15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Madrid
Full of energy and packed with cultural attractions, Madrid is a modern metropolis that offers a taste of the real Spain. Wide avenues are congested with traffic, but beautiful parks break up the urban sprawl. Madrid doesn't have the traditional charm of Andalusia or the beauty of Barcelona, instead, it offers exciting atmosphere. The city is constantly buzzing with activity. An abundance of art museums and monuments will keep tourists too busy to take siestas. The world-class Prado Museum displays an endless array of masterpieces created during the Golden Age of Spain, and the 18th-century Royal Palace rivals Versailles. Save energy for the evening when the city really comes to life. Madrileños love going out on the town, and the paseo por la noche (evening stroll) is a cherished ritual. If possible, avoid visiting during summer when the heat is oppressive. Spring or fall are the best times to appreciate Madrid.
See also: Where to Stay in Madrid
1 Prado Museum
A truly world-class museum, the Prado Museum has a collection of more than 5,000 paintings that rivals the Louvre collection in Paris. Spanish paintings from the 12th century to the early 19th century form the majority of the collection, and many are famous masterpieces. The assortment of paintings by Francisco de Goya includes a remarkable 140 works. The collection also covers Italian, Flemish, French, British, and German paintings as well as Neoclassical Italian sculptures.
The Prado Museum displays around 2,300 pieces of the collection in more than 100 rooms on three floors. Trying to see it all in one visit can be daunting, but it's possible to focus on a specific itinerary of masterpieces. The Prado suggests "routes" (self-guided tours) of specific works. These routes showcase the most renowned pieces in the collection including the famous painting of the Prado, Las Meninas. This magnificent painting of the Spanish royal family of Felipe IV was created by Velázquez in 1656. Other must-see works among the museum's top 50 masterpieces include the The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet by Tintoretto, The Descent from the 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 Delights by Bosch.
Visitors can also opt to use the museum's audio guide (for a small fee), which includes a tour of 50 masterpieces. Diehard art lovers can select the full-version audio-guide tour that covers 250 works. Tourists will also appreciate the museum's gift 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 displays a noteworthy collection of 17th-century Spanish religious paintings.
Address: Paseo del Prado, Madrid
2 Royal Palace: Grandiose Architecture Inspired by Versailles
This grandiose palace is the Spanish version of Versailles, a royal court designed to impress. Rising above a steep slope overlooking the lush gardens, the palace is built entirely of granite and white Colmenar stone. The palace was commissioned by Philip V in the 18th century. The majestic Neoclassical facade features Ionic columns and Doric pilasters, based on drawings that the sculptor Bernini originally intended for the Louvre in Paris. The balustrade features statues of Spanish kings.
The most striking feature of the interior is the imposing staircase at the entrance hallway, with a fresco of The Triumph of Religion and the Church, that leads up to the main floor. The King Charles III apartments are among the beautiful rooms in the Royal Palace. A masterpiece of Rococo style, the Salon de Gasparini features graceful chinoiserie, an intricately patterned marble floor, and carefully matched silk wall hangings. The Salón del Trono (Throne Room) is adorned with frescoes by Tiepolo including The Greatness of the Spanish Monarchy, one of his finest works. Still used for State ceremonies, the Throne Room is clad in sumptuous red velvet and decorated with valuable tapestries, mirrors, furniture, and chandeliers. Throughout the palace masterpieces 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 palace's Royal Armory, which contains 3,000 exhibits dating back to the 16th century.
Address: Calle Bailén, Madrid
3 Elegant 17th-Century Ambience at Plaza Mayor
This elegant 17th-century plaza was built during the reign of Philip III. The Plaza Mayor was a center of commerce and municipal life as well as the scene of ceremonial events such as the proclamation of a new king and the canonization of saints. The square also served as a venue for bullfights, dramatic performances, and knightly tournaments.
Today, the Plaza Mayor continues to be an important gathering place in Madrid. The expansive cobblestone square is a pedestrian precinct with many outdoor cafés that are popular with tourists as well as with the local Madrileños. The restaurants in the arcaded area of the square offer traditional ambience and cuisine. On each side of the square are arched entrances linking it with the main streets of Calle de Toledo, the Calle Mayor, and the Calle Postas.
