Top 5 Attractions in Madrid

January 1, 1970

by Elmari De Vos

Madrid often stands in the shadow of Barcelona, but 48 hours will give you a taste of the Spanish capital that will leave you hungry for more. From the iconic Prada museum to fun food markets, stately Palacio Real to the nightlife of Gran Vía, Madrid is a metropolitan hub that introduces tourists to a Spain seen in few other cities. A visit to the Spanish capital would be incomplete without visits to these attractions.

Plaza Mayor

At first glance, Plaza Mayor seems like it is the same as any other major European square. But look closer and you will lose track of time while studying the beautiful frescoes representing the signs of the zodiac and gods on the burnt orange walls of Real Casa de la Panadería. Restaurants with al fresco seating line the square and its surrounding streets, while locals and expats continue their day-to-day life alongside tourists. The plaza was built during the reign of King Phillip III and to memorialize the monarch, a bronze statue of the proud king and his steed stands in the center of the action.

This bustling square should be your first stop (after your hotel, of course) in Madrid. Besides its obvious architectural and artistic value, Plaza Mayor is also home to the city’s tourism office (Centro de Turismo de Madrid). Located inside Real Casa de la Panadería, the tourist office has friendly, English-speaking experts that are both helpful and knowledgeable. Besides top tips from locals, you will also find city maps, wifi, and a free download of the city’s metro map.

Plaza Mayor on a rainy afternoon

Palacio Real & Sabatini Gardens

Exit Plaza Mayor through Calle Mayor and head towards the official residence of the Spanish royals. Surrounded by gardens, tree-lined walkways, plazas, and fountains, Palacio Real is one of the city’s most picturesque and romantic attractions.

With over 3000 rooms including the main staircase designed by Sabatini, Throne Hall, Hall of Halberdiers, Royal Chemist, and Royal Kitchen, the Royal Palace housed the kings of Spain from Charles III to Alfonso XIII. The painting gallery houses some of the world’s greatest works of art including Virgin with Child by Luis Morales and Portrait of Isabella the Catholic by Juan de Flandes. Other art includes works by Velásquez, Goya, Federico Madrazo, and Sorolla.

A variety of palace tours are available from €10

Plan to also wander through the Sabatini Gardens. Located north of the palace, these neoclassic gardens offer a peaceful atmosphere and beautiful palace views. Consisting of well-sheared hedges, a pool, geometrically shaped trees, and fountains the Sabatini Gardens add to the spectacular beauty of the palace.

Palace view from the Sabatini Gardens

Plaza de España

There is something important to understand about Madrid – everything is beautiful, and you will find something special on every street you walk. In this case, I was walking from the Sabatini Gardens towards the theatre district, but I became so caught up with the festive atmosphere around the gardens, that I didn’t really notice where I was walking (my favorite way to explore new cities). And so I discovered Plaza de España.

In the center of the plaza is a tall monument, almost in the shape of an obelisk. Nearly halfway to the ground a man – the writer Cervantes – sits in his chair holding a book; at the foot of the obelisk is a bronze statue of two men riding their horses – they are Cervantes’ iconic characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Plaza de España pays tribute to Spain’s greatest writer and the result is a vibrant square that leaves you with the impression that this is a place where life truly happens.

Monument for Spanish writer Cervantes

Food Markets – Mercado de San Miguel

To foodies, there is no place like Spain – tapas, fresh food, juicy citrus, old world wines, cured meat, and paella all come to mind. But Madrid has its own special blend of cuisine. Huevos rotos, chocolate churros, and calamari bocadillo are some of the city’s most popular dishes. You can find these and many more at most local food markets.

The glass and iron building housing Mercado de San Miguel

During my two days in Madrid, my best find was probably Mercado de San Miguel. Located just off Plaza Mayor, this covered market consists of stalls for fresh produce, tapas, and wine. The warm atmosphere and romantic lighting, as well as the beautiful glass building that houses it give Mercado de San Miguel the same trendiness as Barcelona’s La Boqueria, plus a whole lot of elegance.

Chorizo Paella from the market

Museo del Prado

I was saving the best for last… plan enough time to enter Museo del Prado, especially if you are a lover of art. Housing over 7600 paintings (as well as nearly 14000 drawings, prints, and sculptures), Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s most prestigious art galleries. The gallery houses beautiful collections of European art, including works by Bartolomé Esteban Morillo, Rembrandt, Rafael, and Anton van Dyck. The gallery’s most renowned works of art, however, are by Velásquez and Goya. Here, the most famous of Goya’s work is Las Pinturas Negras – a series of paintings depicting characters that have been described as dark and distorted.

Don’t leave Madrid without studying Las Meninas (also known as La Família de Felipe IV) by Velasquez. I did, and three years later am still regretting this decision!

Quick tips for Madrid

The Rain in Spain…

The most beautiful sunshiny day in Madrid can turn into a (just as beautiful) rainy day. Take an umbrella or check the weather predictions to plan spending rainy days in museums.

Visiting the Prado Museum on a rainy day

Don’t underestimate Madrid

Madrid has so much to offer visitors but often stands in the shadow of coastal cities like Barcelona. Do enough research, because you will wish that you had more time to spend here.

Stumble Upon a Plaza

The best way of exploring Madrid is to just walk around. The city is full of some of the most beautiful plazas in Europe. Take the time to sit down in one of these and study the locals going about their daily routines.

People watching in Puerta del Sol

Entertainment & Nightlife

Nicknamed the street that never sleeps, Gran Via is the city’s most famous shopping location and home to the Spanish Broadway; it’s known for its vibrant Spanish nightlife.

Art, art, and more art

Madrid is home to some of Europe’s most famous works of art. From the Prado to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza to Museo Sorolla, your visit to Madrid isn’t done if you haven’t worked in enough visits to its art galleries.

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