We’ve been wanting to visit Spain for so long! I was glad that my husband and I finally made it late summer last year. For our first trip to Spain, we chose Madrid, Spain’s capital, as our first stop. It turned out to be an excellent choice!
The grand city of Madrid is a multi-cultural destination. Part of the adventure is pealing back her layers to discover all of the attractions and hidden places that give Madrid its unique charm. We fell in love with the city.
I have made a list of the things you must see, do and eat in this wonderful place. Here are 17 things about Madrid that I love!
1. Plaza Mayor
This is Madrid’s main square, which is pretty much town center and the place to be at the heart of it all. The Plaza dates back to 1619, during the reign of Philip III. Over the next 170 years, a total of three fires ravaged the square; each time the Plaza was rebuilt. The last fire happened in 1790, and the area as we know it today was rebuilt by Juan de Villanueva.
Throughout history, Plaza Mayor has been used as the site for bullfights, public executions, crowning ceremonies and even trials during the Spanish Inquisition. Today it is simply a place to relax, explore and take in the grandeur of Madrid.
If you are visiting Madrid for the first time, Plaza Mayor is the perfect location to stay. Our hotel, Pestana, is located right in the in the heart of old town Plaza Mayor. Every morning, we had a beautiful view of the Plaza and the amazing historical buildings from our room.
It’s few steps away from great restaurants, including the famous Mercado San Miguel. We walked to several of the attractions in Madrid from here, including Puerta del Sol, the Royal Palace, Cathedral de la Almudena, Gran Via, Callao Square, the Debod Temple and the iconic El Rastro market.
2. La Campana
While you are in Plaza de Mayor, eat at La Campana –they offer the best bocadillos de calamares, a sandwich containing lightly fried squid in a crusty roll, topped with aioli that sent my taste buds alight. It was delicious and best of all, very affordable! La Campana is down a side street from the Plaza and one of the spots where the locals line up, so you know it’s good!
3. Palacio Real
For a bit of opulence and history, the Royal Palace is the place to go. It is still the royal family’s official residence, even though they no longer live there! At over 3,000 rooms, you can tour the palace and get an in-depth look into the magnificence of the place. Among the highlights are the Royal Armoury, the Painting Gallery and the Royal Kitchen, which is the oldest preserved kitchen of any European royal residence.
4. Grand Via
You will find lots of tourists crowding this iconic street, with modern facades and many entertainment options, such as the cinema, musicals, bars and nightclubs. Grand Via means “the great lane” and once you step foot, you will see why. Stretching from Alcalá Street to the Plaza de Espana Square, it is lined with such impressive buildings as the Metropolis, the Telefonica, the Capitol and Callao Square.
5. Puerta Del Sol
This is another central location from where many of Madrid’s main streets radiate. You can’t miss it – there is a large statue of King Charles III on horseback in the center of the square. Also look for a large stone slab which marks Spain’s starting point for all the major radial roads at kilometer zero! It is also the main gathering place for New Year’s Eve, as thousands of people come to watch the famous clock to usher in a new beginning. Madrid’s longest street, Calle Alcalá, also starts here, and is marked by Oso y Madroño, a statue of a bear eating a strawberry, and a popular meeting place.
6. Mercado de San Miguel
It goes without saying that the culinary scene in Madrid is one of the best and most varied on the planet. The Mercado is a hot spot to sample much of the city’s delectable fare. Here you will find all manner of fresh produce stalls, tapas bars, sweets, seafood and wine stalls. There are so many choices of tapas and great selection of wines at very affordable prices. You can even walk around and enjoy your tapas while perusing all the food vendor’s booths.
7. Restaurante Botin
If you have been following me for a while, you know that my husband and I love to follow Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps to places he visited. Casa Botin’s roasting suckling pigs didn’t disappoint. The moment we stepped in; we knew that we would have the best time. The service was impeccable and the ambiance brings you a great dining experience reminiscent of 18th century dining. This is a must visit in Madrid.
The Botin is also the oldest restaurant in the world! It’s exquisite and the ancient brick stone interior provides a cozy culinary experience like none other. Opening in 1725, they still use the original cast-iron wood burning stove to cook your meal, just as they did centuries ago. It is located close to the Plaza de Mayor on Calle Cuchilleros. Who knows, you may just sit at the same table Ernest Hemingway did!
8. San Gines
Here at Madrid’s oldest chocolateria, devour the best Churros en chocolate at San Gines. Visiting Madrid without trying their Churros con chocolate would be like going to Paris without trying the Croissant. The chocolate is thick and not too sweet. So delicious. Chocolate and churros are an irresistible combination; those long sticks of heavenly fried dough are the perfect thing for dipping into a cup of chocolate. They are served in a quaint café that screams authenticity – with mirrors, shades of green and old-fashioned chairs.
