Madrid may not stand as tall in the Pantheon of European destinations as its peers London, Paris, or Rome, but it has a lot to offer. I actually subscribe to a not-widely-held opinion that architecturally it is near the top of the list of Old World capitals. And if you add the great food, the vibrancy, and many superb museums and attraction, you get a city that is easy to like and enjoy.
There are several striking public spaces in Madrid that all deserve a fair share of lingering. In the Old City, the incomparable Plaza Mayor ♥♥♥ and the lively Puerta del Sol ♥♥♥ are the undeniable highlights, and Plaza de España ♥ is home to the monument to Servantes and his famous heroes Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Plaza de la Villa ♥ always features in tourist guides as a beautiful historic square, while Plaza de Oriente ♥♥ not only has an enjoyable view of the Royal Palace but also provides a surprising respite from the hustle and bustle of the Opera district. Gran Via ♥♥♥, which connects Plaza de España with the modern city center, is an undisputed architectural showpiece, with a number of Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings.
The area between Puerta del Sol and Gran Via is the prime shopping district, for those so inclined.
In Bourbon Madrid, Plaza de Cibeles ♥♥♥ with its eponymous fountain, Plaza Cánovas del Castillo ♥♥ with Fuente de Neptuno, Plaza de Colón ♥ with several monuments and fountains amid heavy traffic, and Puerta de Alcalá ♥ on Plaza de la Independencia, are the main focal areas of the city. Paseo del Prado ♥♥♥ is a beautiful promenade, with the pedestrian boulevard taking more than half of its width, fronted by impressive buildings.
The outwardly austere Palacio Real ♥♥ hides a splendid interior well worth a visit. Audioguide is highly recommended. The nearby Catedral de la Almudena ♥♥♥, a massive edifice finished in 1980s, may not be held in the same high esteem as its Middle Age brethren, but it is a marvel nonetheless, with unusual for cathedral ceiling decorations and vivid stained glass mosaics.
The palace complex is surrounded by parks and gardens. The aforementioned Plaza de Oriente is also an open-air statuary hall of early Spanish kings. Jardines Sabatini ♥, on the northern side of the palace, is a quiet and contemplative retreat. Campo del Moro is a large park rising steeply to offer additional fine perspectives of the palace.
Museo del Prado ♥♥♥ may not directly contend with Louvre or Hermitage for the title of the greatest art collection in the world, but it is certainly the foremost collection of Spanish art, and especially of works by Velázquez, Goya, Murillo, and El Greco. Many old masters from other parts of Europe are represented as well.
Another superb art collection, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza ♥♥♥, contains a great assortment of Old Masters and Impressionists, as well as a smattering of Modern Artists. It is not big enough to be tiring, and significant enough to stake a claim as a must-see for an art lover.
Parque del Retiro ♥♥ is always full of Madrileños on a sunny weekend day. You can rent a boat to row on its pleasure lake, observe street portraitists plying their trade, or relax on a bench in the shade. The Monument of Alfonso XII and two attractive Neo-Classical palaces add both to the grandeur and to the charm of this beautiful park.
Estación de Atocha ♥ is one of the most arresting railway stations in all of Europe. Regardless of how much you are an admirer of “industrial” architecture, you should take a look.
Another architectural sight impossible to miss is the grandiose Palacio Cibeles ♥. Somewhat prosaically, it is but the main post office. Its Art Deco interior is worth a look all by itself, even though the place feels somewhat empty inside. There are normally one or two free exhibitions on different floors. There is also a viewing platform at the top, which delivers nice vistas over the town. The visitor flow to the platform is regulated with timed tickets, which need to be procured on the main floor; usually, you will wait no more than half an hour.
One of the lesser museums in Madrid, but a tremendously enjoyable one, Museo Cerralbo ♥♥ holds a sumptuous collection of artifacts that include paintings, tapestries, sculptures, arms, furniture, curiosities, etc, set around a lavishly decorated 19th-century mansion, with glittering chandeliers, mirrored ballroom, and resplendent library. A helpful and detailed tour booklet offers you an extra insight into the atmosphere of the late 19th century recreated around you.
Another museum off the beaten path, Museo Sorolla ♥, is the former residence of the Spanish impressionist. A pleasant house, fronted by a walled charming garden (and boasting another Andalusian garden inside the house), it is home to a surprisingly large collection of Sorolla’s paintings.
Madrid offers a fair share of walking routes in interesting neighborhoods, from chic La Latina ♥, ethnically-diverse Lavapies ♥, atmospheric Malasaña ♥ to the more upmarket Salamanca ♥, the latter pierced through by Madrid’s smartest shopping street Calle de Serrano.
