Madrid is the heart of the Spanish nation, centered in Castile, home of the government and a dynamic cultural capital with world-class museums and attractions. Its food and nightlife scene are reason enough to make a trip here. I visited Madrid as part of a several week trip, taking in the highlights of Castile and Andalusia, and loved the energetic vibe and fun environment.
What is special about Madrid? Let’s start with the Big Three museums of the Prado, Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, enough to sate the artistic appetite of the most ravenous culture junkie. But there are so many other enticing options—Goya fans can seek out the unexpected delights of his frescoes at the small chapel of St. Anthony de la Florida, and art buffs can discover the lesser-known work of painter Joaquin Sorolla, whose delightful collection and garden are at his museum home on the outskirts of the city.
Being the capital of Spain and the the third largest city in Europe after London and Berlin, Madrid has its connections to the royal family with the ornate and impressive Royal Palace, which was meant to impress on the same scale or above that of France’s Versailles.
Feel the hum of Life in Madrid’s squares by visiting the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol. Sit down at a café or restaurant and take in the passing scene surrounded by hundreds of years of Spanish history (and current locals).
Then there are the culinary attractions, from the oldest restaurant in the world written about by Hemingway to an historic market to charming neighborhoods where you can do tapas crawls and enjoy lively bars, restaurants, theater and even flamenco well into the night.
The heat of Castile can be oppressive in summer, so consider your trip to the capital in the milder spring and fall seasons. If summer is when you can get away to Madrid, by all means do so, but take advantage of spending times indoors at its museums, Royal Palace and churches. But at any time of year, Madrid will reward your efforts to seek out its best.
Madrid is a very walkable city, but before setting off on your own, you may wish to consider a walking tour, which can be an enjoyable way to take in some of the city highlights. There is a two-hour private walking tour covering many of the city’s top sights for a cost of $116.82 for a group of up to 8 people. Or perhaps you’d like an 8-hour full day private tour of the city including a three-course lunch with wine for $351.64 per person.
Now, let’s get exploring…
Visit the Amazing Museums
The Prado is one of the most spectacular art museums in the world. Like the Louvre in Paris, the Prado is very large. Don’t go in expecting to “do it” in a day. Pick up a map and plan your strategy as to what you want to see. The museum started as the royal collection of the ruling Habsburg family, and so Spanish art is a real strength and would be a likely focus for a first-time visit.
Among my favorite don’t-miss paintings are Las Meninas by Velazquez, considered to be the most famous painting in the museum, and the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Las Meninas famously depicts the artist’s unique perspective in painting the Royal Family who appear in a mirror at the back of the work. In the foreground looking on are the little Infanta Margarita, her ladies in waiting, two royal dwarfs and even a slumbering dog. Velazquez’s portrait of The Drunkards (Los Borrachos) is also a masterpiece of characterization.
The rooms filled with Goya’s art are the most dedicated to any artist in the Prado. Every stage of his career is captured, from his portraits of royalty as the court painter to his pictures of women, both clothed and unclothed (see the Naked Maja for example). Then there are his images of war such as the Third of May 1808, showing the executions carried out by French troops in Madrid.
Goya’s so called Black Paintings from the end of his career are another highlight of the Prado’s collection. These violent and disturbing images were created between 1819 and 1823 and are unlike anything Goya had done earlier in his life.
Spain once controlled the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, and was a political ally of Italy, so you’ll see excellent representative paintings from artists from these countries as well like Rembrandt, Brueghel, Rubens, Caravaggio, and Botticelli.
General admission to the museum costs 15 euros.
Consider a Guided Tour of this massive collection to help you see and better understand its highlights. The tour costs $46.20 per person.
Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Let’s start with Picasso’s Guernica. Everyone comes here to see this famous anti-war painting of the Basque village bombed by German air forces in WWII. But what after that? Founded in 1992, the Reina Sofia collection deserves your time and exploration as much as the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums as Madrid’s premier collection of contemporary art.
In addition to other works by Picasso, you’ll also see major works by Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, along with those of Cubists Juan Gris and Georges Braque. The range of time the coverage spans is generally the 20th century up to the 1980s. There is a 10-euro admission fee to the collection.
You can purchase a skip-the-line ticket to avoid the queues waiting for admission and have a guided 2- 2 1/2 hour tour with a professional guide for $117.64 per person.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
This wide-ranging collection was a private collection from the Swiss Thyssen family. Through the baron’s Spanish wife, it ended up in Madrid in 1992 as it outgrew its Swiss home. Though some have criticized its lack of focus, this was after all reflective of one family’s personal tastes in art.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is considered noteworthy for its sweeping coverage of Western art history, from early Italian paintings to modern pieces by Roy Lichtenstein. There is spectacular artwork to see here, among them works by Duccio, van Eyck, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Albrecht Durer, along with a great selection of French impressionists. General admission costs 13 euros.