9. Circulo de Belas Artes
As one of Europe’s most arguably important cultural centers, this building also has an amazing rooftop with breathtaking views of the city center, in particular Gran Via and la plaza Cibeles.
We gazed at the view in the friendly atmosphere and sipped excellent cocktails that were reasonably priced. We had a good time watching the sunset while enjoying the views of Madrid from the rooftop.
10. La Latina
If you’re a foodie, this is the place where you can have the best tapas in Calle Cava Baja. Its quaint narrow streets are literally lined with them, and it’s the best way to sample several delicious tapas from different tapas bars without stuffing yourself silly. We enjoyed meandering our way along, not knowing what great tasty bite we would discover next. Just be sure to pace yourself!
La Latina is an authentic neighborhood in Madrid center, and has numerous bars and restaurants scattered throughout. It’s a great way to escape the ‘touristy’ parts of the city. Along with the many tapas are the many beers! The two almost go hand in hand in La Latina.
11. Rastro Flea Market
Don’t leave the La Latina neighborhood without checking out this huge flea market! You can stay the whole day just exploring the market – it is Madrid’s largest open-air market, and said to be the largest flea market in Europe. Called “El Rastro,” it is open every Sunday from 9am – 3pm, and on public holidays. Several streets encompass this market in a working-class neighborhood. The hub of the market is at the Plaza de Cascorro (look for the statue of the soldier Eloy Gonzalo) and spreads out from there.
Find unique bargains of all kinds, from clothing to souvenirs and even furniture. If you’re into antiques, many of those shops also line the market. Then when the stalls begin to fold up in the afternoon, head to one of the nearby bars for more tapas and beer!
12. Prado Museum
You knew I had to through a couple of museums in the mix – after all, this is Madrid. The Prado has one of the world’s most extensive collection of European art, dating back to the 12th century. It is one of the largest in Spain, and considered one of the most important in the world for all of its thousands of works of art. An entire afternoon should be carved out to view much of the drawings, painting, prints and sculptures.
13. Museo Reina Sofia
Named for Queen Sofia, this museum is the country’s national museum for 20th century art. Located along the Paseo del Prado at the southern end of the Golden Triangle of Art (of which the Prado is one point on the triangle), it is mainly dedicated to Spanish Art.
14. Plaza De Cibeles
For great examples of neo-classical structures, this lively square is very impressed with all of the ornate sculptures and fountains. Located at the intersection of Celle de Alcala, Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado, it is also the home of Cybele Palace and the fountain of the same name.
This is an upscale area with great shopping. As Madrid’s most exclusive neighborhood, we marveled at all of the stately mansions set way back from the streets. Along with all of the high-end designer boutiques (think Prada and Chanel!) we explored fancy tapas bars, smaller, niche museums and fine dining restaurants.
16. Retiro Park
When you want to get away from all of the incredible concrete structures and enter a green oasis, head to Retiro Park. With 15,000 trees creating such a serene space, it’s the perfect place to take a long stroll, and unwind near an artificial lake where you can rent a rowing boat. An interesting feature of the park is the statue of the Fallen Angel (yes, the devil) which sits curiously at 666m above sea level.
For a taste of the true culture of Spain, we attended a Flamenco dance. There are different theaters offering Flamenco shows in Madrid. Some shows include wine and dinner, but we opted not to have dinner.
Flamenco is one of the most traditional elements in Spanish culture, and several flamenco schools exist in Madrid, where you can even learn Spanish as you learn how to do the dance! It was so great to experience the heartbeat-elevating sounds of their stomping feet, the incredibly vibrant costumes and the fiery passion of these expert dancers. It took our breath away.
Our visit to Madrid was so memorable. The food, culture and architecture were just amazing. The city most definitely took a small piece of our hearts. I love to stay in a city where the old is mixed with the new. For me, it makes for a rich experience all around, and I felt at home there.
Also, with its strategic location in the center of Spain, it is easy to get to other Spanish cities, and Madrid can be a wonderful home base for various day-trips to the surrounding areas. We both absolutely loved it here and will be back to explore more!
Things to Know About Madrid
Madrid is the capital and most populous city of Spain. The city has almost 3.3 million inhabitants and a metropolitan area population of approximately 6.5 million. It is the third-largest city in the European Union (EU)
The best time to visit Madrid is in the fall (September to November) or spring (March to May)
Madrid, visit in the winter when hotels reduce their rates.