Madrid is a fascinating city with a storied history that spans nearly a millennium. With architectural wonders, world-class gastronomy, famed art museums and even an Egyptian temple within the city limits, the Spanish capital offers sights and attractions to satisfy all visitors. Here are 12 experiences not to miss.
Visit the Golden Triangle of Art
Madrid’s “Golden Triangle of Art” consists of three renowned museums, the Museo del Prado, Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, that are home to some of the world’s most valuable art collections. Even if you’re not typically the gallery type, a stop at one of these venues is an essential Madrid experience.
The Prado houses several masterpieces by Spanish artists Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Francisco Zurbarán. Arguably the most famous work that people flock to see is Velázquez’ Las Meninas, an oil on canvas considered among the most important paintings in Western art. It hangs in Room 12.
The Reina Sofía, meanwhile, is the Spanish national museum dedicated to 20th-century art, exhibiting impressive collections of Surrealist and Cubist masters Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, including Picasso’s massive anti-war oil painting Guernica.
Finally, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, once the private art collection of the Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, showcases nearly 1000 paintings of the world’s most celebrated European and American artists from the 13th to the 20th century. It’s a real feast for art fans.
Enjoy a traditional tapas crawl
Tapas hopping, or “ir de tapas,” is a national pastime and a satisfying prelude to dinner, which in Spain is typically eaten between 9:00pm to midnight. A “tapa” is a small plate of food usually paired with a glass of wine, a “cana“(small glass of beer) or vermutMadrid’s popular aperitif.
You can join locals after work on any day of the week, hopping from one tapas bar to the next to sample a selection of Iberian hams, charcuterie and cheeses. Sunday afternoons however are the best time to visit Cava Baja, a popular street in the historic La Latina neighborhood with vibrant little bars, taverns and restaurants that are perfect for a laid-back tapas crawl.
Shop in the Rastro flea market
Every Sunday and public holiday, you can take part in a 400-year old shopping tradition at the El Rastro flea market. Open from 9:00am to 3:30pm, El Rastro stretches along the La Latina neihborhood’s Plaza de Cascorro, La Ribera de Curtidores and the Ronda de Toledo and features a labyrinth of open air stalls peddling clothes, souvenirs, handicrafts, antiques and every bric -a-brac you can imagine.
This is also the best place to source exquisite vintage furniture being sold at very reasonable prices. Note that many of the vendors only accept efficient (cash), so best to take it along before heading to the market or you’ll be left hunting for an elusive cash machine.
Ride the Teleferico
For the best birds-eye views of the Spanish capital, hop on the Teleférico de Madrid (Madrid Cable Car), which is accessed in Parque del Oeste and connects to Casa de Campo, the city’s green lung.
The dual cable transport system features 80 cabins, each of which can seat six people, and travels a distance of nearly 2500 meters. If you can brave the vertigo, the Teleférico reaches a maximum height of 40 meters and offers spectacular vistas of the city and the Casa de Campo parkland below.
Follow Hemingway’s footsteps
“Hemingway did not drink here” is a popular joke written on signs hanging in some Madrid establishments. It’s no secret that the American literary giant, fondly called “Don Ernesto,” was Madrid’s adopted sybarite who loved to drink, eat, write and watch bullfights while he was covering the Spanish Civil War as a foreign journalist.
Fans of Hemingway can retrace his footsteps and enjoy some of his favorite haunts that still exist today, including El Sobrino de Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant according to Guinness World Records, which houses a 16th-century cellar cradling dust-covered wine bottles. Hemingway also used to frequent La Venencia, a dimly-lit sherry bar that is virtually frozen in time with its massive molasses-stained wooden barrels, antique cash register and fading sepia hued posters – don’t bother whipping out your camera phone here, snapping photos is still strictly prohibited, just as it was in the 1930s when the bar was wary of fascist spies.
Explore Retiro Park
Madrid’s most famous park is an expansive, 118-hectare area that was once reserved for Spanish royalty and aristocracy, until it was officially opened to the public at the close of the 19th century. “El Retiro” is adorned with ornate fountains, statues of Spanish writers and heroes, gazebos and open air cafés. Different areas of the park reveal various landscaping styles, from French-inspired manicured lawns, to craggy tree-lined pathways, and the romantic La Rosaleda rose garden, with over 4000 roses that are in full bloom from May to June.
