With its impressive roster of world-class museums, royal palaces, and scenic parks, here are the best things to do and see in the Spanish capital of Madrid.
With an estimated population of 6.7 million, the Spanish capital is famous for its rich culture, historic landmarks, green spaces, museums, and food scene. Most of Madrid’s main attractions sit within walking distance from one another, so with a little determination, you can tackle them all in just a few days. But taking in all Madrid has to offer can be daunting, especially if you plan to dabble in the city’s other major claim to fame: sundown-to-sunup nightlife. From people-watching at the world-famous Plaza Mayor to prestigious art at Museo del Prado and exquisite tapas and unmissable rooftop bars, these are the 20 things you won’t want to miss on your next trip to the sunny capital.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MADRID?The best times to visit Madrid are outside the peak tourist seasons: between September and November and from March to May. The weather will be mild, there will be fewer crowds, and the prices for accommodations and flights will be more affordable.
For up-to-date COVID-19 information in Madrid, please check out Madrid’s official tourism website, the website of your government’s consulate/embassy, or follow the Spanish language Twitter account: @SaludMadrid.
Top Picks for You
Create Your Own Tapas Crawl
If you’re looking for a bar jam-packed with locals, fun-loving staff, tapas, and strong drinks, too; look no further than Taberna Malaspina. The Bar La Campana serves up the best bocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich) and you can kick it up with a few splashes of hot sauce. It’s also one of the most popular ways for Madrileños to end a long night out. If that’s not enough, Cava Baja is one of the most popular streets to capture the “essence” of Madrid’s most delectable recipes.
Visit the Historic Mercado de San Miguel
Located in the heart of Madrid, the posh marketplace first opened in 1916. Here, you’ll find stalls and kiosks serving up classic and fusion gastronomy from the Mediterranean, with influences from all around the world. Although the wares are priced a bit steeper than most local establishments, the high-quality of the cuisine complemented by the gorgeous atmosphere is unmatched by almost any in the city. The historic building creates a charmingly compact and energetic environment to indulge in some of Madrid’s most delectable bites.
Support Black-Owned Bars and Restaurants
La Pasa Gin Bar is a vibrant, Afro-Latino-owned restaurant and bar that is treasured by the community. Here, you’ll find locals and ex-pats from around the world indulging in fantastic cocktails and Latin American fusion and comfort food. Restaurante Mandela is one of the handful of popular eateries serving up Sengalese cuisine, like Pollo Yassa Chicken Yassa–a fragrant, citrusy chicken and rice dish. Rounding out this mini-list is Restaurante Etíope Nuria dishing up aromatic and vegan-friendly Ethiopian classics in a cozy environment.
Take a Trip Down Memory Lane at the Cereal Hunters Cafe
Cereal lovers can rejoice that Madrid has a location where you can enjoy a bowl of cereal, even at odd hours during the day or evening. Located on a busy street and within walking distance from the Mercado de San Miguel, it’s a unique and curious store to find in Madrid. Just look for the large windows and the countless, familiar boxes of famous cereal brands, and relive your childhood memories (or try something new) in this colorful and nostalgic shop.
Enjoy the Green Spaces of Madrid
Madrid has some of the most beautiful and unique parks sprinkled throughout the city. If you enjoy boating, birds, and people watching then the Parque de Buen Retiro will be the perfect option for you. If you’re in the mood to explore then here are three other options that can be fun for you, the Parque Madrid Río for spectacular aquatic views along with the natural views from the Parque Lineal del Manzanares and the Parque del Oeste.
Pose in Front of the Famous El Oso Y El Madroño Statue in Puerta Del Sol
Puerta Del Sol is a great location for shopping, pub crawls, and people-watching, as well as a standard meeting place. If you listen closely, you may even overhear a tour guide explaining the legend of the Estatua del Oso y el Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue). While the plaza is generally bustling with people from all walks of life and ages—both day and night—it’s also swarming with pickpockets and scammers. Besides that, you’ll find Sol to be the perfect place for walking tours, selfies, shops sporting international brands, street performers, and more.
Experience Luxury as You Tour Gran Via
Gran Via gives 5th Avenue and Champ De Elysees vibes to those that enjoy luxury shopping and experiences. You’ll find iconic buildings, luxurious hotels, like the H10 Villa de la Reina, restaurants, and stylish people at every turn. You’ll also find luscious, green parks, easy access to public transportation, and beautiful roundabouts in this part of the city. Try to avoid restaurants where workers desperately try to entice you to enjoy the menu of the day, the food tends to be overpriced and underwhelming, to say the least. Opt instead, to support local eateries on quieter streets for a better experience.
Explore One of the Most Beautiful Train Stations in the World
The Estación Madrid – Puerta de Atocha, a.k.a. Madrid Atocha, is a sprawling station that sports an indoor botanical garden consisting of more than 7,000 plants and trees from about 260 species, likening it to a mini-forest. Once you get past the beauty of that hidden gem, you can peruse the local shops, dine at the local restaurants, or head to the metro or medium-long distance Renfe train. The Spanish public transportation system is easy to navigate, affordable, reliable, clean, and renowned as one of the best in the world.
Visit the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
Even if you’re not a fútbol (soccer) fan, you’ll go far in the eyes of many Spaniards if you cheer for the Real Madrid CF team. Known for hosting some of the most loyal fans in the world, the stadium is a great source of pride for the city. Perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of some players or feel inspired to play a game while you’re in Madrid. After all, there are heaps of parks and plenty of space to practice and exercise in this beautiful city.
