Madrid is the capital city of Spain and one that attracts millions of tourists each year. It is a city full of historic buildings, amazing food, bustling streets, and lively people – all of which need to be experienced. If you are looking to spend some time in one of Spain’s most popular tourist cities, this post will highlight all my top things to do in Madrid.
Part of why Madrid appeals to so many people is its authenticity – the royal palaces, the Spanish art museums, the statues, the old (but gorgeous) buildings. Oh – and you can’t forget the authentic Spanish food. Keep reading to discover all my favorite and must-do things so you can experience the best of this historic city.
This blog post is part of a series of 3 destination posts that encompasses my 2022 Eurotrip to Paris, London, and Madrid. I planned all 3 destinations for me and my friend Kelly, who accompanied me on this journey!
Click to view the Paris post
Click to view the London post
Madrid was the last stop on our 2022 Eurotrip before heading home to the US. Having gone to Barcelona last year, I was excited to visit Madrid to see how the 2 cities compare.
- If you are conflicted, there will be a Madrid vs. Barcelona blog post in the near future, along with a blog post devoted entirely to Barcelona itself!
One thing I did want to point out is that despite Madrid being so tourist-heavy, I found that a lot of people did not speak English very well here. I would recommend having a translator app (I use Google Translate) and practicing with it before you go.
Website Disclaimer: I visited Madrid in July 2022. Although everything is accurate as of the publication of this post, it is important to keep in mind that prices, attractions, and other things may change with time.
Top Things to do In Madrid
Table of Contents
Madrid: Getting There, When to Visit, and Getting Around
The main airport to fly into in Madrid is Madrid Barajas Airport. It is large and EXTREMELY busy. The lines are long, and not a lot of the employees spoke English very well. Definitely allow yourself extra time when traveling to and from this airport.
When to Visit
I went to Madrid in July, and it was HOT….like, 100ºF hot. For cooler, more bearable temperatures, plan your visit around the fall or spring. I was told by a few locals that the winter months are more drab (aside from Christmas).
The streets of Madrid are very walkable. We only had to take the subway one time, and it was when we were going from El Retiro park back to La Latina (it would have been a 40 minute walk otherwise, and…well…we were tired). If you are staying in the center of Madrid and plan on exploring the inner parts of the city, you should not have to take the metro much (if at all).
Where To Stay/Where to Explore in Madrid
Where To Stay
If you have read any of my other blog posts, you know I am a fan of staying as centrally located to things you want to see as possible. For me, that meant staying in Sol, or the most central neighborhood in Madrid.
I booked the Hotel Preciados for our stay, and it was by far my favorite hotel out of all 3 European hotels that we visited. The room was huge and air conditioned, and the staff was extremely helpful and accommodating. Oh – and the shower had changing LED lights. Tell me that showering in the dark except for multicolored lights and your favorite playlist blasting isn’t a fking VIBE. That’s what I thought.
- Disclaimer: not all rooms may have this feature. It is worth looking into when you book. Again, #aesthetics.
Neighborhoods in Madrid
Madrid has many different areas, and they’re referred to as either districts or neighborhoods, depending on which site you visit. Some sites will include a “neighborhood” within a larger “district.” If you’re overwhelmed, don’t be. Before I went, I researched the different neighborhoods and wrote down the top 3 that I wanted to visit based on the vibe and what each neighborhood was known for. I will list them all below.
Another thing that I was relieved to discover was that everything I wanted to see was extremely close together. I felt like the neighborhoods just kind of….ran in to one another? It was sometimes difficult to discern where one neighborhood ended and another began (but not always!). Below are the 3 neighborhoods that I enjoyed exploring:
1. Sol – The Center
- “Sol” directly translates to “sun,” and the sun is the center of the universe – meaning this neighborhood is the center of Madrid. I would absolutely recommend staying here if it is your first time (and even if it isn’t your first time, I’d probably still recommend staying here).
