Last Updated on February 22, 2022 by Jim Ferri
You’ll find plenty of things to do in Madrid…think museums, restaurants, shopping, palaces, cafes, and people-watching, for starters…
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Madrid is one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals. More importantly for travelers, however, it also differs dramatically from every other city in Spain.
Because of the incredible variety of things to do in the capital, this vast, sprawling metropolis can also overwhelm you. For starters, it has two royal palaces. And three world-class art museums. And amazing places to shop, ranging from fashionable boutiques in the Salamanca district to the down-and-dirty El Rastro flea market.
And the food!
Its many districts contain an astonishing number of restaurants and cafes. They range from simple tapas bars to scores of upscale restaurants, including the posh Teatro Real (the Royal Theater). In fact, you can pretty much walk along any street, and you’ll find scores of neighborhood cafés and bars. I can never get enough of it.
But it’s also a big, sprawling city. To make the best use of your time you need to plan.
To help you mold that plan, here are my thoughts on the top things to do in Madrid. They are in no particular order and may differ from those you’ve read about elsewhere. But I’ve found each to be exceptionally satisfying.
Visit the Palacio Real, One of the Top Things to Do in Madrid
Palacio Real, Spain’s Royal Palace was completed in 1764 and was the home of the country’s Bourbon rulers. The design of Bernini’s plan for the Louvre in Paris inspired it.
It’s a spectacular place whose 3,418 rooms cover more than 33 acres, making it the largest palace in Europe by floor area. It contains an array of spectacular rooms including a huge dining room, throne room, armory, and royal chapel.
Additionally, the Royal Kitchens are are the oldest well-preserved kitchens of all the royal palaces of Europe. And at 8,600+ square feet, they are also the largest.
The Royal family no longer resides here but since 1975 have resided in the more modest Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of the city.
You can see the “Solemn Changing of the Guard” at the Royal Palace at noon on the first Wednesday of the month. It takes place every month except January, August and September, or when there is an official event or inclement weather. It is a colorful spectacular with fifes and drums and about 400 military and 100 horses.
There is also the more modest “Changing of the Guard” every Wednesday and Saturday 11am–2pm at the palace’s Puerta del Príncipe (Prince’s Door) gate. This involves the changing of four members of the Royal guard, two on foot and two on horseback.
If You Go:
The Palacio Real
Calle de Bailén
Open: April – September daily 10am – 8pm / October – March 10am – 6pm / check here for dates this year when the palace will be closed to visitors.
Admission: initial entry fee is between 6- 12€ although it varies based on age, country of citizenship, and other factors. There are also additional fees for guided tours, audio guides, and tours of the Palace’s Royal Kitchen. See all ticket prices + opening and closing dates here.
A Don’t-Miss in Madrid: Museo del Prado
With one of the greatest art collections in the world, the Prado is always popular with travelers. I’ve returned to it numerous times.
While it contains a wide array of treasures, it’s most famous for its collection of works by Spanish masters. These include 114 works by Goya and another 50 by Velázquez. There are also numerous masterpieces by Rubens, Fran Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian. Other artistic treasures are in the Royal Collection of 16th-17th-century paintings transferred to the museum from palaces throughout Madrid.
If You Go:
Museo del Prado
C. de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23
@ email@example.com (Visitor Information Center)
Tel: (+34) 913 30 28 00
Open: Monday – Saturday 10am–8pm / Sunday and holidays 10am – 7pm
Admission: General admission tickets are 7,5 – 15€. See all admission prices here.
Note: entry is free Monday – Saturday 6pm–8pm / Sundays and holidays 5pm–7pm. Also, entry to all the museums of Madrid is free on International Museum Day (May 18).
Plaza Mayor – Great for a Drink and People Watching
Both for me and countless other travelers, the Plaza Mayor is one of Madrid’s top places. With a statue of King Felipe III in its center, it’s a beautiful square that can hold 50,000 people. Moreover, it’s a great place to sit and have a drink or meal or just people-watch. I’ve always found it at its best in the late afternoon as the cafés fill with patrons and the sun paints it with dramatic light.
It was built in 1619 and lay outside the city walls, and was redesigned in the late 18th century. Over the years it has been used as a bullring, open-air theater, market, and a place for executions. Have a drink, watch the mimes and enjoy the atmosphere.
If You Go:
Open: 24 hours a day
The Thyssen-Bomemisza is part of the Madrid’s museum triumvirate that includes the Prado (a short walk away) and Museo Reina Sofia. Its concentration is on 13th-20th-century European paintings, and its collection is considered one of the most important in the world. If you enjoy art you’ll find it to be one of Madrid’s top places.
The museum’s masterpieces were part of the collection of the industrialist Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bomemisza. After his death, his son added to the collection.
The museum’s collection includes both Old Masters and more modern works by German Expressionists and French Impressionists.
If You Go:
Paseo del Prado, 8
Tel: (+34) 917 911 370
Open: Monday 12pm–4pm / Tuesday–Sunday 10am – 7pm
Admission: Adults 13€ / 65+ and students 9€ / combined and group tickets are also available.
Note: Admission is free on all Mondays / you can also purchase a €32 “ArtWalk” ticket, which provides admission to the Thyssen-Bomemisza, Prado and Reina Sofía museums (a 20% discount for all the museums).
One of the Outdoor Things to Do in Madrid: Visit Parque del Retiro
Retiro, a 350-acre park in the center of Madrid, is a perfect place to lull on a hot day. Once owned by the Spanish Monarchy, it reverted to public use in the late 19th century.
Officially named Parque del Buen Retiro, It’s an attractive place with statues and sculptures, as well as lakes (with rowboats), ponds, a formal French garden, and the beautiful “Crystal Palace.” There are also concerts and a puppet theater for children. It’s a relatively quiet place during the week but a bit more raucous on Sunday.
