Things to do in Madrid

As the heart of one of the most historically important empires in the world, Madrid is the perfect juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.

The Spanish capital has been an European centre of politics and culture for centuries. It has played a key role in many of the major events of the continent and the country, and its importance is evident in the air with which it carries itself. Dignified, grandiose, and beautiful, the architecture seems at once inviting and out of reach.

Madrid, however, isn’t all about royalty, elegance, and monuments. Its inhabitants bring colour and flavour to everyday life with constant music, delicious food, and one of the world’s greatest nightlife scene. After all, they are famous for staying up all night, and ending the party with breakfast.

Vast parks, such as El Retiro, bring splashes of green into the bustle of modernity.  Public spaces, such as the Plaza Mayor, offer stunning architecture.  Museums, such as Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, offer plenty for culture vultures or a rainy day.  Alternative bars bring some grime into the manicured avenues, and a joy of life overtakes inhabitants and visitors alike.

If you’re looking to make the most of your time in this beautiful city, here are the top things to do.

1. Museo Nacional del Prado

The exterior of the Museo Prado (Puerta de Goya), Madrid (© Fernando Bueno, CC-BY-ASA-2.0). A Velaquez on display at Madrid's Museo Prado. A Velaquez on display at Madrid's Museo Prado.

With 7,600 paintings, 1,00 sculptures, and an impressive collection of European art, it is Spain’s main art museum.

The Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the most visited in the entire planet, and it’s not difficult to see why. With thousands of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and drawings, its collection is matched by few other museums.

Housing masterpieces by Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, Caravaggio, Rubens, and many other artists, a visit to Madrid demands a visit to El Prado. To miss it would be to miss the very essence of the city, which prides itself in its commitment to art and culture.

Velazquez’ Las Meninas is by far the collection’s most famed piece, followed closely by others like Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son, and Rubens’ The Three Graces.

where? The museum is located on the Paseo del Prado in the city centre. To get there, go to the Madrid Atocha metro station.

when? El Prado is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and Sundays and holidays from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. However, keep in mind that there are reduced hours on January 6, and on December 24 and 31, so the museum closes at 2:00 p.m. Likewise, it does not open on January 1, May 1, or December 25.

£$€¥ General admission to the museum is €17, senior citizens and holders of the youth card enjoy a reduced price of €9. Children under 18, students 18-25, and visitors with impairments  get in for free. There is free access for everyone Monday to Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m, and Sundays and holidays from 5:00 p.m. to 7 p.m.

2. Parque del Buen Retiro

A monument to General Martinez Composin Park Buen Retiro, Madrid Paseo de la Argentina, a sculpture walk in the Parque del Buen Retiro (© Matthew Verso, CC-BY-ASA-2.0). The Crystal Palace greenhouse in El Retiro (© JJkiang, CC-BY-ASA-3.0).

Formally royal property, Park Buen Retiro is one of the most grandiose and beautiful parks in the continent.

The Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat, or just El Retiro) was owned by the royal family up until the 19th century, when its expansive space and large gardens were opened to the public.

Today, it is one of the main attractions in Spain, as locals and visitors enjoy spending time lying on the grass, going into the Crystal Palace, and admiring the imposing statue of King Alfonso XII next to the pond.

Besides being a place of leisure, the park is often used as a venue for cultural events. Plays, expositions, and activities are hosted here with frequency. In fact, there are two museums within the maze of the park.

The Cason del Buen Retiro is dedicated to 18th and 19th century paintings, while the Ejercito Museums has relics such as the sword of the legendary El Cid, and the armour worn by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the Americas. 

where? The park is located in the city centre, close to Puerta de Alcala and the Museo del Prado. To arrive on metro take line 2 to El Retiro station.

when? Opening later than most other public parks in Europe, el Buen Retiro is accessible from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. October to April, and from 7:00 a.m. to midnight from May to September. It is full of people at all hours, since the daytime and nighttime offer different attractions and events.

£$€¥ As all public parks, there is no fee to enter the Buen Retiro. Most of its attractions, including the permanent collection of its museums, can be enjoyed free of charge. However, special events may charge a price.

3. Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor, Madrid, is one of the capital's top attractions (© Ronny Siegel, CC-BY-4.0) Sunset over Plaza Major (© Sebastian Dubiel, CC-BY-ASA-3.0 de) Plaza Mayor's Christmas market (© Barcex, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

As the Main Square of Madrid, the Plaza Mayor has been witness to some of the city’s major events.

From royal weddings to bullfights to witch burning, the Plaza Mayor has seen it all. Built in the 17th century during the reign of Philip III, it has been the epicentre of Madrid ever since its construction. Today, it is a place of commerce and leisure, and it is still where locals gather every year for the celebrations of San Isidro.

The Square has also undergone major changes throughout its history. Victim of a large fire that almost destroyed it in 1790, it was rebuilt on the vision of Juan de Villanueva. Its new look has been preserved for posterity, and it is the one that continues to charm its visitors.

Besides its aesthetics, its name has changed numerous times, often reflecting the political struggles of the country. From Plaza del Arrabal to Plaza de la Constitucion to many other names, its current name finally settled after the Spanish civil war. 

where? The square is, of course, located right at the centre of Madrid. It is quite close to the Puerta del Sol plaza. To reach it by metro, get off at the Sol station.

when? There are no opening or closing times, as it is an open-air public space. However, if you are interested in a particular shop or restaurant, it is advisable to be mindful of its hours of operation.

£$€¥ As one of Madrid’s most popular attractions, places of commerce located in the square tend to be pricey. However, it is very easy for travellers on a budget to enjoy time at the square without spending much money.

4. Museo Nacional Reina Sofia

The exterior of the Museo Reina Sofia (© Museoreinasofia, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Gris' Violin and Guitar, on display at the Reina Sofia A Kandinsky at the Reina Sofia

Named in honour of Queen Sofia of Spain, the Museo Reina Sofia holds the best collection of 20th-century Spanish art in the world.

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, to give it its full name, is as important to 20th century art as El Prado is to the previous centuries.

Its two biggest masters are, of course, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Alongside them, you will find works by Juan Gris, Julio Gonzalez, Joan Miro, and many others.

Its international collection, though small, features the likes of Vasily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, and Diego Rivera.

The most famous piece within the permanent collecting is the  heartbreaking Guernica by Picasso.

where? The Reina Sofia is conveniently located close to the Parque del Buen Retiro and the Museo del Prado. It is best accessed through the metro station Atocha.

when? The museum is open on Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. On Sundays, it is open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., though after 2:30 p.m. only Collection 1 remains open. It is closed on Tuesday.

£$€¥ General admission is $9 for the permanent collection, and $5 for temporary exhibitions.

5. Gran Via

Madrid's Gran Via (© Luis García, CC-BY-ASA-3.0 es) Madrid's Gran Via at night (© PromoMadrid, author Max Alexander A statue on the top of the Madrid-Paris building on the Gran Via (© Luis García, CC-BY-ASA-3.0 es)

Translating as “Great Avenue” this architectural gem is where all the excitement is.

“La Gran Via” received its name as a sarcastic criticism to the government’s failure to follow through with construction plans after tearing down a large portion of the city. In the end, however, its mock nickname suited it beautifully, as grand is the only word that can correctly describe this avenue.

Upscale shops, high-class restaurants, movie theaters, and bars populate its breathtaking belle-epoque architecture, lavishly decorated, and well-kept.

If you want to enjoy nightlife in Madrid, chances are you will end up at the Gran Via at some point. After all, it’s here that people congregate to eat tapas, drink wine, and dance to rhythms from all over the world.

where? There is no bigger point of reference than the Gran Via. While in Madrid, it will be impossible to miss it. Several metro lines stretch out along the avenue, including the Gran Via and the Callao stations.

when? Daytime shopping and walking provide opportunities to admire the architecture and get a glimpse of everyday life in the city. At night, the avenue lights up the city. It is not for nothing that it is nicknamed “the street that never sleeps.”

