Top Ten Things to Do in Madrid
July 10, 2017
I went backpacking solo in Spain a few years ago (October 24-25, 2012), and one of the places I visited was Madrid. In contrast to Barcelona, which is a seaside city, Madrid is landlocked and improbably located right in the middle of arid, desert-like land. However, the city itself is all cement and concrete, with trees and flowers strategically nurtured everywhere possible, so that it hardly feels like you are in the middle of a desert within city limits.
Soon after arriving in the city, I happened just by chance to walk by a tourist office near Plaza de España that supplied me with a map of the city. (Wait – who uses hardcopy maps anymore, you ask? I do! It saves you both phone-battery power and WiFi data.) I also obtained some information from the tourist office on the closing hours of city attractions, which helped me better plan my priorities for the day.
My favorite thing to do and first-order priority in any new city is to explore it by foot. Since I was in Madrid for only 36 hours, I pretty much just walked my way around it––and couldn’t have had a better time with such a simple plan! I had arrived in Madrid with a long list of recommendations that I had obtained, as per usual, by interviewing friends who either were from the city or had lived in the city. Among those checklist items that I had time to sample during my long walk, here’s what I enjoyed the most:
The Top 10 Things to Visit in Madrid
This was my first stop in my wanderings around Madrid. The Puerta del Sol is the name ascribed to both the public square and one of the adjacent east-facing gates of the city wall that surrounded and protected Madrid in the 15th century. The square lies at the heart of Madrid as well as at the heart of a radial network of municipal and national roads. Several famous buildings and landmarks surround Puerta del Sol, including the historic Post Office, which is also the office of the President of Madrid and of the regional government, a statue of Charles III of Spain, Calle de Alcalà, and Carrera de San Jerónimo. Nearby are other important attractions such as Palacio Real, the official home of the Spanish Royal Family, Plaza Mayor, Atocha train station, and the museum district.
I next continued along Calle de Alcalà, the longest (10.5 km) street in Madrid, in search of the National Archeological Museum. The Archeological Museum, located on Serrano street, is free but, sadly, was closed for the season. However, Serrano street turned out to be a lively shopping street, and I enjoyed window shopping as I walked along it. I also discovered an adorable little park, called Gardens of Discovery a little ways away, in Plaza de Colón (literally, Columbus Square), and had a nice picnic next to a set of sculptures dedicated to Christopher Columbus.
A neoclassical monument in the Plaza de la Independencia, the Alcalá Gate in the city centre derives its name from the historic path from Madrid to the nearby town of Alcalá de Henares. Commissioned by King Charles III and completed by Francesco Sabatini in the 18th century, the Alcalá Gate was intended as a replacement to an older and smaller gate in the city wall that would channel a new road to the city of Alcalá.
Palacio Real is officially the home of the Spanish Royal Family in Madrid. However, it is only used for state ceremonies, and the royal family actually reside in Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. Located on Calle de Bailén in western downtown Madrid, the palace opens several of its 3,418 rooms to the public for a fee on some days, and free of charge on other days. Within the palace, there are a vast number of works of art within the beautiful rooms, including paintings by Caravaggio, Francisco de Goya, and Velázquez, frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Juan de Flandes, Corrado Giaquinto, and Anton Raphael Mengs, and collections including the Royal Armoury of Madrid, furniture, porcelain, silverware, watches, and the only complete Stradivarius string quintet in the world.
5. Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is located just a few blocks from Puerta del Sol and is surrounded by three-storey residential buildings whose balconies all face the plaza, as well as traditional shops and cafés under the porticoes. The plaza was originally built in the 17th century, and gain in the 18th century after a series of fires, and it is notable for a number of historical events including rituals of public penance (autos-da-fé), with executions and execution by burning at the stake, during the Spanish Inquisition. Currently, the plaza is the site for public celebrations of the patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro Labrador, on May 15.
