Full of energy and full of cultural attractions, Madrid is a modern metropolis that offers a taste of real Spain. Wide avenues are crowded with traffic, but beautiful parks break up the urban sprawl. Madrid does not have the traditional charm of Andalusia or the beauty of Barcelona, but offers an exciting atmosphere. The city is always full of activities and there is so much to see and do that tourists will be spoiled for choice. The world-class Prado Museum presents an endless array of masterpieces created during Spain’s golden age, and the 18th-century Royal Palace rivals the magnificent Palace of Versailles. Save your energy for the evening, when the city really comes to life. People in Madrid love to go out on the town, and the paseo por la noche (evening walk) is a precious ritual. If possible, avoid visiting during the summer when the heat is oppressive. Spring or autumn are the best times to enjoy Madrid.
1. Prado Museum
A veritable world-class museum, the Prado Museum has a collection of over 5,000 paintings which rivals the collection of the Louvre in Paris. Spanish paintings from the 12th century to the early 19th century constitute the majority of the collection, and many are famous masterpieces. Francisco de Goya’s assortment of paintings includes 140 remarkable works. The collection also includes Italian, Flemish, French, British and German paintings as well as neoclassical Italian sculptures.
The Prado Museum presents around 2,300 pieces from the collection in more than 100 rooms spread over three floors. Trying to see everything in one visit can be intimidating, but it’s possible to focus on a specific itinerary of masterpieces. The Prado offers “itineraries” (self-guided tours) of specific works. These routes showcase the most renowned pieces from the collection, including the famous Prado painting, Las Meninas. This magnificent painting of the Spanish royal family by Felipe IV was created by Velázquez in 1656. Other essential works among the 50 main masterpieces of the museum include the Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Christ washing the disciples’ feet by Tintoret, La descente de la Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, Jacob’s Dream by José de Ribera, The Third of May by Goya, The Immaculate Conception by Murillo, the Self Portrait by Dürer, Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco, Parnassus by Poussin, and The Garden of Earthly Délices by Bosch.
Visitors can also choose to use the museum’s audio guide (for a small fee), which includes a tour of 50 masterpieces. Lovers of pure and hard art can choose the audio guide tour in full version which covers 250 works. Tourists will also appreciate the museum’s souvenir shop and the café with a pleasant outdoor terrace. In association with the Prado Museum, the Church of San Jerónimo el Real behind the museum presents a remarkable collection of Spanish religious paintings from the 17th century.
Make the most of your time at Prado by participating in a skip-the-line ticket: visit the Prado Museum in Madrid, avoiding long queues and going directly to the most important works of art. During the 90-minute tour, the guide, an art expert, not only highlights the most important pieces from this breathtaking collection, but tells their stories and a story to put art in context.
2. Buen Retiro Park and the Crystal Palace
The Buen Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro) is an oasis of peacetime in the heart of Madrid. Just outdoor the busy streets, this lush 120 hectare park offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Created for the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 17th century, the historic park exudes an elegant atmosphere with its pretty landscaping and paths lined with trees. From the main entrance of the Plaza de Independencia, visitors arrive at the swimming pool in the center of the park. From there, the paths lead to the charming Rosaleda (rose garden) and to the French Garden of Don Cecilio. The Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), a magnificent site with its graceful fountain and reflective swimming pool, often hosts art exhibitions. Visitors will find other interesting fountains, including Los Galápagos (turtles), El Ángel Caído (fallen angel) and La Alcachofa (artichoke).
A pleasant pastime among the locals is to sit in one of the park’s outdoor cafes, while lounging in the sun or relaxing in the shade depending on the season. For star observers, the park has an observatory that was built in 1790.
3. Royal Palace and Gardens
This magnificent palace is the Spanish version of Versailles, a royal court designed to impress. Rising overhead a steep slope overlooking the lush gardens, the palace is entirely built of granite and white Colmenar stone. The palace was commissioned by Philippe V in the 18th century. The majestic neoclassical facade presents Ionic columns and Doric pilasters, based on drawings that the sculptor Bernini had originally designed for the Louvre in Paris. The balustrade presents statues of Spanish kings.
The most striking feature of the interior is the imposing staircase in the entrance hall, with a fresco of the Triumph of religion and the church, which leads to the ground floor. The apartments of King Charles III are among the beautiful rooms of the royal palace. A masterpiece of Rococo style, the Salon de Gasparini presents graceful chinoiserie, marble floors with intricate patterns and carefully matched silk wall hangings. The Salón del Trono (throne room) is decorated with frescoes by Tiepolo, including The greatness of the Spanish monarchy, one of his most beautiful works. Always used for state ceremonies, the throne room is covered in sumptuous red velvet and decorated with precious tapestries, mirrors, furniture and chandeliers. Throughout the palace, masterworks of art decorate the walls: paintings by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, El Greco and Caravaggio, and exquisite Flemish and French tapestries. History buffs will want to visit the Royal Palace Armory, which contains 3,000 pieces dating from the 16th century. Behind the palace, and a good place for leisurely strolls, are the Sabatini gardens, formal beds and hedges furnished in the neoclassical geometric style, with fountains, statues and a swimming pool.
