII in Retiro Park

Jumping forward again to the 18th century, King Charles III decided to open up the gardens to the public in 1767.  Since the land still belonged to the crown however, not just anyone could go waltzing in.  Only those who were bien vestido y aseado – well-dressed and cleaned up – were permitted entry.  Though given the frequency of baths back then, how aseado people were is questionable.  Either way, walkman-wearing, hot-dogging roller champions would have probably been stopped at the gate regardless of hygiene.

roller skater exercising in the RetiroSadly, the entire palace complex, save for two buildings, would be destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid in the early 1800’s, when French troops used the palace as barracks and stored powder kegs in the gardens.  Later on, the gardens were patched up little by little, but the park’s big moment came in 1868, following a revolution that overthrew Queen Isabella II.

The new government officially renamed the gardens as the Parque de Madrid, and opened it to the general public.  One of the first projects carried out was to construct a paseo de carruajes, an esplanade for carriages in imitation of those found in London’s Hyde Park or Paris’s Bois de Boulogne.  This wider esplanade was much desired by the well-to-do, who complained that the Paseo del Prado had become too small to show off their fancy rides.  The city was happy to comply though, since they would start charging two and a half pesetas for every carriage or horse that entered.

line of benches

In the 1880’s, the park became the site of various fairs and temporary expositions, which led to the construction of some of its most well-known buildings, like the Palacio de Velázquez and especially the beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park

The latter was built almost entirely from plate glass and iron, taking its inspiration from the famous Crystal Palace which housed London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.  Today, the building hosts free modern art exhibitions put on by the Reina Sofia Museum.

interior of Palacio de Cristal

Of all the possible entrances into the Retiro, one of the most enjoyable is from the Atocha metro station.  From there, crossing the street you reach the pedestrianized Cuesta de Moyano and its casetas de madera, some thirty wooden huts built back in the 1920’s.  Their existence is connected to the construction of Madrid’s modern avenue, La Gran Vía, which consumed the city from 1910 til the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Cuesta Moyano booksellers leading to Retiro Park

The Gran Vía’s construction meant that dozens of streets, and hundreds of houses were torn down for the sake of modernity, and to connect the newly built-up outlying neighborhoods.  One of the demolished areas had been home to numerous antique bookshops, considered by the city’s scholars as the best place to find discontinued and limited editions.

Book stands on Cuesta Moyano leading to Retiro ParkIn the mid 1920’s, the continued protests at this loss of intellectual life, lead to the construction of the previously mentioned huts, where the homeless booksellers were installed, and where they remain to this day.

Individual bookseller on the Cuesta Moyano leading up to Retiro Park

As for the other personalities of the Retiro – and every good park has their share – the roller skaters are joined by overly-friendly, yet camera-shy Roma women with “free” rosemary on offer, puppet-master musicians, instant-photo camera men, and my favorite of all, the retired gentleman of countless chess clubs, who occupy the outdoor tables near the Palacio de Cristal through the final days of fall.

chess players in the park

But at the end of the day, the Retiro is a bit like El Rastro, in that no one goes with any fixed purpose in mind.

steps up to main esplanade

The joy of simpling wandering its 120 hectares, getting lost, and finding your way again as the sun starts to set, is reason enough to visit next time you’re in Madrid.

Alfonse XII monument from behind at sunset in Retiro Park Madrid

Monument to Jacinto Benavente at sunset in Retiro Park


Madrid’s Retiro Park – Address: Plaza de la Independencia – Metro stations: Retiro (Line #2), Príncipe de Vergara (Line #2, Line #9), Atocha (Line #1), Ibiza (Line #9)

Open daily from 6am to 10pm in winter and til midnight in summer.


“Recorridos Didácticos Por Madrid” – Madrid de los Austrias by F. Revilla and R. Ramos.
“El Retiro que no hemos conocido” – Madrid Histórico Magazine
“Velázquez y el palacio del Buen Retiro” – Madrid Histórico Magazine
Caminando por Madrid Blog –


Looking for things to do in Madrid?  Get to know the city more in depth with a Historic Madrid Walking Tour, Gastronomic Madrid Tapas Tour or a Madrid Wine Tasting.

Last update: March 7, 2014

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Madrid Tours & Tastings

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