Consider this Guided Tour of the museum for some expert commentary from a local expert in art and history. The tours costs $28.90 per person.
Museums for those with more time
Focus on the Big Three if your time is limited or this is your first trip to Madrid. But the city offers other worthy choices for art aficionados with more time or for repeat visitors.
Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida
This former church houses some spectacular frescoes by Goya. The little chapel of San Antonio de la Florida sits along the banks of the river Manzanares behind the Royal Palace but feels worlds away from the tourist throngs. Painted in 1798, the frescoes are among Goya’s finest work, depicting the miracle performed by Saint Anthony, while capturing scenes of everyday life and the local people of Madrid within his work. Goya is buried here in front of the altar. Admission is free.
Painter Joaquin Sorolla’s house, museum and gardens are a peaceful and enjoyable trip into the suburbs of Madrid. Sorolla’s light-filled art is impressionistic in nature, and his love of Andalusia shines through in the lovely fountain-filled garden.
The Sorolla Museum, founded in 1932, has the most complete collection of the artist’s works. I was enchanted by my visit here, away from the heart of downtown. This house museum opens a window onto a perhaps lesser-known Spanish artist with his beautiful paintings and delightful garden. Admission is free.
National Archaeological Museum
Explore the rich archaeological past of Spain in this excellent collection founded in 1867. The National Archaeological Museum’s wide-ranging collection includes mosaics from Roman villas, showcase sculptural pieces like the Dama de Elche with her ornate headdress, along with Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Muslim-era artifacts and even a partial copy of the prehistoric cave paintings from Altamira. There is free admission to the Museum.
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando
The Academy would be a first-tier art destination if not for the Big Three. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts holds its own with its collection of stellar Spanish art, including top-notch paintings by Zurburan and El Greco. Then there are 13 great paintings by Goya, with self-portraits, royal portraits and even one picture of bullfighting. This was the school where some of the most famous Spanish artists like Picasso and Dali studied. General admission is 8 euros.
Lazaro Galdiano Museum
One man’s obsession with collecting artistic treasures fills this museum. This early-20th-century Italianate stone mansion belonged to Don José Lázaro Galdiano (1862–1947), a businessman and passionate patron of the arts. His amazing private collection of over 13,000 works of art was bequeathed to the city at his death.
Highlights of the Lazaro Galdiano Museum include paintings by Bosch, Zurburan, El Greco, John Constable and Lucas Cranach, as well as many by Goya. There is a bewildering assortment of sculpture, jewelry, object d’art, ceramics, and furniture on display. Museum admission costs 7 euros.
Here’s another house museum filled with the eclectic collections of one individual, in this case the 17th Marques of Cerralbo (1845-1922). The Cerralbo Museum mansion is full of his eccentric collections, from clocks to religious paintings to pieces from the Orient. The art contains paintings from such luminaries as El Greco and Zurbaran.
There are collections of ceramics, Murano glass, crystal and porcelain, carpets, tapestries and suits of armor. The diversity will make your head spin. Pick out your favorites and marvel at how one man could have acquired so much. Admission is free through the end of 2021.
Here’s an affordable and interesting way to sample some of the lesser-known museums around Madrid. If you have a deep interest in art, the special discounts offered make it worth the extra time needed to travel around the outskirts of the city to seek out these unheralded jewels.
Five museums have teamed up to offer this attractive Five Museums Pass that allows entry into each over a 10-day period for 12 euros. For those who are staying longer in the city or have seen the major museums on previous visits and would like to delve a little deeper into Madrid’s artistic heritage, this is a great choice. The museums included are the Museum of Romanticism, Sorolla Museum, Cerralbo Museum, Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Lazaro Galdiano Museum.
Marvel at the Royal Digs
Though the royal family no longer lives at the Royal Palace, this huge palace was built in the 18th century to rival the grandeur of France’s Palace of Versailles and is filled with the accoutrements of royalty. The palace continues to be used for official State events.
Look for the imposing staircase in the entrance hallway with its frescoed celling. Works by Spanish greats like Goya and Velazquez hang on the palace’s walls. Visit the beautiful royal apartments, and don’t miss the Throne Room with its frescoes by Tiepolo. The collection includes a group of rare Stradivarius violins still used for concerts!
There is still a changing of the guard ceremony that takes place every Wednesday from October to July at 11 am. Other points of interest on the palace grounds include the Royal Armory, with its arms and armor collections owned by Spanish kings, the Campo del Moro gardens built in the French style with fountains and tree-lined avenues, and the Royal Pharmacy with beautifully decorated cabinets that stored medicines for the royal family.
Admission is 12 EUR for an unguided tour or 16 EUR for a guided tour in Spanish.
A skip-the-line ticket with a guided tour of the Palace costs $37.38.
