I was surprised by how much I liked Madrid! Usually, I’m not a big city person, but the vibe in Madrid was so full of culture and history with so many Madrid attractions to explore, that I found myself enchanted by this urban metropolis.
Spain’s capital is a city of elegant boulevards and sprawling manicured parks juxtaposed next to a cobbled old town that gives a peek into the Spanish Empire that was a dominant force in the 16th and 17th centuries. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, lined with cafes and opportunities for people-watching if that’s your thing.
For art lovers, there are a plethora of museums and galleries, including the world-famous Prado Museum which houses works by Goya, Velázquez, and other Spanish masters
Madrid at a Glance
- Elevation: 2,156′
- Population: 3.223 million (2018) Instituto Nacional de Estadística
- Neighborhoods: Ibiza, Los Angeles, Barrio de La Latina, Atocha
Here are the 10 best Madrid attractions.
10 Temple of Debod
The Temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt, in Parque de la Montaña. Originally, this ancient Egyptian temple was located in Aswan, Egypt. Due to a dam that threatened its existence in Egypt, the temple was gifted to Spain in 1968 in gratitude for helping preserve other significant historical sites that were at risk of flooding in Egypt.
You can enter inside the historic temple for a feeling that will send you back thousands of years.
The monuments are surrounded by a reflecting pool and while it’s beautiful to see during the day, it’s an absolutely stunning spectacle at sunset and nighttime.
The neoclassical Prado is one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, exhibiting 2300 pieces of art, paintings, and sculptures that celebrate Spanish, Italian, and Flemish art, and a vast collection of masterpieces by renaissance and baroque masters.
Commissioned in 1785 by King Carlos III to showcase Spanish talent and taste, the royal collection did and still does represent the core of the museum’s exhibits.
Of the many must-see works are Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, The Three Graces by Pieter Paul Rubens, and David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio.
8 Mercado San Miguel
Close to the central Plaza Mayor in Hapsburg Madrid, Mercado San Miguel is a stunning example of art nouveau cast-iron architecture dating back to 1916.
It’s a gastronomic dream with over 200 stalls (the largest in Europe) where patrons can try gourmet tapas from every corner of Spain, such as patatas bravas, Iberian ham, fresh shellfish, gambas al ajillo, rice dishes, exquisite cheeses, fresh fruit, and mouth-watering sweets.
There is a lovely area with umbrella tables outside to eat your purchases.
7 El Retiro Park
Just a few steps from the Prado and stretching out over 300 acres, the Retiro was a royal retreat up until the 1860s when it was opened to the public.
The park has an artificial lake, Grand Pond, where boats are available for rent.
It’s one of the largest parks in the city, so as you meander through the winding walkways and array of flowers, you’ll pass beautiful fountains, statues, and monuments, including the monument to Alfonso XII. Apparently, you can climb up and sit atop to take in views of Grand Pond. It’s also home to the 400-year-old Mexican Conifer, Madrid’s oldest tree.
Retiro Park is a popular haven for picnics, and sometimes street performers are displaying their talents.
6 Royal Palace
The official residence of the Spanish Royal Family (although they physically reside in the Palacio de la Zarzuela, on the outskirts of the capital), the Royal Palace of Madrid is one of the largest palaces in all of Europe. Built in the mid-1700s for King Philip V the Royal Palace is on the site of Madrid’s Moorish Alcázar fortress-palace, which burned down in 1734. With 3418 rooms, it’s the largest royal palace in Western Europe and has a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles. The palace was home to Spanish kings from Charles III to Alfonso XIII.
Inside the extravagant interior, the royal collections are magnificent. Some must-see examples include Giaquinto’s fresco on the palace ceilings and works by Goya, Caravaggio, and Velázquez, as well as stunning displays of weapons, tapestries, chandeliers, furniture, porcelain and silverware, and the beautiful Stradivarius that are housed in the fairytale palace.
5 La Latina District
We stayed in the La Latina district and we were delighted with our choice. Winding cobbled alleys lead to nearly everywhere in the old city, the most authentic part of Madrid.
Just steps from our Airbnb, we found colorful squares, restaurants, tapas bars, bakeries, coffee shops, and grocery stores.
4 Puerto del Sol
Madrid’s city symbol at Puerta del Sol (aka “Sun Gate”) is one of the top Madrid attractions when you are in the capital. It is an iconic landmark of the city and arguably Spain’s most famous square.
Stroll around the area and discover a number of cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops while soaking in the Spanish pace of life. The square is also where you’ll find the iconic The Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue which is a symbol featured on the city’s coat of arms.
Today it’s the city’s main public square, hosting everything from political demonstrations to New Year’s Eve celebrations.
3 Palacio de Cristal
Constructed almost entirely of glass set in an iron framework, the Palacio de Cristal is a conservatory located within Madrid’s Buen Retiro Park built to house the Philippine (then a Spanish colony) Exhibition of flora and fauna in 1887.
Currently, the pavilion is owned by the Reina Sofía Museum which uses it all year round as a venue for hosting temporary exhibitions. The Crystal Palace was highly influenced by a similar one that once existed in London.
Growing in the pond in front of the stunning building are bald cypresses – odd-looking swamp trees that turn into a lovely golden brown in summer. Nearby is the oldest tree in the city, the Montezuma Cypress, planted in 1633 and ringed by an iron fence.
2 Gran Via
If you’d like to get a sense of the newer part of the city, a walk along the Gran Vía, Madrid’s busiest and most famous street is the best place to start.
This urban esplanade dates back to 1862 and is often likened to New York’s Fifth Avenue or Broadway. Madrid’s entertainment, shopping, and cultural center is frenetic with activity nearly 24-7.
Said to be “the street that never sleeps,” after dark the street pulses with nightclubs, cinemas, musicals, and couples arm-in-arm enjoying the prolific nightlife.
It’s a hub for shopping, with ubiquitous chain stores alongside higher-end boutiques.
As you walk along the street, don’t forget to look up to admire the lavishly decorated buildings. This is also the place to find a rooftop bar to admire the birds-eye views of the city.
1 Plaza Mayor
My favorite place to hang out in Madrid was the centuries-old Plaza Mayor, a colorful and lively renaissance square built in the early 1600s, hemmed in on three sides to create a lovely cobbled courtyard. The courtyard is lined with stylish restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and residential buildings. Plaza Mayor square literally reaches out to tourists to take a seat on the sidewalk, grab a glass of wine, and watch the world go by in one of Madrid’s most iconic squares.
In the center is the 400-year-old bronze statue of King Philip III, who was in power at the height of the Spanish empire. It was a chaotic market back in the 16th century until King Philip II commissioned the public square to be built. The plaza was completed in 1619 under the supervision of architect Juan Gómez de Mora but burned down three times before the present version was constructed in 1790.
The plaza is popular with tourists who are continuously entertained by street performers, dancers, and musicians performing all over the square. From mid-afternoon, the plaza is busy with free entertainment.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.