Festivals, culture, cuisine… discover all the capital has to offer!

Visiting a city as big as Madrid and managing to see and do all it has to offer is no easy task. From sprawling museums to traditional restaurants and bars, every corner you turn uncovers a spot that draws in tourists and locals alike. To make the choices a bit easier and to make sure you experience as much as you can, we’ve picked 20 essential things to do when you’re in Madrid. If you can’t fit them all in, don’t worry, you can always come back.

The city’s main tourist artery runs the famous Metrópolis building to the Plaza de España. Shops, bars and even a casino line this wide street that stretches for more than a kilometre. If you start walking at the Metrópolis building, with its stunning dome crowned by a bronze statue, the next landmark you’ll come to is at Gran Vía 1, the address for Grassy jewellers since 1952. A bit further on, the Hotel de las Letras deserves a peek inside before you’re wowed by the window display at the Loewe shop or stop to have a drink in the legendary Museo Chicote, which, despite its name, isn’t a museum at all, though there is some art on the walls in the form of photos of celebrities who have passed through the swinging doors.

madrid telefonica
Telefónica building

The impressive Telefónica building kicks off the next leg, where clothing shops compete with each other to grab the eye, and the euros, of a wide variety of clientele. Look carefully ­- some of the shops are inside old cinemas that have long had to close their doors. Still showing films on the big screen, however, are the Palacio de la Prensa, Capitol and Callao cinemas, in the square that divides this celebrated street. From here to Plaza de España theatres such as the Lope de Vega and the Compac update their programming every season with major works. Gran Vía comes to an end between the Torre de Madrid and the Edificio España, facing the monument to Miguel de Cervantes that’s in the centre of the grand square. Exploring the area known as Madrid’s Art Triangle is compulsory for any visitor to the city. The Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are the three vertices that make up this traingle that is right on the Paseo del Prado, but they’re not the only places where you can see art in the area: Madrid’s CaixaForum and its vertical garden are also great places to contemplate beauty.

But you don’t have to walk the hallowed halls of the grandest museums and galleries to admire the all the art Madrid has to offer. Small galleries like Elena Ochoa’s Ivorypress, urban art created at the hand of the likes of Suso33 and collectives such as BoaMistura, along with temporary exhibitions by young painters in bars and restaurants round out Madrid’s cultural panorama. The Madrid skyline is one of the most attractive in Spain. And if there’s a perfect place to take it all in, it’s from the rooftop terrace at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in C/ Alcalá. From this massive patio you can see the whole city, its great avenues, famous monuments, green spaces, and the Cuatro Torres, the capital’s big skyscrapers. It’s also an ideal spot to have a drink and watch the sun set.

madrid cafe

But that’s not the only vantage point for enjoying the incredible views. In Gau&Café, smack in the Lavapiés barrio, you can have dinner while you admire  ruins from an 18th-century building or the ‘corralas’ – apartment buildings with a central courtyard and balconies running around each floor that each flat opens onto – very typical of Madrid’s residential architecture, especially in this neighbourhood. If you’re looking for something a bit more central, try the Hotel de las Letras or the Urban (with a swimming pool), which are just a short walk from the Puerta del Sol. The lookout point from the Basílica de San Francisco el Grande or the one behind the Templo de Debod show a lesser-known side of the capital, while if what you’re after is more of a bird’s-eye view, head for the Teleférico de la Casa de Campo. Going out for a few beers (or glasses of wine, or soft drinks) is one of the locals’ preferred pastimes. And it’s made even better when the weather’s nice and all the bars and restaurants open up their terraces. Among the favourite areas to whet their whistle are La Latina in Plaza de la Cebada, a meeting point for many, especially younger crowd. At weekends it’s near impossible to make your way through streets like Cava Baja or Cava Alta, where you’ll find most of the bars and restaurants.

Other recommended areas for going out for a tipple include Malasaña, where modern bars with vintage decor co-exist with gritty taverns that have stood their ground for generations; Alonso Martínez, neighbour of one of the richest areas in the capital; Tribunal, where you want to head if you’re planning to be out till the wee hours; Moncloa, a favourite among university students; and Chueca, with the best gay nightlife in the city. You might not realise it, but Madrid has a lot of green spaces. The biggest one is the Casa de Campo, with 1,700 hectares (6.6 sq mi) – five times bigger than New York’s Central Park. The interior features a large lake where you’ll find small boats and where schools practice kayaking for competitions. There’s also a funfair, the Madrid Zoo, a youth hostel, sports facilities and more than a few spaces for concerts and events, including Madrid Arena.

A bit smaller but more central is the Parque del Buen Retiro, also known simply as ‘El Retiro’, with a pond, tree-linded walks, fountains, monuments such as those to Alfonso XII and the statue of the Fallen Angel, and there’s even a space for puppet shows.

You’ll also find find a lot of the city’s residents out for a jog, skating or walking their dogs along Madrid Río, the green promenade that’s a happy result of the excavation of ring road M-30. The Jardines de Sabatini, near the Palacio Real, are a bit more off the beaten path, but definitely worth a visit. The Paseo de la Castellana is the axis that passes through the city from north to south along the Paseo del Prado and the Paseo de Recoletos. This is where you’ll find Madrid’s financial centre, exclusive shops and hotels, and even the Spain’s most-visited stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, home to the Real Madrid football club.

Palacio Real (Madrid)
Palacio Real (Madrid)

The Natural Science Museum, the Nuevos Ministerios area, the Kio Towers and Plaza de Castilla with its huge obelisk are just some of the attractions that dotted along this seemingly endless avenue. At the north end are four skyscrapers – Torre Bankia, Torre PwC, Torre Espacio and Torre de Cristal – that together form the well-known economic complex aptly called Las Cuatro Torres. Whether you’re in town for three days or three weeks, you must visit at least three essential spots before you leave. The first is Plaza Mayor, where you can relax with an expensive cup of ‘café con leche’, study the equestrian statue of Felipe III is in the centre of the square and do some pretty good people watching around the Tourist information Centre.

With its own song and everything, the Puerta de Alcalá is another must on your list of sights to see. In Plaza de la Independencia, next to El Retiro park, this ancient neoclassical-style gateway to Madrid is at its best at dusk, when lights shine on its arches. You’ll also want to have a look at the Royal Palace, next to the Catedral de la Almudena, the official residence of the Spanish royal family, although they now live in the Zarzuela Palace. Die-hard football fans will want to check out the Plaza de Cibeles, where Real Madrid fans celebrate their team’s wins, or Plaza de Neptune, territory of Atlético Madrid followers.

Plaza de Cibeles
Plaza de Cibeles