Madrid as a tourist

I LOVE Madrid, I honestly believe it is the best city in the world. In addition to rich history/art, and the best nightlife in the world, it has my family and childhood friends 🙂

People ask me a lot what they should do and see when they visit Madrid… and it’s always hard for me to answer. The city we live in is usually the one that we explore the least from a traveler perspective. But recently I had a chance to show the city over a couple of days to first-time visitor Elena, with the help of my good friend and fellow madrileña Anna.

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We started our tour in Puerta de Alcala, and walked through the central park El Retiro, where we enjoyed the pond, the Palacio de Cristal and lots of nice paths. From there we went down to the Reina Sofia Museum, one of the three world-class museums that compose the so-called Golden Triangle of Art. This one focuses on modern art, and hosts paintings from Dali and Picasso (including his famous Guernica), among many others. After a couple hours there, we were too saturated with art to attempt another museum right away, so we started walking through the Barrio de Las Letras to Plaza de Santa Ana. The beauty of Madrid is that you can walk everywhere, and each street has unique character and life… We ate some yummy tapas at the plaza and headed back east for the next museum: El Prado.

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El Prado is probably the best painting museum in the world, and visiting it can be a daunting task (as it happens with the Louvre or the Hermitage). I’d recommend allocating 2-3 hours, selecting the pieces or styles that you’re truly interested in, and tracing a plan on the map provided at the entrance. My must sees are Goya’s El Levantamiento del 2 de Mayo, Los Fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo and his black paintings, Velazquez’s Las Meninas and La Rendicion de Breda, and Bosh’ El Jardin de Las Delicias, After that, please spend half an hour wandering random rooms without an agenda and let the art sink 😉

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After taking a power nap at Starbucks (for real, museums can be exhausting, that’s why we decided to skip the highly recommended Thyssen-Bornemisza), we walked north on Paseo del Prado to reach Cibeles. This plaza is one of my favorite places in Madrid for several reasons: it is a gorgeous spot, with the Greek goddess fountain and the impressive Palacio de Comunicaciones, it’s where Real Madrid celebrates championships, and it’s the start of my favorite walk in the city. The sun was going down as we walked up Alcala to the fork with Gran Via, marked by the emblematic Metropolis building. There is something awesome about this street, the 20th century architecture, the historical shops… and the hordes of people walking up and down any hour of the day, any day of the year. We arrived at Plaza de Callao and turned left on Preciados to reach Sol, the official center of the city (with the Km 0 plate and the symbolic statue of El Oso y El Madroño). It was dark and the Christmas lights were on. And the streets were bustling with people, just the way I love it.

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On our second day, we took the metro to Plaza de Oriente. Did I mention that Madrid has broad, modern transportation system? One more awesome thing about my city!. We checked out the Palacio Real and the Catedral de la Almudena, and then wandered through the so-called Madrid de los Austrias, the neighborhood built during the Habsburg dynasty: the Plaza Mayor (colonized by a Christmas flea-market), the Plaza de la Villa, and lots of narrow streets and cute nooks. We took a break to eat some delicious tapas at the renovated Mercado de San Miguel. And then continued our marathon with some shopping in Fuencarral, Chueca and Hortaleza, my old street.

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We got a lot done in a couple of days, especially considering that it was Christmas, with all its 5 hour meals. But we inevitably had to skip some things that I’d like to recommend: El Rastro, the rooftop at Circulo de Bellas Artes, the Debod Temple, the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (the building, not the actual bullfighting), the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium… and the party. This was a trip to see the family, so there was no room for party, but partying in Madrid is top-notch, I could write another long post about it. Or you could go and check it out for yourself!

47 thoughts on “Madrid as a tourist

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    1. Hi Lis, parking in downtown is a bit of a pain… there are parkimeters and some structures, but time is usually limited and prices rather steep. I’d definitely use the metro instead. Enjoy your visit!

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  5. Hey Carmen 🙂

    Great to see this blog post since I am planning on Madrid for 2 days (1 night). I bookmarked it for the reference. Will read more and ask you some questions. Hope that’s fine.

    LOL. Looks like that you was very enjoyable in Vietnam – my home country as well. But it seems that you missed our south part? : )))

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    1. Hey Dat,
      happy to answer any questions, hopefully you’re going to love my city 🙂
      Regarding Vietnam, I did visit both the north and the south, just updating the blog slowly because I’ve travelling non-stop… will get to it, I promise, I have a lot of recommendations!