Pop into its Impressive Squares
The Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s grand central square, tucked in amongst the packed streets of downtown Madrid. Look for the equestrian statue of King Philip III on horseback mid-square and admire the decorated façade of the 17th century Casa de la Panaderia building (initially a bakery and now housing the city’s tourist office) and the wrought-iron balconies.
This is an historic square that has seen everything from executions during the Spanish Inquisition to bullfights. Enter through one of the nine arcaded entrances to enter the life of the square. But tired travelers take note, the square is empty of benches to rest weary legs unless you pull up a chair under the arcades at one of the restaurants or cafes!
Puerta del Sol
Here is one of Madrid’s classic meeting places. Originally, this was the site of one of the east-facing city gates and was decorated with a sun image, leading to the square’s name, the “sun gate”.
The Puerta del Sol is Ground Zero for marking distances on Spain’s national highway system and contains the endearing statue of a bear on its hind legs reaching up to pluck fruit from a strawberry tree. An equestrian statue of King Carlos III sits at the center of the action.
The clock on the Casa de Correos building (built as the post office but now housing the city’s regional government) is famous for New Year’s Eve celebrations when the crowd waits for the clock to strike midnight. The tradition is that locals eat a grape at each of the 12 gongs to celebrate the New Year. Whenever you visit, join the locals at night when they go out for their paseo por la noche or evening stroll.
Admire its Churches
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena
Whereas other major European cities have a historic and treasure-filled leading church, Madrid does not. The cathedral was completed in 1992, with construction only having started in 1879. Spain’s focus on new world discovery long delayed talk of building the cathedral in previous centuries, and the Spanish Civil war delayed ongoing work in the 1930s.
This is, however, the main cathedral of Madrid and worth a look. There are fine views from the top of the cathedral, an ornate Bishop’s Chapel and the crypt contains additional chapels with attractive stained-glass windows. A 1-euro donation is requested to visit.
Basilica of San Francisco el Grande
The opulent Basilica of San Francisco el Grande was built in 1761 for a Franciscan friary. Magnificent paintings fill the six chapels of the basilica, including masterpieces by the Spanish Old Masters such as Goya, Velazquez and Zurburan.
The Basilica’s great dome is the largest in Spain and the fourth largest in Europe, after Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon in Rome, and the Duomo of Florence. The church is in Madrid’s oldest neighborhood of La Latina. Admission is 5 euros but there is free entry on Saturdays.
Hit Up its Best Viewpoints
Circulo de Bellas Artes
Come here for the stunning views overlooking the city. The Círculo de Bellas Artes (CBA), is a private cultural center with exhibits, a theater and concert hall, a library and artist workshops. The rooftop has a bar and a restaurant with spectacular views of Madrid. Entry to the exhibitions and rooftop costs 5 EUR.
Here is another excellent choice for an elevated bird’s eye view of the city from atop the Plaza de Cibeles area on the Gran Via. The viewpoint is located at the top of the Cibeles Palace. General admission is 3 euros.
Relax in the Outdoors
El Retiro Park
Everyone needs a break from the sightseeing rigors of museums and churches. Get outdoors at the expansive (292 acres) and scenic El Retiro park. It was originally used exclusively by the Spanish monarchy until it was finally opened to the public in 1868. From the lake to the Crystal Palace, it offers lovely diversions to unwind and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
Take a rowboat ride on the lake, check out an exhibition at the Crystal Palace built for the 1887 Philippine Exposition (governed by Spain at the time) and the monument to King Alfonso XII. Other attractions in the park include the Fallen Angel, the only public statue in the world depicting Lucifer, and the various gardens that are a pleasure to stroll through.
You can join a two-hour Secrets Of Retiro Park Walking Tour for $11.68 per person.
The Temple of Debod
Who would expect to find a 2200-year-old Egyptian Temple in Madrid? The Temple was a gift to Spain after it aided Egypt in restoring the Abu Simbel Temple and others threatened by flooding by the creation of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Opened in 1972 to the public, it is a beautiful spot particularly at sunset, and in the evenings when the monument is lit up.
Take the Best Urban Strolls
This is Madrid’s main shopping street and home to several stunning buildings like the 1920s era Telefonica and the Metropolis from 1907 with the winged victory statue on top. The Palacio de Cibeles from 1919 is now the seat of Madrid’s City Council. You can’t miss the spectacular Cybeles Fountain in the middle of the Plaza de Cibeles here, representing the Greek Goddess Cybele standing in a chariot drawn by lions.
While strolling the Gran Via, check out the Museo del Jamon. This is not a museum but a shop and restaurant that attracts Instagrammers and the hungry by the sight of hundreds of hams hanging from its windows!
