Capital cities like Madrid are full of things to do. You could spend weeks and yet not get tired, find something different each day, and each night. And with so many things to see it gets more important to plan ahead and choose among the, sometimes, an overwhelming amount of local proposals. We would like to start this section with our recommended top things to do in Madrid. We would then move on and recommend activities in Madrid based on your travel style.
This short list may vary depending on whether this is your first time to Madrid or not… If you are not a newcomer your priorities may be different… or you may after all decide you would like to repeat some of these top things.
Ranking of Top things to enjoy in Madrid
Enjoy tapas at different neighbourhoods
To start our list with the best things to do in Madrid we start with food and wine!. We would recommend to start on the safe way and join a tapas tours first. Some of them are really good.
They cover the most typical areas and you will get to understand what tapas is about, what to do and things to avoid. Then, once you are ready you can decide to get more adventurous (a safer option compared to bar hopping is to enjoy restaurants that specialise in tapas and where you can eat seated)
Our top recommendations include streets Doctor Castelo, Menorca, Lope de Rueda (all these streets are near El Retiro park.
In Chamberi district Calle Ponzano is a must. Packed bars and fantastic diversity make this a locals´s favorite.
In La Latina you should walk down (and enter and try!) every single bar in Cava Baja, including the famous Casa Lucio.
In Huertas, besides the famous Plaza de Santa Ana, we recommend you Calle Echegaray. The quality of tapas is probably not as good as in the other streets we have mentioned, but there is so much fun at night in this area!
Feel like a King or Queen at the Royal Palace
he Spanish Royalty may not have the glamour or fame of the British Royal family. This may be the reason why some tourists that visit Madrid do not pay a visit to the amazing Royal Palace in Madrid. Its location, right next to the Plaza de Oriente and bordered by beautiful gardens, and its architecture are fantastic. This is with no doubt a must do in Madrid. But what awaits inside is even more impressive. The Royal Palace is probably a number of one amongst the top attractions in Madrid and a must-do visit. If you decide to skip this visit, we at least recommend you admire the beauty of the imposing Royal Palace from the Debod Temple at sunset. A truly romantic experience!
In search of Picasso, Goya, Velazquez or Dali
Any trip to Madrid should in our view include at least one of the top art galleries in the city.
Art lovers find Madrid is kind of heaven. The city boasts three of the top art galleries in the world and many less-known art museums. The good news is the top three galleries are within walking distance from one another, and they offer very different collections. The Prado Museum is your place if you would like to enjoy Goya, Velazquez and El Greco (among many others!), the Thyssen Bornemisza is for you if you enjoy impressionist artists, and Reina Sofia in Madrid hosts the amazing Guernica from Picasso. But you will find many other, super interesting smaller collections spread throughout the city.
Madrid Wax Museum
The Madrid wax museum is located in the heart of Madrid on Paseo de Recoletos nº 41 and oddly enough is one of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions. They feature a great number of wax figures of different famous and historic characters.
The museum is 2000 square metres large, divided into two floors and over forty different sets. Each figure also has its own environment in which it is exposed that is designed specifically for it, from the lighting to the decoration, even the sounds are chosen specifically for each set to help “set the scene” for guests.
The collection is continuously being updated and includes both contemporary figures like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and historical figures like El Cid, the Catholic Kings, Velazquez, and other Spanish famous people.
The museum also features other attractions like the Terror train, the simulator and the museums “Multivision” which help round out a fun outing.
Real Madrid or Atletico de Madrid?
Soccer is a very important part of the life of Madrileños. Do you support Real or Atletico? This is a question often asked. It comes with no surprise that the soccer stadiums in Madrid are one of the top attractions in the city. The Bernabeu is home to the best soccer team in the world, Real Madrid, and one of the most visited attractions in the city, but the Wanda Metropolitano, home of Atletico de Madrid, is a superb stadium, newly created, and also worth visiting.