4 Puerta del Sol: The Heart of the City
The Puerta del Sol was named after the sun emblem on the old city gate, which formerly stood here. This spacious town square aligns with the rising sun. Besides being a hub of public transportation (with several bus stops and Metro entrances), the Puerta del Sol is also the "Kilometer Zero" point from which all distances on the Spanish national road network are measured.
The Puerta del Sol has been the scene of many historic events, including the Spanish resistance to Napoleon on May 2nd 1808, and in 1931, the Second Republic was proclaimed here. Nowadays the square is a place to hang out and enjoy life. Lined with shops and cafés, the Puerta del Sol is still one of the liveliest squares in Madrid. Just off the Puerta del Sol is Madrid's largest department store, El Corte Inglés, which sells everything from clothes, shoes, and swimsuits to traditional Spanish fans. Also nearby is La Violeta, an old-fashioned confection shop that offers the Madrid specialty of violet candies.
5 Refined Relaxation at Buen Retiro Park
The Buen Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro) is an oasis of peace in the heart of Madrid. Just beyond 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 has an elegant ambience with its lovely landscaping and tree-lined paths. From the main entrance at the Plaza de Independencia, visitors arrive at the pool in the center of the park. From here, paths lead to the enchanting Rosaleda (Rose Garden) and the formal French Jardín de Don Cecilio. The Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) is a splendid site with its graceful fountain. Visitors will find other interesting fountains including Los Galápagos (The Turtles), El Ángel Caído (The Fallen Angel), and La Alcachofa (The Artichoke).
A pleasant pastime among locals is sitting at one of the park's open-air cafés, while basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade according to the season. For stargazers, the park has an observatory that was built in 1790. Near Retiro Park, at 54 Calle de Alcala, is Madrid's fanciest patisserie shop Pastelería Vait, which offers exquisite cakes, cookies, pastries, chocolate candies, and hot chocolate.
6 Archaeology Museum
The National Archeological Museum is Madrid's most important museum after the Museo del Prado. The museum was founded by Queen Isabella II in 1867 and has a rich collection of artifacts from prehistoric times to the 19th century. Exhibits feature archaeological finds, ethnography, decorative arts from antiquity, and ancient coins. The permanent collection includes pieces from various time periods and locations, such as Egyptian mummies, Hispano-Roman objects of art, Islamic archaeology, and Mudéjar ceramics. One of the most prized possessions of the collection is the bust of the Lady of Elche. The museum's library features publications on art, history, and archaeology.
Address: Calle Serrano, 13, Madrid
7 Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: Fine Arts Museum
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum presents an overview of European art from the 13th century to the late 20th century. With nearly 1,000 art works on display, the collection covers the Renaissance, the Baroque period, Rococo, Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, modern art and Pop Art. The museum also has an excellent collection of 19th-century American paintings. This high-caliber collection includes renowned masterpieces such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Venus and Cupid by Rubens, The Annunciation by El Greco, Young Knight by Vittore Carpaccio, Jesus among the Doctors by Albrecht Durer, Charing Cross Bridge by Monet, Dancer in Green by Edward Degas, and Les Vessenots by Vincent van Gogh.
Address: 8 Paseo del Prado, Madrid
8 Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía: Contemporary Art Museum
Opened by Queen Sofía in 1986, the Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía is Madrid's avant-garde center for contemporary art. The sleek modern building was created by the architect Antonio Fernández Alba and has features that recall the Pompidou Center in Paris, especially the three glass towers that house the elevators on the outside of the building. Another wonderful surprise to visitors is the charming garden in the inner courtyard filled with imaginative sculptures. In its thorough representation of Spanish contemporary art, the collection includes remarkable masterpieces such as works by Juan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí. The art works are displayed in various rooms spread out in a vast exhibition space of 39,000 square meters. The museum also has a bookshop, cafeteria, and restaurant.
Address: 52 Santa Isabel, Madrid
9 Goya Frescoes at Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida
Along the banks of the Manzanares River, the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida is an important historic pilgrimage site. This church still hosts an annual festival in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua. Those who appreciate the art work of Francisco de Goya will want to take a look inside the chapel. The interior is decorated with frescoes by Goya, which are among his finest works. The frescoes illustrate the theme of the miracle performed by Saint Anthony, while also depicting scenes of everyday life in Madrid. The frescoes reveal Goya's boldness of artistic style and revolutionary painting techniques. They were painted at a turning point in Goya's career and are considered a precursor of modern painting. The chapel is designated a national monument and is no longer used for religious services to protect the frescoes.
