Madrid doesn’t seem to get the same amount of fanfare as other Spanish cities like Barcelona and Seville, but I think it’s a great place to explore. There are heaps of interesting things to do in Madrid and I tried to check out as many as I could, while still soaking up the laid-back Spanish atmosphere. That is to say, I indulged in my fair share of jamon, croquetas, and wine. Thankfully the city is compact enough that I could walk just about everywhere and burn off those calories!
My five day Madrid itinerary allowed me to experience the best of everything the capital has to offer. I admired fine art in museums, shopped for bargains at flea markets, and soaked up the sunshine while strolling through pretty gardens. I also enjoyed the city’s exciting culinary and bar scene. Here are my favorite things to do in Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid
In my humble opinion, the most impressive attraction in Madrid is the Royal Palace. The official residence of the Spanish monarchy boasts over 3,000 rooms and is the largest functioning royal palace in Europe. It is also one of the most sumptuously appointed of any I’ve seen, with ceilings and frescoes so beautiful I was reluctant to tear my eyes away. We traipsed through perhaps two dozen rooms including bed chambers, banqueting halls, and the throne room. The crown and royal scepter were on heavily guarded display, along with Stradivarius musical instruments, silverware, and porcelain dinner services. Sadly, photos are allowed only in the first three entry areas.
Although the royal family no longer lives on the premises, the palace is still used for state functions so it’s best to check ahead for closures before planning your visit. I also suggest purchasing tickets in advance to avoid waiting in a lengthy queue.
Another palace you should not miss belonged to the Marquis de Cerralbo. This 18th century aristocrat and his children amassed an astounding collection of art and artifacts from around the world. With over 50,000 pieces on display, the place is crammed so full of priceless antiques it boggles the mind! El Greco paintings and Murano glass chandeliers hang above Meissen porcelain vases and ornate French clocks. Suits of medieval armor stand guard in the upstairs hallway. The so-called Arab Room is filled with treasures from across Asia including a Japanese leather samurai suit. Had I been a guest at one of the Marquis’ many balls and parties, I would have been worried about impaling myself on one of the swords!
At the time of my visit, a modern art exhibit was sharing the already cluttered space. The weird lighting and sculptures were distracting and I hope the Cerralbo Museum curator rethinks any such displays in the future. Entry times and prices can be found on the museum’s website.
Temple of Debod
In a park across the street from the Cerralbo Museum, you’ll find Madrid’s most unusual attraction. The Temple of Debod is a legitimate 2nd century BC relic that was given to Spain by the Egyptian government. Unfortunately the temple was closed and reflecting pool drained for maintenance when I was there so the site was lacking in drama. I’ve been told it looks best at sunset.
Golden Triangle of Art
The Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums form the points of what is known as Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. The collections span diverse styles and include masterpieces by Goya, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dali, just to name a few. It’s easy to spend a full day immersed in each one. The city encourages this by way of a special museum pass that provides a 20% discount on admission if you make it to all three. But if you are more limited in time, I suggest you check out my guide to the highlights.
El Retiro Park
Madrid’s answer to Central Park is El Retiro. This massive green space is laced with walking paths, duck-filled ponds, and shaded lawns well-suited for picnics and afternoon siestas. Originally designed as a private retreat for the royal family, El Retiro was opened to the public at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, the Crystal Palace was built as a showcase for exotic flora during the Philippines Exhibition. The iron and glass greenhouse was devoid of plants when I was there, but that didn’t deter wannabe Instagram stars from striking a pose or twenty. Just outside El Retiro sits Puerta de Alcala. This triumphal arch was erected in 1778 and served as the main entrance to Madrid. Now it is purely ornamental.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Madrid’s Botanic Gardens are nestled between Retiro Park and the Prado, which was originally home to a natural history museum. The gardens were designed as a space for botanical study and research, particularly for the new species discovered in Spain’s far-flung colonies. After years of neglect following the Spanish Civil War, the gardens are back to peak form. Not much was in bloom during my winter visit, but I still enjoyed walking through the peaceful oasis. The greenhouses are especially appealing, stocked as they are with tropical and desert plants.