Within the park grounds are several landmarks, including the grand Monument to Alfonso XII, which depicts the former Spanish king atop his horse, “The Fallen Angel” statue, one of the only public statues of Lucifer in the world, and the oldest tree in Madrid that was planted in 1633. Make sure you don’t miss Palacio de Cristal, an architectural marvel of iron and glass that occasionally hosts events and reflects magnificently on the waters of the surrounding lake.
Watch a flamenco show
While the birthplace of flamenco is in Andalusia in southern Spain, you don’t need to venture far from Madrid to watch live shows of the Spanish dance, which has been listed by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage. Dinner, tapas and drinks are usually served during the performance, providing a full evening’s entertainment.
You can watch the frenetic spectacle in big, touristy venues such as Cardomomo and Teatro Flamenco or smaller, cozy venues like Las Tablas, which make up for their size with the big flamenco artists they attract. For a truly luxurious experience, the Corral de la Moreria is an intimate space that also features a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Stand in the center of Spain
Translated to “Gate of the Sun,” Puerta del Sol, or simply “Sol,” is Madrid’s busy central public square and main crossroads. A clock sits atop the plaza’s main building, the old Casa de Correos (post office) – now the headquarters of the Madrid regional government – and every New Year’s Eve thousands of revelers gather here to eat the traditional twelve grapes right before the clock strikes midnight .
All roads (quite literally) lead to Sol as it is the symbolic center of Spain, marked by the Kilometer Zero plaque at the footstep of the Casa de Correos. At the plaza’s center is the equestrian statue of King Charles III, though his popularity is overshadowed by a more famous character on the east side of the square – the Bear by the Madroño tree sculpture that represents Madrid’s coat of arms.
Tour Madrid’s iconic football stadiums
Spain is a footballing powerhouse, with the men’s international team winning both the World Cup and European Championships twice during the team’s most prolific period from 2008 to 2012.
The city of Madrid has two teams, and football fans (if unsuccessful at getting tickets for a match) can take a tour of both their world-renowned stadiums – the Santiago Bernabeu of Real Madrid, and the Wanda Metropolitano of Atlético de Madrid. There are guided tours to the museums that display the teams’ trophies, kits throughout the years, and various memorabilia narrating their long, illustrious histories.
Pull up a chair in the Plaza Mayor
At the heart of old Madrid is a beautiful, expansive plaza that has set the stage for everything from royal crowning ceremonies, football games, outdoor markets, bullfights and public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, 237 balconies peer out from a three-story residential compound embracing the plaza. While it’s easy to get distracted by buskers and the portly Spider-Man, who has become a Plaza mainstay, it’s definitely worth pulling up a chair at one of the buzzing (albeit overpriced) cafés and taking time to admire the magnificent frescoes painted between the balconies. The square also plays host to the city’s annual Christmas market, which has been going on since 1860.
Discover an Egyptian temple
Few people know until they visit Madrid that there’s an ancient Egyptian temple in the city center that traces as far back to the 2nd century BCE. Dedicated to the goddess Isis and the god Amun, the Temple of Debod was the Egyptian government’s token of gratitude to Spain for the latter’s assistance in restoring the Abu Simbel temples in Upper Egypt.
The temple was transported and rebuilt stone by stone in Madrid’s Cuartel de la Montaña Park, near Plaza España and right by Parque del Oeste and Casa de Campo. The Temple boasts some of the best panoramic views of western Madrid, particularly at sunset when the temple’s walls are reflected off the surrounding pools, making for incredible photos.
See the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace of Madrid
Although you won’t find the Spanish king and queen living in the Palacio Real anymore, it is still the official residence of the Spanish monarchy. Inspired by the Italian sculptor Bernini’s sketches for the construction of the Louvre, the palace faces a large central courtyard and houses 3418 rooms, making it the largest functioning royal palace in Europe.
The biweekly changing of the guard happens every Wednesday and Saturday, but the grander spectacle is the Solemn Changing of the Guard that takes place every first Wednesday of the month, showcasing a parade of horses and the Spanish Royal Guard, as performed during the time of King Alfonso XII.
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This article was first published in March 2020 and last updated in July 2021.