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  6. Just spent a fantastic weekend in Madrid to visit the family… and discovered a rooftop that any visitor will love! It’s on top of the Corte Ingles department store in Callao square, and the views at sunset are wonderful. Plus they have a sort of gourmet food court, so you can check out a bunch of different foods. Cheers!
    Madrid

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, no outlet that I know of in the centre… There are some in the outskirts, but I’m not sure is worth spending one of your days in Madrid going there, given the amount of sites to visit.
      And there is lots of shopping that you will find economic in the city anyway. Gran Via (near Callao) and Fuencarral are my favorite streets, with cool stores back to back.
      Have a great trip!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. People always ask me about the best day-trips from Madrid… my ranking would be:
    1- Toledo: blend of Christian, Muslin and Jewish heritage, fortification Alcazar, cathedral and cobblestone streets in unique river and hill setting
    2- Segovia: amazing Roman aqueduct, fairytale castle and world-famous suckling pig; can be combined with royal palace La Granja de San Ildefonso
    3- El Escorial: imposing monastery in the sierra; can be combined with Franco’s controversial burial ground El Valle de Los Caidos
    4- Avila: fantastically preserved medieval wall and town
    5- Salamanca: Renaissance university town, though a bit far for a day-trip
    6- Aranjuez: former royal capital, palace and beautiful gardens, reached by famous Strawberry Train
    7- Cuenca: houses hanging at the edge of cliffs; can be combined with geological site Ciudad Encantada
    And now with the high-speed train Ave, you can also make Barcelona, Sevilla or Cordoba into day-trips!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Priti Santi

    hi, should i go to san gines for the chocolate churros? and is el rastro good for cheap shopping? also, i want to try cocido so can you recommend a place for that?
    thanks 😀

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    1. Hi there!
      San Gines has very good chocolate con churros, and it’s sort of an institution, but to be honest you can get excellent ones in many other cafes all over the city. El Rastro on Sundays is a great spot for cheap shopping, both the actual stalls and the stores around the area… and an even better spot for hanging out and watching people. Regarding cocido, I personally don’t like it, but I’ve heard raving comments on Malacatin, Casa Lhardy and La Bola…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. issam

    Dear Carmen,
    Can you recommend a few “out of the way”, affordable restaurants in Madrid, where a family can have a real Paella, and authentic Tapas ?
    Thanks you

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    1. Hey,
      For a traditional paella away from touristy areas, I would recommend Casa de Valencia and Que Si Quieres Arroz Catalina.
      For tapas, there are tons of places, and the ones in the center are as good as they get… a crowd favorite is the chain Lateral, you’ll see it in many places and they’re quality is great. I’m personally biased toward the bars on the Calle de la Cruz, because I used to work on one of them 😉 The best is to walk around and eat a few bites in different places.
      Hope you enjoy it!!

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  10. Charles

    Hi Carmen!

    I wanted to leave you a quick note to say thank you for the fantastic blog and the very useful recommendations! The thread of comments was a great read, too! 🙂 I’m going next month for 5 days(during Thanksgiving holiday), and I was wondering if you knew of any festivals or events that go on during this time? Also, how is the weather during this time? I want to make sure that I pack properly. Thanks in advance for your help!

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Charles!
      There are no big events those days that I’m aware of.
      It will be chilly, in the 50s – low 60s, so definitely pack a coat, and you might get some rain, but not too bad… You should still be able to walk around and enjoy the city 😉

      Cheers,
      Carmen

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  11. Lara

    Dear Carmen,

    Thank you for this great blog and recommendations, think that I am completely ready now for visiting Madrid. 🙂 I am going with my boyfriend and since we are still young 🙂 we would like also to experience nightlife in your town (at the end of your blog you mentioned that you could write another blog about that topic), so I would appreciate if you could recommend us some good clubs, bars, party places that are authentic and popular in Madrid (I am also interested in latin and reggaeton music 🙂 )

    Thank you in advance.

    Kind regards. 😉

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  12. great summary of one of my favorite cities in the world! I’m anxious to return and I am counting the days. I’ll be in Spain for two weeks in just under 7 weeks. can’t wait!!!

    I need to decide on whether to buy some sort of metro pass. Do you have an opinion on them?

    Thanks for any help!

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      1. I’m actually thinking of the 5 day pass. We’ll be in Madrid 5 days and we did the math and think that one might be better. I’m trying to avoid purchasing metro tickets and/or passes in the train station. I’m thinking the 10 ride pass won’t last long. We will walk many places but we also love to ride the metro.

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      2. I would usually take the metro only twice per day and walk the rest of the time, so for me the 5 day tourist pass is not worth it… but it all depends on where you’re staying and how much you enjoy walking 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  13. I’m so glad I ran into this blog! Such great suggestions. My best friend and I are spending a week in Madrid this summer (first week of July). We’re staying at an apartment rental in Cortes (Calle Lope de Vega). Would you know if there are any clubs in Madrid that play Latin music (merengue, salsa, reggaeton)? Thanks!

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Marlene!
      You’re hitting a weak spot, I’m not much of a dancer :S
      The location you’ve chosen is great, so I bet you can find a Latin club just by walking around, following your ears…

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      1. Hello again! I did some digging around and found a popular Latin nightclub near our apartment called Discoteca El Son. Hopefully we have the time/energy to check that out.

        We would really like attend a flamenco show. I’ve read some negative things about the popular venues. Is there a particular flamenco show that you would recommend?

        Thanks!

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      2. Hi again, Marlene.
        Flamenco is typical form the south of Spain, so shows in Madrid won’t be the most authentic… The one at Corral de la Moreria has probably the best reputation.

