11 Things to do in Madrid
Madrid is the capital and biggest city in Spain. Unlike Barcelona, tourism is not its main enterprise; it really is a city for living. Because of that, it’s the perfect place to absorb the Spanish way of life and get your ‘culture fix’ on your trip.
Three days is the ideal time for all the top things to do in Madrid. However, if you have a few more days, stay a little longer and enjoy some fantastic day trips from Madrid to cities like Segovia, Toledo, or Valencia.
1. El Retiro Park
El Retiro Park is a beautiful slice of nature right at the city’s heart and a designated UNESCO world heritage site. Here you’ll find beautiful wide-open gravel avenues in the shade of enormous horse chestnut, oaks, and cypress trees (more than 15,000 trees in the park). The oldest tree found here was planted back in 1633!
Take a wander through El Retiro, admiring all the beautiful statues, perfectly cut hedges, and rose gardens. In fact, the park used to belong to the Spanish royal family until it became public in the late 19th century. The grandeur of this park certainly makes it feel like it could still be the royal gardens, and it’s incredible to think this is a public resource for locals.
Activities in El Retiro
Madrileños come to enjoy the park in the evenings and at weekends, with everyone doing some form of exercise, from running to rollerblading. It’s the perfect place to relax under the shade of the trees, especially on Madrid’s longer, lighter summer evenings. Because of this, we recommend bringing a picnic and enjoying the late afternoon here after a busy morning of sightseeing.
At the center of El Retiro, you can also discover a beautiful lake where you can hire boats and enjoy the park from the tranquility of the water. They even put on kayaking lessons here! Admire the beautiful palaces and the Alfonso XIII monument (the impressive columns that sit right in front of the lake).
El Retiro Opening Times
April to September 6 AM – midnight and October – March 6 AM to 10 PM.
To get to El Retiro Park, take the metro to the ‘Retiro’ station and walk from there.
2. Palacio de Cristal in Madrid
Palacio de Cristal (the glass palace) is located at the heart of El Retiro Park. In the shape of a Greek cross, this beautiful glass conservatory reaches a height of 22 meters and appears almost out over the water, surrounded by beautiful horse chestnut trees. In the fall, the stunning red and oranges of these colors is really something to see!
The Palace used to be a greenhouse for beautiful flora and fauna. However, it’s now owned by the Reina Sofia Museum, which uses it as a unique space to hold art exhibitions throughout the year.
Best of all, it’s free to enter, so it’s a great thing to do in Madrid. Discover its beautiful ceramic tile floor and the exceptional glass and cast iron frame that holds the building up. Afterward, sit on the charming steps that lead from the Palace into the lake.
Palacio Cristal Opening Times
April to September 10 AM – 9 PM and October to March 10 AM – 6 PM. Closed on major Spanish holidays.
3. Atocha-Renfe Station in Madrid
Most train stations worldwide aren’t really worth seeing, as they’re simply used to catch your train to the next destination. However, Atocha Station is the exception! This incredible station is home to a vast tropical garden filled with unique plants and trees that grow to enormous heights and almost reach the top of the station’s roof arch. It’s strange to see this jungle in an industrial station interior, making it one of the most unique things to do in Madrid!
The botanical gardens contain over 7000 plants that originate from all over the globe, from places like Asia, South America, and Australia. There are also information signs so you can learn more about each plant.
4. Street Art
With some of the greatest art museums in the world housed in Madrid, it’s no surprise that it’s a creative city. Street art is all around, some being more obvious, for example, huge murals covering buildings’ sides. Other works are more discreet, like the miniature artworks or sculptures you’ll find hidden down small streets or on doorways.
This is another free thing to do in Madrid, an excellent activity for modern art lovers, and the ideal way to explore various neighborhoods in Madrid. Some of the best areas are Malasana, La Latina, and Embajadores.
Tip: If you want to learn more about the stories behind individual pieces, book an organized street art tour.
5. San Miguel Market
The San Miguel Market has been around since the early 1900s as a food market. Now, it’s known for its gourmet food stalls; it’s even home to Michelin star chefs who bring their offerings here! It’s a fantastic place to try some of the finest delicacies in Madrid (and from all over Spain!). Whether it’s tasty Jamon Iberico or the finest Spanish olives and oysters, there is something for all tastebuds.
This market is buzzing, especially on a Saturday morning, so do as the locals do and enjoy a glass of cava and a breakfast oyster.
