As the capital city of Spain, Madrid is home to some of the nation's best artwork—including sizable collections from Velázquez and Goya at the Prado Museum—and stunning architecture and green spaces.
Stay: 3-4 days
Region: Community of Madrid
Fast Fact: Madrid is the capital and the largest city in Spain.
Nearby Destinations: Toledo, Valladolid, Cuenca, Salamanca
It's hard not to pass through Madrid if you're visiting Spain, but some visitors don't spend enough time here to get a full sense of all it has to offer. While many travelers will prefer the more cosmopolitan and architecturally experimental Barcelona, many argue that Madrid is in essence a much more "Spanish" city.
The perfect time of year to stop by is in May, during the annual Feria de San Isidro, the largest festival in a country known for its festivals. You'll see dancers in traditional dress representing every Spanish region on outdoor stages, brass bands marching through the Puerta del Sol, and—if you're up for it—Spain's most renowned bullfighters. You might even catch an extravagantly dressed bachelor party living it up on a mechanical bull ride at a carnival (true story), or pay a few euro to get a panoramic view of the city from the top of a Ferris wheel.
Around the seventh century CE, the area near what is now Madrid was a Visigoth outpost, which may have been called Matríce, a name with Latin origins. In the ninth century, with the arrival of Muslims to the area, it is believed that the name was changed to Mayrit or Magrit. This happened in the early years of Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, during which various caliphates would control parts of the Iberian Peninsula until 1492. Muhammad I, emir of Córdoba, ordered the construction of a small castle on the site where the Palacio Real (royal palace) is today. The ruins of walls built during this time period are still visible in Madrid.
Madrid became the de facto capital of Spain in 1561, when Philip II moved his court there. During the Siglo de Oro (Golden Century) in the seventeenth century, a period of great artistic production that produced Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and the poetry of Luis de Góngora, the city grew quickly. It played host to these and other notable artists of the era. The Palacio Real was built in the eighteenth century.
If you're looking for a few great day trips from Madrid, check out Toledo or Segovia. Read our full guide to Segovia here.
Top Things to Do
Plaza Mayor of Madrid
The Plaza Mayor has, under many different names, undergone quite a few renovations over the centuries. Its present iteration was designed by architect Juan de Villanueva—most famous for designing the Prado Museum—in the late eighteenth century. The plaza had been severely damaged by fire.
Don't miss the Casa de la Panadería, the first building constructed in a major renovation of the plaza beginning in 1590. In 1988, the city of Madrid launched a contest to decide who would earn the right to decorate the façade of the building. Painter Carlos Franco won the contest for his design involving such mythological figures as Bacchus, Proserpina, and Cupid. The mural was completed in 1992.
Puerta del Sol
The area of Madrid, in fact, may have been once known as Ursaria, referring to the bears that populated the region. Big-game hunting, including the hunting of bears, was common in medieval Spain. Hunters—often royal personages—accompanied by large entourages of aides, dogs, trainers, and even women interested in watching the hunt, could pursue a bear over the course of several days. There are very few Eurasian brown bears left in Spain.
The former House of the Post Office, which stands on the plaza, is now the sea of the president of Madrid—the head of the regional government. A plaque in the Puerta del Sol, just north of the post office building, is referred to as kilómetro cero (zero kilometer), and is considered the symbolic center of Spain.
Staying near the Puerta del Sol is a good option, because it's within walking distance of just about all of the main sights, and a metro stop away from just about everything else. Be warned that the plaza is known for a little pickpocketing, so just stay aware of your surroundings.
Palacio Real (Royal Palace) de Madrid
The 3,000-room palace is laid out in a large square and flanked by a parade ground, which you can enter without paying. Inside, the Royal Armory might be a favorite among visitors; it houses a huge collection of weapons and armor that members of the Spanish royal family have worn dating back to the 1200s. The Painting Gallery houses artwork from some of Spain's most notable gainers, and the Throne Hall, Gasparini Room, and main staircase are each breathtaking in their own rights. There's a changing of the guard on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but don't expect to see the king—it may be his official residence, but he doesn't live here anymore.
Hours: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (October to March); 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to September)
Free admission: Monday–Friday, 4–6 p.m. (October to March) and 6–8 p.m. (April to September). Free for EU citizens and Hispanic Americans with proof of nationality; the same holds true for those with residency or work permits.
Museo del Prado (Prado Museum)
Most incredible of all are Goya's Black Paintings, works in oil that were painted on the walls of his house, la Quinta del Sordo ("House of the Deaf Man"), on the outskirts of Madrid. Executed later in his life, the distorted, grotesque figures in these pieces represent Goya's tormented and despairing relationship with his society and time. Spend a while in this room, standing before Aquelarre (Witches' Sabbath) and Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son). It is a life-changing experience.
