Madrid, a cosmopolitan capital city situated in the heart of Spain and the nation’s capital city, is the next contender to New York City for the title of the city that never sleeps. It is a city that breathes life through its rich architectural history, as illustrated by its beautiful palace, buildings, and narrow streets. Each of its barrios (neighbourhoods) has a distinct personality that is bound to excite you. Despite its growth into the contemporary era, with bars, clubs, restaurants, shops, and cafes spilling out into every street, this beautiful city still maintains its essence that defines its culture. Here is a list of the top 25 things to do when you’re in Madrid to maximise your explorations in this vibrant city:
1. People-watch in the heart of Madrid: Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor
Puerta del Sol, sometimes simply referred to as Sol (sun), is a popular meeting point among locals and tourists alike. This is where the heart of the city lies. Sit by the fountain and watch the crossroad teeming with people heading to various destinations. Be entertained by mime artists or mascots amusing tourists with their antics. Or vie for space and take a selfie in front of the famous symbol of Madrid; the 20 tonne statue of ‘El Oso y El Madroño’ (The bear and the berry tree).
Just a few minutes’ walk from Puerta del Sol you will find Plaza Mayor, which is Madrid’s main square. It is best to head there on a Sunday morning, when you can see locals setting up flea market stalls within the square, selling vintage items such as old coins, notes, postcards, and random items that might appeal to you. People-watch as you enjoy a plate of tasty tapas and a good Spanish wine or beer to wash your food down.
2. Shop and feast on the architectural designs of buildings at Gran Via
Gran Vía is a mecca for shopping and a top place for you to walk with your nose in the air, not in the figurative sense, but in the literal sense. Look up as you walk, for the buildings along the streets are of magnificent architectural designs, something that the natural lens of your eyes must capture. Take a walk starting from Plaza de Alcalá and through the street that cuts through the centre of Madrid, all the way to Plaza de España. Join the locals and tourists shopping in this unparalleled important commercial district, with banks, hotels, stores, bars, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres flanking the street. At the corner of Gran Vía and Calle Alcalá, be in awe of one of Madrid’s famous buildings, the Metropolis Building with the statue of the goddess of Victoria atop its intricate dome.
3. Marvel at the masterpieces in the museums
The Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and The Reina Sofia Museum are some of the finest museums in Madrid that you should not miss. The Prado, an 18th-century Neo-Classical building, houses the fine works of art masters such as Velázquez, Goya, and Raphael, among many others. As for the Thyssen-Bornemisza, it is reputed to be the world’s most important private art collection for it is where the evolution of the history of art is illustrated. The Reina Sofia Museum, distinguished by its glass lifts on its façade, is home to one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history, Picasso’s “Guernica”.
Spend hours, or even a day, in each of the museums to truly appreciate the masterpieces.
4. Explore the hipster neighbourhood, Malasaña and patronize its hip cafes
No other place is more hip in Madrid than Malasaña. Situated near Gran Via, west of Chueca, this neighbourhood has it all going on for the hipster scene; see Madrileños in trendy outfits, some with carefully-styled moustaches with the ends flicked into a perfect curl, pants folded slightly above the ankle exposing a pair of polka-dots socks, and streets lined with funky and trendy bars and cafes. This district is like a walking fashion catalogue.
The barrio encapsulates an artistic blend of contemporary features and style. Fall in love with some of the unique bars and cafes, such as the La Bicicleta Cafe. Like the name denotes, it hinges on the concept of cycling; bicycle posters hang on its walls, bicycles are suspended from the ceiling, and there is a basement for cyclists to get their bicycles fixed. In the day, expect to find locals feverishly working on their laptops in designated workspaces, reading a book,or engaging in conversations over meals and drinks. Come at night, however, and you will see how all work and seriousness transform into play over a few beers.
5. Savour churros dipped in chocolate in a 122-year-old chocolatería: Chocolatería San Gines
Warning- this might lead to churros-dipped-in-chocolate addiction!
Head to Chocolatería San Gines in the morning to avoid long queues, and, when you get to make your order, set yourself in the mood and say, “Buenos días, churros con chocolate, por favor”. Those words will be the game-changer for your sweet and savoury experience! For a chocolateria with 122 years of history and with hundreds of stars having stopped by to savour their traditional plain churros and rich dipping chocolate, what else can be said of this gem?
