Last Updated on February 15, 2023
By Jim Ferri
Madrid is a city with a lot of hidden gems. Although once was considered as only the sibling of Barcelona, Madrid has transformed itself into one of the great cities of Europe.
It’s a capital full of vitality and energy, with an incredible food scene, great shopping, and many other things to do. In addition, it’s almost spotless, with hardly any graffiti anywhere, unlike many other European cities.
It’s also a great walking city, and the Metro is comfortable, safe, and efficient once you get the hang of reading the route map and transferring at different stations. In addition, it’s a great city to take day trips by train to other wonderful places in Spain.
If you haven’t been to the Spanish capital, you should go. Here are six unique experiences you’ll find in Madrid to whet your appetite. Once there, you’ll undoubtedly find more on your own.
A Unique Madrid Experience: Mercado San Miguel
Be sure to visit Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel, a gourmet food market that is a unique hidden gem. It’s only steps away from Plaza Mayor, which means you’ll find a lot of tourists here, but with its mix of locals, it doesn’t feel over-touristy.
It’s easy to get there from the Plaza Mayor. First, face the building with the beautiful façade behind the equestrian statue of King Philip III. Then walk through the archway at the far left, and you’ll see the Mercado.
It’s Madrid’s most beautiful market, a fantastic 1916 Beaux-Arts building that’s all cast iron and glass. Inside are dozens of tapas bars, pastry shops, paella shops, and more, serving the finest products from all over Spain.
Mercado San Miguel is a nibbler’s gold mine, where you can have little meat, fish, cheese, and vegetable tapas and wash them down with countless beers and wines. It’s also great in the evening. Bring your appetite and camera.
Shop and Dine in Barrio Salamanca
The city’s attractive Barrio de Salamanca, near the National Archeological Museum, is an upscale shopping and dining area with more than a few options for a unique Madrid experience.
We went back there many times for dinner since our hotel was nearby. One of the best restaurants we found was Sula (Calle de Jorge Juan 33, Madrid) which specializes in pork dishes (dinner was €101, including a bottle of delicious wine).
This hidden gem is known for its upscale shopping, especially along Serrano, Madrid’s most famous shopping street. In one little courtyard on a side street, we discovered a small flea market hosted by a few shops. But this little market had an upscale twist — as we wandered about, we were offered complimentary glasses of good French champagne. How does one say ooh la la en español?
See the Royal Palace / Have Dinner in the Royal Theater for a Unique Experience
No matter how inexpensively you try to vacation, you should always have one night when you say “the budget the damned.” Dinner in the posh Madrid Royal Theatre Restaurant, inside the Teatro Royal, help you do just that.
A Royal Theater dinner is an over-the-top Madrid experience. It’s a classic four-star restaurant where it’s suggested men wear a suit and tie, although it’s not required.
The decor of this Madrid hidden gem is opulent, and the food and wine are excellent. However, you’ll need to make reservations since the place is so popular.
Try to kick things off royally before dinner by taking a tour of the Royal Palace (only a two-minute walk away) or, as we did, just stroll around the large plaza that separates the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral across from it. It’s a great place to wander in the evening.
Stroll Along Paseo del Prado / Paseo de Recoletos
For a pleasant afternoon walk, stroll along the Paseo del Prado, which morphs into Paseo de Recoletos. It’s a 100-yard-wide boulevard that has wide, ornate walkways, beautiful pools, and fountains. Relax on one of the benches or have a coffee or afternoon drink in one of the outdoor cafés. It’s one of those hidden.
At the southern end is the Prado Museum. Not only is it Madrid’s most famous cultural institution, but this hidden gem is also world-renowned for its incredible collections.
Its canvases by Goya (114 in all), Rubens (90), and Velázquez (50) are only the tiniest tip of this cultural iceberg. There are also numerous masterpieces by Rubens, Fran Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian.
Do your homework before you visit to map what you want to see. It’s a voluminous collection.
Walk north on Paseo del Prado, and you’ll pass the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
While most people focus only on the Prado, you shouldn’t miss this hidden gem of Madrid. This museum’s masterpieces were part of the collection of the industrialist Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bomemisza. Its collection of 13th-20th-century European paintings is considered one of the most important in the world.
Walk south from the Prado, and you’ll come to a third museum, Reina Sofia, part of which is a former 18th-century hospital. With an emphasis on modern art, its most famous piece is Guernica, Picasso’s powerful and nightmarish depiction of war.
In both the museum itself as well as in its garden, it focuses on 20th– and 21st-century Spanish art. It also hosts exhibits from other museums.
Choose An Area and Find Madrid’s Hidden Gems
If you want to find more hidden gems in Madrid, go to an area of the city and wander about, aka “get lost.” It’s often exceptionally gratifying.
In Madrid, I chose the La Latina area and found myself in a quiet little neighborhood where the sidewalks were dappled with shade and merchants had goods set out in front of their shops. I wandered into several antique shops, finding junk in two and better things in two others.
La Latina is famous for its many traditional tavernas, restaurants, and bars, which ensure the area’s popularity, especially on weekends. Also ensuring its popularity is El Rastro, Madrid’s famous Sunday morning flea market. Many come to poke about the market and then go on a tapas crawl through the area.
I, however, visited during the week when the market was small before I headed into the center of La Latina to get lost. It was a wonderful afternoon, just wandering about and visiting little shops here and there and the old San Isidro Cathedral.
While walking up a slight hill, I could hear church bells in the distance and then came across a little plaza with a soldier statue in the center. A sign told me it was Plaza de Cascorro, and I saw the figure was Eloy Gonzalo. Eloy was a local soldier, the “hero of Cascorro,” who lost his life in the Spanish-American war in Cuba.
I remember reading about people who say “buenos dias” to Eloy every morning to bring good luck. I said “hello” to Eloy and continued up the street, passing many outdoor cafés and bars where people were still enjoying their late-morning coffees. Up ahead, I could see one of the large arches leading into the Plaza Mayor, my destination.
An Incredible Hidden Gem in Madrid: Little-Known Museo Cerralbo
This museum doesn’t draw near the crowds you’ll find in the Prado and other major museums. Nevertheless, you’ll likely fall in love with the Museo Cerralbo in the Spanish capital. I did, and I can’t wait to go back for another visit.
It’s the former home of the collection of Don Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the 17th Marquis of Cerralbo. The Marquis was an archaeologist, politician, poet, and, as you’ll quickly see, an avid collector. In fact, he searched the world for his artistic treasures.
The grand old mansion shows you how wealthy Madrileños once lived, and this hidden gem of Madrid is beautiful and fascinating. There are suits of armor from around the world, Oriental carpets, tapestries, sculptures, musical instruments, and porcelain. There’s artwork by Van Dyck, El Greco, and others. There’s even a ballroom on the second floor.
This peek into the life of the Spanish aristocracy in the early 20th century is astonishing. Thankfully, the Marquis bequeathed his collection to the state for the enjoyment of others.