As a major cultural capital of Europe, Madrid has its fair share of world-class attractions. But beneath the regal exterior is a liveable city and a great place to hang out. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in Madrid.

By: Paul Healy | Published: 17 Mar 2024

Since 1561, when Felipe II moved the seat of government to Madrid, monarchs have constructed majestic landmarks.

From the grandeur of the Royal Palace to the magnificence of the cavernous cathedral; the elegance of the Grand Vía to the splendour of Plaza Mayor, Madrid is dressed to impress.

Spain’s monarchs were also passionate collectors of art. Few cities are better endowed with masterpieces than Madrid.

Despite all the grandeur, Madrid is a great place to hang out. The food is stellar, the neighbourhoods cool and the nightlife is on fire.

We cover all the must-do in Madrid attractions to help you plan an unforgettable vacation.

facade of the royal palace madrid

THIS GUIDE

THINGS TO DO IN MADRID


WHAT TO DO IN MADRID

MAP

WHERE TO STAY

HOW LONG

WHEN TO VISIT

1. ROYAL PALACE (PALACIO REAL)

Madrid’s grandest building, the Palacio Real, was constructed on the orders of King Phillip V.

The palace that stands today has over 3,000 rooms and, by some sources, it’s considered the largest royal palace in Europe. The floor space is over 135,000 square feet.

The palace is the official home of the Spanish royal family. It’s bursting with art from artists including Caravaggio, Goya, and Velázquez.

As Madrid’s top tourist attraction, it’s an unmissable thing to do.


Tickets – book fast track entrance

2. LA ALMUDENA CATHEDRAL

Construction began on the Almudena Cathedral in 1883 and wasn’t completed until 1992.

The large, cavernous space is unusual for a cathedral. A vivid colourful ceiling and stained glass windows feature a design of straight lines.

It lacks the charm of other European cathedrals such as the Sienna Cathedral or the incredible Granada Cathedral. But it’s worth popping in for a quick look.

The highlight is actually the crypt.

interior roof of the madrid cathedral
CATHEDRAL CEILING

3. CATHEDRAL CRYPT

While the cathedral might be lacking in aesthetic appeal, the crypt (Parroquia Santa la Real de la Almudena) certainly isn’t.

It has the same dimensions as the cathedral with 500 columns decorated with arches and elaborate reliefs. The effect of rows and rows of columns, lit from below, is mesmerising.

The crypt also has 5 naves, 20 chapels, and beautiful Gothic-style-stained glass windows. Slightly hidden from the main cathedral it’s often overlooked but an essential thing to do in Madrid.

How to find the Crypt — The entrance to the crypt is located on the south side of the cathedral on Calle Mayor.

4. PLAZA MAYOR

Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s grand central square, is the oldest part of the city. It’s the perfect central landmark to orient yourself when exploring the city.

The square was destroyed by fire in 1790. The current design utilises architectural uniformity to create a consistently grand space.

Cafes overlook the square from shaded porticos and, as a tourist hub, plenty of souvenirs are on sale.

You’ll also find street performers, artists, and at various times, outdoor concerts, and parades.

The highlights are the Arco de Cuchilleros – the most monumental of the 9 arches leading to the square. The Statue of Philip III by Flemish sculptor Giambologna is also impressive.

5. CHURROS AT SAN GINÊS

Churros and chocolate is a Spanish treat and an unmissable thing to do in Madrid.

Spaniards generally have churros over the winter months, because it’s considered a warming treat. However, Chocolatería San Ginés is open 24 hours a day, so you can consume these delights whenever you please.

They’re renowned for serving one of the best churros and chocolate in Spain. They’ve been going for 120 years and the traditional recipe hasn’t changed since. Their chocolate is rich and dense and a real treat.

The simple flour, salt, and water combination, when deep-fried and dunked in velvety chocolate always makes us feel like we’re in Spain.

chocolateria san gines madrid
CHOCOLATERÍA SAN GINÊS

6. SAN MIGUEL MARKET

The San Miguel Market is a beautiful cast-iron structure dating back to 1916.

After several reincarnations, today it is a centrally located shrine to Spanish cuisine and one of the best things to do in Madrid.

Most recently relaunched in 2018, the market includes the finest produce from across Spain.

