Top things to see and do in Madrid, one of Europe’s most dynamic capital cities.
Travelling through Spain, you will probably arrive in Spain’s Capital, Madrid. So what to see and do in Madrid, Spain? There are so many activities and tourist sites here that it is worthwhile to spend a couple of days exploring this gem of a city. But, be warned – Madrid rarely goes to sleep.
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What is the best thing about Madrid?
It’s the middle of the night but traffic on the M30, Madrid’s main motorway, still buzzes by at high speed giving the town a 24-7 hum. Known for its night owl culture and with plentiful tourist sites and good eats, it is a great city to explore. Don’t worry though, despite Madrid’s hive of activity, there are still enough quiet sights like green parks, art galleries and warm benches in Spain’s capital for those not blessed with hyperactivity. The city loves an active life, day and night.
Walking tour of Madrid’s famous sites
Planning to walk around Madrid visiting its tourist spots? The place to start is the Puerta del Sol. A busy hub of shops, patisseries, you can also spot the famous bear and the strawberry tree sculpture, a modern interpretation of Madrid’s ancient coat of arms. This is officially the centre of Spain for the radial network of the national road system. Step onto a plaque (Km 0) celebrating this!
What to Visit in Madrid
To check off one main tourist sight, take a walk to Plaza Mayor. The Plaza is a recognizable vast red hued plaza from the 16th century. Filled with outdoor restaurants, street artists, wandering accordion players and if lucky, some of Madrid’s free city festivals. I ventured by on the week of the 15th of May, feast day of San Isidro (Madrid’s patron saint). Surprisingly I was treated to a free musical concert and a heaping portion of cocido (traditional stew of Madrid). It was ladled out by a neatly trimmed bearded chef who winked broadly and enticingly held out another spoonful with a “¿más?” (more?).
Top 10 Things of What to See and Do in Madrid, Spain
- Boat in El Retiro Park
- Reina Sofia’s haunted art gallery
- Stand on the centre of Spain
- Get tapas at the Mercado
- Visit the Royal Palace
- Enjoy the Manzanares river walk
- Cycle in Casa de Campo
- Watch football at the Bernabéu
- Pick up something at the Rastro
- Keep up with the Madrileños!
Where to wander in Madrid
From Plaza Mayor it is a 5 minute walk to the impressive landmark, the Cathedral de la Almudena. Surprisingly, this gigantic gothic building, Madrid’s sole cathedral, was only completed in 1993. Next door is the elegant and official royal residence, the 18th century Royal Palace. The royals haven’t lived there permanently since the 1900s, but it is used for receptions, state visits and receptions. Here get the camera out for some good panoramas of the city.
Walk down to the river to get a feeling of Madrid’s favourite pastime, the family paseo evening stroll. The Manzanares River, which runs through the centre of Madrid, has undergone a beautiful regeneration project. New embankment walkways, footbridges and riverside cafés makes it a wonderful escape from the city buzz. Now head back up to Plaza España and along the central Gran Via avenue for your fix of name brand shops, bars and food outlets. It is a busy road and one that really does not sleep, ever.
Looking to try that famous Spanish tapas? Head to the indoor market Mercado de San Miguel, a bona fide temple to all foodies.
Actor Emilio Estevez – “Madrid is enjoyed most from the ground. Exploring your way through its narrow streets that always lead to some intriguing park, market, tapas bar or street performer.”
Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.”
What to see and do in Madrid, Spain? Enjoy Europe’s best night life!
Whilst the scorching summer temperatures in the city during July and August discourages the more active daytime sports, (although love in the afternoon siesta counts) those that live here catch up in the evening stroll. Here entire extended families promenade, wishing each other Buenas Tardes (good afternoon) despite it going on bedtime for the rest of Europe.
La Marcha is for the younger or those with más energía and is the all night activity of looking for fun that can leave you coming home often after a night of drinking and dancing in bright morning sunshine.
The key to Spanish time is not to peak too early, having your dinner after 10:00pm is the norm. Don’t even bat an eyelid at leaving home after midnight to start your evening.
