You’ve booked your flights, bought your pocket-sized Spanish-English dictionary, and brought a portable phone charger (no one wants to scurry across the city with 1% battery desperately hoping they’ve correctly remembered where their hotel is). Great start! Now, what exactly are you planning on doing once you arrive? When it comes to finding things to do in Madrid, the options are boundless… but time isn’t. So instead of falling into the trap of thinking you’ll wing it when you get there, get comfortable and start scrolling to find the best museums and sightseeing ideas for your time in Madrid.
Where to stay in Madrid and neighbourhoods to visit
If you’ve already found the perfect base for your Madrid sightseeing tour, scroll on by and get straight to the good stuff (we know, we know: you’ve got foods to eat, things to do and places to visit in Madrid!). However, if you’re still browsing for the ideal place to dump your almost-oversized carry-on while you embark on the Madrid sightseeing tour of a lifetime, here are a few ideas on where to stay in Madrid.
If you’re the kind of holidaymaker who’s after a good night out, or several good nights out, then look no further than the lively, colourful neighbourhood of Chueca.
Just north of the centre of Madrid, Chueca is the LGBTQ+ poster child of Madrid and the best neighbourhood in the city to go in search of the ultimate party spot. During the ‘70s, Chueca was considered one of the grittier neighbourhoods in Madrid. But thanks to a thriving gay community and the rise of the LGBTQI community in Madrid, Chueca became a popular place to stay in Madrid for liberals, art lovers and party-goers over the course of the ‘90s and early 2000s. The trendy neighbourhood is also home to the annual and much-loved Madrid Pride festival.
Nightlife lovers will be well occupied by a wide selection of loud and proud bars and clubs, some of which close as late as 5:30 am. Local favourites include Truco, Black & White, and Why Not?.
Chueca has more going for it than a cracking nightlife though. For the foodies among you: think tiny tables in cosy taperias decked with palm-sized bowls of olives, croquetas and patatas bravas. Imagine coffee-scented cafes with window displays of chocolate croissants, almond croissants and churros. For those who appreciate the aesthetics of a place (read: those whose Instagram follower-count is on the cusp of breaking through that 1000 benchmark…), Chueca’s graffiti-covered walls and well-postered street lamps make for inspiring and cheerful surroundings (and a sweet backdrop).
Best thing to do in Chueca, Madrid: Visit the Museum of Romanticism, which is housed in a beautiful 18th-century mansion.
Like the neighbouring Chueca, Malasaña is known for being a top-notch party spot. And like Chueca, there’s more to Malasaña than all-night clubbing and great sangria.
If part of your Madrid mission is to up the ante of your wardrobe, Malasaña should be at the top of your list. Calle Fuencarral, the main shopping street snaking its way through the artsy, fashionable Malasaña, has something for every kind of shopper: eclectic boutiques and vintage hidey holes for those channelling a bohemian aesthetic, several-storey mainstream favourites like Zara and Diesel for the always-on-trend dresser, and glossy, high-end brands, like Manolo Blahnik, that would make Carrie Bradshaw swoon.
Once you’ve shopped up a storm, wind down with a snack and a drink in one of Malasaña’s artisanal eateries or tuck into some drool-worthy street food – which is done particularly well in this neck of Madrid’s woods – while you’re on your way to your next Madrid attraction.
Although Malasaña is a little further north from the centre of Madrid, it’s still within walking distance from the city’s main attractions, and a trendy pick when considering places to stay in Madrid.
Best thing to do in Malasaña, Madrid: Check out Templo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple in Madrid’s Cuartel de la Montaña Park.
If convenience is the name of your game, then the bustling, central neighbourhood of Sol is the perfect answer to the question of where to stay in Madrid.
Located right in the city centre, the neighbourhood of Sol boasts two famous squares: Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. The many streets and pedestrian-only alleyways that spread out from these stunning squares are replete with restaurants, cafés and bistros that offer all the Spanish fare you’ve been dreaming of in the lead-up to your Madrid sojourn. Moreish churros (take a tour of Chocolatería San Ginés, just two minutes away from Plaza Mayor), abundant tapas, lip-smacking bocadillos and more kinds of jamón (the Spanish word for ham) than you’ll be able to sample in one visit (although no one’s stopping you from trying to taste ‘em all).