Opening Times: Sunday to Thursday 10 AM to midnight. Friday and Saturday 10 AM – 1 AM.
Getting There: The nearest metro stop is ‘Sol’.
6. Sunday Street Market (Top Thing to do in Madrid)
Here over the weekend? The El Rastro flea market is the place to be in Madrid! This huge market fills the streets of the La Latina neighborhood from 9 AM to 3 PM every Sunday. Discover antiques, old books, comics, records, vintage clothing, furniture, plants, and more!
Spend a few hours here gathering some souvenirs from your trip, like typical Spanish ceramic bowls or tiles, or stop at one of the many lovely tapas places on the hills and people watch.
7. Reina Sofia Museum
The Reina Sofia Museum is a modern, contemporary art center, home to the works of some of the greatest artists like Dali and Picasso. People come from all over the world to see Picasso’s famous piece ‘Guernica’ (Picasso was born in Malaga). Not only is the art amazing, but the building is beautiful too; the grand white neoclassical building was once a hospital but now houses the museum.
Entry Fee & Opening Times
Monday – Saturday (10 AM – 9 PM). Closed Tuesdays. Sunday 10 AM – 2.30 PM. In the evenings, visiting the museum is free between 7 PM – 9 PM or on Sundays 12.30 PM – 2.30 PM. The entry fee is 12 EUR in person at the ticket office or online. Book tickets here!
8. Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor (main square) is the most famous square in all of Madrid, situated in one of the oldest parts of the city. It’s a huge space, measuring 129 meters long and 94 meters wide, used as a meeting point for locals and a place to enjoy a drink in the evening.
Walk through the archway (nine arches in total provide entrance to the square) into a vast courtyard surrounded by terracotta red palatial buildings. After wandering around, enjoy a drink on the terrace in the sun, and get some beautiful photos. There are many restaurants to choose from but be aware that prices are significantly marked up here.
9. Caixa Forum Museum Vertical Garden
The Caixa Forum Museum Vertical Garden is one of the most exciting things to do in Madrid. What was once a power station is now a modern art gallery, complete with a vertical green garden that covers the exterior wall. This interactive garden allows people to touch the 78-foot wall, feel the different textures, and see the 300 different plant species growing here.
The garden was designed by Patrick Blanc, who is famous for creating these sorts of vertical gardens throughout Europe. It’s certainly impressive when you consider Madrid’s hot, dry summer and the amount of care it takes to keep the garden this green and luscious. In fact, there is no soil on the wall at all, and the plants miraculously survive without it!
Opening Times and Entry Fee
Open Monday to Sunday 10 AM – 8 PM. It’s free to see the vertical garden and 6 EUR for the museum. Buy tickets online.
10. Palacio Real
The Palacio Real (the Royal Palace) is easily the grandest building in Madrid, surrounded by wide open squares and elegant gardens. You can also see incredible views of the countryside surrounding Madrid from the terrace level. Additionally, you’ll get the ambiance of musicians and street artists who come to the square to make money, creating an enjoyable, lively atmosphere. (Join the popular walking tour including a visit to the Royal Palace)
Visiting Palacio Real
It’s worth paying for a ticket to enter the Palacio Real as it’s the largest Palace in western Europe, with nearly 3500 rooms inside! Unusually, it’s also open to the public despite still being the head of the state’s residency.
Enjoy the ancient exterior and interior, which go back to the 18th century (although the Palace sits on the old site of the medieval Palace that dates back to the 1500s). Visitors can also explore the lavishly decorated rooms with crystal chandeliers, such as the grand armory and the red velvet grandeur of the throne room.
Opening Times and Entry Fee
Monday to Saturday 10 AM – 6 PM. Sunday 10 AM – 4 PM. However, you can access the gardens until 6 PM. Free access Monday to Thursday 4 PM – 6 PM.
11. Wander the Streets of Madrid
Arguably one of the best things to do in Madrid is get lost in the maze of beautiful streets. Around every corner, you’ll find a new neighborhood, each with its own unique and distinct character. For example, the hipster district of Malasana, the narrow bar-filled lanes of Chueca, or the steep hills of la Latina and Lavapies. Some of the best neighborhoods to enjoy are:
The gay neighborhood of Madrid is one of the best and liveliest places to go out, with loads of fun bars and squares where people enjoy tapas and drinks.
Malasana is the hipster neighborhood of Madrid, filled with beautiful apartments, vintage stores, and a great alternative music scene. Many young people and students hang out here in the evenings, and there’s a vibrant, exciting atmosphere.