Located next to the 3 major museums of the Madrid Art Walk (the Prado, the Sofia, and the Thyssen; ie, the Golden Triangle of Art) on Paseo del Prado, the Caixa Forum is an art museum and cultural centre sponsored by La Caixa, Spain’s third-largest financial institution. The museum houses modern and contemporary art collections, and its cultural centre features a bookshop, a restaurant, and an auditorium that hosts concerts and conferences. In addition, the museum fortuitously faces the neighbouring Real Jardín Botánico (Royal Botanical Gardens).
The Museo del Prado on Paseo del Prado is the most important museum in Spain and receives some 3 million visitors per year. Based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, the Museo del Prado features the finest collection of European art ranging from the 12th century until the early 20th century. It’s best-known displayed work is Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting).
The Queen Sofia Museum on Paseo del Prado features 20th century Spanish art. Among other masterpieces, it houses works by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Various other important artists have works on display there, including Eduardo Chillida, Pablo Gargallo, Julio González, Luis Gordillo, Juan Gris, José Gutiérrez Solana, Joan Miró, Lucio Muñoz, Jorge Oteiza, Pablo Serrano, and Antoni Tàpies. There are few international artists featured, but I was most excited by those of Diego Rivera (of Frida Kahlo fame), Wassily Kandinsky, and Henry Moore.
I did not have time to visit the third major art museum on Paseo del Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (https://www.museothyssen.org/), but due to its importance, I did not want to leave it out of the top-10 recommendations, so I have listed it here under a half-point. The Thyssen is part of the Golden Triangle of Art, housing a private collection of Western art––the second-largest private collection in the world after the British Royal Collection. The Thyssen is acknowledged as filling important historical gaps in art history that its two counterparts miss out on, such as certain historic Italian, English, Dutch, and German paintings, as well as 20th-century Impressionist, Expressionist, European, and American paintings.
The Royal Basilica of San Francisco El Grande is a Roman Catholic church facing the Plaza of San Francisco in the La Latina barrio (neighbourhood).The basilica belongs to the Convent of Jesús y María of the Franciscan order, founded in the 13th century, and contains paintings by Zubarán and Goya. Its extravagant dome is one of the highest in Spain and in the world at 58 metres high and 55 metres wide.
Finally, my last and favourite stop was the famous Parque del Buen Retiro, or Retiro Park and botanical gardens, a huge, beautiful, inner-city park with several types of gardens that you can lose yourself in for days. It is very popular, yet large enough to feel like you are the only one in it. It is also very popular with joggers and rollerbladers. Retiro Park originally belonged to the Royal Family and became a public park in the late 19th century. This enormous park in the city centre is filled with sculptures (including statues of past kings), monuments, art galleries, an outdoor exercise arena, playgrounds, trees, flowers, and ponds, the largest of which is called Retiro Pond and is the scene of street performers, puppet shows, and fortune tellers. Its botanical gardens include a Rose Garden, a French Garden.
Additional activities I would have loved to indulge in, and plan to engage in if I visit again, include some key facets of Madrid culture.
Flamenco is a style of music and dance dating back to 1774 and based on the folkloric musical traditions of Southern Spain, particularly of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Murcia. Many modern styles have grown out of the traditional ones, making modern flamenco, especially touristic flamenco shows, somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of traditional styles. Though its roots remain uniquely Andalusian, modern flamenco has been greatly influenced by and is now associated with the Romani people (Gitanos [Spanish] or Gypsy [English]) in Spain. Some key characteristics of flamenco include cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping), and pitos (finger snapping). If you have never seen flamenco before, you can explore videos and literature here. My favourite flamenco singer is La Negra (stage name of Antonia Rodríguez Moreno). And other flamenco artists I listen to include Josè El Duende, Son De La Frontera, Paco De Lucia, El Camarón de la Isla, Gitanos, Jerónimo Maya, Estrella Morente, David Pena Dorantes, and Vincente Amigo.
Sample Flamenco Show
La Negra is the sweet little old lady in the middle who is the last to sing. Óle! Her daughter Lole is on the left, and Alba Molina, another flamenco great, is on the right.
Madrid claims to be the capital of the flamenco scene, so if you are looking for information on the best shows, you can find it here.