£$€¥ Shops, restaurants, bars, and dance clubs directly located on the Gran Via tend to be expensive. However, there are plenty of backstreet venues that carry the spirit of the avenue while shedding its high prices.

6. Madrid Rio Park

Madrid Rio Park, on the banks of the Manzanares river

This riverside promenade has quickly become one of the most popular public spaces in the city.

Following the banks of the Manzanares River, this expansive green space was built as a family-friendly place where people could congregate to spend their hours of leisure. Besides lanes that are wide enough for pedestrians, bikes, and skaters, it has several fountains, gardens, and beautiful bridges.

Adults will enjoy bars with terraces, regular concerts, plays, and cultural events, or a simple stroll along the scenic promenade. For children, there are 17 playgrounds that include swings, ziplines, and slides.

As if that wasn’t enough, playgrounds are also catered to different ages, so children are always assured age-appropriate activities that won’t bore them. With all of this, it’s easy to see why the city continuously flocks here when the sun is out and the weather is nice.

where? The promenade is located next to the Royal Palace. The closest metro stops to it are Principe Pio, Piramides, and Legazpi.

when? As an open public space there are no hours for the promenade. Of course, it is busiest on afternoons and weekends, when people are not at school or at work, and on nice days. It is advisable to avoid the area late at night, when there are not many people around.

£$€¥ There is no fee to enjoy the promenade, or its playgrounds. Any money spent will be associated with restaurants, bars, bike rentals, and other such activities that are completely optional.

7. El Rastro Flea Market

Bottles for sale at El Rastro flea market, Madrid (© Tamorlan, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Textiles for sale at El Rastro (© gaelx, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Crowds at El Rastro (© victorgrigas, CC-BY-ASA-3.0).

Madrid’s oldest market is the perfect place to go hunting for treasures at bargain prices.

Dating back to the 15th century, El Rastro started its story as a meat market. Over the centuries, it evolved to include a more diverse variety of merchandise, until it transformed into an all-in-one cove for everything your heart may desire. In this chaotic and colorful market, you will be surrounded by hundreds of people haggling prices down while musicians play live music and the smell of delicious food calls your name.

From vintage clothes, to cliche souvenirs, to original drawings, to jewelry, there is no telling what you might find in the more than a hundred stalls that line the streets. If you love hunting for bargains but don’t want to deal with the crowds, simply slip into one of the side streets, where the market has inevitably spilled to. In these streets, you will find the same type of merchandise, sometimes at reduced prices, while avoiding being caught in a mosh pit of fervent shoppers.

where?  The flea market is located between the Plaza de Cascorro and Ronda de Toledo, on Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores. Several metro stops service it, including Embajadores, Puerta de Toledo, and La Latina.

when? El Rastro opens on Sundays and public holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The busiest hour is usually midday. If you want to spot the best deals before anyone and avoid the crowds, plan to get there as early as possible.

£$€¥ Most people meander through El Rastro with the intention of buying at least one thing. However, walking around is a very pleasant experience and provides ample opportunities for taking pictures and people-watching. Of course, how much you spend on merchandise, food and drink, and entertainment is entirely up to you and the power of your wallet.

8. Teatro Lope de Vega

The Lope de Vega Theatre (© Webstage, CC-BY-ASA-3.0 es)

With almost 70 years of operation, this impressive theater is often called the Broadway of Spain.

Where do you go if you want to catch a showing of the Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and The Lion King? If you’re in Madrid, to Teatro Lope de Vega.

The theatre opened on April 16, 1949, on the site of a Jesuit house that had burnt almost 20 years before. Focusing on musical theatre almost since its inception, Lope de Vega has transformed the cultural scene of the city, and brought to Spain some of the world’s most critically-acclaimed shows.

In an ironic twist of fate, the theatre was turned to a cinema on 1954. Despite its popularity as a grandiose cinema, it followed its true calling in the 1990s and has never again looked back. Today, the theatre has enough room to accommodate 1,100 people, and continues to wow its audience with top shows. 

where?  Teatro Lope de Vega is located on La Gran Via, Madrid’s main avenue. You can reach it on the metro stops Callao and Santo Domingo.

when?Lope de Vega follows a regular theater schedule, with most showings held in the evening. To see a show, you will have to consult the program and see what’s available.

