Things to do in Madrid: Attractions and places to visit

Panoramic view of the Palacio Real de Madrid (Björn S...)  [flickr.com]  CC BY-SA 
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The Spanish capital is the political centre of the country and, together with Barcelona, also the most important economic metropolis on the Iberian peninsula.

The wonderful Old Town, the stately palaces and the world famous Prado Museum attract over 3 million visitors every year. Madrid is beautiful, modern and lively, despite its long history dating back to Roman times.

Below we present you the most exciting tours, the most beautiful attractions and the best sights in Madrid.

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1. Museo del Prado

The Museo del Prado is one of the leading art museums in the world and one of the most important sights in Madrid. The institution, founded by King Ferdinand VII and inspired by the Paris Louvre, opened its doors for the first time in 1819. Meanwhile, the house attracts 2.5 to 3 million guests every year. Almost every visitor to Madrid also makes a detour to the Prado. And quite rightly so.

Originally planned as a Pinakothek (Picture Gallery) and Glyptothek (Sculpture Collection), the museum now houses more than 10,000 art objects. Hardly any of the great Old Masters are missing from the collection of paintings. Of particular interest is the collection of works by Sandro Botticelli, Francisco de Goya and Hieronymus Bosch, whose most famous work “The Garden of Desires” belongs to the Prado collection.

2. Palacio Real Madrid

The Palacio Real is the official residence of the Spanish royal family, which does not live here, but in the much smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela. The Palacio Real is the largest palace in Europe with over 2,000 representative rooms and an area of 135,000 square metres. Particularly worth seeing are the Throne Hall, the Mirror Gallery, the Hellebarden Hall and the Castle Chapel. The palace also contains numerous Old Master paintings, including works by Caravaggio, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Velázquez, Goya, and Rubens.

The four-winged complex was built between 1734 and 1764 by the two architects Juan Bautista Sachetti and Francisco de Sabatini. Previously there was a Moorish residential castle on the site, but it burnt down completely in the Christmas night of 1734. The Palacio Real can be visited daily, unless a state visit is planned, Wednesdays admission is free.

3. Santa María la Real de La Almudena

Directly opposite the Palacio Real is the most important church of the Spanish capital. The Almundeda Cathedral, officially Santa María la Real de La Almudena, is even some years younger than the royal palace. Construction began in the 19th century, but the church was not completed until 1993. In the same year it was consecrated by the then Pope John Paul II and elevated to cathedral status.

The architectural style can be assigned to the neo-Gothic and neoclassical styles, which were popular in the 19th century. Inside the church the design is so modern that it is often referred to as “sacred pop art”. The decor goes back to the famous Spanish painter Kiko Argüello. In 2004, with the marriage between Crown Prince Felipe and Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, the first royal wedding took place in the Almundeda Cathedral.

4. Stroll along the Gran Via

Madrid is classically not a city where guests come to shop. But there is much more interesting to do in the Spanish capital. Nevertheless, Madrid also has its shopping boulevard. The Gran Via, which runs through the old town in a west-east direction, is the city’s most important shopping street. In addition to the usual chain stores for city centres, there is also a lot of luxury to see and buy here.

Designer boutiques line up with noble perfumeries and noble jewellers. In between there are countless street cafes, small restaurants and bars. The Grand Via used to be the Broadway of the Iberian Peninsula. Many of the cinemas and theatres that once resided here have unfortunately not survived. In addition to department stores, hotels of the upper category are now also concentrated in the popular shopping street.

5. Hustle and bustle at the Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is the most popular and impressive square in the city. The huge area, which is almost 130 metres long and 94 metres wide, is completely surrounded by four-storey buildings with a total of almost 240 balconies, all facing the square. Access to the Plaza Mayor is via nine gates. The most famous of these is the Arco de Cuchilleros, dedicated to knife sharpeners.

Directly opposite, on the north side, is the Casa de la Panadería, the house of the bakers, which is considered to be the oldest building of the ensemble and probably dates back to the 15th century. The other buildings are much younger, not least due to the devastating fires that repeatedly struck the famous square. The last major fire in 1790 destroyed almost a third of the building mass. However, the buildings were all rebuilt and today mainly house cafes and restaurants as well as small shops and boutiques.

6. Space for soccer friends

Anyone interested in football knows the Plaza de Cibeles at least from television. Whenever the Real Madrid football club, considered one of the best in the world, has a victory to celebrate, it does so here. But that’s not all the space has to offer. Only the impressive building in the background, which always looks like a palace on TV, disappoints in reality.

However, this is not because of its architecture, which is quite impressive, but rather because of its rather profane purpose. Behind the imposing walls there is no royal residence, not even a ministry or a high court, but the main post office of the city. The square owes its name to the beautiful fountain in front of the post office, which shows the carriage of Cybele, the goddess of fertility, pulled by two lions.

7. Food, drink, marvel: Mercado de San Miguel

There have been no bazaars in Spain since the Moors were expelled. But the large market hall in the centre of the city, the Mercado de San Miguel, has a comparable flair, even if it is much more elegant and stylish. If you want to try the Spanish cuisine, this is the right place for you.

Of course you can also test what the vines of the country have to offer. As it should be for one of the most important sightseeings in Madrid, it is mostly quite crowded and the prices are in the upper range. The ambience and the unbelievable culinary variety guarantee, however, that a visit is still worthwhile.

8. Museo Reina Sofía

Art lovers usually walk from Prado to one of the neighbouring sights, the Museo Reina Sofía, officially Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS). The house is still very young and was only inaugurated in 1992 by the then Spanish Queen Sofia, after whom it is also named. In just over a quarter of a century, the permanent exhibition has earned itself an excellent reputation.

The museum concentrates on more recent art, especially Spanish art, thus complementing the collection of Old Masters in the Prado. The house also has a magnificent library with a collection of around 40,000 volumes devoted to modern art.

9. Park Casa de Campo

If you are planning a romantic walk, there is no better place than the Casa de Campo. The park is located almost 10 kilometres west of the city centre in the Latina district and is easily accessible by public transport. The park is the largest publicly accessible green area in the greater Madrid area.

In former times the area was used by the Spanish royal house as a hunting ground. Today it serves the inhabitants of the Spanish capital as a local recreation area. The park includes light woods and green meadows, a lake, a zoological garden and a cable car.

10. Heart of Madrid: Puerta del Sol

Those who visit Madrid must not miss the place where the pulse of the city beats. This is without doubt the Puerta del Sol in the heart of the old town. There is always something going on here, as here the six big, star-shaped main streets of Madrid meet. Cafes, bars, restaurants, nightclubs are all close at hand here. Street musicians and small artists perform in the alleys.

Even during the week there is still a lot of activity here until after midnight. The crowd is often so big that tourists cannot find the landmark of the square. The brown bear, which leans here casually against a strawberry tree, is not exactly slim. The statue symbolizes the cooperation between nobility (bear) and church (strawberry tree), which work together for the good of Madrid.

More things to do and activities for your Madrid holiday

Best time to visit Madrid

We recommend the following months as best time to travel for exploring the attractions and acivities of Madrid:

May, June, July, August, September, and October

You can find more information about the weather, including all climate data, on our climate page for Madrid.

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