- This neighborhood contains Plaza Mayor, the city’s main square and the place where you’ll see a lot of intersecting roads coming together. It is also where you’ll find Gran Via, Madrid’s most famous street, aka “the street that never sleeps.” Gran Via is bustling with shops, restaurants, and nightlife, all of which are a must-do.
2. Chueca – The LGBQT+ Community
- This is Madrid’s most LGBQT+ friendly neighborhood, and it is as lively, fun, and flaming as you would expect. We (unknowingly) visited Madrid during Pride Weekend, so this area was extra flamboyant.
- This is one of the few neighborhoods that was obvious when you were entering or leaving – the rainbow flags and banners were abundant all over the buildings, shops and homes.
3. La Latina – For the Foodies
- This one has the El Rastro flea market as well as Mercado de San Miguel. There were so many good restaurants that we passed here, and the whole neighborhood itself was really bright and vibrant.
Things to Do in Madrid: My Top Recommendations
I didn’t really have an itinerary planned out for Madrid, mostly because when I was looking up activities, I realized that the city is very museum-heavy. (If you read my Paris post, you know I am not a museum person. I bought tickets to the Louvre, saw the Mona Lisa, and peaced. *shrugs*) If you ARE a museum person, this website gives you a list of the top ones to choose from.
Aside from this, Madrid was the last stop in our summer 2022 Eurotrip, and honestly, I was looking forward to taking my time, enjoying the city, and seeing where the cobblestone streets took me. Having said that, there are things I definitely recommend you checking out:
El Rastro – The Sunday Flea Market
Madrid has a MASSIVE flea market every Sunday in La Latina known as El Rastro, and it is 100% worth visitng. Hundreds of vendors line each side of the street selling purses, clothes, jewelry, art, and more. It’s adorable. I bought a romper, a reversible crop top, and 3 bracelets from there.
- I feel like this goes without saying, but don’t expect the jewelry to be great quality…it IS a flea market, after all. However, I thought a lot of the outfits were cute!
- This is also a great place to get little souvenirs that aren’t overly expensive.
Parque de El Retiro
El Retiro is a huge park towards the outskirts of the city and was giving me major Central Park vibes. You just don’t expect a park like that amongst the buildings and busy streets, but alas, it does exist. The entrance is gorgeous, flanked by a lake with rowboats and a monument to Alfonso XII. This website gives you more information about renting rowboats.
Towards the back of the park, there is also a rose garden, although when we went in July a lot of the roses had begun wilting. To see the roses in full bloom, it is best to go in May or the beginning of June.
El Retiro park is the perfect place to go if you want to spend a day relaxing in Madrid. We saw a bunch of people having picnics, other people laying in the grass, and people just walking around. This website provides a great list of all the things to see and do in the park.
A Few Pro Tips About Visiting Parque de El Retiro
- Whenever we were planning on visiting El Retiro park, we typed in the address to Google maps and it alerted us that the park would be closing soon. We thought this was odd – and probably incorrect – and decided to walk there anyway (it was 1pm on a Sunday!). When we got there, the park was open and buzzing with people!
- El Retiro park’s opening hours vary based on the season and holidays:
- April – September: 6am – 12am (midnight)
- October – March: 6am – 10pm
- Do NOT go by the hours listed on Google maps if they seem wildly incorrect 🙂
Take a Day Trip
No trip to Madrid is complete without a tour or a day trip! We booked a half day tour to Toledo that included Cathedral tickets and LOVED it!
- On the website, it lists this tour being 5 hours and 30 minutes, but it was definitely longer – it ended up being closer to 8 hours.
Some of the other day trips and tours you can book include:
- Guided tour of the Royal Palace
- Guided tour of the Prado Museum
- Hop on/hop off bus tours, walking tours
- See a Flamenco show (type of dance that Madrid is known for)
- Multiple different Toledo tours
- Multiple Avila and Segovia tours
Depending on how much time you have in Madrid, you could also take a trip to Granada. I have never been, but it’s definitely on my list of places to explore – multiple people have told me it’s one of their favorite cities in the world. Granada is about a 4 hour drive south of Madrid (taking a train could potentially be quicker?), so we unfortunately did not have time to squeeze this one in.
