What to do and see in Madrid

Madrid is a big, fast-paced city that can seem a bit daunting, especially if you only have a few days to explore. There is so much to see in Spain that where you go depends on your priorities, timing, and preferences — which is why I offer highly customized Spain trip planning — but, if possible, I absolutely recommend spending several days in Madrid.  It is an amazing city, with world-class art, limitless, excellent food options, beautiful parks, and a great place to really get a feel for Spanish life.

Madrid is an amazing city; it has tremendous depth and richness and provides wonderful insight into Spain, especially once you get off-the-beaten track a bit.

General Madrid Travel Tips

The main sites of Madrid are relatively central located, compared with the rest of the city which has grown outward from the center over centuries. Walking is the best way to see the city and comfortable shoes, a good map, and an understanding of the excellent public transportation system are all musts. You absolutely do not want to drive or rent a car while you are in Madrid; the traffic is crazy, there are significant restrictions on driving in the center of Madrid that will lead to significant fines if violated, and parking is a expensive, scarce, and logistically complicated.  If you find yourself tired after a long day of site seeing and walking and do not want to take the metro, take a taxi. Madrid’s taxi drivers are honest, their cabs are clean, and they know the city like the backs of their hands.

There are so many things to see and experience in Madrid that it’s impossible to do them in one visit. Because Madrid isn’t so much a city of specific sites and historic monuments as it is a city of neighborhoods and parks and plazas, it can be a bit tricky to figure out what to see.

Here are the main sites to see and do in Madrid

The Royal Palace royal-3458820_1920

Though not actually inhabited by Spain’s royal family, the Royal Palace is where the Royals frequently host official visits and state dinners. You can visit the Royal Palace on a guided tour and learn about the history of the building itself, Madrid, and the Spanish Royal family.  Just across from the Royal Palace is the Plaza de Oriente, a lovely plaza that is worth walking through after your Royal Palace visit.  There are also gardens behind the Palace, called the Jardines Sabatini, that are a lovely place to take a walk.

The Prado, the Reina Sofia, the Thyssen, and the Sorolla art museums

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Madrid is a world class art city.  It is worth trying to visit at least one of these museums while you’re in Madrid. Which museums you visit and how and when depends on your travel priorities and your needs and preferences.  The Prado and the Reina Sofia house Madrid’s most famous artwork, including Picasso’s famous Guernica paiting at the Reina Sofia and many famous works by Goya and Velaquez at the Prado. The Sorolla is the smallest and least well known of Madrid’s art museums and is worth a visit just for the beautiful building itself and the museum’s lovely gardens. The Thyssen has the most diverse collection of the Madrid museums.

The Reina Sofia and the Prado have daily free hours, which can be a good option or also not be a good option at all; it depends completely on your travel group’s needs and preferences.

Plaza Mayor

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Almost all Spanish cities have a Plaza Mayor, or main square,  and Madrid is no different. The Plaza Mayor in Madrid is a beautiful plaza in the historic Las Austrias neighborhood of the city. It is a great example of classic Madrid architecture both in terms of the balconies of the apartments that make up the plaza itself and the nine arched doorways that serve as entrances and exits. The plaza is surrounded by narrow, winding streets that are typical of this part of Madrid.

The plaza is filled with restaurants and cafes that have outdoor terraces and is always lively and bustling with people, though I would not recommend eating or drinking at any of the places in the Plaza or in the immediate surrounding streets, as they are almost all tourist traps. The lovely refurbished Mercado de San Miguel is just around the corner from the Plaza Mayor and is a great place to enjoy a drink or a tapa, and people watch.

Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno

The Plaza Cibeles and Plaza Neptuno are two traffic circles along the busy and beautiful Paseo del Prado that cuts straight through the center of  Madrid. You can’t go up to either, unless the traffic is cut off (which happens during soccer celebrations, protests, or other special events) because they’re smack in the middle of very busy intersections, but it’s worth walking up the Paseo del Prado and admiring both from afar.

The Plaza de Cibeles is at the confluence of the Paseo del Prado with the Calle Alcalá. From Cibeles, you can look up and down the Paseo del Prado and also up the Calle Alcalá to another main Madrid site, the Puerta de Alcalá. You’ll also find the beautiful restored City Hall building on Calle Alcalá, just behind Cibeles. From Plaza Neptuno, you can see two of Madrid’s best and most beautiful hotels, the Palace and the Ritz. If they’re not in your budget for a place to stay, pop in for a drink at the bar!

A fun note on their significance for Madrid soccer fans — when Real Madrid wins, fans congregate and celebrate in Cibeles. When Atletico de Madrid wins, their fans do the same but in Neptuno.

Parque del Buen Retiro

The Parque del Buen Retiro, known simply as the Retiro, is the lungs of Madrid. It is smack in the center of the city, just to the east of the Prado. It is a lovely park to stroll in, to watch Madrileños going about their business, or to have a drink at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes.

On the weekends during nice weather, it’s packed with picnicking families, kids biking and rollerskating, couples lying on blankets, and just about anyone else you can imagine. Like most public places in Spain, you’ll see a complete cross-section of Spanish society, from young to old and every group imaginable.

