Spain’s capital city is big, bold and beautiful. There’s grandiose 18th-century architecture lining much of the central city, but this is no museum. A metropolitan city with a rich visual backdrop, Madrid is the perfect place to experience a modern European capital. To make the most of your time there, I want to highlight some of the best things to do in Madrid.
To keep your feet happy, we’ll split the central city into the east side and the west side, and visit one each day. The Metro (subway) is easy to navigate, cheap, and clean — but if you can, stay above ground and enjoy the walk. There’s lots more to see nearby.
The First 24 hours
Arrive: Atocha station
If you arrive in Madrid by train, you’ll find yourself in Atocha Station. You can also catch the metro to the stop with the same name.
The spacious interiors and wrought iron of the old station make it an impressive turn-of-the-century building. Inside, you’ll also find the ‘virtual shrine’, a modern space set aside in remembrance of the victims of the 2004 train-based terrorist bombings.
Visit: Parque del Retiro
Across the road is the massive Parque del Retiro, the “lungs of Madrid”. Depending on the day you might find a book fair, concert or theatre event happening, but you’ll always find 140 hectares of well-maintained gardens. Make sure to visit the rose gardens, the exhibitions within the Crystal Palace, the lake, and also to see one of the world’s few statues of the devil: in this case, a falling angel that seems to be dealing with sunstrike in addition to damnation.
Drink: Sangria in Retiro
If you’re in need of a cooling drink, there’s kiosks throughout the park. A popular option is the outdoor seating by the lake, near the Ave de Mejico… and their sangria, of course: a sweet mix of red wine, orange juice, and fruit.
Wander: Grand / Puerto del Sol
Leave Retiro along the Ave de Mejico and come to Puerta de Alcalá. Dating from 1778, this gateway has seen the assassination of a prime minister, has survived Katy Perry’s singing and is the muse for a Spanish pop-music smash hit. From here, consult your map and head towards the Plaza Cibeles.
Eat: on Calle del Alcalá or Gran Vía
There’s a run of restaurants and cafés on Calle del Alcalá and the street called Gran Vía that are perfect for a lunch stop. Lunch in Spain is normally leisurely and late.
Visit: The Ayuntamiento
There’s a host of beautiful buildings surround the Plaza Cibeles, and don’t forget to look past the buses to the fountain of Cibeles in the middle of the roundabout. The most impressive building was once the post office, but is now the town hall. From 4:30 to 7:30pm (and also from 10:30am to 1pm), you can pass through security at the door, get a free ticket, then ascend to the rooftop for an amazing panoramic view of Madrid. There’s also a café and a reading space (with free wifi) on the first floor. A nice, cool place for a rest.
Visit: the Prado – after 6pm
If art galleries don’t really do it for you, but you still want to visit one of the world’s foremost art galleries, head to the Prado at 6pm. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Plaza Cibeles, you’ll see queues, but they flow quickly after the clock strikes: we cleared a 500-meter line in around 15 minutes. The museum closes at 8pm, so if you want more than two hours in there, arrive earlier and fork over your €12.
Eat: Dinner doesn’t really get going until after 9pm, so there’s plenty of time. I’d head up Cedaceros towards the Puerta del Sol, and if you haven’t seen anything that catches your eye, head along the shopping streets of Calle Carmen or Calle de Preciados and back down Gran Vía.
If you do make it all the way to Gran Via, this neat little bar on has good cocktails, and an energetic vibe, but its speciality is freshly squeezed or blended fruit drinks. Perfect for a evening stop… and I’ve heard good things about their breakfast too.
The Next 24 hours
Visit: The Royal Palace and surrounding gardens
Jump off the Metro at Opera, admire the Royal Theatre, then stroll through the small gardens on either side of the Plaza de Oriente. Across from them you’ll see the royal palace. The museum which fills part of it can be accessed by heading left towards the Almudena Cathedral, which is also worth a visit.
Eat: Museo del Jamon in Plaza Mayor
For a cheap lunch in a stunning outdoor area, I’d walk along Calle Mayor to the Plaza Mayor where you’ll find the Museo del Jamón. It’s no museum, it’s a branch of a local restaurant chain: around €9 to sit in the plaza, people-watch and enjoy a menu del día (starter, main, bread, wine, dessert), and all under the cooling mists of water vaporisers during summer.
There’s lots of little side streets, artisanal shops, and curiosities to explore in this tourist-centric area. If you didn’t make it yesterday, head to the Puerta del Sol and hit the shops on Calle de Preciados.
Visit: Templo de Debod
The Temple of Debod is a fully reconstructed Egyptian temple, gifted to Spain by the Egyptian government in 1968. This is a beautiful spot, and is the entrance to the large Parque del Oeste.
Visit: Plaza España for a classic photo
When you’ve had your fill of park life, backtrack to Plaza España, for a classic photo opportunity with Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. The monument to Cervantes’s seminal work is done with style and humour.
Eat and drink: Near Plaza España
If you’re done for the day, catch the metro from the stop at the top end of Plaza España, but there’s a few good reasons to hang around: a scattering of small restaurants, bars and independent cinemas in the surrounding streets. Calle de Martin de los Heros is a good place to start with a drink, continue with a meal, and finish with a screening of a mainstream or independent film in one of the cinemas there. The only problem is that the metro only runs until around 1:30am (although some lines might run up until 2ish), so you’ll need to bail early if you’re not willing to brave a Madrid taxi ride, or you’re not within walking distance of home.