There are lots of things to do in Madrid, the grand capital of Spain. Madrid is smart and more ornate than Spain’s sexy second city, Barcelona.
To me its fancy front made it feel a little colder than Barcelona – but as it turns out, I just had to work a little harder to get to know Madrid’s personality. And in the end, I liked both its grandeur and the vibrant tapas scene that brings its streets to life at night.
So here’s a rundown of the best things to do in Madrid, plus at the end, there’s a map of where you can find them all.
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Enjoy the peace in El Retiro Park
A visit to Parque del Buen Retiro, or El Retiro as it is more commonly known, is a great thing to do in Madrid in the morning.
El Retiro was originally a royal garden in the 16th century, but it became open to the public in the late 19th century. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021.
The park is huge: 350 acres of different kinds of gardens, walkways, monuments and palaces. There are sections that are ordered and neatly manicured, patches of trees you can stroll through, and some sections of land which have been left untouched to encourage wildlife to flourish.
I found it a very peaceful place to be – I loved the variety of spaces and the calm inspiration that often comes from wandering in nature. At times, it was hard to believe I was in the middle of a capital city, which is a good sign that a park is doing its job!
Some highlights of El Retiro include:
- Estanque Grande de El Retiro – a large lake in the middle of the park, overlooked by a monument to Alfonso XII, the King of Spain in the 19th Century. Row boats pootle around the lake and buskers play saxophones along the sides. It’s a lovely spot to feed the birds or simply to people-watch.
- Rosaleda, an oval rose garden added in the early 20th century.
- Palacio de Valesquez: an art museum within a neoclassical building almost hidden in the trees at the heart of El Retiro
- Palacio De Cristal: a pretty glass palace inspired by the Crystal Palace in London. It looks out over a small lake with a fountain. It’s so picturesque, it could be from a fairy-tale!
- Paseo de la Argentina: a walkway decorated with statues of Spanish kings.
- Parterre Garden: ornately symmetrical section with fountains, sculpted trees and a monument to Jacinto Benavente, a Nobel-prize winning dramatist.
Witness the majestic Palacio Real de Madrid
Like the capital cities of many European countries that have or had a monarchy, Madrid has an impressive royal palace. Palacio Real de Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish royal family in the city of Madrid, although they don’t actually live there these days. There’s been a palace on this site since the 9th century, though the current building was built in the 18th century in baroque style. At 15,000 m2, the palace is the largest functioning royal palace and the largest by floor area in Europe.
Visiting the Royal Palace, or, simply, Palacio Real, is an essential thing to do in Madrid. If you want to have the full experience, you can get book tickets in advance to skip the line and take a tour.
However, if you simply want to look at it, you can get a good view of the palace through the fence across Plaza de la Armeria.
There are some nice attractions around the place also:
- Directly opposite the palace and to the south is an impressive church: Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena.
- There is a garden to the north called Sabatini Garden, although it was being renovated when I visited
- There’s an attractive tree-lined plaza to the east of the palace called Plaza Oriente, which contains a monument to Felipe V
The strangest thing to me was the view of the Palacio Real from the north because there’s a car park directly in front of it – presumably only for official users. It somewhat erodes the sense of grandeur and majesty!
Grab a bite at Mercado de San Miguel
Mercado de San Miguel is a covered market in the centre of Madrid, close to Plaza Mayor – and it is a great place to grab a bite to eat at lunchtime.
It was built in 1919 as a wholesale food market, but today it is a place to find high-quality tapas and drinks. There are approximately 20 stalls with a range of tasty bites made with fresh seafood, Iberian ham and Spanish cheeses. I found it hard to choose what I wanted to eat, as there was so much that looked good! I liked the vibrant vibe here – and this was the first place I saw sangria served from a tap, like beer.
Now, Mercado de San Miguel is very popular, so I have to warn you that it’s hard to get a table – but you can usually find a standing spot around the perimeter of the market.
Admire Plaza Mayor
Just across the street from Mercado de San Miguel is a short pedestrian street called Calle de Cdad. Rodrigo, which ends in a large archway. Beyond the archway is Plaza Mayor, the main square, once the centre of Old Madrid. It was first built during the reign of Philip III in the 16th century.
The square is ringed by tall red buildings with porticos on the ground level and nine arches that serve as entrances & exits to the square. At the centre of the patterned cobbled square is a statue of King Felipe III.
Like many major tourist destinations around the world, the cafes and restaurants around the perimeter are over-priced, so I’d recommend avoiding these unless you are really thirsty!
Wander streets of Los Austrias and Barrio de la Latina
Some of the attractions I’ve already mentioned are in the two old quarters of Madrid: Madrid de Los Austrias and Barrio de la Latina. However, the streets of these neighbourhoods (or barrios) are also an attraction in their own right. Therefore, a great thing to do in Madrid is to explore these old barrios on foot.
