For your first visit you need around 3 days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in many cases, but the excellent subway system will come in handy.
Love its stunning edifices and wide central boulevards.
On the other hand: Magnificent fountains on major squares are encircled by traffic with no pedestrian approach, which seriously dulls the impression.
Worthy attractions: Museo del Prado, the greatest assembly of Spanish painting; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, another magnificent collection of paintings; Palacio Real; Catedral de Almudena; Parque del Retiro, very popular on a nice summer weekend day; Museo Cerralbo; Museo Sorolla.
Recommended day trips: Toledo; Segovia; El Escorial; Alcala de Henares.
Left for another visit: Monasterio de la Encarnación; Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Iglesia de San Jeronimo et Real; El Rastro.
Last visit: November 2016.
Madrid is a beautiful city, especially its “Bourbon” part, where beautiful boulevards, fronted by grandiose buildings, connect squares adorned with magnificent fountains. It is an important center of culture, with several major art collections. It is an epitome of Castilian spirit, a city that dances the night away.
It may not stand as tall in the European-destination Pantheon as its peers such as London, Paris or Rome. But it has a lot to offer. For instance, I subscribe to a minority opinion that architecturally it is near the top of Old World major cities, definitely more stimulating than Paris in that particular aspect. And if you add the great food, the vibrancy and those many attractions, you get a city easy to like and enjoy.
Things to See
There are several striking public spaces in Madrid that all deserve a fair share of lingering at. 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 creations, 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 the 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 pedestrian boulevard taking more than half of its width, fronted by impressive buildings.
The outwardly austere Palacio Real ♥♥ hides splendid interior well worth a visit. Audio-guide narration is recommended. The nearby Catedral de la Almudena ♥♥♥, a massive edifice finished less than 30 years ago, may not be held in the same high esteem as its Middle Age brethren, but it is a marvel nonetheless, with unusual for a cathedral ceiling decorations and vivid stained glass mosaics.
The palace complex is surrounded by parks and gardens. Aforementioned Plaza de Oriente is also a statuary of early Spanish kings. Jardines Sabatini ♥, on the northern side of the palace, is a quiet and contemplative retreat. Campo del Moro is a pleasant park rising steeply to offer finest views of the palace; we did not actually go there.
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 – Bosch, Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Van Dyck, to name a few – 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. Depending on how much you are an admirer of “industrial” architecture, you may be interested to 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 but itself, although the place feels rather 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 entrance to the platform used to be free; the visitor flow is regulated with a certain number of people every 15 minutes. You have to get a timed ticket on the main floor, before going up to the platform, which cost €4 at the time of our last visit. A wait of 15-20 minutes for your turn is not uncommon, but worth it on balance.
One of the lesser museums in Madrid, but the one that we enjoyed tremendously, 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. Helpful and detailed tour booklet helps you get an extra insight into the atmosphere of the late 19th century recreated around you.
Another museum off 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 the 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. We randomly stepped into a handful on our walks around town, including San Miguel and San Nicholas, running into sermon proceedings more often than not. We can’t highlight any of them as targets for a dedicated visit, but architecture aficionados would not be disappointed with any of them. Iglesia de San Jeronimo et Real, above Prado, remains an elusive target for us, but its exterior is entirely arresting.
An interesting attraction in the Old Town, Mercato de San Miguel ♥, is a covered market which 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 multitude of vendor stalls. “Traditional” market purchases are available here too, but practically no one comes here for that.
Among the attractions that we did not fit into either of our stays in Madrid is the modern art collection at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which holds Picasso’s famous Guernica. Other potential points of interest include market of El Rastro (held on Sundays only), and two monasteries.
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, Madrid is extremely well served by taxis, and the cost of the ride even cross-town is quite tolerable.
Places to Eat
There are hundreds of places in Madrid to engage in the sampling of tapas, which we took ample advantage of. 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 primary locations). Be prepared, however, that as night gets longer, places become more packed, and you may have to eat your tapas while standing practically on top of other people.
It is also worth noting that you do lose in the quality of food by randomly picking touristy places or even many open-air cafés on bustling squares. While the experience should remain pleasant throughout, you cannot expect that the food will be uniformly excellent. You may end up with 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. For instance, the unassuming Tapas 44 ♥, a bar on Gran Via near Plaza de España, hosted us twice to our complete satisfaction.
