Madrid is a sprawling, lively, historic, energetic city that never sleeps; where there is so much happening it seems the locals never stay home. In fact they are often called gatos or cats because they are known for staying out so late and the city itself is often referred to as the ‘Madrids’ in plural because the city has so many faces and variety. There is never a lack of something to see or go and do in Madrid so it was difficult to narrow this list down. However, if you are visiting Madrid here are the top attractions I wouldn’t want to miss.
1. Retiro Park
The Parque del Buen Retiro or just ‘El Retiro’ is a 350 acre park located right in the city center. It was originally the private gardens of the Spanish Royalty but has been made public and the park is full of things to explore. The Estanque or pond is the heart of the park; you can row a boat around the pond, sit on a terrace and have a cup of coffee or a beer and people watch, or enjoy the street performers and artists. The park is home to a crystal palace, a rose garden, walking trails, biking and rollerblading paths, statues and monuments and there are often expositions and concerts in the park.
2. Plaza Mayor
The Plaza Mayor is the central plaza in the heart of historic Madrid. It is enclosed by buildings on all 4 sides and you may not even know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. The plaza has been a central part of Madrid’s public life for centuries. Public ceremonies, bullfights, soccer matches, markets and Spanish Inquisition trials have all taken place here. The plaza is now home to several traditional shops, terrace cafes, street performers and great people watching. During the holidays it hosts a Christmas market and on the weekends coin and stamp collectors take over. The plaza is a great area to soak in the historical feel of Madrid.
3. Puerta del Sol
Just a few blocks away from the Plaza is the Puerta del Sol; a busy central area of the city where people meet to stroll the shops, eat churros and chocolate or have a treat at the famous bakery La Mallorquina. Sol is the crossroads of the city: a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor, a few from the Palace, and a metro stop away from Retiro park and the museums. You can step on kilometer 0: the plaque that marks the beginning of all the Spanish highways (it is literally the center of Spain), see the clock that rings in the New Year, the famous Tío Pepe sign, the bear and Madrone tree statue (symbol of Madrid) and visit El Corte Inglés the giant department store that sells just about everything.
4. Art Museums
Madrid is home to three of the world’s best art museums and they are all located within walking distance of each in what has become known as the Golden Triangle of Art or the Madrid Art Walk. The Prado is the most famous of the three and is the national museum full of European classics. The Renia Sofia focuses on contemporary art and is home to paintings by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso including the famous Guernica. The third leg of the golden triangle is The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum or just the ‘Thyssen’. Here you can take an art history tour starting in the 13th century and ending in the 1960’s. If you are interested in seeing all three museums buy an Art Pass and you’ll save on admission.
For the last of the list you get to eat, drink and be merry. Spain is famous for tapas. The origin of the term is debated (it means top or cover) but tapas have become a part of Madrid culture. Tapas are small dishes of snacks or appetizers and in most bars you’ll be served tapas free with your drinks but there is much more to tapas. Locals often go for rounds of tapas (and drinks) after work and on weekends. It is a way to socialize, moving from one restaurant to another having rounds of tapas and cañas (small draft beers) or the great Spanish wine. A great area to go pub crawling for tapas is the network of little streets and alleys between Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Santa Ana and in the plaza itself. Have a drink, a round of tapas, throw your napkin on the floor (when in Rome) pay the bill and move on to the next bar, restaurant or terraza and repeat as many times as you like.
There is much more to Madrid and this list could have 50 things or more (the Royal Palace, the Rastro Market on Sundays, Cibeles fountain, city hall and more come to mind). If you visit Madrid this list is a good starting point of things I wouldn’t want to miss. Enjoy the culture, liveliness, chaos, nightlife, art, food and fun that is Madrid.