Find everything from quirky tapas to the freshest seafood, with ice cream. There’s also paella, Spanish cheese, artisanal bread, and everything in between.

It can get very busy at lunch so make sure you source a table before heading to the stalls to order food.

Hidden Gem— Nearby tiny streets conceal hidden delicacies. Don’t miss Chocolala Belga on Calle del Bonetillo. An elderly gentleman crafts incredible homemade chocolates.

7 – TEMPLE OF DEBOD & PLAZA DE ESPAÑA

The Temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt in Parque de la Montaña, Madrid.

It was donated by the Egyptian government for preservation. It’s one of the few examples of Egyptian architecture outside the country.

Surrounded by a pool of water with views over the palace, it is a nice photo opportunity, but you don’t need long to check it out.

The nearby Plaza de España has recently been renovated to create a greener, more accessible tourist attraction within the city.

The revamped space is now car-free with walking and cycling tracks that connect it to other green spaces in Madrid.

8. ERMITA DE SAN ANTONIO DE FLORIDA

The Chapel of St Anthony of La Florida is a small but beautiful chapel in the centre of Madrid. The highlight is the stunning frescoes by Francisco Goya.

Goya is considered one of Spain’s most important artists from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His work reflects historical and political upheavals.

He is buried in the church which acts as a fitting canvas for some of his finest works.

As a single room housing world-class art in an unassuming building, it’s one of the most underrated things to do in Madrid.

Photos are not permitted inside.

ermita de san antonio madrid
ERMITA DE SAN ANTONIO DE FLORIDA

9. MALASAÑA DISTRICT

Malasaña is a bohemian district in Madrid with cool shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and markets.

The best way to experience it is to stroll around aimlessly soaking up the ambiance.

The ground floors of the buildings contain tattooists, bakeries, fishmongers, boutiques and bars. Upstairs is residential accommodation.

The result is a lived-in area, slightly worn around the edges and bursting with character.

Here are some of our favourite places in Malasańa –

  • HanSo Café – A relaxed coffee house with a great selection of sandwiches and excellent coffee.
  • Plaza Juan Pujol – Colourful square with student-centered cafes and street art, it’s a cool place to hang out when you need a break.  
  • Toma Café – Great little café for specialty coffee, cakes, and pastries, and one of the best tomato and bread in Madrid.

10. GRAN VÍA

Madrid’s most famous street, Gran Vía, was built between 1910 and 1929. Construction required the demolition of over 300 buildings to create the regal boulevard it is today.

Referred to as the Spanish Broadway, Gran Vía is the centre of nightlight in Madrid. The city’s main concentration of cinemas, theatres and restaurants spiral out from the boulevard.

After a revamp in 2018, Gran Vía now has more green spaces, wider pavements, and a bike lane between Callao and Plaza de España.

It’s the perfect place for window shopping, bar hopping and aimless ambling in an iconic setting.

Some of the iconic landmarks on Gran Vía include:

  • Metrópolis – an iconic office building.
  • Telefónica Building – one of the first skyscrapers in Europe.
  • Edificio Capitol – a beautiful building used in many Spanish movies.

11. THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA NATIONAL MUSEUM

The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum has a vast collection of works from the Middle Ages through to the late 20th century. Of all the galleries in Madrid, this has the broadest range.

Explore the major art movements including Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, and Rococo. Continue on to Expressionism and 20th-century Pop Art.

The collection also has a large display of 19th-century American art, rarely found in European galleries.

Some of the more recognisable pieces are from Caravaggio, Rubens, Dalí, Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Lichtenstein.

But, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum includes plenty of less-known masterpieces. It’s well worth a few hours strolling around this wonderful collection.


Tickets – book skip-the-line tickets with a guided tour

12. PRADO MUSEUM

The Prado Museum is the main Spanish national art museum. It contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Spanish paintings.

There are around 20,000 works from the 12th to the 13th century. The Prado is widely considered to be the finest collection of European art in the world.

It includes the most complete works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya. You’ll also find important masters including Zurbarán, Raphael, Tintoretto, and Peter Paul Rubens to name just a few.


Tickets – book skip-the-line tickets.

13. REINA SOFÍA MUSEUM

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is the national Spanish museum for 20th-century art. It features contemporary works from some of the country’s leading artists.

Opening in 1990, the museum was considered an important step in Spain’s transition to democracy.