The fast-paced neighbourhood of Sol is an easy gateway to some of Madrid’s most famous attractions, including the Prado Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – both of these museums are a mere 10-15 minutes’ walk from Puerta del Sol. So if you’re keen to tick off as many things to do in Madrid as you can (in between enjoying sumptuous meals and admiring gorgeous city scenery, of course), then Sol is certainly the place you’ll want to rest your head.
Best things to do in Sol, Madrid: Plaza Mayor, the Prado Museum and Madrid’s Royal Palace.
4. Las Letras
How would you like to walk in the footsteps of Hemingway and admire the scribbles of Spanish literary greats like Cervantes and Quevedo? Even if you couldn’t care less about what Cervantes has to say, the Literary Quarter in Madrid is one of the most charming areas in the city. So give into your literature-loving travel buddy and hang your hat up in picturesque Las Letras.
Historically, the area of Las Letras was a favourite among writers and Spanish authors; Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Góngora and Cervantes all lived there. American writer Ernest Hemingway was also a regular visitor of the neighbourhood and some of his favourite haunts are still fixtures; drop by Cervecería Alemana to enjoy a beer at one of his preferred bars.
What adds to the charm of the neighbourhood today is the inscriptions and excerpts of famous works by Spanish writers that decorate the cobblestones. Once you tumble out of bed and start on your day’s journey, don’t forget to look down as you navigate your way through Las Letras.
Best thing to do in Las Letras, Madrid: Plaza de Santa Ana and the inscriptions on the cobblestones of Las Letras’ narrow streets.
Visit these museums and landmarks in Madrid
Now that you’ve settled on where to stay in Madrid, it’s time to consider things to do in Madrid. This historical city is home to some of the most impressive art collections in the world and the architecture across the city is enough to make even the most conservative photographers snap happy. However you decide to spend your time, make sure these attractions and museums in Madrid make it onto your to-see list.
5. Discover the Golden Triangle
As you may already have guessed, museums in Madrid are plentiful. And, they cover a range of periods and topics – from Ancient Egypt and Tutankhamun’s reign to the Renaissance and its spellbinding masterpieces.
While you’re in Madrid you could just go to one amazing art museum, but why would you do that when you’ve got three amazing art museums all within walking distance of one another?
The three art museums in question are the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Together these three Madrid art museums make up the Golden Triangle. If you’re an art fanatic, do yourself a favour and get yourself a combined pass for all three of these museums in Madrid, then browse to your heart’s content.
If you’re less of a fanatic and more of a casual observer, or simply short on time, the one museum in Madrid to prioritise is the Prado Museum. Packed with more than 2,000 works of art and featuring the largest collections of Velázquez and Goya’s work, the Prado Museum is the Louvre of Madrid. So whether you’re a Velázquez devotee or not, carve out some time for this Madridian gem. And if the thought of wandering through a collection of over 2,000 paintings seems very, very daunting, this guide to the Prado Museum highlights might come in handy.
6. Trek through the Royal Palace
Put your walking shoes on, this Madrid sightseeing-must is not for the faint-hearted. At over 135,000 square metres and featuring more than 3,000 rooms, Madrid’s Royal Palace is the largest royal residence in Europe – and you’re free to explore just about every inch of it.
The Madrid Royal Palace comes with all the bells and whistles: a crown room, an armoury room, and a royal portrait gallery; floor-to-ceiling frescoes, oodles of Spanish marble, and artworks by Caravaggio, Velázquez, Goya, and Sorolla; and gardens fit for a King!
You could take a guided tour through the royal halls of Madrid’s Royal Palace or meander through the palace at your own pace – just don’t forget to take a stroll through the Sabatini Gardens and the Palace Gardens, too!
7. Hang out at Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol
Two of the most famous public squares and historical landmarks in Madrid are Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol.
The first of these two Madrid highlights dates back to the 16th century, while the second was built in the 18th century. Plaza Mayor (which translates to Main Square) used to be the preferred site for public executions, and it’s also been through three very destructive fires in the last 500 years. Puerta del Sol (which translates to Gate of the Sun) used to be one of the gates to the city. The gate was adorned with an image of the sun – hence the name – and Puerta del Sol was also an important trade port for many years.
These days, the two famous public squares are a top spot for rubbing shoulders with the locals, getting in a little holiday shopping, grabbing a snack, and just stopping and staring.