On a different note, Museo de Jamon ♥ is a chain of charcuterias which 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.
Casa Lucas ♥♥ on Calle Cava Baja is a little place with the expressed limit of 29 people capacity (when we walked by it on one of our crawls late at night, it seemingly held at least 50, most standing). Getting there by the opening did the trick of getting to sit down for a meal. The menu is not very extensive, but all offerings have some unusual twist in them. We tried 5 different pinchos and raciones and were very happy with all. The damage: €60, including a few drinks. Last visit: Spring 2011.
Posada de la Villa ♥ is also on Calle Cava Baja. A refined, somewhat upmarket place frequented by celebrities (we ran into a member of the Real Madrid soccer team there). Pleasant interior, very nice vino de la casa, understated service with a flourish. Local specialty – lamb quarter. The waiter was very insistent that we pick that, and turns out with some good reason. The lamb was exquisite, whereas deer cutlets were so-so. Oxtail, however, was also excellent. For starters, we tried two different soups, as well as caracoles and roasted peppers. Posadero postres, a sampler of desserts, was pretty good too. The damage: €220, including two bottles of wine, for 4 people. Last visit: Spring 2011.
Also on Calle Cava Baja, La Cava de Yllan ♥♥ was a random choice that turned out great. Excellent service, nice tapas (a couple may be slightly too salty, but not bad), a small place with great atmosphere. The damage: €96 for 2 with a bottle of wine. At the end of the meal, the owner offered us a traditional Galician digestif at no extra cost to us. Last visit: Fall 2016.
La Vinoteca ♥ on Plaza Santa Ana is very popular – you may get lucky with a table on the plaza, but people constantly stalk them out. Seating inside on the corner of the plaza does not seem especially appealing, though. If you do get a table on the plaza, you’ll get to select a combination of tapas (4, 8, or 10) from a list of about 15 – each one is a crostini with meat or fish or vegetables. Every one is quite tasty. The damage: €44 for two people with 4 glasses of wine and a small tip. Last visit: Fall 2016.
I also tried a more burger-leaning take on tapas, at Alta Burgersia on Calle de Leon. Neither bad nor exceptional. The damage: €27, including two beers. Last visit: Fall 2016.
Selected by our friends who were traveling with us, Diverxo ♥ is the first “TV-famous” restaurant that I’ve ever been to. It was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show. Located pretty far from the city center, it is best reached by taxi. The menu provides only a choice of how many courses you intend to have, and everybody at the same table have to make the same choice, so that delivery of the various courses are synchronized for all diners in the party. We went for the cheapest option – a 7-course meal – which still clocked in at €75 per person. Each course is a bite-size plate in Asian-fusion style: a couple “appetizers”, then several “main courses” and dessert. Each new course is accompanied by an explanation provided by a waiter. All courses were truly unusual and extremely tasty. The service is collective and borders on too frequent; I have never seen this many waiters and busboys working a not-too-large room (40-50 people, at most) at the same time in a European eatery. Utensils and plates were replaced after each course. Very interesting meal, although clearly not one to be repeated often, both on the account of cost and convenience. Reservations have to be made a month in advance. As far as I understood, the plate lineup changes quite often, if not day-to-day based on whatever the chef bought on the market. At the end of the meal, the sommelier offered us delightful jerez, unlike any I tried before. The damage: €400, including wine and other drinks, for 4 people. Last visit: Spring 2011.
Astrid & Gastón ♥ on Paseo de la Castellana not far from Plaza Colón specializes in Peruvian cuisine. Large selection of wines and a pretty good menu, but we all decided to go for a set “Menu Tradition”, which ended up resembling our meal at Diverxo, complete with waiter’s explanations of what was brought to us. Only 6 courses, though, but all still on the smallish side. Good food, smooth service. The damage: €306, including wine and other drinks, for 4 people. Last visit: Spring 2011.
Meson Asturias ♥, on Calle Alvarez Gato, near the lively Plaza de Santa Ana, was a random choice on our very first night in town. Despite it being nearer to a tapas place than a formal restaurant, we spent over two and half hours at our meal there and recorded our satisfaction with the experience in our diary (without stating any details), which I suppose merits a one-heart recommendation. Our damage then: €47 for two, undoubtedly with at least a half-bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2004.