If You Go:
Parque del Retiro
Plaza de la Independencia, Madrid
Open: daily April – October Monday – Friday 6am–midnight / November – March 6am – 10pm. The Crystal Palace is open March – October 10:00am – 7:00pm / November – February 10:00am – 6:00pm. It (may not open on rainy days because of the characteristics of the building.
A Little-Known Place to Visit in Madrid: Museo Cerralbo
This museum doesn’t draw anywhere 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 Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the 17th Marquis of Cerralbo. The Marquis was an archaeologist, politician, poet and avid collector.
The grand old mansion shows you how wealthy Madrileños once lived and it is both beautiful and fascinating. There are suits of armor from around the world, Oriental carpets, tapestries, musical instruments, porcelain and artwork by Van Dyck and El Greco, among others. There’s even a ballroom on the second floor.
If You Go:
Calle de Ventura Rodríguez, 17
Tel: (+34) 915 47 36 46
Open: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 9:30am – 3pm / Thursday 9:30am – 3pm and 5pm – 8pm / Sunday 10am – 3pm / Closed Monday
Admission: different admission prices and days when admission is free is complicated. See it here.
A Foodie Thing to Do in Madrid: Mercado San Miguel
Mercado San Miguel is just steps away from an archway on the Plaza Mayor. It’s one of the most attractive markets in Madrid among tourists, likely due to its central location. It’s not a traditional grocery market, however, but is one of the unique experiences to enjoy in Madrid.
Set in a Beaux-Arts building, it’s home to more than 30 different vendors. They sell a wide variety of tapas (quite varied and delicious) and other foodstuffs along with wines, champagne, and beer. The crowd is a good mix of tourists and locals, which says something about the quality of the food.
It’s a great place for lunch or afternoon snack since you can have little meat, fish, cheese and vegetable tapas, Then wash it down with countless varieties of beer and wine. It’s one of Madrid’s top places to while away a delicious hour or two.
Bring your appetite.
If You Go:
Mercado San Miguel
Pl. de San Miguel
Tel: (+34) 915 42 49 36
Open: Sunday – Thursday10:00am – Midnight / Friday, Saturday and holiday eves – 10:00am – 1:00am
More Foodie Things to Do in Madrid: Tapas Bars
Tapas are a small portion of food, basically and appetizer or snack, served with your drink in a bar. You can order a plate of tapas for sharing, allowing you to have several different foods. In fact, oftentimes a bar is renown for the type of tapas it serves.
Madrid is known for its Tapas Bars and a great thing to do is to tour some of the city’s great tapas bars in the evening. Although there are numerous ones, here are five of the most popular:
Tasca La Farmacia
Calle de Diego de León, 9
Tel: (+34) 91 564 86 52
Open: Monday – Saturday 10am – 12:30am / closed Sunday
Calle de Jesús, 2
Tel: (+34) 91 429 30 67
Metro: Antón Martín (L1)
Open: Sunday – Thursday 11am–midnight / Friday and Saturday: 11am–2am
La Casa del Abuelo
Venta El Buscón
Calle de la Victoria, 5
Open: daily 9am–1am / Tuesday 1pm – 1am
Puerto del Sol
It’s Madrid’s most famous square and for most Madrileños, the real heart of the city. In fact, it’s so historically important, all distances in Spain are still measured from a marker on the plaza (kilómetro cero) in front of the old post office.
Since the 15th century, the “Gateway of the Sun” was a city gate adorned with an image of the sun. Today 10 streets converge on it, three metro lines cross it, and many bus lines either begin or end here.
All contribute to the crowds in the plaza, which is always teeming with pedestrians, tourists, buskers and street musicians. It’s much like New York’s Times Square, especially on New Year’s Eve. Then people flock here to watch the clock on the tower of the post office strike midnight. Many still follow the custom of swallowing a grape on each gong.
It’s a good place to visit in Madrid, perhaps on your way to the Plaza Mayor.
If You Go:
Puerto del Sol
Open: 24 hours a day
Undoubtedly one of the most famous flea markets in Europe, El Rastro is one of the popular places to visit in Madrid. Originally a slaughterhouse, it is now well over 100 years old.
The market is held every Sunday and often draws huge crowds. You will, however, find vendors here on most other days of the week, as well. If you go, be careful with your valuables since it is also Ground Zero for pickpockets.
After visiting the market walk through the surrounding La Latina, one of the old working neighborhoods of the city. You’ll find some interesting antique shops along the main street leading from the market.
If You Go:
Along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores in Madrid
Open: held from approximately 9am–3pm every Sunday and public holidays
One of the Good Things to Do in Madrid: Visit Museo Reina Sofia
While the setting for Museo Reina Sofia – in an old hospital – is unique, its collection is even more so. It focuses on 20th– and 21st-century Spanish art both inside and in its garden and hosts exhibits from other museums.
Officially Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, its collection revolves about works by Salvador Dali, Juan Miró, and Juan Gris, the masters of the interwar period. The jewel and centerpiece of the museum, however, is Picasso’s powerful Guernica in Room 206.
There are also lesser-known Spanish painters and sculptors are in the collection. The museum shop sells jewelry and ceramics by Spanish designers in addition to the usual museum-shop offerings.
If You Go:
Museo Reina Sofia
Calle de Sta. Isabel, 52
Tel: (+34) 91 774 1000
Open: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10:00am–9:00pm / Sunday 10:00am–2:30pm / closed Tuesday
Admission: general 12 € / free admission see details
One Final Note On Things to Do in Madrid…
Finally, remember also that there are several other places that are easily reached on day trips from Madrid via a comfortable train ride. If you have time, spend a few more days and visit Segovia, Barcelona, or Seville.