Start salivating: the best tapas in Madrid
Finding tapas in Madrid is like looking for croissants in Paris – too easy. But deciding which restaurant to settle on and which morsels to try is akin to choosing a favourite child. You can find some of the best tapas in Madrid in the neighbourhoods of Salamanca, Chueca, Malasaña and Lavapies. To help you narrow down your search for the best tapas in Madrid a little more, here are a few top spots and their signature dishes.
Budget tapas in Madrid
Even if you’re taking on the Spanish capital on a shoestring budget, you’ll still be able to enjoy the city’s culinary delights. Try these cheap and cheerful tapas bars in Madrid.
8. Museo del Jamón
For all the meat-lovers out there, Museo del Jamón should be the first food-stop on your Madrid tour. No, it’s not a museum of ham, but this chain of tapas bars is an ode to the salty, fatty meat of every carnivore’s dreams. Grab yourself a seat at the bar and feast on a variety of cuts and kinds of cured meats, cheese and all the usual suspects to be found at a tapas bar.
Locations & Hours:
44 Paseo del Prado (09:00am -12:00am)
54 Calle de Atocha (09:00am – 11:00pm)
6 Carrera de S. Jerónimo (09:00am – 11:30pm)
7 Calle Mayor (07:00am – 12:30am)
18 Plaza Mayor (08:00am – 01:00am)
Signature dish: Don’t miss out on the selection of ham platter, which includes Serrano, Ibérico and Duroc ham.
9. El Tigre Sidra Bar
One of the best things about Madrid, and a feature in some other Spanish cities too: free tapas with every drinks order! Most tapas bars will serve one tapa – a bowl of olives, a serving of Serrano ham, a slice of Spanish omelette – per drink. El Tigre takes the rule a little more seriously than most, offering not one tapa, but an entire plate of tapas with every drink. It’s no Michelin-star restaurant, but the tapas are varied, tasty and plentiful.
Location: 23 Calle de las Infantas
Hours: 12:00pm – 12:00am
Signature dish: Their huge plates of tapas.
10. Cervecería 100 Montaditos
Another popular Spanish franchise, Cervecería 100 Montaditos is the dollar store of food. Well, almost. The concept: buy a beer for 1€ and get a montadito for 1€. And what exactly is a montadito? Why, it’s a tapa-sized sandwich. And as its name suggests, Cervecería 100 Montaditos serves 100 different tapa-sized sandwiches. Filling options include: prawns with aioli, calamari, smoked salmon, chorizo, spanish omelette, and the list goes on.
Locations & Hours:
34 Calle de la Montera (11:30am – 12:00am)
63 Calle Gran Vía (09:00am – 12:00am)
18 Calle del Príncipe (10:00am – 12:00am)
339 Calle de Alcalá (09:00am – 11:00pm)
22 Calle Mayor (10:00am – 12:00am)
Signature dish: Don’t miss the sweet montaditos – with toppings like chocolate cream and strawberry jam or fudge and cookies and cream, they’re sure to hit the sweet spot.
Gourmet tapas in Madrid
11. Vi Cool
The Huertas neighbourhood is teeming with tapas options, but one particularly good spot to tuck into a hearty selection of small bites is Vi Cool. This upscale tapas bar is a swanky way to top off a day of Madrid sightseeing. Run by Catalonian chef Sergi Arola, Vi Cool offers an array of hot dishes and cold dishes that have their origins in various parts of Spain.
Location: 12 Calle de las Huertas
Hours: 01:00pm – 04:00pm; 08:00pm – 12:00am
Signature dish: Try the Chef’s coco pizza.
12. La Castela
Classified as a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide, a title given only to restaurants with good quality food at affordable prices, La Castela is the perfect spot for those looking for traditional tapas with a modern twist. The menu features classics like braised oxtail, Iberian ham, seafood croquettes and Spanish cheese platters. Rumour has it Michelle Obama ate here, and if it’s good enough for a former first lady, it’s certainly good enough for us.
Location: 22 Calle del Dr. Castelo
Hours: 12:00pm – 05:00pm, 08:00pm – 12:30am
Signature dish: Any of the fish dishes.