Shop 'Til You Drop at the Largest Zara Store in the World
Although the Spanish clothing titan was born in Galicia, Spain, the largest Zara store is located in the Financial District on Paseo de Castellana in Madrid. It’s been serving affordable fashion since the mid-’70s, and even Queen Letizia is known to sport looks from the clothing powerhouse. How unexpected and cool is that? You’ll also be in the most prime location to witness and get inspired by the unique Spanish style in the heart of Spain.
Get Inspired by Spanish Artists at Museo Nacional del Prado
Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the most visited museums in Europe and a must-see when visiting Madrid. If museums are your thing, then be sure to visit the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Reina Sofía, as well. Purchasing a Madrid City Pass will mitigate costs as you explore, or you can check which days and times the museums are open for free. You can always use the money you save to splurge on other experiences, like heading to one of the many art galleries or buying a piece from a local artist at a park.
If you’d like to get a glimpse of most of the major sites but don’t enjoy crowds or wandering around, grab your camera, purchase a ticket and try to grab a seat on the top deck of the Hop-on/Hop-off double-decker bus. It’s also a great option if you’re traveling with older people, children, or disabled persons. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you start to recognize places—and easily a cool alternative to get your bearings before venturing out on your own.
INSIDER TIPIf you’d like to get a glimpse of most of the major sites but don’t enjoy crowds or wandering around, grab your camera, purchase a ticket on the Hop-on/Hop-off double-decker bus and try to grab a seat on the top deck. It’s a great option if you’re traveling with family, older people, or children. It will also help you get your bearings before you venture out on your own. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you start to recognize places.
Relax in One of the Greenest Boutique Hostels in the World
2060 The Newton Hostel is a unique, calming, and surprisingly affordable hostel. From the energetic and friendly staff, stylish yet minimalist furnishings, abundant greenery, and energy-efficient amenities, it’s a gorgeous, refreshing, and eco-friendly experience for the conscious consumer. Located near a busy street that’s packed with bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, spas, and retail shops, this hostel would be well suited for anyone whether you’re a backpacker, a solo traveler, or with your family, in a group, or a mature traveler.
Go Luxe in the Beautiful Barrio Salamanca
Salamanca is a gorgeous neighborhood that’s studded with high-end apartments, hotels, houses, boutiques, and grocery stores. If you’re looking for a one-stop-shop, look no further than El Corte Inglés, Spain’s equivalent to Harrods in London, or Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Salamanca truly glows at night, you’ll find luxe bars and restaurants patronized by well-dressed people sipping expensive champagne, vermouth, and just about any beverage you can imagine. This is the scene for extravagance and if you want to be “seen.”
Head to Calle de Ponzano for Local Eats
Eat and drink your fill at one of the many marisquerías (seafood restaurants), tapas bars, bodegas (wine bars/shops), and more on Calle Ponzano where you’ll find traditional Spanish delights as well as fusion cuisine. To get to Calle de Ponzano, get off at Metro stops Iglesias or Alonso Cano. Some must-try bars and restaurants are Sala de Despiece, for tapas with a flare, Fide, a traditional seafood bar, and El Sainete for craft beers and modern cuisine.
Explore These Neighborhoods for Nightlife and People-Watching
La Latina is rapidly becoming the “place to be” due to residents believing that Malasaña has become “too mainstream” and overrun with hipsters. Lavapiés has a diverse and energetic crowd where you’ll find loads of traditional restaurants, shops—and a rubber duck church. Get inspired by the colorful murals and other street art you’ll find as you meander around the barrios. Most importantly, expect to feel at ease and home as you aimlessly wander around. Whichever of these neighborhoods you choose, you’re bound to have a long day (or night) that’s worth remembering.
Slow Jam or Rock Out at a Live Show
If you’re into live music, be sure to head to one or more of the countless venues located throughout the capital city. For starters, head to Sofar Sounds and Espacio Fundacion Telefonica for reading areas, auditoriums, events, and more, as well as Sala Rockville for the rock ‘n’ roll experience. Most of the venues offer drinks and limited menus of food, although you’ll also find plenty of places nearby if you’re looking for large portions or a less intimate feel.
Celebrate Your Inner Kid at the Parque de Atracciones
The Parque de Atracciones is a small amusement park that’s located near the zoo. Open since 1969, it’s the third oldest amusement park in Spain and a great escape for singles or the entire family. In this park, you’ll find a designated Nickelodeon Land, theme and water rides, dining options, parking, and live shows.
Celebrate Pride in the Heart of Madrid
One of the most endearing qualities of Spain is how safe people feel while living or visiting here. Madrid in particular is a very LGBTQIA-friendly city and home to some of the best live music venues, bars, nightclubs, and a plethora of entertainment in the world. For an authentic look into how inclusive the city is, head to the Plaza de Chueca, located at the top of Chueca, one of the liveliest barrios (neighborhoods) in the city.
Purchase Cookies From the Silent Nuns at the Monasterio Del Corpus Christi
Prepare yourself for one of the most adventurous and unique cookie runs imaginable by saving some room for cookies you’ll only find in this “secret” location. The experience is so well protected that many Spaniards don’t even know about its existence. Make sure you Google the instructions on how to find the secret location. It’ll be a great story to tell for years to come.
Take It Slow at the Plaza Mayor
The Plaza was once the center of Old Madrid and is now within walking distance of the Puerta del Sol and the Royal Palace. It’s also the perfect place to enjoy a churro with a cup of hot, thick, Spanish chocolate while taking in the architectural splendors from a nearby bench or one of the rooftop spaces. You just may feel as if you’ve been transported to the old world.