Even though it’s the capital of Spain, Madrid is not always a popular tourist destination.
Some criticize it for lacking majestic monuments that can compete with those of other European capitals such as the Hasburg Palace in Vienna, the Colosseum in Rome or Buckingham Palace in London.
And yet, Madrid does not lack charm and attractions.
The atmosphere of the city, the many restaurants, its magnificent museums, the architecture of the buildings, its many plazas and the pleasure of discovering the different neighborhoods of this city are well worth the visit.
I must admit that when I was planning my trip to Spain, I almost left the city out.
It was finally included in the trip and it was an excellent idea since I really did enjoy my time in this city.
Here are 8 things to see and do for a first-timer visit to Madrid. I’ve also included some good places to eat, because food is one of the pleasures to enjoy in this city.
In this article
- Planning your stay in Madrid
- 1. Gran Via Boulevard
- 2. Palacio Real and Almudena Cathedral
- 3. Eat churros con chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés (and visit the church of San Gines)
- 4. El Retiro Park
- 5. The Prado Museum
- 6. The mercado San Miguel
- 7. Enjoy a roasted suckling pig at the Botin restaurant
- 8. The plazas of Madrid
Planning your stay in Madrid
How long to stay in Madrid?
Three days are enough for a first visit to Madrid.
We stayed for 4 days and left feeling like we had visited the city well without rushing, even though we could have stayed a day or two longer to do more museums.
The city is as pleasant to visit early in the morning (when you have the streets to yourself) as it is late at night, when the atmosphere becomes very lively.
Save on the price of tickets to different attractions in Madrid
To save money on admission to many museums, attractions and guided tours, it is best to purchase a Go City Card*, which allows you to choose either unlimited access to attractions for a select number of days or access to selected attractions for 60 days.
Where to stay in Madrid ?
There are many accommodation options* in Madrid. Ideally, staying close to the center allows you to access most attractions on foot and easily get around by public transportation.
1. Gran Via Boulevard
Strolling along this grand Haussmann-style boulevard is a must during the day and at night.
At night, you can enjoy the lively atmosphere of the street and the illuminated buildings.
By day, you can better appreciate all the details of the buildings.
It is the main boulevard of Madrid.
At the end of the street, you’ll find the Plaza Cibeles and the Palace of Communications, completed in 1917, which houses the City Hall and the central post office.
2. Palacio Real and Almudena Cathedral
The Royal Palace (or Palacio Real) is one of the largest European palaces after the Louvre.
We are talking about 135,000 m² and more than 2,800 rooms.
Fortunately, only 50 of these rooms can be visited.
The interior rooms are beautiful and richly decorated and you can see paintings by Goya and Stradivarius violins.
The Armory and the Throne Room are also two very interesting rooms to see.
The Almudena Cathedral, located in front of the Royal Palace, is very beautiful.
On the other hand, we did not visit the interior which, according to the Lonely Planet, would be devoid of charm.
3. Eat churros con chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés (and visit the church of San Gines)
Chocolatería San Ginés is an institution in Madrid and has been open since 1894.
Don’t be intimidated by the long line of tourists (we all got the same recommendation it seems ;) ), the service is quite fast.
A well-deserved break, where you can enjoy a delicious chocolate, very smooth and thick, which accompanies the churros!
The San Ginès chocolate factory is located not far from the San Ginès church, the oldest in Madrid, on Calle Arenal.
4. El Retiro Park
El Retiro Park is a large park in Madrid, built in the early 1600s.
Among other things, you can admire the Crystal Palace, a beautiful glass and metal structure.
The beautiful walkways and the statue of El Angel Caido, one of the few existing statues of the devil (and it would be at exactly 666 m from the sea level….), the artificial lake and the monument to Alfonso XII are also not to be missed during your walk in the park.
Not far from the park, on the Gran Via, is the Mercado de la Reina, a really nice place to have a glass of sangria and eat some tapas.
It fills up quickly in the evening though!
5. The Prado Museum
The Prado Museum is a must for art lovers.
I really enjoyed this museum, bright and airy, where you can admire the works of Goya, the magnificent painting of the Garden of Delights by Jerome Bosch, Rubens, Venasquez, etc.
Take the audioguide, it is very interesting and allows you to better appreciate and understand the works.
Since the Prado Museum is located near El Retiro Park, you can easily visit both in the same day.
And not far from the museum is the restaurant La Plateria which serves good tapas at affordable prices.
It was a good alternative to the picnic that we wanted to do in Retiro Park.
6. The mercado San Miguel
Although you can buy everything you need to cook at home in this place, the Mercado San Miguel is more of a luxury foodcourt, ideal for lunch or an aperitif.
This covered market was built in the early 20th century in the Eiffel style, all glass and metal.
There are about thirty small kiosks offering a multitude of tapas and fresh products: oysters and seafood, cold cuts, tapas, paella….
It’s the perfect place to try lots of things with a glass of wine or sangria (but maybe not the most economical).
Seating is limited, but you can always find a place to put your drink.
We even went back there 2 or 3 times during our time in Madrid.
7. Enjoy a roasted suckling pig at the Botin restaurant
The roasted suckling pig, or cochinillo asado, is a specialty of the region, specifically of Segovia.
Obviously, it’s not a light dish but it is delicious.
And what better way than to try it than at the Sobrino de Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world (attested by the Guinness Records), open since 1725 and in constant activity since then!
Located near the Plaza Mayor, the restaurant is very busy, especially with tourist groups.
Reservations are therefore recommended.
During our visit, we still managed to get a table without a reservation and, despite the high traffic, we were quietly allowed to finish our wine once the meal was over without being pushed out.
If possible, try to get a place in the vaulted cellar (and check out the old cellars).
8. The plazas of Madrid
Madrid is full of plazas, each one more beautiful than the next. Here are 2 to visit:
The Plaza Mayor is beautiful with its inner courtyard and numerous terraces.
The square, conceived in 1619, has an eventful history.
It is here that condemnations of heretics during the Inquisition took place, executions and bullfights.
The square was also destroyed by fire in 1790 and then rebuilt.
La Puerta del Sol
You can see a statue of a bear with its snout in a shrub, symbol of the city.
Located in the center of the city, it is the zero kilometer point of the distances in Madrid.
It is also at the geometric center of the country.
And this is where you can see the famous Tio Pepe sign.