Paseo del Prado
This lovely, leafy boulevard skirts the Big Three art museums but provides a delightful walk, passing open-air book markets reminiscent of Parisian shops set up along the Seine. Recently the Paseo and the El Retiro Park were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status, the first such sites accorded this status in Madrid. The Paseo was Europe’s first tree-lined urban promenade and citizens used it for recreation as early as the 16th century.
Salivate over its Enticing Food and Drink Experiences
Mercado de San Miguel
This delightful food market combines the best of a true market with fresh produce with an assortment of restaurants and take away food to stave off hunger during those non-meal hours. The Mercado de San Miguel opened in 1916 and is set in an attractive cast-iron building with glass walls and is located not far from the Plaza Mayor.
Browse the food stalls or sit down and have some tapas or a more complete meal at one of the eateries. I personally like to include the great markets of Europe on my travels. Not only can you see what the locals are eating, but you can grab a snack or a meal to break up your sightseeing. Not only that, but the displays of produce, cheese, meat, fish, pastries and more can usually provide great subjects for your photographs!
Tapas Crawls and Tours
Ah those tasty small treats called tapas, finger food that can be raised to a fine art at restaurants around Madrid. If you’re new to the tapas game, enter one of the crowded bars and check out the array of small plates on the counter or the menu of dishes on offer. When in doubt, ask the barperson for advice on what’s good, then order several small plates to share, get a beer or your favorite aperitif and settle in for a delicious snack.
Since Spaniards tend to eat dinner very late, you can have your tapas simply tide you over to the main meal or go on a tapas crawl to several bars and make a night (and dinner) of it! It’s a fun experience that will give you a window into the Spanish food scene and how locals like to spend their evenings. Your tapas crawl can take place in one or more of the city neighborhoods. Two that I would recommend are the La Latina and Barrio de las Letras areas. On a side note, while doing your munching, one local sandwich treat that’s a personal favorite of mine is the Bocadillos de Calamares, filled with crispy calamari (squid) rings.
Barrio de La Latina
Here’s another great neighborhood to sample tapas. During the day you can check out the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande here, then stick around to do some pre-dinner snacking. Dinnertimes are late in Madrid, so a tapas crawl through the narrow maze of streets makes sense to help tide you over until the main meal! One of the best tapas streets is the Calle Cava Baja.
Maybe you’d like some expert guidance in your food wanderings. If so, here are some guided tapas and food tours led by locals to help you discover the best spots. One is a four-hour evening Tapas, Taverns and History Tour that takes you to four family-run tapas bars, while the other offers morning Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tours that introduce local Madrid food by taking you to a half dozen local eateries plus a market to sample the fare. Both tours cost 109 euro per adult.
Barrio de las Letras
Named for the literary residents like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega who used to call this area home, Barrio de las Letras (the Literary Quarter) is a prime location for your evenings out and a meal at one of the bistros or restaurants. There are plays at the Teatro Espanol here and flamenco dinner theaters.
To gain the expert perspective of a local, consider this 4-hour private nightlife tour where you specify the types of activities and places you’d like to see to really understand how Madrid celebrates at night!
Historic Restaurants and Eateries
Madrid has a host of historic restaurants awaiting your discovery, including the oldest in the world. As for fine dining, the city currently (as of 2021) has 19 Michelin-starred restaurants to seek out.
Sobrino de Botin
I personally have a weakness for roast suckling pig, and this oldest restaurant certified by the Guinness Records Book specializes in this dish. Sobrino de Botin was founded in 1725, and still uses the original oven. I also happen to like to the books of Ernest Hemingway, who frequented this place in the 1930s and wrote of the restaurant in The Sun Also Rises.
There’s even a Botin Experience tour for those who would like to learn more about this historic establishment, tour the cellar and kitchen area and then enjoy a meal. The tour costs 78 euro per person fort a 45-minute tour followed by lunch or dinner (tours at 12 pm or 7 pm).
Chocolateria San Gines
Here is where to get your fix of chocolate con churros at any time of day. Churros are the hot sugared dough sticks that find their perfect accompaniment in a cup of hot chocolate. I remember my surprise when ordering this at a Madrid café and finding the chocolate so thick that the churro nearly stood up in it by itself! This was unlike any other hot chocolate I’d ever had. A delicious treat available 24 hours a day, and San Gines has been serving then up since 1894.
Madrid deserves at least several days of your time in Spain, and you’ll probably wish you had allocated more. From its mind-boggling array of great museums to its centuries of history, to the buzzing nightlife to the enticing array of food experiences available, Madrid will reward both your palate and your mind.
Spend time studying its spectacular art, seeing Las Meninas and Guernica up close, marvel at the rooms at the Royal Palace, grab some downtime in the leafy environs of El Retiro park and people watch at the grand squares of Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. Whether you are an art lover, food aficionado or nightlife seeker, Madrid will offer you great experiences for your travels.
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