Although, upon saying that, you won’t be hard pressed in finding somewhere to spend your night (La Latina district is fun). Outdoor cafes are packed in the early hours and the live music scene here is burgeoning with everything from Brazilian samba, heavy metal to traditional flamenco. The biggest club in Madrid is Fabrik, which will keep you up all night long with its massive dance floors and famous DJs.
What to see and do in Madrid, Spain if you love Art?
The dichotomy of the ages is best seen in the art gallery Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The permanent collection notably houses Picasso’s heart rendering civil war epic Guernica. The gallery itself (reputably haunted) is a 20th century glass convection that is intertwined with a 18th century built General hospital.
Of course, if it is famous Spanish artists and art galleries you want then a necessary visit to one of the world’s greatest treasures is in order. The Prado’s collection of Spanish painters in unrivalled and as you wander about the Picasso’s, Goya’s, and Velasquez’s you will covet this city’s treasures.
Very close by is also the excellent Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum to enjoy.
Where to go and see Spain’s favourite sport, Football?
As you perch on bar stools in the vibrant La Latina neighbourhood, conversation flows around you in the rapid fire Spanish that Madrileños speak.
In fact you can just about spend your whole dinner appetite in here for the price of a few drinks. Tuck into a slightly spicy portion of pimientos de padron – fried small green peppers dipped in sea salt while escaping the midday sun, the kind that melts asphalt. Watch the latest football news, something of which the locals are mad about, on the small TV hovering up in the corner like a chattering bird.
If you want to join in and you are a football fan yourself, snag yourself tickets to a match of one of the local teams, Réal Madrid or Atletico de Madrid….or at least visit the stadiums of which there are tours daily. There are more football stadiums in Madrid than any other city in Spain and the most visited one Stadium Santiago Bernabeu, home to the world famous Réal Madrid, is found in the financial area of town.
Looking for some unique souvenir bargains? Head for El Rastro
If it’s a Sunday and you survived Saturday night, you might even slip down to the 500 year old market place itself. The Rastro meaning “The Trail”, is a nod to the streams of blood that once came from surrounding slaughterhouses. Today it is a giant car boot sale or flea market with great tapas bars, coffee shops and stalls selling all sorts. It comes alive from 9:00 to 15:00 every Sunday. This is the place to be on Sunday in Madrid.
What to see and do in Madrid Spain for shopping? and Drinking!
If it’s trendier style or a better clothes selection, head to LGBTQ friendly Chueca neighbourhood with its fun boutiques and great clubs and bars. Also close-by is Malasaña, another popular and fashionable area for new designers, great coffee stops and some amazing street art. At night time Madrid comes alive with terraces full of socialising folk, enjoying a drink, into the early hours.
Madrid’s best parks to visit
After all this sightseeing and shopping, take a break in one of the many excellent tree lined parks. Downtown the immense Casa de Campo where you can walk, ride a bike or enjoy its cafes is close and easy accessible. The park is home to Madrid’s Zoo and Aquarium – worth a visit to see the giant pandas and dolphin show.
Close to the Prado Art Gallery is another of Madrid’s largest parks. Elegant El Retiro Park with 350 acres to explore, has a bucolic atmosphere. Shady trees, grassy nooks and a spectacular lake to to hire a row boat is enchanting. Find a bench and participate in an integral part of Spain, the siesta. Nod off watching the rest of Madrid frolic around in the setting sun getting ready for a full night ahead.
Travel Tips – When to go to Madrid, Spain
There is a saying here that there is “6 months of winter (invierno) and 3 months of hell (infierno)”. Whilst this expression is a trifle harsh, December to February can be chillingly cold. Conversely, July and August can be broiling. Thus, the autumn and spring months can be delightful times to visit, although this is high season (crowds and prices). For you cycling fans, mid September usually heralds the annual end of La Vuelta a España, the Grand Tour Pro-cycling bike race. Catch it as it ends racing down Madrid’s downtown core to finish at the Plaza de Cibeles with its statue of Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, on her chariot pulled by lions.
Whenever you decide to go, rest assured, you will always find things to do in the fascinating city of Madrid.
Travelling in Madrid:
- – Train connections from Atocha Station including fast AVE train
- – Use Madrid’s Metro system from the airport & around town.
- – Enjoy our Last Week of La Vuelta in Madrid