The Best Things To Do in Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish royal family
The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish royal family | © Daniel Damaschin / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Paul Gibbins
7 February 2020

Madrid is often overlooked in favour of some of Spain’s more famous beach and island getaways, but give it a chance and you’ll discover one of Europe’s most authentic, historic and cultural capitals. With its legendary and varied nightlife, gastronomy, and art scenes still thriving, it’s no wonder that so many who visit Madrid fall deeply in love with it.

Although Madrid is famously known for its strong traditions and authenticity, it is still a modern and international city. As you discover the cosmopolitan capital and its attractions, or dine and drink in various bars and restaurants dotted around the city, you’ll slowly begin to realise that many of these establishments have fascinating stories to tell. The ghosts of famous past guests, shocking historical events or the entrepreneurial DIY spirit that keeps the city pushing boundaries are only too willing to add your story to the list.

Marvel at world-famous historical artworks…

The Thyssen, Prado and the Reina Sofía art museums – also known as the Golden Triangle of Art – house collections that comfortably rank among Europe’s best. Masterpieces from Rembrandt, Goya, Velázquez, Bosch and others take pride of place alongside more modern pieces from Hopper and Picasso. The museums are all within a short walking distance from one other, and a Paseo Del Arte pass grants you access to all three for a great price.

One of the three art museums in Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle of Art’, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses over 1,600 paintings | © JOHN KELLERMAN / Alamy Stock Photo

… But make some time for contemporary art, too

That’s not to say that Madrid’s artistic heritage means it isn’t still producing game-changing art to this day. If your tastes are more contemporary or eclectic, then you’re sure to find something you’ll love at the Matadero. A former slaughterhouse that has since been converted into a cultural centre, at the Matadero you will find galleries, events, multipurpose spaces and a theatrical complex with performance and rehearsal space. Alternatively, check out Sala Equis, another gallery with an interesting past. Originally an erotic cinema, it now hosts amazing exhibitions and film screenings with a great bar to boot.

Formerly a slaughterhouse, the Matadero is now at the heart of Madrid’s contemporary art scene | © Maria Galan / Alamy Stock Photo

Unwind in Madrid’s beautiful parks…

For those who live to be among the leaves, visit Madrid’s airy and verdant parks. Oases of green and space to breathe among the bustle of the city, spots such as Buen Retiro also feature unique sculptures, a boat lake and a botanical garden. Casa de Campo is the city’s biggest park (it’s about five times the size of New York’s Central Park), and its 1,700-plus hectares (4,200-plus acres) of space are crammed with activities for visitors. Check out the amusement park, the zoo and the lake, before catching the wonderfully kitsch cable car across to Parque del Oeste to explore its gorgeous English-style gardens.

Spanning across 125 hectares (309 acres), Buen Retiro Park is the perfect spot to escape the chaos of the city centre | © Jonathan Cohen / Alamy Stock Photo

… Or look down at the streets from above

Given that Madrid is a landlocked city without a river, its parks are an important refuge from the claustrophobia that city life can bring. However, every true Madrileño also has a favourite rooftop bar where you can soak up the sun or take a dip in a pool. The most famous of these is Círculo de Bellas Artes, which is undeniably stunning but can involve waiting in line due to its popularity. Duck around the corner to the Ático bar of the nearby NH Hotel and enjoy the same view without the wait.

Experience Madrid from above at Círculo de Bellas Artes’ rooftop bar | © Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy Stock Photo

Treat your eyes and your taste buds at Madrid’s famous food markets…

There’s an old saying in Madrid that “whatever you’re looking for, go to Maravillas Market. If you don’t find it, it doesn’t exist.” Stocking perhaps the largest range of traditional market food in the city, Maravillas offers the full gamut of sights, sounds and smells. No trip to Madrid, however, is complete without a visit to San Miguel Market. Housed in its original iron structure, the market is home to 33 stalls selling the very best Spanish street food.

San Miguel Market is home to 33 food stalls | © dleiva / Alamy Stock Photo

… Or pick up a bargain at a flea market

Every Sunday, El Rastro flea market opens its doors to great numbers of bargain hunters. Among them you’ll find as many residents as you will tourists, some seeking collectables for their niche interests, others for vintage furniture, memorabilia and more. There are many reasons why this market is the most popular flea market in Spain, but its enviable collection of antiques is certainly one of its biggest draws. You’ll find antiques from local stores proudly out on display, and available to take home with you at fair prices. Be sure to book an extra suitcase for your return journey.

Find second-hand treasures at Madrid’s El Rastro flea market in La Latina district | © Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

Traditional tapas and bodegas in La Latina…

One of Hemingway’s favourite areas of Madrid, La Latina is the place to be if you’re after traditional tapas and wine bodegas. In many of these places, you’ll be given a free tapa (which might be as simple as cheese and bread, or something a little more ornate) with every drink, so you can ensure you’re well fed as you treat yourself to local wine and beer. La Latina is also home to a restaurant beloved by Ernest Hemingway, which happens to be the oldest restaurant in the world, Sobrino de Botín. Try the famous suckling pig and see why Hemingway was so enamoured by the place that he set part of his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) here.

Founded in 1725, Sobrino de Botín is the world’s oldest restaurant and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway | © Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

…Or get with the times in Malasaña, Madrid’s hip district

A day or night spent in Malasaña is one you’re sure not to forget. An area that has seen an explosion of art and creativity in recent years, Malasaña has unique, technicolour murals on all corners. Keep an eye out for a mural painted by the artist of Spain’s favourite satirical magazine, El Jueves. The area is also known for its creative, modern restaurants and cafés where you can enjoy a local beer or coffee, expertly made cocktails and classic brunch dishes.

Malasaña is popular with students and creatives | © Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

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