Cuesta de Moyano Bookstalls
Just around the corner from the botanical gardens, a row of bookstalls lines a leafy pedestrian street. These stalls, open every day, have been a fixture of the city since 1925. Most of the books are in Spanish, but even if you don’t read in that language there are plenty of other items like art prints and postcards to browse.
El Rastro Market
A wider array of gifts and souvenirs can be found at El Rastro, the largest open-air flea market in Spain. Bargains might not be as plentiful as they once were, but that doesn’t stop the hordes from hunting here every Sunday. Serious shoppers should plan to arrive when the market opens at 9am before the streets get too clogged. Many of the wares on offer look like mass-produced imports, and travelers who have visited night markets in Southeast Asia may find little new here. Still, the outdoor scenery makes a stroll through worth it. El Rastro Market is held in La Latina, one of Madrid’s oldest and most colorful neighborhoods.
Puerta del Sol
The beating heart of Madrid is Puerta del Sol. In addition to being the geographical center of the city, it is the site for many major events. These range from the New Year’s Eve countdown celebration to protests by disgruntled citizens. I passed through the square often to get to the metro and there was always a spectacle. Costumed buskers pose for photos and dance for eager crowds, while tourists snap selfies with Oso y Madrono, the famous statue of a bear nuzzling a strawberry tree.
The big draw for me, though, is La Mallorquina. This cafe has been churning out delicious pastries since 1894. Its convenient location near the Puerta del Sol metro station is ideal for having a tasty breakfast before embarking on a full day of sightseeing. You can stand elbow to elbow with locals at the counter, or grab a table in the upstairs dining room.
Believe it or not, the splendidly painted building dominating Plaza Mayor was once home to the royal bakery. What a pity that establishment is no longer around! The square itself is just as lovely as when it was designed centuries ago – more so, actually, since the bull fights and Spanish Inquisition hearings are gone. The shops and restaurants ringing the plaza may be touristy, but they offer a welcome respite for those in need of an afternoon break in a city where most places close between lunch and dinner. Popular chain Museo de Jamon has an outlet here with al fresco seating on the plaza.
Dine at a Food Market
You might be expecting me to direct you to San Miguel Market, but I’m not going to do that. A local friend recommended I skip that popular and overly crowded spot and head to Platea Madrid instead. Located in a former cinema, Platea has been transformed into one of the city’s best food markets. It has two floors and three balconies, all facing a stage where live performances take place. One of the balconies is home to Canalla Bistro whose head chef has three Michelin stars. Tapas stands surround an open seating area on the ground floor and there is table service for drinks. If you don’t want to stand in a packed market worrying about your drink being jostled, Platea Madrid is an excellent choice.
Tapas Bar Hopping
If, however, you want the full Madrid experience, then you’ll find no shortage of bars to shove your way into. These range from 100-year-old dives with original zinc counters to shiny new hot spots. The best neighborhoods for bar hopping are Lavapies, La Latina, and Ponzano (which has become so trendy it has its own hashtag.)
Try ordering either a Mahou beer, a pilsner that has been brewed in Madrid since 1890, or a glass of vermouth on the rocks. Spanish vermouth is a fortified red wine infused with spices and herbs. Each bar seems to have its own special blend on tap. If you want to take home a souvenir bottle, a knowledgeable wine shop clerk recommended Vermut Zecchini, an award-winning brand produced in Madrid.
End the Night with Chocolate and Churros
You can’t come to Madrid and not enjoy a serving or two of churros con chocolate. Chocolateria de San Gines has been dishing out this decadent treat since 1894. The process is simple: queue in the alley, place your order at the counter, then take a seat and hand your receipt to a waiter. The outside tables offer fantastic people watching opportunities while you wait. One plate of churros – sticks of fried dough – is plenty for two people to share, though you may want your own cup of the pudding-like hot chocolate to dip them in. The traditional times for churros con chocolate are breakfast and late at night, but Chocolateria de San Gines is open 24/7 year round so you can enjoy them whenever you want.
What are your favorite things to do in Madrid?