Madrid is a melting pot of people from all around the country. Hemmingway described the city as ‘the most Spanish of Spanish cities’.
The average stay in Madrid is just over two days which barely scratches the surface of what you can see and do in this city.
But whether you plan a two day trip to Madrid or an extended stay in Madrid, there are certain things you just can’t miss. As an experienced tour guide who grew up in Madrid, these are the things I think you should be doing to make the most of your time here and to make you consider coming back.
What not to miss in and around Madrid
Scroll to the bottom of this article for a map of what to see & do in Madrid
1. Museums in Madrid
Madrid is the home of some of the biggest and most important museums in Spain, and in Europe.
Unlike other museums in Europe which tend to have a broader-spectrum when it comes to their content, the two biggest museums in Madrid, the Prado and the Reina Sofia, are dedicated to a specific time period and group of artists.
The Prado contains Spanish classical art mainly from the Spanish Golden Age and was once the royal family’s private collection. The Reina Sofia contains modern art from the Spanish 20th century including ‘Guernica’ by Picasso as well as works by Salvador Dalí.
Filling the gap between the two time periods covered in the Prado and the Reina Sofia is the Thyssen which houses art from the 13th to the 20th century, by artists from around the world. It also happens to be free on Mondays from 12-4pm, saving you €12.
I could go on for days about the art contained within their walls, but the most important thing to note is that the Prado and the Reina Sofia are FREE for at least a couple of hours a day, 6 days a week and always free for students. This means that if you didn’t get enough art the first time, you can go back for a second helping.
Tip: these museums are very large and can get quite busy so I would recommend doing a bit of homework regarding what you want to see inside them as this saves time and can help you avoid the crowds. And if you have the chance to get a guide inside, go for it, it opens up a whole new dimension to each museum.
Other places to visit for free in Madrid
It’s not just the museums in Madrid that can be visited for free. The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) is free for EU and Latin American citizens as well as EU residents during its last two opening hours. The Retiro Park is free, the Templo de Debod (an ancient Egyptian monument given to Spain in 1968) is free, the churches and cathedrals are free, Lope de Vega’s house is free (a restored 17th century home)… And the list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture!
All of these places I mentioned above are places I recommend visiting in Madrid as they are unique to the city and also provide a nice insight into the city’s history and culture.
2. Bars and Restaurants in Madrid
Madrid has 1.83 bars per 1000 inhabitants meaning it is hard to go thirsty here.
The city center has hundreds of bars, some of which are new and some of which have been around for decades.
My dad always told me that I should look out for the dirtiest bars because they are the cheapest. I however recommend that you go bar hopping rather than staying in one place, to experience a good number of different bars in Madrid. And as another insider tip: always go for the smaller beers (cañas or cañas dobles) because in most bars you get a new tapa with each round (more free food!) which should ease the beer high. The tapa you receive can be any food dish or item; some bars will offer chicken wings, some will offer peanuts, others offer chips… It’s a bit of a lottery but that’s the fun of it!
Madrid is becoming more and more gentrified so expect plenty of hip new bars around but the ‘dirty, old man bars’ that my Dad loved so much are still around as well.
When it comes to areas, I would try a different neighborhood each day/night to get a good taste of the city. Starting in the north of the city and working your way down hill is a good option.
Most bars and restaurants in the city will offer a ‘menu del dia‘ which is 3 course meal for around €12 per person (on average) served only at lunch time. This is a great way to eat well without spending much. Most bars and restaurants will have a chalkboard or a printed copy of the day’s menu del dia outside. Lunch is eaten notoriously late in Spain. People don’t sit down to eat until 2pm at the earliest, so don’t expect to see any of these menus until around 1pm. Dinner is also late, starting at around 9pm.