Calle Alcalá and the Puerta de Alcalá

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Photo by Tania Fernandez

Calle Alcala is one of the most emblematic streets in Madrid. It starts at the Puerta del Sol and runs through Plaza de Cibeles and up to the Puerta de Alcalá, or the Gate of Alcala, located at the southwestern end of the Retiro park, and then continues straight out of the city center. It is a beautiful street to walk up because you pass by some of the most majestic buildings in Madrid. You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and see the Cibeles fountain and the beautiful city hall building mentioned above, and have a great view both North-South and East-West from a central vantage point in the city.

Puerta del Sol

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The legendary Tio Pepe sign as seen from the Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is considered to be the beating heart at the center of Madrid.  It is always always full of people, tourists and Madrileños alike, and pulsating with energy.  It’s the center of New Years Eve celebrations, where the ball drops and thousands gather to ring in the new year and eat twelve grapes.

Puerta del Sol is surrounded on all sides by older, aristocratic looking buildings. It’s at the confluence of several major streets, like the Calle de Alcalá and Calle Arenal, and is situated between just below the Gran Via and between the Royal Palace and all the sites of the Paseo del Prado. It is smack in the center of a major shopping district; to give you an idea, Madrid’s Apple store is on the this plaza. It’s also home to the iconic Tio Pepe sherry sign, which has become an emblem of Madrid’s city center.

Templo de Debod and Parque del Oeste

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The Templo de Debod is an Egyptian temple that the government of Egypt donated to Spain in the late 1960s. It is in the Parque del Oste, located to the west of Plaza de España. The temple is in the open air and worth walking around if you’re interested in visiting the Parque del Oeste, or happen to be close to this part of the city. The Parque del Oeste faces west and looks over the Casa de Campo, a huge park that is five times larger than New York’s Central Park.  Because of this, it is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Do-it-yourself walking tour options

Most of what there is to see and do in Madrid does not require tickets or official entrances; only the Royal Palace and the art museums fall into the ticket-requiring category. Once you’ve seen these sites or as a way to balance out museum visits, taking a self-guided walking tour through other parts of the city is a great way to see more of Madrid’s sites while allowing for more flexibility to get off the beaten path.

There are infinite options for how to do this depending on your preferences and your travel group. Below, I’ve compiled a few possible self-guided walking tours you can take to see Madrid’s majestic sites at your own pace.

  • After visiting the Prado Museum, walk east to Retiro Park. Once in the park, enjoy strolling through and people watching or have a drink on an outdoor terrace. Exit the park at the north end onto Calle Alcalá.  Walk past the Puerta de Alcalá and continue down Calle Alcalá all the way to the Puerta del Sol.  You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and can admire Plaza Cibeles on your way. You can finish the day by heading over to the La Latina neighborhood to enjoy some tapas with the locals for dinner.

 

  • From the Royal Palace, head east and walk though the Plaza de Oriente. Enjoy the sun if the weather is nice or to sit for a bit to rest after your Palace tour. From there, head to the Mercado de San Miguel to enjoy a tapa and a drink. This refurbised market is a lovely spot to eat a snack and to people watch. When you’re done in the Market, walk the short distance to the Plaza Mayor. Exit the Plaza onto Calle Mayor and head to the Puerta del Sol.  From Sol, walk down Calle Alcalá towards Plaza Cibeles. Don’t forget to look up at the surrounding buildings, some of Madrid’s most beautiful. From Cibeles, keep walking down Calle Alcalá towards the northern end of the Retiro park. Enjoy strolling through the park, or of if you’re up for it, head to the Prado musuem. Afterwards, head towards either the Salamanca or Chueca neighborhoods to end your day with Madrileños enjoying an evening drink and tapas.

 

  • After visiting the Reina Sofia museum, head out into the plaza  on the back side of the museum (the side with the big glass elevator). From there, walk over to the Paseo del Prado. If you turn around and look south, you’ll see the Atocha, Madrid’s most emblematic train station. As you walk up the Paseo del Prado you’ll see the Prado Museum to your right and you’ll pass the Plaza de Neptuno. As you continue, you’ll  Plaza de Cibeles, where you can admire the fountain and the stately Ritz and Palace Hotels.  You’ll see the Puerta de Alcalá off to your right. Keep going straight until you get to the Plaza de Colon. This is a wonderful point from which to head off to some of Madrid’s loveliest neighborhoods — Salamanca, Chueca, or Chamberí for a long, leisurely lunch. After lunch, head west towards the Parque del Oeste and the Templo de Debod.  Enjoy people watching in the park or wait for the sunset to enjoy the best sunsent views in Madrid.

 

There is nothing more Madrileño than stopping for a bite to eat and a refreshing drink, or several, along your walking route. You can also indulge in some excellent shopping in the upscale Salamanca neighborhood or the trendier Chueca. As you think about tailoring your walks, you’ll want to factor in a long lunch around 2 pm and dinner, which doesn’t happen in Madrid before 9 pm. You might also want to rest before heading out to dinner.

With these walking tours, you’ll have a more than enough to fill three days in Madrid and to see the major sites while allowing for flexibility to get off the beaten path and explore.

If you’re not sure how to pick and choose between all the options and organize your Madrid visit so that it runs smoothly and meets your specific needs, interests, and priorities, I’d love to plan this trip for you.

 

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