4. Plaza Mayor
This elegant 17th century square was constructed during the reign of Philip III. The Plaza Mayor was a center of trade and municipal life, as well as the scene of ceremonial events such as the proclamation of a new king and the canonization of the saints. The square also served as a place for bullfights, dramatic performances and knight tournaments. The square took on its present appearance after a fire in 1790, when the corners were closed and the nine entrance arches were built, connecting it to Calle de Toledo, Calle Mayor, Calle Postas and others.
Today, the Plaza Mayor continues to be a significant gathering place in Madrid. The vast cobbled square is a pedestrian zone, surrounded by outdoor cafes and atmospheric restaurants shaded by its arcades. Walking around here or sitting in its cafes is one of the most popular things to do at night in Madrid, both for tourists and for Madrileños.
5. Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol was named after the sun emblem on the old city gate, which once stood here. This spacious town square lines up with the rising sun. In addition to being a hub for public transport (with several bus stops and metro entrances), the Puerta del Sol is also the “zero kilometer” point from which all detachments on the Spanish national road network are measured.
The Puerta del Sol has been the scene of many historical events, including the Spanish resistance to Napoleon on May 2, 1808, and in 1931 the Second Republic was proclaimed here. Nowadays, the square is a place to relax and enjoy life. Lined with shops and cafes, Puerta del Sol is still one of the busiest squares in Madrid. Right next to Puerta del Sol is Madrid’s biggest store, El Corte Inglés, which trades everything from clothes, shoes and swimwear to traditional Spanish fans. La Violeta, an old-fashioned confectionery shop that specializes in Madrid’s purple candy, is also nearby.
6. Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía
Opened by Queen Sofía in 1986, the Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía is the avant-garde center of modern art in Madrid. The elegant modern building was created by the architect Antonio Fernández Alba and has features reminiscent of the Center Pompidou in Paris, in particular the three glass towers that house the elevators outside the building. Another wonderful surprise for visitors is the charming garden in the inner courtyard filled with imaginative sculptures. In its in-depth representation of contemporary Spanish art, the collection includes remarkable masterpieces such as works by Juan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. The works of art are exhibited in different rooms spread over a large exhibition space of 39,000 square meters. The museum also has a bookshop, cafeteria and restaurant.
7. Fuente de Cibeles and Gran Via
The famous Cybele fountain (Fuente de Cibeles) is located in a major road intersection and is one of the most emblematic monuments of Madrid. Created in 1782 by Francisco Gutiérrez and Roberto Michel, the inspiring traffic-blocking fountain signifies the Roman goddess Cybele on a chariot drawn by lions. Behind the cascade is the Palacio de Cibeles cultural center, which hosts art exhibitions and workshops, conferences and concerts. Centro Palacio de Cibeles has two restaurants: the Colección Cibeles lunchroom and the Cibeles Palace restaurant.
Nearby (via Calle de Alcala) is one of Madrid’s most popular shopping streets, the Gran Vía. Tourists will find many restaurants, hotels and theaters on this busy street. Right next to the Gran Vía on Calle de Jovellanos, the famous Teatro de la Zarzuela offers renowned performances by the zarzuela – a unique type of satirical opera with songs accompanied by classical Spanish guitar music.
8. Temple of Debod
In La Montaña Park (near Plaza de España), visitors can see one of the most surprising monuments in Madrid – an ancient Egyptian temple. A gift from Egypt, in thanks for the help of Spain to save the temples of Abu Simbel during the construction of the Aswan dam, the Debod temple was brought to Madrid in 1968. The temple was constructed for King Adikhalamani in the 2nd century BC and comprises numerous shrines, a spacious hall and a terrace on the upper level. Youthful unique streamers are found inside, rare for an archaeological site. The passive gardens surrounding the monument have deep pools and a fountain, creating a magical effect.
9. Goya Frescoes at Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida
Perhaps the least visited of Madrid’s main artistic treasures are the superb frescoes painted by Francesco Goya that fill the hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida. The small chapel, sideways the banks of the Manzanares river behind the Royal Palace, hosts an yearly festival in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua, but it is the interior that has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of art. Among the most beautiful works of Goya, the frescoes illustrate the theme of the miracle performed by Saint Anthony, while depicting scenes from daily life in Madrid. The frescoes reveal Goya’s boldness in artistic style and revolutionary painting techniques. They were painted at a turning point in Goya’s career and are considered a forerunner of modern painting. The chapel is selected a national monument and is no longer used for religious services to protect the frescoes
10. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum presents an overview of European art from the 13th century to the end of the 20th century. With nearly 1,000 works on display, the collection covers the Renaissance, the Baroque period, the Rococo, Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Modern Art and Pop Art. The museum also has an excellent collection of American paintings from the 19th century. This high-caliber group comprises renowned masterpieces such as Christ and the Samaritan by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Venus and Cupid by Rubens, The Annunciation by El Greco, Young Knight by Vittore Carpaccio, Jesus among the doctors of Albrecht Durer, Charing Cross Bridge by Monet, Dancer in Green by Edward Degas and Les Vessenots by Vincent van Gogh.