Botin ♥♥♥, on Calle de Cuchilleros, is the world’s oldest continually operating restaurant according to the Guinness Book of Records. Such designation could well indicate a tourist trap, but we still went and the experience was great. The place is certainly tremendously popular with both tourists and Madrileños – we showed up around 7pm and were able to procure a reservation only for 10:30pm; advance booking is very much advised. The food was excellent, and we clearly ordered too much for the two of us. I recall the starter portion of regional cold cuts being of the size that could easily pass for a whole meal. Our dinner lasted well beyond 1am and included an extended musical performance by a 6-person band. The damage then: €135 for two, which definitely included at least one wine bottle. Last visit: Spring 2004.
La Paloma ♥♥♥ was picked from our guidebook, and it turned out to be one of the more upmarket places that we went to on our travels. It is located on Calle de Jorge Juan, in a fairly fashionable area of the city. Our records state that our experience there was “indescribable”. Fantastic food, smooth and attentive service, ballroom-bright decor. This happens to be the place that turned me onto jerez, at the advice of our waiter. We must have been more careful with our orders after Botin, and the damage only came to €110 for two, which included wine and after-meal drinks. Last visit: Spring 2004.
Paella Real ♥♥, on Calle Arrieta, near Opera and not far from the Royal Palace, was recommended to us by a friend who had eaten there in the past. It is widely considered one of the best places in Madrid for classic paella. We did not record which type we ordered, but it was an excellent meal. The damage: €60 for two, with undoubtedly some wine and possibly jerez afterwards. Last visit: Spring 2004.
Tirso de Molina ♥, on the eponymous plaza, was an entirely random selection after our target place for the meal turned ugly (see below). A fetching large dining room inside and a nice outdoor dining area, which we took advantage of. Excellent gazpacho and patatas a dos salsas. We also tried paella, baby squid, pork cutlets and a variation of Morcilla omelette. A very good meal. The damage: €66 for 4 people. Last visit: Spring 2011.
I am only mentioning Casa de Granada as a sort of warning. I almost never walk out of a restaurant without eating once I settled down in a chair, but this was one such occasion. The restaurant is located on the top floor of a multi-story building off Plaza Tirso de Molina. It was nearly empty when we came in for lunch. Despite that, the waitress instructed us that we could not use two tables together for our party of four. We had to sit around a tiny round table. After we reluctantly agreed, the same waitress proceeded to tell us something about menus not being available at this hour. She spoke in Spanish, and pretty fast. I understand enough Spanish to handle myself in a restaurant, but my limited knowledge did not allow me to discern what options she might have been offering us. I tried to figure out what she was saying, but the waitress made no attempt to help me. We got up and left. I am a big proponent of leaving American habits at home when I travel to foreign destinations, but even I cannot accept when a waiter is not willing to meet me half-way to reach an understanding.
Another random selection, El Botanico on Calle Espalter is somewhat overpriced on account of its location next to Prado and the Botanic Garden. Not a bad lunch nonetheless, which included gazpacho, cod croquettes, oxtail and black paella. The damage: €130 for 4 people. Last visit: Spring 2011.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in Centro will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest.
One hotel recommendation is Hotel Plaza Mayor ♥♥♥. It is located not on the Plaza Mayor itself, but on the adjoining Plaza de Santa Cruz. The all-night-long reverie on the plaza may be a nuisance for those expecting peace and quiet, but you need to look for places away from the city center to find that. We had what is likely the best room (I believe the room number is 503, but I could be mistaken) on the top floor, with the balcony looking out onto the square below (it’s the top window on hotel’s small cut-corner side above its entrance, as seen in the pictures on its website). The location is perfect for the Old Town explorations and within reasonable walking distance from the Bourbon part of the city. Very good breakfast; tapas separately offered throughout the day. Last stay: 2004.
Madrid is incredibly well-positioned for day-tripping, with Toledo and Segovia as must-see destinations (each can support a longer than intraday visit), and also Alcala de Henares and El Escorial within easy reach.