        Cheers,
        Carmen

        Like

  14. Eric

    Hi Carmen,
    Loved reading your blog. I’m traveling to Madrid in a few weeks for the first time with my wife and 3 kids (ages 21, 18 and 14). Just curious if you have any recommendations for parents with kids.

    Also, The National Museum of Anthropology was highly recommended. Do you have an opinion?

    Thanks, Eric.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Eric.
      The itinerary I describe above is good for all ages. Specifically for teens, I would recommend spending plenty of time in El Retiro, going to El Rastro (if you’re there on a Sunday), getting the kids audioguide in El Prado (not sure what the age range is), attending a soccer game (if either Real Madrid or Atletico are playing during your stay), and taking a day trip to Segovia or Toledo… though with teens, it all depends on what they like, they tend to be very opinionated 😉
      Regarding the Anthropology Museum, I haven’t been to, it’s not particularly well regarded in Madrid.
      Hope this helps!

      Like

  15. Anna

    Hi Carmen! Great post about Madrid (I followed the link from Fodor’s forum). I enjoyed 4 days in the city (w/day trips to Toledo and Segovia) a couple of years ago. We are planning to stop by Madrid on the way from Andalusia this upcoming fall. I thought we’d do some last day shopping /window shopping (little food gifts, shoes, leather gloves, little trinkets for the house etc) and souvenirs. But unfortunately our only day for shopping is Sunday. Nothing I can do about the schedule, but I was wondering what (if any) shops you could mention (or areas) to challenge. We’ll be staying very close to the Corte Ingles department near Plaza Ana. I know that we’ll do some (window)shopping there and at the Mercado near by. are there any other stores that are open in the city centre and Gran Via area?

    Thanks you,
    Anna

    Like

    1. Hey Anna, glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
      Things have changed quite a bit recently, especially with the crisis, and now most shops in the central areas of Madrid are indeed open on Sundays.
      You should find plenty of shopping in Gran Via, and both ways from it: Fuencarral and Preciados.
      Have fun!!

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  16. Anna

    Thank you Carmen! Of course not too happy to hear that it’s due to the economic crisis..but I am still happy to hear that shops are open on Sundays! I think we’ll find plenty of shops to keep us occupied for a few hours. Thank you!

    Like

  17. Ansuria Y

    Hi Carmen, I love your blog and all of this great information. I will be in Madrid May 29th through June 4th and I was wondering what your weather is like during this time?

    Thank you,
    Yolanda

    Like

  18. CRAIG

    Cool blog and INFO Carmen We are visiting a friend who has recently moved to Madrid and taking our 8 year old girl. Do you know of any great things to do for children we will go to the natural history Museum, Are there any out door swimming pools, would it be too dangerous to hire bikes and cycle round?

    thanks for your time regard Craig

    Like

    1. For kids, I would definitely recommend park El Retiro and the kids audioguide to the museum El Prado, in addition to the Natural Science Museum (I believe you’re referring to that one).
      In terms of swimming pools, in the city itself and depending on which neighborhood you’re staying in, there are lots of options: Piscina Puerta del Hierro, Piscinas del Lago Casa de Campo, Piscinas Barrio del Pilar (inside the Polideportivo Vicente del Bosque), Piscina del Canal (also inside a Polideportivo),… You might also want to consider the water park Aquopolis (lots of fun!), or the cool natural pools in the Sierra: Las Presillas, Las Dehesas, Buitrago de Lozoya, Las Berceas, Riosequillo,…
      In terms of biking, I probably wouldn’t do it to move around the city itself, there isn’t much of a biking culture and they’re just starting to build bike lanes/paths. But there are some fantastic places to go biking: El Retiro, the park Juan Carlos I, La Casa de Campo, to name a few, and without going far from the city.
      Enjoy your visit to Madrid!!

      Like

  19. Saurabh Shah

    Hola Carmen! This is a wonderful blog! I’m traveling to Madrid for 5 nights starting tonight! This is very helpful and I’ve designed an itinerary around a few of these points. Your travel tips are practical and well thought out and the answers to questions are fantastic.

    Like

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  21. Nancy Doppler

    I appreciate reading your suggestions in this post.

    Taking our first trip to Spain starting Oct 13 in Madrid (2 nights), Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Tarifa, Sevilla, and back to Madrid for 3 nights Oct 25. Planning a day trip to Toledo during the first stay, then one to Segovia at the end. Wondering if it will be chilly and rainy most of the vacation?

    Like

    1. Hey Nancy,
      not necessarily… the warm summer days will be over by then, but you’re likely to get some sunny days (albeit in the high 60s low 70s) mixed with some cloudy days with a bit of rain.
      Enjoy your trip!!

      Like

  22. This blog is amazing, I’m doing some research on Madrid for a hen weekend that I am SO looking forward to. The bride to be loves culture and food and good sites to sit back and enjoy so seems the perfect destination has been chosen. Your recommendations will most certainly be put to good use, 3 days to go so I will look at a lose daily plan with your suggestions 🙂 Ill let you know how it went!!

    Like

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