Things to Do in Madrid
Madrid's Royal Palace (also known as the Palacio Real or Palacio de Oriente) is a beautiful baroque structure with some 3,000 rooms, making it one of Europe's largest castles. Although the royal family no longer lives here, the Palacio Real still serves as the king and queen's official residence, a venue for state ceremonies, and a place for tourists to get a peek into the royal history of Spain.
The Prado Museum (Museo del Prado) houses one of the finest art collections in the world, specializing in European art from the 12th to 19th centuries. Thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art are on display throughout its halls, and they represent merely a fraction of the total collection. Highlights include works by Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco. Perhaps the most famous paintings are “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), an inventive self-portrait by Velázquez, and The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych from Hieronymus Bosch.
Today this central square is a popular meeting place for tourists and locals, but Plaza Mayor’s history goes back to the early 17th century during King Felipe III's reign. The central statue is a nod to the king’s role in overseeing the project's completion. Forming the outer walls are a series of 3-story buildings with balconies overlooking the center.
It’s fitting that the name Puerta del Sol (“gate of the sun” in English) evokes light and warmth, because this central Madrid square is an energetic hub. A must for first-time visitors to Madrid, the area is packed with hotels, cafés, souvenir-selling vendors, and barhopping locals.
One of Madrid’s most splendid, iconic views is from Plaza de Cibeles at the end of tree-lined Paseo del Prado. Fuente de la Cibeles, the fountain at the center of the grand roundabout, depicts Cybele, Greek goddess of nature and fertility, steering a lion-drawn chariot. The fountain was built in 1780 and has since become a symbol of the city. The fountain has also become a rallying point for fans of the soccer team Real Madrid whenever the team wins a major tournament.
Surrounding the plaza sit some of Madrid’s grandest buildings, including the ornate Cybele Palace, red brick Buenavista Palace, the Palace of Linares and the dignified Bank of Spain building.
The Reina Sofia Museum (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) is Madrid's premier modern art gallery featuring mostly works by Spanish artists. Among them isGuernica, a political statement on the Spanish Civil War by Pablo Picasso, as well as a room devoted to Joan Miró's paintings and a collection of about 20 Salvador Dalí pieces.
Football fans won’t want to miss a visit to the magnificent Santiago Bernabéu Stadium (Estadio Santiago Bernabéu) , home to the legendary Real Madrid football team. Despite boasting a capacity of 81,000 spectators and reaching a 5-star rating as a UEFA-classified Elite Stadium, Santiago Bernabéu is actually Spain’s second-largest football stadium, after Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
The neoclassical Alcalá Gate (Puerta de Alcalá), in Plaza de la Independencia, is one of Madrid’s most recognizable monuments. Designed by Italian architect Francesco Sabatini and erected in 1778, the triumphal granite gate once served as one of five main entrances to the city. The statues on top represent the cardinal virtues.
Retiro Park (Parque de El Retiro), often referred to simply as El Retiro, serves as the Spanish capital’s green lung. Dotted with ornate fountains, formal gardens, marble monuments, and plenty of space to relax, these former grounds of the Spanish monarchy became public in 1868 and have become a beloved spot for Madrilenos.
King Alfonso XII laid the first stone of the Almudena Cathedral (Catedral de la Almudena) in 1883, yet the neoclassical structure, built atop an old church that itself was built atop the city’s first mosque, wasn’t consecrated until 1993. Compared to Europe’s other major cathedrals, this one is uniquely modern, with touches like pop art–stained glass windows.
More Things to Do in Madrid
As one of Spain’s most famous tablaos (flamenco clubs), the Corral de la Morería in Madrid has been producing flamboyant and moving flamenco performances for nearly 60 years. Thanks to its reputation, the Corral de la Morería attracts its fair share of world-renowned dancers as well as the occasional A-List celebrity spotted among the audience.
With seating around individual tables for a capacity of just 140, the club feels intimate and cozy, furnished in simple rustic style and with great views of the small stage from all sides. With two shows lasting over an hour every night, each featuring 11 performers, revered names from the world of flamenco who have danced their wild, passionate flamenco here include Blanca del Rey and Antonio Gades. The current artistic director, Blanca del Rey, has also received many awards for the stunning choreography of the flamenco shows.
While it is wise to opt for a drink-and-dance combination-ticket and eat elsewhere when visiting many of Madrid’s flamenco clubs, the cuisine in Corral de la Morería is far superior to most, giving visitors the chance to sample a contemporary take on traditional Spanish dishes such as Iberian ham and Galician lamb, accompanied by fine Rioja wines. However, factor in all the costs and don’t expect entertainment at this gold-standard level to come in cheap!
One of Madrid’s most picturesque and popular markets, San Miguel Market (Mercado de San Miguel) is also the city’s oldest. Built in 1916 and recognizable for its wrought-iron and glass facade, the market now houses tapas restaurants, wine bars, bakeries, and other tempting eateries.
