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? 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 the traffic on the M30, Madrid’s main motorway, still buzzes by at high speed giving a 24-7 hum to a town known for its night owl culture and an exorbitant amount of places to visit and things to do. But aside from Madrid’s highway of activity, there are still enough quiet tourist sights like green parks and warm benches in Spain’s capital city’s plentiful plazas 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 (footballer David Beckham supposedly bought his treats in one on the corner) and where to 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 road system. Step onto a plaque (Km 0) celebrating this!
More Places to Visit in Madrid
To check off one main tourist sight, take a walk to Plaza Mayor. The Plaza is a recognizable part of the city being a 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) and was treated to a free musical concert and a heaping portion of cocido (a traditional stew of the city) ladled out by a neatly trimmed bearded chef who winked broadly and enticingly held out another spoonful with a “¿más?” (more?).
Top 10 Things to See and Do in Madrid
- 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!
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 to this 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, which is pedestrianized and a real pleasure to get a feeling of Madrid’s favourite pastime, the family paseo evening walk. 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. From here, head back up to the 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? Enjoy Europe’s best night life!
Whilst the scorching summer temperatures in the city during July and August probably discourages the more active daytime sports, (although it is said they do count love in the afternoon siesta as one) those that live here catch up in the evening stroll. Here entire extended families promenade, wishing each other Buenas Tardes or 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 and 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 (try La Latina district) as outdoor cafes are packed in the early hours and the live music scene here is burgeoning with everything from Brazilian samba to heavy metal and 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 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, a nod to the streams of blood that were from surrounding slaughterhouses), which in essence is a giant car boot sale or flea market with great hole in the wall tapas bars, boutiques 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.
Madrid’s trendy areas to go 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 like the immense Casa de Campo which you can walk, ride a bike or enjoy its cafes. The park is also home to the excellent Madrid Zoo and Aquarium – worth a visit to see the giant pandas and dolphin show.
Close to the Prado Art Gallery is one of Madrid’s largest parks. The elegant El Retiro Park with 350 acres to explore has a bucolic atmosphere of shady benches, grassy nooks and a spectacular lake to to hire a row boat. Participate in an integral part of Spain, the siesta, and 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
There is a saying here that the weather is “6 months of winter (invierno) and 3 months of hell (infierno)”. Whilst this expression is a trifle harsh, December to February can be cold, with July and August being particularly warm. 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 hearalds the end of La Vuelta a España, the Grand Tour Pro-cycling bike race which ends racing down Madrid’s street 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