Enjoy the Plazas in Madrid
Madrid is home to some fantastic squares where locals and visitors gather alike. These plazas are meeting points for many tours. There are many different plazas in Madrid and it is difficult to say which is the best. The three most famous Plazas are Plaza Mayor (at the heart of the city and full of terraces) , Puerta del Sol (the cero kilometer of Spain´s motorway network and a meeting point on new Year´s eve), and Plaza de Oriente, with beautiful gardens and at a superb location between the Royal Palace and the Opera House. But luckly for all of us there are many more! Plaza de Santa Ana in Huertas or Plaza de la Paja in La Latina are your place to enjoy tapas and relax, Plaza de la Villa is the one boasting the oldest buildings, Plaza de España is great to enjoy the old skyscrapers of Madrid on your way to Debod Temple, Plaza de Olavide is the best one to enjoy life like locals do, and the list goes on and on!
Enjoy the best views from Debod Temple
This itinerary will take you 25 minutes (if you do not stop on the way). You will enjoy Calle Mayor, which is full of shops and from you wil be able to get to Plaza Mayor, the San Miguel market or La Latina district and the Cava Baja street (wine and tapas paradise). You can head toward the beautiful Plaza de la Villa, one of the least mentioned, yet most beautiful squares in Madrid. Your itinerary continue towards the Royal palace and the iconic Plaza de oriente. You are half way now to the Debod temple. This temple was saved at the time the Asuan water dam was being built. The temple, located at the end of The Parque del Oeste is located right next to a view point with breath-taking views of Madrid (Royal palace and Cathedral) and beyond…
Get lost in the Retiro park
The Retiro is a fantastic park located at the very heart of Madrid and visiting it is one of the top things you can enjoy in Madrid.
Our recommendation is to enter the Retiro from street Alfonso XII (this is very convenient after a visit to the Prado museum for instance) or from Puerta de Alcala (which is perfect if you are arrive from Cibeles or from Calle Serrano). You can enjoy some of the highlights at El Retiro (the lake, the Bosque del Recuero, The Palacio de Cristal, the Fallen angel statue, the Rosaleda…) We strongly recommend to drink a horchata at one of the terraces in the park and once you are done, leave the park towards Calle Ibiza to enjoy top quality local tapas
Calamari sandwitch and cocido stew
Eating a calamary sandwich or a cocido are in our view amongs the top things to do in Madrid. Let´s start with calamari. The sea is no close to Madrid, but one of the typical foods of Madrid is the calamari sandwich. One theory claims the wave of Andalusian emigrants centuries explains the success of this food: squid is cheap and the sandwich a simple product to prepare… Best tasted near La Plaza Mayor at a terrace during a sunny day.
Cocido is Madrid´s most famous dish, though we would not recommend you a cocido if you visit the city in summer. This is a chic-pea stew with a good mix of vegetables and meat.
The best places to enjoy cocido are Malacatin, La Bola, and the luxurious Lardhy.
Buy food as locals madrileños do
Food markets have become a tourist attraction worldwide and there are many tourists that have them amongst the top things to do in any city. If this is your case, Madrid has a good number of food and fruit markets worth visiting. The San Miguel Market is the most famous market in Madrid. Though It has lost part of its local charm and it is mostly today a market to enjoy tapas and wine, some stalls are still full of character and the place is overall beautiful. But there are other food markets in Madrid (you can find a full review in this post) where locals still shop and where you will be able to both enjoy a tapa and buy food as locals do.
In search for bargains at El Rastro
If you like flea markets, you cannot miss a Sunday at the Rastro. This market runs every Sunday near Puerta de Toledo and for many locals Sundays are synonymous with Rastro. El Rastro is probably Spain´s most popular flea markets. Before it became a flea market it was a market where animals where sacrificed, and this left blood traces. El Rastro means trace. Today you will not find any such thing, but a colorful market where locals try to find the next bargain or antique. There are plenty of bars and taverns in the area which locals visit after a stroll in the streets of El Rastro. For many people this is a true local experience and one of the best things to enjoy in Madrid.