As an erstwhile stronghold of the Catholic faith, the city boasts a large number of churches that are worth a look. They include San Miguel, San Nicholas, San Jeronimo et Real, and others. None of them can be declared “musts”, but architecture aficionados would not be disappointed with any of them.
Mercato de San Miguel ♥ is a covered market in the Old Town, which seemingly is aimed more at selling tapas and delicacies rather than meat, fish, or produce. In the evenings, the place is packed with people hanging out and sampling various fares available from the multitude of vendor stalls. “Traditional” market purchases are available here too, but it feels that few people come here for that.
Among other attractions that are worth considering in Madrid is the modern art collection at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the market of El Rastro (held on Sundays only), Monasterio de la Encarnación, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.
Madrid metro system is convenient, modern, and frequent. You will unlikely require its services in the central areas, but for trips further afield – or to reach terminals for day trips – it comes in very handy. Buy the 10-trip ticket – it comes at considerable savings and allows as many passengers to pass through the turnstiles on a single trip as the number of trips left on it. Also, the city is extremely well served by taxis, and the cost of the ride even cross-town is quite tolerable.
Accommodation-wise, any location in Centro will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
In the “memorable stays” category, Hotel Madrid Centro Plaza Mayor (link) is located not on the eponymous plaza but on the adjoining Plaza de Santa Cruz. The room on the top floor with the balcony looking out onto the place (I believe the room number was 503, but my records could be wrong) may be the best in the entire B&B. The location is perfect for Old Town explorations and within reasonable walking distance from the Bourbon part of the city. Plus a great breakfast, as well as tapas separately offered throughout the day.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Madrid. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards. Keep in mind that Spanish dining habits frequently mean much later dining times than you may be used to.
There are hundreds of places in Madrid to engage in the sampling of tapas, and theoretically speaking, one does not need ever to sit down for a full dinner in Madrid, as tapas provide an easy-to-find and practically around-the-clock mode of sustenance. In fact, tapas crawl – sampling something at a given eatery, then moving on to a different one for another bite, and so on – is an essential Madrid experience in itself (Calle Cava Baja and the area around Plaza Santa Ana are among the primary locations for that). Be prepared, however, that as the night gets longer, places become more packed, and you may have to eat your food while standing practically on top of other people – and they will reciprocate.
Of course, the quality diminishes when you randomly pick touristy places or even many open-air cafés on bustling squares. You may end up with a pulpo gallego that is way too salty, or with patatas bravas that are covered in lowly ketchup. That being said, you will never know without trying. We had some of our greatest culinary experiences at seemingly random selections.
On a different note, Museo de Jamon is a chain of charcuteries that double as bars. You can get a sandwich to go for a couple of euros, with the meat cut right in front of you. You can also get a quick and tasty breakfast for under €5, including a cup of coffee.
A few places worthy of specific recommendations are: Casa Lucas (on Calle Cava Baja), a little place with an artsy vibe and artsy food; Cava de Illán Sidrería (also on Calle Cava Baja), with a great Galician menu; La Paloma (on Calle de Jorge Juan), a stylish Basque restaurant serving refined dishes; Paella Real (on Calle Arrieta near Opera), where you would go for, well, paella.
A special mention goes to Botin (on Calle de Cuchilleros) which is the world’s oldest continually operating restaurant according to the Guinness Book of Records. That obviously plays up its popularity – it is hardly possible to walk in at any time of the day in any season; advance booking is very much advised – but on “slower” days, you may be able to get a same-day reservation for 10:30 pm or so. The ambiance is great, across several floors of cavernous dining rooms, and the food is excellent, aided at some point by a live band performance.
Another special mention, if not exactly a full-blown recommendation, goes to DiverXO (on Calle del Padre Damián beyond central Madrid), the first “TV-famous” restaurant – and eventually Michelin-rated – that we’ve ever been to. The tasting menu is both fun and with clear pretenses to be “on the cutting edge”, and the experience is only worth something to people who are specifically interested in culinary theatrics and service choreography (and can afford such a spectacle). Reservations have to be made weeks, if not months, in advance; the expense will likely be higher than anywhere else. It is an experience. Your mileage may vary.
Madrid is incredibly well-positioned for intraday excursions, surrounded by no less than five UNESCO World Heritage sites within easy reach. Toledo and Segovia are must-see destinations (each can support a longer than an intraday visit), and there are also El Escorial and Alcalá de Henares. See the notes on each in this article. The fifth option is the Royal Palace and Gardens in Aranjuez.