An expansion that will make the Prado a full 16 percent larger opens in 2019.
Hours: Monday–Saturday 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sundays and holidays 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Admission: 15 € with some reduced-ticket options. Buy Prado Tickets.
Free admission Monday–Saturday 6–8 p.m.; Sundays and holidays 5–7 p.m.
Barrio de La Latina (Latina Neighborhood)
While you're in the neighborhood, stop by the Mercado de la Cebada. This two-story, 6,000-square-meter market offers not just food but everything you could ever want, from flowers to upholstery. There's nothing like a Spanish market, and there are fewer places that offer more affordable options for a quick bite. Take the time to wander around and try a new food.
Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro Park)
Make sure to stop by the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), an airy glass-and-metal structure built on the edge of a quiet, green lake brimming with turtles. At the end of the nineteenth century, at the height of the colonial era for many European countries, it was common to host exhibitions for which natives of a particular colony would be brought to create crafts and showcase their lifestyle in reconstructed buildings. For Spain, the end of the eighteenth century would in fact usher in the loss of its last colonies, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. (This would, in turn, launch a literary and philosophical response from the so-called Generation of '98.) The Palacio de Cristal was built in 1887 for the Exposition of the Philippines. The pavilion was filled with plants native to the Philippines, and small cane houses stood nearby.
Especially on a hot day, the Palacio de Velázquez makes a wonderful stop. Built for an 1880s showcase on mining and similar industries, this structure overlaid in brick and tile houses temporary modern-art exhibitions of work from the Reina Sofía museum.
Nearby, rent a boat or relax near a large lake flanked by a promenade and massive statues.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía Museum)
While these are perhaps the best-known artists to non-Spanish audiences displayed at the Reina Sofía, a visit here offers fascinating insights into some of the most influential artistic movements in twentieth-century Spain—and in the twentieth century in general. View works by Joan Miró, José Gutiérrez Solana, Francis Picabia, Eduardo Chillida, Juan Gris, Pablo Serrano—and even some of Lorca's drawings. The Reina Sofía is a must-see.
Hours: Monday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Tuesday closed; Wednesday–Saturday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sunday and holiday openings vary
Admission: 10 € at the box office, 8 € online
Free admission for various groups, including students younger than 25 with an ISIC card and everyone younger than 18 or older than 25
Plaza de Cibeles
The Palacio de Cibeles (Cibeles Palace) is not only Madrid's City Hall, but the home of CentroCentro, a cultural center featuring artistic exhibitions and activities. The gorgeous building also offers a welcome respite from Madrid's summer heat.
Mercado San Miguel (San Miguel Market)
Address: La Plaza de San Miguel
Price Point: $$$$
For an unforgettable gastronomic experience right next to the Plaza Mayor, check out the Mercado San Miguel. This stylish, glass-enclosed market offers a range of snacks and baked goods, as well as opportunities to try Spanish sherry (jerez) and vermouth (vermut). There's a crab bar, an oyster bar, a fish cart—heck, there's even the Caviar Cart.
For something truly Spanish, check out Paella y Olé or the croquetas cart. Croquetas, deep-fried nuggets of goodness traditionally filled with ham and cheese, are an increasingly sophisticated culinary item. Mix and match squid-ink croquetas with more traditional choices.
El Sobrino de Botín
Address: Calle Cuchilleros, 17
Price Point: $$$
El Sobrino de Botín has the distinction of being the actual, official oldest restaurant in the world. Since 1725, this restaurant has been serving up fabulous roasts—try the cochinillo (suckling pig)—and other traditional fare of Madrid. The almejas (clams) and cordero (lamb) are also recommended. Book a reservation here.
Address: Plaza de la Cebada, 11
Price Point: $$$$
If you're looking for an escape from strictly Spanish food (and we can't imagine why you would be) check out this restaurant in the heart of the Latina neighborhood. This three-story eatery features a rooftop terrace, a bar, and a retro look and feed. The pastas come highly recommended, but barbecued options and Mediterranean fare are also an option. Meats are hormone-free and sourced from Argentina.
Featured Place to Stay: Hotel Vincci the Mint
Price Point: $$$$
Located just a short distance from Retiro Park and Puerta del Sol, this incredibly stylish hotel in a historic building will make you a cocktail while you're checking in. This aptly named hotel is decorated in lush greens and steampunk style. A stylish rooftop terrace serves up snacks and drinks out of a makeshift food truck. Twenty-four-hour reception, air conditioning, free wifi, and gourmet breakfasts all day long combine to make this four-star hotel an experience truly like no other. Book a room at Hotel Vincci the Mint.