Like locals do: Dance a chotis or enjoy the bullring tour
This may be the first time you hear about a “chotis”. Well, this is a typical dance from Madrid. It is traditionally danced in mid-may when the San Isidro Festival takes place. But there are many other festivals in Madrid, including La Almudena in November, when locals visit the Cathedral of La Almudena with flowers, or La Virgen de la Paloma, a popular Fiesta in mid-August, a time when locals stay late at night in bars and theatres.
Madrid is also home to Las Ventas, the most important bullring in Spain, and a place worth visiting, even if you are not keen on the idea of bullfights.
Day trip to a Unesco site from Madrid
With no doubt one of the best things to do in Madrid is to leave the city for a day! If you have a bit of time (and believe us, you should really try to squeeze that time in your travel plan) we strongly recommend to enjoy at least 1 of the 5 amazing Unesco sites located at less than 1 hour from Madrid Madrid is the capital city in Europe with more Unesco sites so close and yet this is unknown to most visitors. Toledo and its 3 cultures, Segovia and its amazing aqueduct, Aranjuez and its gardens, Avila and its fascinating walls or El Escorial monastery they are all amazing places worth visiting. You will not regret this decision
Atocha train station
The main area at Atocha station is a fantastic example of civil architecture with an iron and glass structure and tropical garden inside. If you arrive to Madrid by train take your time and do not rush outside of the station. Drink a beer near the tropical park!
El Retiro Park
Do not miss the Palacio de Cristal, the Retiro´s most beautiful monument. We recommend to start your walk from the entrance closest to the Prado museum. The Retiro is one of the few places in the world with a statue dedicated to the Fallen Angel (Lucifer). Your visit should include a stop at one of the terraces near the lake or the Paseo de Carruajes. We recommend to leave the Retiro from Puerta de Alcala, Madrid´s most famous Gate.
Tapas like a Madrileño
If you would like to enjoy tapas like Madriñeos do we recommend you exist the Retiro in Avenida Menendez Pelayo and get to streets Doctor Castelo and Menorca where many bars await you. You can continue your itinerary in Goya and Serrano streets. These streets are one of Madrid´s main shopping districts. Serrano is home to some of the most exclusive shops in town. If you opt to walk from El Retiro straight to Plaza de Colón you will also find many bars and restaurants with tapas menu. Tapas, as already mentioned, can be your number 1 thing to do in Madrid!
Coffee and chocolate
Near Plaza de Colón If you are fond of chocolate you will find one of Madrid´s best shops near Colon (Cacao Sampaka) behind the romantic park of Plaza de la Villa de Paris. Plaza de Santa Barbara is very close too, a local´s favorite for cañas ((the way locals refer to beer)
Recoletos and Cibeles. Cafe Gijón is one of Madrid´s most famous coffee-shops with lots of history.
At Cibeles (the square where real Madrid fans celebrate when the team wins a championship) you may decide to visit the City Hall. Views from the upper terrace are fantastic.
Gran Via and Sol in style
We recommend to start the itinerary drinking a coffee at one of the best terraces in Madrid (Hotel Principal or, on the other side of street, Círculo de bellas Artes). Do not miss the Metropolis and the Telefonica building (once the highest building in Madrid).
The clock in Sol hosts every New year´s eve the count-down for the start of the New year.
Plaza de Oriente
If you would appreciate to try a good paella or high quality cocido you will find 2 good options near the Opera House (El pato mudo for paella and La Bola for Cocido)
La Almudena Cathedral and San Francisco el Grande
From San Miguel market you may decide to get to the Royal Palace through the Latina area instead of calle Mayor and Plaza de la Villa.. You will find some of Madrid best bars in Cava Baja and Cava Alta (and also Lucio restaurant). If you enjoy a bit of atmosphere we recommend you to stop at the terrace of el Viajero. At the end of this “tapas detour” you will find la Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, which holds Madrid´s largest dome. Everybidy gets to admire the cathedral, but fewer get to the fantastic San Francisco el Grande: one of our favorite things to see in Madrid.
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