For those wanting to eat like its 1725, Restaurante Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world (World Guinness Book of Records certified!) is the place to be. The restaurant serves a variety of desicious dishes and meats cooked in their wood-burning oven, which is one of the few wood-burning ovens in the city. And despite its claim to fame and the fact the king sometimes dines here, it isn’t as expensive as you might expect, with a three course meal coming to around €75 per person.
3. Nightlife in Madrid
Madrid has a very diverse nightlife. You can easily go out every night of the week as long as you know where to go.
From Monday to Wednesday I would suggest going to the Sol area. The small clubs here always have some kind of event going on and even though the music may seem suspiciously similar in every place, the key is to be in good company. The univeristy area around Moncloa is also a good option as well as the gay area Chueca.
Thursday to Saturday is the weekend in Madrid and this is when everyone comes out to play. There are a lot of places that stay open until 6am, especially around the Malasaña area.
What makes Madrid’s nightlife so interesting is how late things start; don’t expect anyone to be in a club until around 1am! So do what the locals do: take a siesta during the evening to charge your batteries for a big night out.
On Sundays the weekend winds down. Checking out the La Latina neighborhood is a good way to end a weekend in Madrid.
4. Football in Madrid
Probably one of the more controversial entries on this list, but Madrid is very well know for its football teams. Real Madrid has won the Champìons League three years in a row and their main local rivals, Atletico de Madrid won the minor European trophy in 2018, the Europa League so no matter where you go, football is in the air.
If you are thinking about watching one of the top tier teams play, I highly recommend getting tickets in advance and I warn you now, they aren’t cheap! Be prepared to pay over €60 for a ticket.
Atletico de Madrid’s new stadium is impressive and has a better atmosphere than their Madrid rivals on match day. But my personal recommendation: if you want a proper Madrid football game, head down to Vallecas and watch Rayo Vallecano play. The atmosphere is great, the fans are fun and the area is much cheaper than other places in the city.
5. Day Trips from Madrid
One of the reasons Madrid was chosen to be the capital of the Spanish empire by Phillip II in 1561 is because of its geographical location in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula. This means that Madrid is well located for day trips to some very impressive and important old towns only a stone’s throw away.
Toledo, one of the previous capitals of the Spanish Empire, is only an hour or so away and has an amazing cathedral, beautiful views and a nice Jewish Quarter. There are good train and bus connections from Madrid to Toledo.
Segovia is also around an hour away from Madrid and has a fantastic Roman aqueduct, beautiful scenery and amazing roast suckling pig. Segovia can be reached by train from Madrid but this takes around 2 hours instead of just over 1 hour by car.
Forty minutes away by car or train you can find Alcalá de Henares. This city has one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country and boasts the likes of Cervantes as their alumni. There is also a restored replica of Cervantes’ house which is worth checking out and the city itself is beautiful.
Aranjuez, to the south of the city, is also fascinating as it is where one of the royal family’s palaces is. It’s a quiet place with beautiful gardens and less than an hour from Madrid by car or train.
North-West of Madrid you can find El Escorial, which was the royal family’s summer palace. It’s a tranquil place with great views and makes for a perfect half-day trip from Madrid. There are also some great hiking routes around here and numerous reservoirs which act as artificial lakes and are ideal for a picnic. El Escorial can be reached in about an hour from Madrid by car or bus.
The vibe in Madrid
Madrid is, in my opinion, an underrated city. It is overshadowed by its European rivals because of the city’s lack of famous monuments, spectacular architecture or seaside location.
But, what makes Madrid special for me is its atmosphere and its people. It doesn’t matter where you are from, you are always welcome. Sitting outside on a terrace in the evening, you can feel Madrid’s energy. People from all corners of Spain and people from around the world come together to enjoy what the city has to offer. Spending time here just makes you want to be part of life in Madrid and that is why I have always said that the longer you stay in Madrid, the more you understand why people want to stay.
But, whether you are planning a short two day trip to Madrid or want to explore this city for much longer, I hope you enjoy it and know a bit more now about what to see and do in Madrid!
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What to see and do in Madrid on a map
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