In Spain, a tapas is a snack or appetizer that can be served hot or cold and that, in some bars, has evolved into a cuisine of its own. Madrilenos and Madrilenas typically order a whole slew of tapas dishes for a meal, in addition to drinks, at bars. It is a popular way to start the night off with friends, as well as a beloved post-work activity.
In general, in the major cities of Spain, such as Madrid, local meal hours run something like this (according to a local source): breakfast is eaten very early, before or on the way to work; then there’s a snack around 11 am; lunch is eaten between 2 pm and 4 pm; then there’s another snack between lunchtime and dinnertime; dinner is eaten around 10 pm or 11 pm. And, tapas hour (which can substitute dinnertime) typically starts around 9 pm. (Dear Quebecois and other nationals who typically eat dinner at 5 pm, please take special note of this.)
In Madrid, the food scene encompasses traditional food from every region of Spain, and accordingly, tapas can span the entire range of Spanish cuisine. Common dishes include various types of fried seafood, patatas bravas (diced fried potatoes served with spicy tomato sauce), chorizo, olives, seasoned meats and meatballs, cheese dishes, and fried-egg dishes. For recommendations on where to get your tapas fix in Madrid (and for other food recommendations in cities around Spain), click here. If you wish to additionally experience traditional Madrid food (or book a food tour), click here.
Alcalà (not to be confused with calle Alcalà [Alcalà street] in downtown Madrid) is a gorgeous, mountainous town that is just a half-hour train ride from Madrid. For only 3.80 EUR, you can take the Renfe train, which runs every 6-9 minutes, from Madrid to Alcalà. I had planned to go there, but did not have much time in Madrid and so much enjoyed my city walks that I decided, in the end, against it. Still, from the research I did before my trip, it looked beautiful and had I had more time, I would have loved to visit it.
Arriving in Madrid: I arrived in Madrid by train––I took the Renfe from Barcelona to Pta. Atocha in Madrid, learning the hard way that, in Spain, it’s best to buy train tickets well in advance of your departure date––the money I had budgeted for the train ride had tripled by the time I bought my ticket, the night before my trip.
Getting From the Train Station or Airport to Downtown: The Pta. Atocha train station is connected to downtown Madrid by metro/subway. Madrid has one of the most complicated metro maps I have seen, but I found it extremely easy to navigate. (My secret: READ THE SIGNS. I am always amazed at the extent to which people ignore signs.) The Madrid airport is also connected to the metropolitan area by metro (the Barajas metro stop is at the airport). I loved flying the budget airline Vueling, founded in Madrid, to other destinations in and outside of Spain; despite being a budget airline, it’s very clean and surprisingly spacious inside the cabin, with great customer service and a partnership with British Airways that afford you a baggage retrieval service in the event that you ever have any issues with lost or missing baggage. Similar to other budget airlines, however, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg (70.99 EUR in 2012) to check a bag.
Lodging: I stayed at Hostal Esparteros in downtown Madrid. Madrid being the last stop in my 14-day, 10-city solo backpacking trip around Italy and Spain, I was almost broke by the time arrived there (I had just 21.70 Euros to my name), having spent three times the amount I had budgeted on my train ticket from Barcelona to Madrid, and almost all the rest of my money on meals, gifts, souvenirs, museum fees, transportation, and lodging in the other cities I had visited. Bearing all that in mind, I still found Hostal Esparteros to be easy on my budget and good value for money (albeit a little noisy at night; in need of a linen and curtain upgrade; and with four memorable flights of staircase to literally hike up with my deadly heavy [overshopper much?] backpack).
- Website: www.esparteros.com
- Address: C. de Esparteros 12; 4th floor. no elevators; located between Sol and Opéra metro stops, in the El Centro neighbourhood.
- Tel: +34 915 210 903 or +34 915 210 903
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cost: a single with a private shower––25 Euros
- Cancellation policy: none
- Check-in/check-out: noon (luggage storage at reception, if arriving earlier)
- Payment: cash only
- Details: all rooms have a shower and TV; a safe is available for valuables; cold drinks are available at reception
- Internet situation: free wifi
- Reviews: glowing reviews on TripAdvisor