Tour the Egyptian Temple
The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain and dates back to the 2nd century B.C. You can see hieroglyphics and other sculptures, but keep in mind that it had to be transported from Egypt to Spain and essentially rebuilt, so some of the writing isn’t as clear/well-preserved.
Soak in the Rooftop Views from RIU Hotel’s 360º Rooftop Bar
I would consider this one a must-do. Hotel RIU Plaza España is a fancy hotel near Sol that has a rooftop bar called 360º Rooftop with stunning views. The bar has a glass floor that you can stand on and see all the way down to the traffic below (also great for an Instagram photo-op!).
As the name suggests, you can walk around the entire perimeter of the building outside on the roof and see Madrid from every angle. Drinks here are also incredible. The atmosphere itself is absolutely gorgeous – it is the perfect place to watch an epic Spanish sunset.
This is a VERY popular thing to do in Madrid, so expect there to be a line. We got there on a Sunday night around 7pm and thankfully did not have to wait that long, but as we were leaving (around 8:30) the line was HUGE.
Simply Just Walk Around…
One of my favorite things to do in Spanish cities (okay, all cities) is honestly to just walk around. I find that all the characteristics of a city – the buildings, the lights, the smells, the music, the people – are really what makes it special. I could spend all day just walking around (and some days, I did!). If you are in an unfamiliar city and don’t really know what to do, my best advice is to just start walking. You are sure to run into shops, food, events, and more that you didn’t know existed (we even stumbled upon a drag show concert in Plaza Mayor our first night!).
Food in Madrid (+ a Wine Crawl)
The title of this blog post probably should have been “how to eat your way through Madrid,” because quite frankly, I feel like that’s all I did. And yet – I don’t regret it. (And once you’ve tried Spanish food, you won’t either.)
What and When To Eat
In terms of must-try Spanish foods, I always tell people to go for tapas. Tapas are essentially small plates that are meant to be shared.
As far as drinks, Spain has fantastic wine (known more for their reds than whites), and cava, which is a Spanish sparkling white wine – essentially a wine/champagne hybrid. (I thought the cava I got in Madrid was sweeter than the cava in Barcelona – tbh, I liked Barcelona’s better.)
One important thing to know is that when it comes to food, Madrid, like pretty much all of Spain, operates on a late schedule. In other words, if you are a night person, this is the place for you.
- A lot of restaurants don’t start serving breakfast until 10am. I found a couple of coffee shops that opened at 8am, but don’t expect most places to be open this early!
- In Spain, it is completely normal to eat dinner at 9-10pm or later.
Check Out My Blog Post About My Favorite Restaurants/Bars
I didn’t spend a lot of time looking up restaurants in Madrid just because you run into so many as you’re exploring, and they’re all good. I didn’t eat anywhere that I didn’t absolutely love. In fact, I loved the food here so much that I made an entire blog post devoted to 7 Unique Restaurants in Madrid you should try. Some of these places I only got drinks at, but they were all amazing and worth going to.
The Wine Crawl
If you read my Paris and/or London blog posts, you know that we did a champagne crawl in Paris, a pub crawl in London, and a wine crawl in Madrid. Doing a wine crawl in Madrid is a must. Since Madrid operates on a “late” time schedule, we would get a glass of wine with dinner, and then spend the rest of the night drinking and exploring our way through the city. We would usually end the night with a glass of wine at our hotel bar (the bartenders and staff were SO much fun!).
The best part about doing a wine crawl in Madrid is that you likely don’t have to have a plan whatsoever. Assuming you are staying in a populated area, the bars and restaurants are so numerous that you can start wherever you please and crawl your way back to your hotel.