The most famous work is Guernica. The colossal piece by Pablo Picasso depicts the suffering experienced during the Spanish Civil War.

Their other prized possession is The Great Masturbator, the psychic snapshot of life as seen by a 25-year-old Salvador Dalí.

It’s a massive collection with interesting temporary exhibitions and installations.

Free Entry — Reina Sofia is free from 7 pm to 9 pm weekdays and Saturdays, and 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm Sundays. Other times, book skip-the-line tickets.

TOP TIP

MADRID ART WALK PASS


If you plan on visiting all three major art galleries (Thyssen-Bornemisza, Prado and Sofia Reina) you should buy the Art Walk Pass which is €32 and includes skip-the-line access to all 3 galleries.

Tickets must be picked up from the gallery where you purchased the pass.

14. RETIRO PARK

Spread over 125 hectares in central Madrid, El Retiro Park is a green oasis in the centre of the city. Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is a popular destination for unwinding in Madrid.

There are grassy fields, open-air cafes, tree-lined pathways, and romantic gardens. You’ll also find a variety of landscape styles on display as well as ornate statues and dreamy fountains. Here are some of the attractions –

  • Estranque – The large artificial lake is the central focus of Retiro where you can hire a rowboat to take in slow Madrid life.  
  • Monument to King Alfonso XII – The massive monument beside the lake is dedicated to Spain’s favourite monarch. On the weekends, you’ll find musicians gathered on the steps.
  • Palacio de Cristal – The famous glass palace is an architectural masterpiece magnificently reflecting in the small lake surrounding it. The building was constructed in 1887 to house exotic plans for an exhibition from the Philippines.
  • Palacio de Velázquez – Located beside the Crystal Palace, The Velázquez Palace is an exhibition space featuring displays from Reina Sofia.
  • El Angel Caído – The Fallen Angel statue is a sinister work featuring the moment Lucifer is cast out of heaven. The work by sculptor Ricardo Bellver is admired for its sense of tension and anguish.

15 – EL RASTRO FLEA MARKET

As a Sunday institution, the El Rastro Flea Market spirals out from its central hub around Plaza de Cascorro. The market fills the streets with treasures from over 1,000 stalls.

The main section is the triangle formed by Calle de Toledo, Calle de Embajadores and Ronda de Toledo. Here the primary focus is clothing.

The side streets contain a host of treasures. You can pretty much find everything from trading cards to vintage furniture, to second-hand vinyl.

The surrounding neighbourhood has generation-old tapas bars and creaking restaurants.

16. BASILICA DE SAN FRANCISCO EL GRANDE

Basilica of Saint Francis the Great is a visual masterpiece and a homage to Spanish art.

Not giving much away from the exterior, inside a round floor plan crowned with a huge 33-metre dome. The marble and gold inlaid chapels contain an enviable collection of art from Spanish masters.

It’s one of the most beautiful churches in the world.

There are 3 chapels featuring paintings by Zurbarán. But, the most famous work is the magnificent painting by Francisco Goya, St Bernardino of Siena preaching to Alfonso V of Aragon.

Entry is free on Thursdays.

17. CHUECA

Chueca is a lively neighbourhood in the heart of Madrid. It’s known for its diversity, gay-friendly venues, cozy pavement cafes, tapas bars and vibrant street art.

It’s a great destination for a night out in Madrid with traditional Spanish restaurants and some of the best bars and clubs in town.

For dinner try either El Social or Josefita. Both are atmospheric tiny Spanish restaurants with great wine lists. They both have some excellent regional dishes.

MORE THINGS TO DO IN MADRID

Madrid is bursting with world-class attractions. If you have the time, here are a few more great things to check out.

SANTIAGO BERNABÉU STADIUM

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is the home stadium of Real Madrid. It has a capacity of over 80,000 visitors and it’s one of the most famous football grounds in the world.

Take a guided tour of the stadium to learn about the history of the club, admire club memorabilia, and take in panoramic views of the stadium.

ATOCHA TRAIN STATION

Madrid Puerta de Atocha was the first train station in Madrid. The historic steel and glass building is one of the city’s best-known landmarks.