Lavapies is a melting pot of culture, a cosmopolitan neighborhood where people gather from all walks of life. Wander its narrow streets, discovering excellent Indian restaurants and sweet squares spilling down the hills where people enjoy a cheap bite to eat.
La Latina is brimming with history, built on the site of an ancient Islamic fort. Discover its cute churches and steep cobbled hills filled with tapas restaurants. It’s a buzzing place on a Saturday and Sunday when the streets are filled with young people and families alike. It’s also home to the El Rastro flea market.
Barrio de Las Letras
The literary neighborhood of Barrio de Las Letras is a place famous for novels and writers, full of charming bookstores, with a distinctly bohemian feel. You’ll find the Plaza de Santa Ana and nearby the Calle de las Huertas, full of fun bars at its centre. What’s great about Barrio de Las Letras is that many small streets are pedestrianized, so it’s perfect for walking around. Plus, it’s a little quieter than other neighborhoods.
12. Cerro del Tio Pio
What is a city trip without an epic sunset view? Cerro del Tio Pio (known as the park of the seven tits) is a beautiful hilltop park just on the edge of the city. It used to be a waste disposal site, so its uneven ground has created lots of small hills for you to sit and enjoy the views of Madrid. Come at sunset for a buzzing atmosphere and some beautiful scenery!
Best Cafes and Restaurants in Madrid
Some of the best restaurants and dining scenes in the whole of Spain are located in Madrid. Whether it’s a beer and tapas on a terrace or Michelin star fine dining in a cool rooftop space. Most of all, it’s known for being the home of churros and chocolate; there’s no better snack after a busy morning of sightseeing! Some of the best restaurants in Madrid are:
- FOUR (Delicious lunch!)
- Sahuaro Madrid
- Alimentacion Quiroga (Local bites & wine)
- Grosso Napoletano (Pizza)
- Nina Pasta Bar
- Nomade Cafe
- El Perro De Pavlov (Coffee & Cakes)
- Agrado Café (Coffee & Cakes)
- Honest Greens (Veggie)
Where to Stay in Madrid
There are loads of awesome neighborhoods in Madrid, from the cool Malasana to the multicultural Lavapies, where you’ll find lots of great budget accommodation options. However, lots of people choose to stay in the central area of Salamanca, where you’ll find lots of high-end shops and restaurants. Be prepared that this area is a little more expensive, though. (Here are all your hotel options in Madrid)
Where you choose to stay is very much dependent on your budget. However, because of the easy access to the metro, you could really stay anywhere in Madrid!
How to visit Madrid
The international airport of Madrid is one of the largest in Spain, so lots of international flights arrive daily. It’s also straightforward to get from the airport into the city center by metro (a single ticket will cost you 1.50 EUR plus an airport supplement of 3 EUR). You can also visit Madrid by high-speed train from other cities in Spain like Valencia or Barcelona.
Getting around Madrid
Madrid is a very walkable city, despite it being hilly! Many of the major sights are within close proximity, and walking around the streets can be one of the most enjoyable things to do in Madrid. However, if you want to save your legs, buy yourself a metro ticket (1.50 single or a pack of 10 for 12.20); the metro in Madrid is one of the easiest to use, even if you don’t speak Spanish.
Another fun option is renting a bicycle or an electric scooter as there are many cycle paths throughout the city to enjoy.
How Much Does Madrid Cost?
It’s also a very local city; more people live here and work than there are tourists. Because of this, you can find some great budget places to eat if you know where to look.
Tip: Supermarkets in Spain are very cheap. If you’re on a budget, consider making a picnic or buying meals to cook at your accommodation in the evening.
- Hotel: 50 – 200 EUR / night
- Hostel: 20 – 40 EUR / night
- Price per meal: 5 – 25 EUR
- Entrance fees: 5 – 15 EUR
- Transport: 3 – 10 EUR / day
Best Time to Visit Madrid
Madrid is a city of contrasts: the winters are very cold, and the summers exceptionally dry and hot. Many local residents leave Madrid in the summer to go to the coast. Because of this, the city becomes quiet, many restaurants close and it can be hard to walk around and see the sights.
For this reason, early spring is a lovely time to visit Madrid or the shoulder months of September/October. Christmas is also a great time to tick off the top things to do in Madrid and see the Spanish Christmas markets and lights, as long as you’re ok with the cold!