Situated within strolling distance of Plaza Mayor, tranquil Plaza de la Villa is a prime example of a medieval Madrid square, circled with many of the city’s oldest buildings, including Casa de la Villa. Formerly a prison and the city’s Town Hall, Casa de la Villa is a delight both inside and out, decorated with frescoes and enhanced by stained-glass windows.
Commissioned by King Felipe II as a testament to Spain's devout Catholic faith, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial—or just El Escorial—was built in the 16th century after the French were defeated in the Battle of Saint Quentin. The highlights of this immense UNESCO World Heritage Site—considered the most important monument of the Spanish Renaissance—include the elegant basilica; the marble Pantheon de los Reyes, where many kings and their relatives are buried; and the Patio de los Reyes, the entrance to the monument. The site is a must-visit for history buffs and architecture lovers.
Built into the mountains north of Madrid, Spain's Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) is a memorial to those who died in the Spanish Civil War. Erected by Nationalist leader Francisco Franco, the sight has been steeped in controversy. The somber attraction is known for its ziggurat-like facade, vaulted crypt, and granite cross.
Lined with high-end shops, restaurants, and bars of all types, Gran Via cuts through the heart of Madrid. The bustling street comes alive at night when locals eat, drink, and mingle into the wee hours. Gran Via is also known for its 20th-century architecture, including the Edificio Metropolis, which stands at the head of the thoroughfare and boasts a magnificent rooftop statue of Winged Victory.
One of the last great monumental squares of Imperial Madrid, the Plaza de Oriente boasts an enviably grand location, flanked by the magnificent Royal Palace to the west and the Teatro Real opera house to the east. Although originally planned by Joseph Bonaparte, the plaza wasn’t finished until 1844 under the reign of Isabel II, opening to the public in 1850.
Laid out by architect Narciso Pascual y Colomer, the plaza features a set of beautifully landscaped gardens, punctuated by a series of 44 statues depicting prominent Spanish monarchs. Most famous is the 17th-century bronze equestrian statue of Felipe IV, designed in 1640 by Italian sculptor Pedro Tacca. The iconic figure shows the King’s stallion rearing up on its hind legs – a striking sight which towers 12 meters high over the central walkway.
A popular location for state occasions and public addresses, the tranquil oasis makes a scenic location for a stroll, especially at night when the palace and gardens are dramatically lit up. A number of cafés also line the square, offering great views of the formal gardens, most famously the Café de Oriente, with its terrace viewing area proving a big hit with tourists.
The Temple of Debod (Templo de Debod), an Egyptian temple built in the fourth century BC, stands in Madrid’s Parque de la Montaña near Plaza de España. While it may seem out of place in the middle of the modern city, the temple was dismantled, shipped, and carefully reconstructed here in 1972 to protect it from flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam. Spain received the temple as a thank you for helping to save Abu Simbel, another archaeological site that was threatened by flooding in Egypt.
Situated in Madrid’s Rosas neighborhood, the Wanda Metropolitano soccer stadium has been home to Atletico Madrid since the 2017-2018 season. Wanda Metropolitano has a capacity of nearly 68,000, a small museum, and guided tour opportunities, which make it an essential stop in Madrid for soccer fans.
The San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Art (Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes San Fernando) is both a world-class arts institution and museum, located in the heart of Madrid. Known primarily for its numerous Goya paintings, the museum's collection also boasts thousands of works of European fine art, decorative pieces, and sculpture.
The neoclassical Sabatini Gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) provides the perfect place for a rest on a busy day exploring Madrid. The gardens feature an impressive sculpted hedge maze, as well as fountains, statues, and a pond. Sit on a bench beneath one of the leafy trees to nibble a jamón sandwich with views of the Royal Palace.
Lavapiés is an area of Madrid outside of the old city walls that was once the Jewish and Moorish neighborhood. In 1492, the residents of the neighborhood were forced to either convert or leave. The neighborhood then became a working class area for hundreds of years and eventually fell into decay. This all changed in the 1980s and 1990s when immigrants and artists started moving into the abandoned buildings. It now has a bohemian and multicultural feel and is filled with galleries, bars, ethnic restaurants, and cafes.
Popular activities in this district include going to an independent cinema to see an international film, enjoying flamenco, and wandering through the flea market on Sundays. El Rastro is supposedly the largest flea market in the world. Another way to soak up the atmosphere is to find a cafe with outdoor seating and relax with a coffee or a beer. You'll experience a less touristy side of Madrid in Lavapiés.
Plaza de Toros de las Ventas is one of Madrid’s largest public squares, dominated by the iconic Las Ventas bullfighting arena—the largest in the world and one of the city’s top attractions. Even those with no interest in bullfights can learn about the history and heritage of this deeply Spanish tradition.
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