The interesting thing about the station is the tropical garden situated under the original train shed. It has over 7,000 plants, making it a great photo opportunity in Madrid. There are bars and restaurants overlooking the garden.

atocha station madrid
ATOCHA STATION

PALACIO DE LIRIA

Palacio de Liria is a neoclassical palace often considered the little brother of the Real Palace. It’s the official residence of the Alba family who have an ancient lineage, closely linked to Spanish history.

The building is protected under Spanish Heritage law. The library contains the first edition of Don Quixote. See it on a guided tour of Palacio de Liria.

PUERTA DEL SOL

Puerta del Sol marks kilometre zero for the Spanish road system. It’s the symbolic centre of the city and one of the busiest places in Madrid.

The large public square has witnessed historical events, the most notable was the proclamation of the 2nd republic. Today, it’s a very popular tourist destination and one of the great free things to do in Madrid.

bear and the strawberry tree puerta del sol
BEAR & THE STRAWBERRY TREE, PUERTA DEL SOL

TEATRO ROYAL

The Royal Theatre is located opposite the Royal Palace and it is considered one of the top institutions for performing arts in Spain.

It has a whopping stage area of 1,472 m2 which allows for very complex set changing. Seeing a performance here is an amazing experience, check out what’s on at teatroreal.es. Even if you’re not, from the outside it’s a beautiful building to stop and admire.

PALACIO DE CIBELES

The Communications Palace is a monumental building and headquarters for the Madrid City Hall. In 1993, it was declared an Asset of Cultural Interest.

The square the building sits on, Plaza de Cibeles, is the most famous in Madrid. It’s at the intersection of Calle de Alcalá, Paseo de Recoletos, and Paseo del Prado with several beautiful buildings surrounding it.

MAP | THINGS TO DO IN MADRID

Most of Madrid’s tourist attractions are located in the central district including landmarks such as the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Plaza Mayor, the Gran Vía, and the Mercado de San Miguel, as well the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

Our map contains all the things to do in Madrid listed in this guide.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


WHERE TO STAY IN MADRID

The most popular areas for tourists are around the city center (Sol, Gran Vía, and Opera). Each are well located for the main attractions and nightlife.

The Malasaña neighborhood is a trendy and bohemian area with great restaurants, bars, and street art. Chueca is another popular neighborhood known for its LGBT-friendly atmosphere and lively nightlife.

For a more upscale experience, the Salamanca neighborhood is a great option with high-end shopping and dining options.

OUR PICK

LAS LETRAS / LUXURY

GRAN HOTEL INGLÉS

The Gran Hotel Inglés is the place to go for an indulgent stay in Madrid. With Art Deco design blended with the building’s traditional character and a deluxe spa, you want wont to leave.


CENTRO / HOSTEL +

WOOHOO SUITES MADRID

Woohoo Suites has both hostel rooms and hotel suites in an excellent location just off Gran Vía. The hotel rooms and small but stylish and the hostel has rooms and dormitories with private and shared bathrooms.


MALASAÑA / FASHIONABLE

7 ISLAS HOTEL

The family-run 7 Islas Hotel is a stylish and affordable option in one of the best neighbourhoods of Madrid. Natural materials create a striking yet welcoming vibe and the amenities are first-class. Don’t skip the cocktails.


CHUECA / BOUTIQUE

PETIT PALACE CHUECA

Part of a chain of boutique hotels in Madrid, Petit Palace Chueca is a moderately priced yet chic property in a grand building near Gran Via. Some rooms have large terraces overlooking the boulevard.


HOW MANY DAYS IN MADRID

We would recommend spending at least 3 – 4 days in Madrid to get a good taste of the city’s culture, history, and food.

This will allow enough time to visit some of the main attractions like the Prado Museum, Retiro Park, and the Royal Palace, as well as enjoy some of the local food and nightlife.

If you have more time, you can explore the city’s different neighbourhoods, visit more museums, or take day trips to nearby towns and cities.

BEST TIME TO VISIT MADRID

The best time to visit Madrid is over the shoulder seasons of spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). However, Madrid has both excellent museums and beautiful outdoor spaces, so it’s one of those rare European cities that you could enjoy any time of year.

Spring is a beautiful time to visit Madrid when the weather is mild, the city is in bloom and it’s not yet experiencing the peak tourist season.

From September to November the temperatures begin to cool down again so it’s the ideal time for sightseeing and outdoor activities. The food markets will also be in full swing.

what to do in madrid spain

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