13 Epic Things to do in Madrid, Spain
Where I would describe Barcelona as being Intimate, I would probably sum Madrid up into the word Grand. The broad streets, the wide squares, the tall buildings and monuments. Yes, Madrid is indeed grand.
We took the train from Barcelona to Madrid, which was about a three hour ride. We then took a taxi from the train station to Gran Via, one of the main arteries of the city. That was as close as the driver was able to get us to our hotel, due to the holiday celebrations.
It was May 2nd, Dia de la Comunidad de Madrid, or “Day of Madrid.” This was the day that Madrid rose in rebellion against French occupation in 1808, which day marked the beginning of the the Spanish War of Independence.
Luckily, the walk from Gran Via to Puerta Del Sol wasn’t far. And although it was over cobblestone, it was downhill and easy going. We arrived at our hotel to find it surrounded by a commotion of festivities, and couldn’t wait to set our bags down and get out to explore. This post will highlight our favorite things we discovered.
A note about COVID: Our trip was pre-pandemic, so be sure to check each location for visiting restrictions before you plan your visit.
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1. Explore Puerta del Sol
At the heart of Spain is Madrid, and at the heart of Madrid is Puerta Del Sol. “Puerta del Sol” translates as the “gateway to the sun.” And as would seem fitting to such a place, it held a spirit of constant celebration. We even ran into “Pikachu”, of all random things, and had our picture taken with him.
TIP: Be sure to carry a few euros with you for tips if you plan on asking any costumed characters or street performers for a photo together.
With its central location, this is a perfect starting point for exploring Madrid. We had everything we could want or need at our fingertips. We found tons of shopping and dining surrounding the square, as well as convenient subway access. The streets surrounding Puerta del Sol were wide, cobbled and filled with people during the day. It’s definitely a fun area to explore.
Puerta del Sol is also a convenient location to plan your adventures in and around Madrid. A couple of kiosks here offered tickets for Flamenco shows in Madrid, as well as day trips to surrounding cities, including Ávila, El Escorial, Segovia, and Toledo. We were easily able to book reservations the day of, or the day before, an event.
2. Explore Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is only a five minute walk from Puerta del Sol. This is where our Spanish Inquisition walking tour started. There are also a lot of shops and dining areas on Plaza Mayor and the surrounding streets. The streets in this area are just as crowded as near Puerta del Sol, but the streets here are more narrow and intimate, which I found very appealing. It piqued my curiosity to explore deeper.
TIP: Be wary of people offering you “gifts” in busy tourist areas such as this. They may claim it is a gift, but then right afterwards ask for a “gift”, or money, back. And they can be persistent, to put it nicely.
3. Spanish Inquisition Walking Tour
The Spanish Inquisition tour was informative, fascinating and entertaining, as our guide incorporated a dry wit as he narrated along the way. The tour started and ended in Plaza Mayor, and lasted about 2 hours. We learned that the Spanish Inquisition lasted an astounding 350 years. As is often the case, the Spanish Inquisition actually started and ended more for political reasons than for religious or ethical reasons.
We also learned about why the Spanish are so famous for their pork and ham. As the story goes, churches used to host Sunday dinners with a wide spread of food. Though the dinner was intended to feed the poor or to engender a sense of community, there was a good chance that the priests, or maybe even your neighbors, were watching carefully what you ate. If you didn’t touch the pork products, someone was sure to report your name to the Inquisition for further investigation to determine if you were a true believer or a blaspheming heretic. In other words, they were searching for people who might be Jewish or Muslim, disguising themselves as Catholic. No wonder pork products are so prevalent in Spain!
4. Catch a Flamenco Performance
Catching a flamenco performance in Spain is a must, and there are a lot of options to choose from in Madrid. Flamenco is a fusion of Spanish, middle eastern and Gypsy music and dance, filled with passion and vivacity.
We went to a Flamenco show at Cardamomo. (We booked our tickets at one of the kiosks on Puerta del Sol.) The atmosphere at Cardamomo was incredibly intimate. We managed front row seats in the small, darkly lit room while we enjoyed a delicious dinner with Sangria.
The Golden Triangle of Art
TIP: You can package admission tickets to the Reina Sofia, Prado, and Thyssen museums into a one-day pass to save a little bit of money. But depending on how quickly you want to rush through these museums, I feel it would be too much for one day. Together, these three art museums offer a fully comprehensive experience and create what is called the “Golden Triangle of Art” in Madrid.
5. Prado Museum
The Prado Museum was huge. There was so much to see, I felt I could have dedicated an entire day here. As it was, we only had half a day to explore its artwork. Founded in 1819, it houses European art from the 12th through 20th centuries. You can see work here by major artists, including Francisco Goya, El Greco, and Diego Velázquez.
One of my favorite works we saw here was Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. It was fun to compare Velázquez’ original piece to Picasso’s Study of Las Meninas, which we had seen in Barcelona at the Picasso Museum.
We also saw a lot of work by Goya, including a few works he painted in commemoration of Madrid’s uprising against the French in 1808. It was perfect timing to view this painting, considering Madrid had just finished celebrating Dia de Madrid, and it certainly left us with an indelible memory.
TIP: If there are certain paintings you’re wanting to see, don’t be afraid to ask the guides at the museum! They helped us find a few paintings I wanted to see in particular, including Adam and Eve by Alberto Durero.
6. Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Inaugurated in 1990, the Reina Sofia is a relatively newer museum focusing on more modern and contemporary artwork. It celebrates mainly 20th century Spanish artists, although it does host temporary exhibits of both national and international artists. Included in its permanent collections are exhibits of Pablo Picasso’s and Salvador Dalí’s work.
7. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Although the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum was founded in 1992, the collection was actually started in the 1920’s by the museum’s namesake. As the Great Depression hit the United States, many wealthy Americans began selling priceless artwork. Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza used this opportunity to grow his collection.
Today, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum covers categories of art missed by the Prado and Reina Sofia museums. You can view work by Italian, English, Dutch and German artists, as well as Impressionist and Expressionist artwork, and 20th century American paintings.
8. Royal Botanical Garden
The Royal Botanical Garden stands adjacent to the Prado Museum. Founded in 1755, the garden covers 20 acres of land and holds around 91,500 different plant species today. The garden is organized into seven outdoor sections and five greenhouses. You can wander through the gardens at your own leisure, or take a guided tour.
The gardens were absolutely beautiful. It was exciting to discover plants I had never seen or heard of before. Plus, it was a relaxing and refreshing break to surround ourselves with so many plants and flowers after the hub-bub and rush of the tourists and the city.
9. Buen Retiro Park and the Crystal Palace
Buen Retiro Park is massive, covering a vast 350 acres. There are wide paved paths, smaller gravel paths, open grassy areas, and great tall trees, offering shade. We saw bicyclists, joggers, lovers, locals, tourists, photographers, and frisbee players. The park initially belonged to Spanish royalty and was created in 1680, but then became a public park in late 1800s.
I always love being outdoors and enjoy a good park, but what really drew me to Buen Retiro Park was the Crystal Palace. It was built in 1887 of iron and glass upon a brick foundation, and it looks like something out of a dream. It was once used as a greenhouse, but today, the Crystal Palace belongs to the Reina Sofia Museum. For a small fee, you can go inside to view various art exhibits.
10. Catch a Real Madrid Soccer Game at Bernabéu Stadium
We stepped onto the subway at Puerta del Sol and found the subway cars packed tight with soccer fans. After jumping off at Bernabéu Stadium, we climbed the stairs from the subway station and stepped back into the sunshine. Eyes adjusting to the light, we joined an electrified mass of people all wearing their club colors, their excitement palpable and contagious. Congregating from all directions, the throng of soccer fans carried us toward the stadium.
Bernabéu Stadium is Spain’s second largest soccer stadium, second only to Camp Nou in Barcelona. If you are looking for a genuine taste of modern Spanish culture, or at all consider yourself a soccer fan, you can’t miss seeing a Real Madrid home match. ¡Hala Madrid!
11. Attend a Corrida, AKA Bull Fight
Ok, here’s a controversial one. I had some real misgivings about going to a bull fight. Corridas are controversial even in Spain. In fact, there are some regions where you can no longer attend a corrida, such as Catalonia, where it was banned in 2012. But they are still proudly considered an important part of Spanish culture and heritage by many people today.
When we visited Spain, we hoped to get a glimpse of real Spanish culture, something beyond just the tourist sights. When we attended the corrida, I was surprised to see people of all ages filling the hard concrete benches, including children. We just happened to find ourselves seated right next to a man named Victor, a former president of the corrida. Attending a corrida is definitely not for everyone, but the insights we gained from Victor regarding the culture and art of bull fighting made us realize there is far more depth to this sport than meets the eye.
12. Shopping along Gran Via
Gran Via is a short five minute walk from Puerta del Sol. This major street runs through Madrid like a main artery. If you’re looking for a good place to go shopping in Madrid, this is the place.
13. Hop on hop off bus tour
You can find a Hop-on Hop-off bus tour in many of the larger cities around the world. They’re handy for getting a quick overview of a city and its layout. It’s also a convenient transportation option if you’re planning on traveling to multiple locations in one day, as tickets are usually good for one or two days and typically cover a lot of major tourist sites. If you choose the ride the bus a full loop, it lasts about an hour to an hour and a half.
Madrid’s Hop-on Hop-off bus tour is split into two routes —a historical route and a modern route. The historical route covers locations such as Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, the Thyssen, Reina Sofia, and Prado museums and the Royal Botanical Garden, with multiple stops along Gran Via. The modern route also included Puerta del Sol, in addition to Bernabéu Stadium and the Museum of Natural Sciences.
Where to Stay in Madrid
I can’t recommend Hotel Europa enough. It was clean and the service was good. The location and price, though, were excellent. It stands at the heart of Madrid, with easy subway access just a few yards away. Our room looked over Puerta Del Sol, and it was mesmerizing to watch the pulse and vibe of the city night life from high above it all.
A few of the amenities at Hotel Europa include free WiFi, 24 hour service at the reception desk, and service provided in Spanish, English, French, Italian, and Portuguese. They even provide strollers if you’re traveling with little ones!
Next Time in Madrid…
On our whirlwind through Spain, we stopped at many places along the way, picking ourselves up and setting ourselves down in a new town every couple of nights. If you don’t want to go hotel hopping, though, Madrid would be an excellent city to set up as home base. There is so much to see and do both in and near Madrid, it would be easy to spend an entire vacation there while making day trips to the surrounding towns.
There was no way we could fit everything we wanted to see into the few days we had in Madrid. Did I miss one of your favorite things to do in Madrid? Tell me about it in the comments!