Located in the heart of Madrid, near Puerta del Sol, the chocolatería is hidden in a narrow street. Find space near the counter, and let the vibe of the late nineteenth century exuding from its interior and façade take you back in time as you indulge in your churros and chocolate over the white marble counter top. Study the walls adorned with mostly black and white photos of famous people who have been there before, and who had just what you’re having. Julio Iglesias, Stevie Wonder, … and the list goes on!
6. Go bar-hopping in the trendy bohemian district of La Latina
La Latina is the oldest neighbourhood in Madrid. In other words, it is in this district where you can find most of the oldest historic buildings in Madrid, including cathedrals and museums. Head over to the two main streets of the quarter, Cava Baja and Cava Alta, where you can easily find great restaurants or bars for good quality tapas. It is a must to try huevos estrellados (a mixture of broken eggs fried usually with sausages and potatoes) in the famous Casa Lucio establishment. Though this barrio is buzzing with locals day and night as they bar hop from one to another, its attraction is the strongest on Sundays. Be part of the vibrant Sunday tradition of the locals and be intrigued at how the barrio conjures a perfect mix of buzz and a laid-back vibe at the same time.
7. Go crazy at San Miguel Mercado with the array of Spanish specialities!
The Mercado de San Miguel is more than just a food market. It is a market that is both historic and monumental. Situated in Plaza de San Miguel, just minutes away from Plaza Mayor, this food market is the last remaining iron food market, which has been reformed to perfection. Expect to find an extensive selection of quality specialities ranging from tapas, paellas, and desserts, to local drink products. Though you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of others, the whole experience of being part of this phenomenal gastronomic culture of Spain will definitely be a highlight of your trip.
8. Enjoy a sweet morning pick-me-up coffee: café bombón
At some point amidst all the wandering, you’ll be gasping for a pick-me-up coffee. Well, since you’re in Spain, you’ve got to try one of the typical Spanish coffees, café bombón. This coffee was first made popular in Valencia before its popularity began spreading across Spain. Served in a shot-like glass, its presentation is a work of art with three distinct layers consisting of sweet condensed milk, espresso coffee, and foam. For those familiar with the bonbon chocolate, this coffee has the same effect; it will send the sweetness bursting in your mouth! Though this coffee might sound too sweet for your liking, there is, nonetheless, no harm in giving it a shot. Since the Spanish love it, you’ll never know if it’ll be your new found love for your much-needed pick-me-up!
9. Dine and wine in a former theatre at Platea
Platea, which is situated on Calle de Goya, was formerly an old theater. It has now been transformed into a magical haven of a gastronomic market, with some menus bearing the coveted Michelin stars. It is now a five-floor food hall, its interiors still bearing the hallmarks of a theatre, with its red velvet curtain drawn exposing a large central stage and a massive screen on the main floor. It houses several restaurants and food stands featuring various cuisines, such as Spanish, Mexican, Peruvian, Asian, and more.
Spoil yourself with an array of mouth-watering tapas, each costing approximately 3 EUR (3.40 USD). For jamón lovers, you will find a treasure trove of ham delights there. Then, be sure to ask the waiter for his recommendation of good local wine before settling down at a table facing the centre stage. If you are in luck, there will be some performances to entertain you as you enjoy the upscale ambiance and promisingly good food.
10. Hunt for treasure at El Rastro and other flea markets
El Rastro is the biggest flea market in Madrid, and it is only open on Sundays. Halfway through walking in the city, as you near the district, you will begin to notice a whole crowd making its way towards El Rastro flea market. Located to the south of La Latina metro station, locals and tourists alike let themselves get lost amidst the treasures. Clothes, jewellery, antiques, vinyls, and vintage cameras are some of the extensive items that you can bargain for and purchase. Take note that by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the market starts packing up, so it is best to start your treasure hunting as early as 9 in the morning.
For those who are in Madrid on the second weekend of the month, check out the cool Mercado de Motores. Locals set up stalls amidst the engines of the railway station, which is a train museum, selling homemade food and products and anything vintage.
11. Spoil yourself with jamón
This cured ham, jamón ibérico will have you convinced that it is, arguably, the best in the world. Visit one of the local landmarks of Madrid, Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham) along Calle Mayor for a ración (a large tapas serving) for approximately 2.50 EUR (2.80 USD) or a jamón bocadillo (sandwich filled with ham) for just 1.50 EUR (1.70 USD). Depending on the quality of the ham, the finer it is, the more expensive it will be, but, in all honesty, it’s worth the investment! While you’re there, observe the impressive display of hundreds of cured ham legs suspended from the ceiling. It’s like its raining ham in there, and it is certainly an interesting sight to behold.