£$€¥ Prices for showings are in accord with similar institutions worldwide and, of course, will vary by date, hour, and seat. Usually, you can find a cheap seat for around €40, but it is possible to find a cheaper price if you’re lucky. If you want to experience the shows up-close and personal, be prepared to pay a significantly higher price.

9. Royal Palace

The Palacio Real in Madrid (© Diego Delso, CC-BY-ASA-4.0) The Prince's Gate at Madrid's Royal Palace (© Bernard Gagnon, CC-BY-ASA-3.0) The gardens at Madrid's Royal Palace (© Antonio.velez, CC-BY-ASA-3.0 es)

Built with granite and white colemar stone, the Royal Palace of Spain is as grandiose as can be.

Beautiful in its striking white facade, the Palacio Real astonishes visitors day after day. Situated in the centre of the city, it is one of Spain’s main symbols, and the official residence of the royal family. It should be noted that in this case, official does not mean actual, since the regents have been living at Palacio de la Zarzuela for quite some time.

The palace was commissioned in 1734 by Philip V, after Alcazar burnt down. His vision was to make it the most grandiose palace ever constructed in Europe —a pursuit that, admittedly, lacked originality. His death before the completion of the palace resulted in a change of plans that brought the design down to almost half of its original size. Despite this, Philip V would not have been too upset with the final product, as it is to this day the largest royal palace in Western Europe.

Though not all rooms are open to visitors, there is quite a lot to see: from the King’s dressing room, to the delicately appealing Porcelain Room, to the Hall of Columns, to the Throne Room. There are several works and decorative arts that are on display, including sculptures by Velazquez, frescoes by Corrado Giaquinto, magnificent tapestries, and ornate clocks.

Visitors also enjoy touring the Royal Armory, where they can see the suit of armour El Cid himself wore. As in any royal palace, the gardens are extensive and delightful. 

where? The Royal Palace is located in the city centre, close to the Plaza Mayor. To access it, take the metro to either Opera or Plaza de España stops.

when? The palace is open to visitors every day, excluding some national holidays. Hours of operation are 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from October to March, and 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. from April to September.

£$€¥Admission for adults starts at €10, and costs €11 if access to an exhibition is included. Reduced prices of €5-€6 are available to certain individuals, including children ages 5-16, students under 25 years of age, and senior citizens. Children under 5 and other groups are eligible for free admission. Additionally, entrance is free for the general public on May 18, museum day. For more information on prices and hours, visit the official page

10. Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol plaza in central Madrid (© emijrp (CC-BY-SA)). The Real Casa de Correos on Puerta del Sol

The KM 0 of Madrid, Puerta del Sol is the centre around which the city lives and breathes.

The name of this plaza, which means Gate of the Sun, is perfectly suited for it. After all, Madrid gravitates around it like the sun. It was once one of the gates that guarded the wall around the Medieval city, but it gradually became a centre of congregation. For hundreds of years, people would come here to hear the latest news, meet to gossip with the rest of the town, and hear important announcements.

It is no wonder, then, that it is here where the Office of the President, along with other government buildings, is located. It is also where demonstrators meet to protest, tourists come to people watch, and locals meet up with their friends. There are several monuments that have achieved iconic status as symbols of the country, as well as shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. 

where?  Puerta del Sol is the actual city centre of Madrid, and it is close to many of the city’s most important landmarks. To access it, get off on the Sol metro stop. 

when?  As an open public square, there are no set times for when visitors can enjoy it. Needless to say, places of commerce such as restaurants and bars all follow their own schedule, which should be checked before hand. If you’re looking for nightlife, several places in this area (as in the rest of the city) stay open until sunrise. 

£$€¥ Visiting Puerta del Sol can be either free or very expensive. If you wish to walk around and people-watch, you will not incur any expenses. However, due to its popularity and central location, prices are steeper than in other places in the city.