Keep salivating: these markets in Madrid are a must-visit too
Finding the best markets is one of the best things to do in Madrid. An excuse to stroll through aisles lined with fresh produce, the finest cured meats and cheeses and baked goods? If you’re thinking ‘yes, please!’, start your journey through the markets in Madrid with these eye-popping, jaw-dropping, mouth-watering options.
13. San Miguel Market
If you’re staying somewhere central, start your Madrid markets pilgrimage at this local gem. Located just off Plaza Mayor, the San Miguel Market was established in 1916 as a food market and reopened in 2009 as a gastronomy market. Translation: in addition to the usual market fare, you can also look for, or discover, your favourite Spanish meals and snacks amongst San Miguel Market’s many stalls.
14. San Antón Market
If you’re staying in the Chueca neighbourhood, the San Antón Market is an easy way to get your first fix of markets in Madrid.
The market is split up into three floors. The first is reserved for perishable goods – think rows of bright and beautiful fruit and vegetables, an impressive selection of cheese, and a wide range of cured meats. The second floor is devoted to a bar and several takeaway stalls which offer a range of traditional Spanish fare as well as a couple of international options. The San Antón kitchen and restaurant occupy the third floor. Come up here for delicious dishes made with produce sourced directly from the market. Once you’ve had your fill, move over to the terrace for a drink and a breathtaking view of the Chueca neighbourhood.
Looking for another mouthwatering way to experience tapas and markets in Madrid? Consider this San Miguel Market and La Cebada: Guided Tapas Tour.
Embrace these local traditions
When you’re in Madrid, do as the Madrileños do! Like any city, Madrid has its fair share of local secrets and hidden gems. Here are a few treats and tricks to take your tour of Madrid off the beaten track and into the land of the locals.
15. Try this Spanish treat: Casqueria
One tip when trying this Spanish delicacy: don’t let your imagination get the better of you! Casquería is made using the entrails of animals (perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘offal’?) and while this sounds hard to stomach, Madrileños will tell you otherwise. If you think you can take it, head to La Tasquería to sample this dish.
16. Drink this Spanish beverage
You’ve probably already got sangria, vermouth and horchata on your must-drink list. But do you have Spanish cider on there, too? What sets this cider apart from the stuff you’re probably thinking of is that it’s flat and dry. Very dry. So dry that it’s customary to drink only small shots of it. Tap into your inner Madrileño and enjoy this tangy, fermented drink along with a bocadillo de calamares on Plaza Mayor while watching the sunset. Bliss!
17. If you’re visiting in summer, have an afternoon nap
No, you won’t be criticized for being lazy, and you probably won’t miss out on anything either. You may have heard of the term siesta and dismissed it as an exaggeration of Spanish culture. But if you’ve heard that during summer most things in the city close between 2:00pm and 6:00pm, whoever you spoke to was not exaggerating. So don’t resist the urge to hide from the heat when the clock strikes 2:00pm, save your energy for a night out on the town instead.
18. Go to this secret bodega
There are of course a slew of bars in Madrid that warrant a visit, but if you’re looking for something that requires a bit of inside knowledge to get the most of it, Bodega de la Ardosa is for you. Located just north of Sol, there’s nothing that immediately sets Bodega de la Ardosa apart from the other bars up and down Calle de Colón.
But when you go inside, head towards the bar like you mean business and ask one of the waiters or barmen if you can “go to the back”. And then? Once you’ve got your permission, look for the door behind the bar and walk on through to a secret second chamber!
Visit these parks in Madrid
Tuckered out from all that eating, drinking and museum-going? Get in a little relaxation time at one of these parks in Madrid.
19. El Retiro Park
Lush green gardens, a glass palace and an artificial lake complete with rowing boat opportunities? Every city needs a bit of green, but El Retiro Park is so much more than a city park. Have a stroll through the gardens or a picnic by the lake, visit a glass palace that was built in 1887 and doubles as an exhibition space for the Reina Sofia Museum, or pick up a couple of oars and try not to bump into anyone else rowing on El Retiro’s lake.
20. Madrid Río Park
With 17 different playgrounds, 33 bridges, an arts centre and a river, the Madrid Río Park is the perfect afternoon activity for families. Grab a picnic blanket and settle down near one of the many playgrounds, rent a couple of bikes and see as much of the 2,900 hectare park as you can, or visit the historic Matadero, a former slaughterhouse that was converted into a giant arts centre.