12. Embrace Madrid's gay district with an open mind
Chueca is a scene-stealer. It is a district that illustrates the epitome of the open-mindedness of the Madrid community. The ruggedly handsome and boisterous barrio has men dressed up to the nines, patronizing abundant restaurants, cafes, and bars, laughing, talking, kissing, and flirting. Regardless if you’re heterosexual, homosexual, or anything in between, this neighbourhood is a fun place to explore. Somewhere between the last week of June and the first week of July, join thousands of others for the Gay Pride Festival. This is a one-of-a-kind festival, where music and fun paints the whole city in a huge rainbow.
13. Spanish omelette for breakfast: tortilla Española
This is a piece of heaven on the breakfast menu. A typical local dish that you can basically have either for breakfast or lunch, Spanish tortilla (the ’ll’ pronounced as ‘y’) is a humble blend of potatoes and eggs fried to perfection in taste and form. You can either eat it on its own or on bread. It is simple but heavenly. Step into any cafe in the morning and tortilla is a common sight on the counter. If you don’t see any, RUN! What we mean is, run to another cafe, where tortilla Española is still available!
14. Take a prestigious tour in the Royal Palace
Get off at the Ópera metro station in Madrid and take a prestigious walk to the Royal Palace, the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, where only state ceremonies are held. This palace was built by the order of King Philip V to replace the old alcazar (castle) that burned down on 24th December 1734. The palace has 135,000 square metres (1,450,000 square feet) of floorspace. You can expect to find more than 3,000 rooms. Go ‘wow’ at the exquisite furniture and decorations used to construct and decorate the palace, together with masterpieces from Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Francisco de Goya.
Head over to the south of the palace and stroll in the courtyard that acts as the main entrance to the palace. Explore the peripherals, for they provide stunning views of the city.
15. Have a picnic or bask in the sun at Buen Retiro Park
Stroll through the most beautiful park in Madrid for timeless calm and greenery. Spanning an area of 1.4 square kilometres (0.5 square miles), this magnificent park is home to strikingly beautiful monuments, sculptures, galleries, and a massive lake where you can rent a rowboat. For the best spot, sit on one of the wooden benches across the lake and take in the perfect movie-like setting or have a picnic on the green space. Near the lake, there is a new addition to the park: Biblioteca El Retiro, Madrid’s public library in the park. Check out the library, grab a book to read, and enjoy the lush scenery from the inside through its glass walls.
16. Experience gourmet dining in Callao with a vantage point of the city
For foodies into gourmet dining, Gourmet Experience, a food court at the top level of the El Corte Inglés departmental store in Callao, is a fantastic spot for a tantalising gourmet experience and for a great vantage point of the city. Expand your taste buds with local and international cuisines. Dine at the deck area where your view extends to the horizon of Madrid, and at the same time embrace the stunning views as you watch the city transform while the sun makes its exit.
17. Party till the sun comes up!
With the ceaseless raves in the countless after-party spots, even after the sun has come up and cars zoom by with Latin hits thumping away, when it comes to partying, Madrid wears its nightlife scene on its sleeves. This city is sprawling with clubs and bars for you to dance the night away. Teatro Kapital club wins the tag for being one of the hottest nightspots in Madrid. The seven-story club is situated on Calle de Atocha, each floor playing a different genre of music to get you moving all night long to every beat and rhythm there could possibly be. For those hoping to rub shoulders with stars, El Amante could be one option. You’ll never know if you might end up dancing next to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid football star, for he has been spotted there on several occasions.
18. Take a pit-stop at Plaza de España
Take a walk from the Royal Palace or along Gran Via to the historical square of Plaza de España. There you will find a monument to the Spanish novelist, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. There is a recreation space for locals and tourists to just sit and relax and take in the sights of the busiest intersection of the city. In the background of the monument, two of Madrid’s oldest and most significant skyscrapers stand tall: Torre de Madrid and Edificio España.
