A guide to the top 10 things to see and do while you are in Madrid.
While Madrid competes for attention against Barcelona’s trendy lifestyle and Spain’s sunny southern beaches, it is the Spanish capital’s diverse treasures that usually win our hearts. From 17th-century plazas and world class art collections to flea markets and tapas festivals, there’s so much to explore and discover in Spain’s capital city. Whether you want to explore historic sites, gourmet restaurants, world-renown artworks, a heart-pumping nightlight or boutique shops, Madrid has it all. Here’s our guide to the best places to visit and top things to do in Madrid.
1. Madrid’s heart: Puerta del Sol
The vast semi-circular Puerta del Sol is in the heart of Madrid and the ‘official’ centre of the nation from where Spain’s six national highways radiate out; in front of the grand Casa de Correos, which houses Madrid’s government, you find a plaque marking Spain’s Kilometre Zero. In the centre of Puerta del Sol sits a statue of the bear and the tree, which is Madrid’s emblem.
Northwards you’ll find the Gran Via, the most commercial avenue in the city with shops and bars. It’s lined with well-preserved Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings and always thronged with people. Just behind it is Madrid’s famed gay neighbourhood, Chueca, a lively place to shop, eat and drink, especially in summer when it becomes the heart of Madrid’s huge Gay Pride fiesta.
Go west and enter through one of the arches into the colonnaded Plaza Mayor dating back to the 17th century. Enjoy a café con leche while you admire the statue of Felipe III astride his horse in the middle or browse the information to be found in the city’s central tourist office, housed in one of the earliest buildings in the square.
2. The gate into the city: Puerta de Alcalá
This vast and impressive, neo-classical gateway to the city stands in the middle of the Plaza de la Independencia, next to El Retiro park (see below) along the Calle de Alcalá. This must-see site was built for Charles III in the late 18th century. Go at dusk when it’s lit up for the full knock-out effect.
Just a little further along the Calle de Alcalá is the Plaza de Cibeles, with its iconic fountain depicting the Greek goddess Cybele. This is where Real Madrid fans come to celebrate a big win, and where you can view Madrid’s famous skyline from atop the Círculo de Bellas Artes. You can watch the sun set over the Cuatro Torres, the capital’s big skyscrapers, whilst enjoying a drink on the rooftop bar.
3. Royal Madrid: the Palacio Real
The official residence of the Spanish royal family, the 18th-century century Palacio Real or Royal Palace, is now only used for ceremonial purposes and the King lives elsewhere. This late-Baroque confection, built mainly from granite and white Colmenar stone, has 3,000 ornately decorated rooms (many of which are open to the public), a collection of ceremonial armour, a Royal Pharmacy and splendid gardens, where open-air concerts are held in the summer months (sometimes for free). You have to follow a particular route around the palace but you can go at your own pace.
4. Madrid’s art scene
Madrid’s Golden Art Triangle is marked out by the big three art galleries: the Prado where you can feast your eyes on the works of old masters Goya and Velázquez and other Spanish artists in the Royal collection; the Reina Sofia where you can see Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica; and the eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza museum where you’ll get a crash course in the history of Western art. Check their websites for opening times, details of permanent and temporary exhibitions, and to buy tickets.
While you’re in the area, stop and admire the four-storey-high vertical garden at the entrance to the CaixaForum, a cultural centre built inside the shell of an old power station, which also hosts a range of free exhibitions.
5. Relax in Madrid’s ‘green lungs’
Escape the bustle of the city streets in one of Madrid’s many parks. Close to the Prado you’ll find the Parque Del Buen Retiro or just El Retiro. It has a central lake, where you can hire a boat, find street entertainers, fountains, fishponds, and statues including the famous Ángel Caído or the Fallen Angel. To the west of the city centre is the larger Casa de Campo, which also boasts a funfair, Madrid Zoo and Aquarium, and the Teleferico cable car from which you can get amazing birds-eye views of Madrid.
6. Eating and drinking in Madrid: Tapas and churros
Sample the typical Spanish breakfast of hot chocolate and churros – a long, thin sugary doughnut – at San Ginés in an alleyway between Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Ópera (San Gines Passageway, 5, Madrid, Spain). They’ve been using the same recipe to make their hot chocolate since 1894.
For lunch, enjoy the market-style concept of Mercado de San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel s/n, 28005 Madrid); you’ll find cold meats, cheeses, fruit and veg, seafood, juices, sangria and wine.
For lively nightlife and a plethora of top restaurants, head down to the one of the many bars of La Latina to find the very best tapas, the small plates of snacks that accompany drinks usually for free. Push the boat out with dinner at the oldest restaurant in the world, Restaurante Botin, according to the Guinness World Records.
If you’re in Madrid in Spring, go to the Lavapiés neighbourhood for Tapapiés, a 10-day tapas extravaganza: a tapas and bottle of beer for a couple of euros. This bohemian neighbourhood is packed with restaurants and bars, with many international options.
7. Holy Madrid: Historical churches
The recently restored Baroque Basílica de San Francisco El Grande (metro La Latina, Puerta de Toledo, L5) is one of Madrid’s most impressive churches with the fourth largest dome in the world. Inside there are beautiful frescos; one in the Capilla de San Bernadino is by Goya, who included himself in the fresco (look for a man in a yellow shirt). The ceilings of the small church, Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (metro Príncipe Pío), are covered with Goya’s frescos, hence its other name, the Panteón de Goya. Traditionally, Madrid’s seamstresses came here every 13 June to pray for a husband; and to this day, some young women still do.
8. El Rastro flea market in Madrid
If you’re in Madrid on a Sunday morning then follow the crowds down to Ribera de Curtidores in the Embajadores neighbourhood. They’ll be looking for bargains at the city’s oldest and most famous flea market, El Rastro. Rastro means ‘stain’ and refers to its meat market days back in the 17th and 18th centuries when bloody carcases left trails on the streets. Today you can search amongst the hundreds of stalls lining the street for both vintage and new clothes, jewellery, artworks, ornaments, LPs, household items and much more. The market is open between 9am and 3pm.
9. Football and architect fans: Real Madrid Stadium and Madrid’s CBD
Football fans may want to head north of the city to Spain’s most visited stadium of Real Madrid, named after the club’s famous president Santiago Bernabéu. You can buy tickets online for matches or for a tour of the stadium. There’s a panoramic view of the stadium, an exhibition about the history of the club and cabinets stuffed with gleaming trophies. You can also take a look behind the scenes at the players’ dressing rooms, the press room and go out through the players’ tunnel onto the pitch to see the dugouts and technical area and pretend you’re the manager!
Architect fans can head further down the Paseo de la Castellana to scope out Madrid’s financial centre and the city’s iconic skyscrapers, Las Cuatro Torres (the four towers) – Torre Bankia, Torre PwC, Torre Espacio and Torre de Cristal – as well as the Kio Towers and the obelisk of Plaza de Castilla. You’ll find exclusive stores, restaurants and hotels in this area.
10. Heading home: Atocha station
If you’re going to catch a train in or out of Madrid you’ll probably come to the Estacion de Atocha, the largest railway station in Madrid (and Spain). If you are, then come a little earlier than you need; if you’re not, the station is still worth a visit because of the beautiful tropical garden in the middle of the main hall. There are around 7,000 plants from 260 different species – some of the palms are so tall that they almost reach the roof of the building – and ponds containing goldfish and turtles. Opposite the station, stop by the El Brillante café as they serve up the best calamari bocadillo (rolls) in the city, with or without lemon and mayonnaise.