Madrid de Los Austrias is so named because it was built during the reign of the Habsburg dynasty (known as Casa de Austria) in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Royal Palace and Plaza Mayor are the main attractions, but the winding streets around them are lovely to wander. On Calle de Los Milaneses, look out for the statue of a fallen angel on top of one of the buildings.
Barrio de la Latina is a triangular area between Calle de Segovia, Calle de Bailen and Calle de Toledo. At the heart of it is Iglesia de San Andres Apostle and Plaza los Carros, and Calle de la Cava Baja is known for its tapas bars.
Marvel at Madrid’s fancy architecture
One of the things which stood out to me about Madrid is its ornate architecture, much of which came to be during the period of Modernisation between the late 19th centuries and the civil war, which began in 1936.
I came to Madrid directly after spending some time in Barcelona, which has its fair share of impressive architecture – but I was struck by the many decorative styles, domes and gold leaf flourishes I saw around Madrid. It really feels like Madrid set out to make itself a spectacle – and it worked!
Some of the best examples of Madrid’s showy architecture can be found in these two locations:
- Calle de Gran Via: this smart, wide shopping street was built in the early 20th Century and is lined with very fancy-looking buildings in a mix of styles including Vienna Secession, Plateresque, Neo-Mudéjar and Art Deco. At the western end of Calle de Gran Via is the much-photographed Beaux-Arts style Metropolis building.
- Plaza de Cibeles is a big interception with a fountain in the centre. Three impressive buildings face into this junction proudly: Museo Banco de Espana, Palacio de Linares and the most ostentatious: Palacio de Cibeles. Behind the white neoplateresque façade of this palacio is Madrid City Council and a restaurant.
People-watch in Puerto Del Sol
Puerto Del Sol is another major square in Madrid. Its name means Gate of the Sun because it was once one of the gates in the city wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century, and it faced eastward towards the rising sun.
It is an important meeting place in the city and has been the location for demonstrations and public gatherings for centuries. Puerta del Sol contains a number of landmarks, including the Royal House of the Post Office which now serves as the office of the President of Madrid. There are two commemorative plaques: one is devoted to the neighbours of Madrid who rose up against the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808; the other one is a memorial of the victims of the Madrid terrorist attacks in 2004.
I wouldn’t say exploring Puerto Del Sol is the most fascinating thing to do in Madrid, but it is a good place to do a bit of people-watching, as it’s a busy square where people hang out and street-sellers push their wares. It is also where Madrileños gather on New Year’s Eve, the clock at Royal House of the Post Office providing the bell strikes for the 12 Grapes tradition.
One thing I heard about Madrid over and over before I went was that it has a great tapas scene – and in my experience, this is true!
Tapas is small plates of food served with drinks in bars, and it’s a great way to try Spanish delicacies. Classic tapas dishes include croquettes, Iberian ham, chorizo, patatas brava and calamari – but many places offer a huge and inventive range these days. And of course, the drinks they come with are also important. Sangria or beer are common choices, but it won’t be hard to find a good cocktail list in Madrid, either.
There seemed to be the biggest concentration of tapas bars around Calle de Cadiz, Calle Barcelona and Calle de la Cruz and also in Barrio de Las Letras (the literary quarter) – and I spent both my evenings in Madrid tasting as much as I could!
There were several Madrid tapas bars I liked, but a couple of places stood out:
- Revoltosa: this laid-back tavern has plenty of room inside and also some tables on the street. I had some yummy deep fried cheese
- Rosi La Loca: this place is more like a restaurant than a bar that offers tapas, but they do have small dishes on the menu, including some delicious tuna Tataki. The Alice-in-Wonderland-themed cocktails are great, too!
Watch the sunset at Templo de Debod
So, I actually missed out on this place – because I spent too much of my evenings eating tapas and drinking sangria!
Templo de Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple from Nubia, which was donated to Spain in 1968 and rebuilt in Parque del Oeste, near the Palacio Real. I’m told that watching the sunset at Templo de Debod is a beautiful thing to do in Madrid.
It was recommended to me that I go here but somehow I missed this tip and it didn’t make its way into my plans. Then, when I was out on my last night in Madrid, someone said ‘you must see the sunset over Templo de Debod’. But it was too late, the sun had already set and I was leaving the next morning – I had missed the opportunity.
So I’m including it because it seemed quite highly recommended by others and because I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did!
Map: things to do in Madrid
Here’s a map showing all the things to do in Madrid that I recommend in this article:
Where to stay in Madrid
I stayed in the Hotel Preciados, which was very centrally located, making everything in this guide easy to walk to. I travelled here as a solo traveller and I wouldn’t recommend a single room: they don’t have exterior windows, so I swapped for a double room which did.
Have fun in Madrid!
I hope you enjoy this smart, fun city. If you want to see a lot of Madrid in a short amount of time, consider a hop on hop off bus tour of Madrid.