19. Join in the craze for calamari sandwiches
If you’re around Plaza Mayor, join the Madrileños in their gastronomic tradition of devouring a calamari sandwich for a snack. Restaurants serving this snack are in abundance around the square. Sink your teeth into the sandwich filled with crispy golden battered squid, fried to perfection. This snack is best paired with a caña (a small glass of beer) to heighten the gastronomic experience. For the cheapest calamari sandwiches, costing approximately 2.70 EUR (3.10 USD), you can either patronize Cervezerìa La Campana or Bar La Ideal, both situated near the square.
20. Go on a tapas spree
For those on a budget and looking to appease those hunger pangs well, or maybe even go on a tapas-eating rampage, all it takes is a drink at the tapas bar, El Tigre. Situated on Calle Infantas in Chueca, it is one of the three tapas bars you can find near Gran Via that is a popular pit-stop among locals. Order a beer or any other drink and you get free plates of tapas: patatas bravas, paella, jamón, you name it. You will be surprised at the generosity of the men behind the bar, handing you plate after plate, and, at some point, you may begin to wonder if it’ll ever end! It’s a great place to spend hours as the tapas just keeps coming.
21. The best sunset in Madrid at the Temple of Debod
Nowhere else gives you a better sunset in Madrid than the Temple of Debod. Situated in Parque de la Montaña near Plaza de España, the temple is an authentic Egyptian temple donated by the Egyptian government to the Spanish government in 1968 as a form of gratitude. The temple that once stood in Debod in the Nile Valley had to be dismantled slab by slab to salvage it from being submerged in water with the construction of a new dam. The stones were first shipped to Valencia, and were later sent to Madrid by train to be reconstructed before being opened to the public in 1972.
Explore the reliefs and try to decipher the hieroglyphs. Dip your feet in the shallow pool and relax on the platform as you anticipate the gradual appearance of the fiery orange, yellow, and red hues in the sky as the sun disappears, giving you the best sunset view that there is in Madrid. If you’re in Madrid during the summer solstice, this site will make history for you in your recollections of sunsets.
22. Go football mad - Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
Take a tour in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the very stadium that has witnessed the evolution of some of the greatest football stars, such as Zinédine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, and where sensational football games regularly happen. Although it is not an easy feat to get tickets for the Real Madrid games, try your luck by booking tickets way in advance, and be prepared to pay a notoriously high price for them. To be part of the sensational game will be the icing on the cake during your trip. Just imagine being amidst locals, cheering, drumming, singing, and giving their heart and soul to the game as though they’re on the field themselves, fearlessly fighting for victory.
23. Say Hola! Meet new people and learn Spanish, even if it's just a word!
Learning a new a language and being able to use it in the native country will make you feel as though you’ve been reborn. Whether you can speak basic Spanish or hardly a word of it, don’t be intimidated; take the chance to meet new people, especially locals, and learn a few words. There are organisations that hold language conversation exchange programmes in bars and cafés throughout the city. One example is Citylife Madrid. This is your gateway to meeting locals or travellers who would like to learn your language in exchange for theirs. Apart from learning a bit of Spanish, through conversations you might also unearth more about the culture from locals themselves, probably learning things that even Mr Google doesn’t know!
24. Take a day trip to quaint Toledo!
Take a trip to Toledo, a beautiful medieval city in the central part of Spain, just a one-hour bus ride or 30-minute train ride from Madrid. This city is known as “the city of the three cultures”, as for many centuries, Jews, Arabs, and Christians co-existed harmoniously together. Spend a day experiencing the city’s churches, synagogues, fortresses, mosques, and palaces. The rich diversity and heritage of the city has earned itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site title. Take your time to marvel at its architecture and history when you step into the bygone era and let your imagination re-live the past.
25. Get a bird’s eye view of Madrid on the cable car
Take the El Teleférico (the cable car) for a bird’s eye view of the city from a different angle. Your journey will begin from Paseo del Pintor Rosales and into the green of the massive Casa de Campo Park. As you ride on the cable car, you will see the city’s famous spots and attractions from a different perspective. Enjoy the ride and the picturesque views and feel like a bird soaring through the sky of Madrid.
YOMO! You Only Madrid Once!
A trip to Madrid is a panacea for the general feeling of world-weariness. Brace yourself for the high-tide of fun and the torrent of information on its culture and history. This is a city with something for everyone, so make the best of your trip by unravelling every corner and barrio and get your palate cleansed by all the typical Spanish food that you can grab hold of. Enjoy Madrid like a Madrileño!
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