The first time I visited Madrid was over New Years 2008, right before I moved to Sevilla. I spent four days exploring the city with my older brother, and I absolutely loved it. Probably didn’t hurt that one of my first nights was spent ringing in the New Year with some of the friendliest people in the world in the middle of Puerta del Sol, eating those grapes like my life depended on it (the Spanish tradition is to eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, one for good luck in each month of the coming year). I also loved how much there was to do at all times of day, and as a food lover, I really appreciated the focus on spending time with friends over a long meal.
The second time I went to Madrid was in November of 2011. I had a great time visiting with one of my friends who lives there, but I didn’t find the city itself as captivating as the previous time. I had just moved to NYC a couple of years prior, so I think part of it was due to the fact that it felt too similar to where I lived and less like I was exploring a new place.
My most recent trip to Madrid overruled all feelings from that previous trip completely. Once again I was completely captivated by the city – I found new neighborhoods to explore, new tapas bars in neighborhoods I’d previously been to, and I got outside of the city to explore some nearby towns. I left seeing myself living there, wondering what it would take to move to Madrid as soon as possible.
You could spend weeks in Madrid, exploring the city and neighboring towns, but if you’re limited on time, try to spend 4-5 days. These are the must-sees:
- Parque del Buen Retiro: think Central Park, but in the middle of Madrid. This beautiful park belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century when it became a public park. It is home to tons of different sculptures, monuments, walking paths, as well as a beautiful lake where you can rent row boats. Make sure to check out the Glass Palace as well! Plan to spend a couple of hours here
- If you’re in the park for lunch, there is a really cute new area with several different restaurants. La Galeria de Floria Retiro was a delightful tapas bar I’d recommending checking out!
- Be sure to check out the Real Jardín Botánico situated beside Retiro Park, too!
- From Retiro, head to the Puerta de Alcalá, situated in the Plaza de la Independencia. It reminds me of a smaller Arc du Triomphe, but with more archways. You don’t need to spend too much time here as it’s really just a sight to see as you’re walking from the park towards the center
- If you’re up for walking (I’d recommend this means of transportation as it’ll allow you to see more and get in a little exercise to counter all the olive oil and delicious tapas!), head down Calle de Alcalá from Puerta de Alcalá towards Puerta del Sol, and eventually, Plaza Mayor (note that the road changes from Calle de Alcalá to Calle Mayor right around Puerta del Sol). Along the way to Sol, you’ll pass several famous building and plazas, including Plaza de Cibeles and the Metropolis Building. There are plenty of places to shop and/or eat along the walk to Sol, around Puerta del Sol, and near Plaza Mayor as well. I’d give yourself a couple of hours to walk from Puerta de Alcala down to Mayor, including time for exploring
- If that much walking isn’t your thing, you can take the 2 subway line from Retiro to Sol, and then walk from Sol to Plaza Mayor, too
- Not too far past Plaza Mayor is the famous Mercado de San Miguel. Another great place to grab lunch or a tapa if your heart desires, otherwise this beautiful market is absolutely worth a quick visit. Plan to spend a half hour or so here
- Continuing on from San Miguel, you’ll come to Palacio Real de Madrid (the Royal Palace). It’s absolutely breathtaking to walk by, and there’s a beautiful courtyard to the south where tours begin. I’ve never actually toured the inside as I’ve opted to spend my time elsewhere, but that is always an option if you find yourself with extra time
- Right next to the Palace is the Catedral de la Almudena, which has one of the most beautiful cathedral ceilings I have seen in all my travels. It’s open to the public seven days a week, and instead of entry fees, they recommend making a donation to the Cathedral (trust me, you’ll have no problem leaving a couple of euros donation after you see this beautiful place)
- If you’re looking for some rainy day options or indoors activities, Madrid has numerous amazing museums, with two in particular being famous worldwide
- The first is the Museo del Prado, which is situated along Paseo del Prado, parallel to the park on the western side. It is home to one of the world’s finest collections of European art, and you could easily spend several hours inside. The museum is open 7 days a week (10am-8pm Mon-Sat, 10am-7pm Sun) and costs 15 euro for adult entrance
- The other major museum is Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, named after the Queen of Spain and home to 20th century works of art such as those of Dali, Picasso, and Miro. The museum is open 10am-9pm every day except Tuesdays, when it is closed, and entrance fees are 10 euro per adult, and it is situated south of the Prado, just west of the Botanical gardens
- For those of you who love shopping, Gran Vía is the place to be. It’s a large street with tons of shops along the way, including all the Spanish favorites like Zara and Mango – you’ll find much better prices than in the US! It runs from the Círculo de Bellas Artes all the way to Plaza de España
- If you check out Gran Vía, don’t miss the rooftop at El Corte Ingles in Plaza Callao for beautiful views of the city!
- From a neighborhood standpoint, I absolutely love Barrio de Las Letras (also known as Huertas). It’s full of charming restaurants and bars, cute streets with beautiful, colorful building, and it was once home to many famous Spanish writers, so you’ll find quotes from Cervantes and Echegaray paved into the streets. Calle de las Huertas is the main street in this neighborhood and will connect you from Paseo del Prado to Plaza Santa Ana and up to Plaza de Jacinto Benavente. Spend an evening in this area, exploring the streets and getting dinner at one of the many restaurants
Madrid is also perfectly situated in the center of the country, making it the ideal place for day trips to neighboring towns. There are two main train stations in the city that will take you to a number of destinations (and quite quickly thanks to the high speed Ave and Avila trains), with my favorite being Toledo and Segovia. For specifics on those day trips, check out my posts on each (hyperlinked in the names directly above).
As you can tell, there is TONS to do in Madrid – my recommendations above only scratch the surface of the city, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or comments as you plan your own trip to Madrid! I’d love to hear from you.