Address: Glorieta San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid
10 Impressive Religious Art at the Basilica de San Francisco
The Church of San Francisco el Grande was built in 1761 for a Franciscan friary. The church was designed by Fray Francisco Cabezas, who modeled the architectural plan on the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli in Rome. The Neoclassical facade and dome were added in 1770. The interior features a circular plan with an inspiring dome and six chapels. The chapels display paintings by Maella, Velázquez, and Goya. In the first chapel on the left are Goya's San Bernardino, and Velázquez's Saint Bonaventure and The Appearance of the Virgin to Saint Anthony. The church also contains a painting of Saint Bonaventure by Zurbarán. The church museum displays a variety of religious art and artifacts.
Address: Plaza de San Francisco el Grande, Madrid
11 Fuente de Cibeles
The famous Cybele's fountain (Fuente de Cibeles) stands in a major traffic intersection and is one of the most emblematic monuments in Madrid. Created in 1782 by Francisco Gutiérrez and Roberto Michel, the impressive traffic-stopping fountain depicts the Roman Goddess Cybele riding a lion-drawn chariot. Behind the fountain is the Palacio de Cibeles cultural center, which hosts art exhibitions and workshops, conferences and concerts. The Centro Palacio de Cibeles has two restaurants: the Colección Cibeles caféteria 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 bustling street. Just off the Gran Vía on Calle de Jovellanos, the famous Teatro de la Zarzuela offers renowned performances of zarzuela - a unique type of satirical opera with songs accompanied by classical Spanish guitar music.
Address: Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid
12 Decorative Arts & Paintings at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum
The Lázaro Galdiano Museum displays the exceptional private collection of financier Lázaro Galdiano housed in his mansion, Parque Florido. The museum has an extensive collection of around 9,000 art works exhibited in 30 rooms. From armor, coins, and medals to jewelry, Baroque crystal, and tapestries, the collection is extremely diverse. Be sure to see the 16th to 17th-century Spanish paintings by famous masters including El Greco, Goya, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Ribera, Pereda, and Murillo. Among the masterpieces are El Aquelarre by Goya, San Francisco en éxtasis by El Greco, Meditaciones de San Juan Bautista by Hieronymus Bosch, Cabeza de Muchacha by Velázquez, El Salvador Adolescente by Giovanni Boltraffio, and La Tienda by Luis Paret.
Address: 122 Calle de Serrano, Madrid
13 Temple of Debod: An Ancient Egyptian Temple
In La Montaña Park (close to Plaza de España), visitors can see one of Madrid's most surprising monuments - an ancient Egyptian temple. A gift from Egypt, the Debod Temple was brought to Madrid in 1968. The temple was built for King Adikhalamani in the 2nd century BC and includes several shrines, a spacious hall, and a terrace on the upper level. Well-preserved original decorations are found inside, rare for an archaeological site. Peaceful gardens surrounding the monument feature reflective pools and a fountain, creating a magical effect.
Address: Paseo Pintor Rosales, Madrid
14 Museo Sorolla
This charming museum is dedicated to the work of Joaquín Sorolla, the most famous Spanish Impressionist artist. Displayed in beautiful bright rooms, the collection includes a broad representation of the artist's paintings and drawings. Be sure to see the museum's lovely patio adorned with a gurgling fountain and Andalusian-style decorative tile work.
Address: 37 General Martínez Campos, Madrid
15 Puerta de Alcalá: A Grand Monument to the Spanish Monarchs
This grand Neoclassical triumphal arch was commissioned by King Carlos III to celebrate the arrival of the monarchs to Spain's capital city. The monument was designed by Francesco Sabatini and built between 1769 and 1778. Nearly 30 meters high, the elegant granite entrance gate makes a grand impression. The facade is adorned with sculptures, capitals, and decorative reliefs.
Address: Plaza de la Independencia, Madrid
Where to Stay in Madrid for Sightseeing
Hotels anywhere between the Royal Palace and Retiro Park, an area that includes both Plaza Mayor and Plaza Porto del Sol, are convenient for sightseeing. Most major tourist attractions lie in these neighborhoods, with the greatest concentration of art museums along Paseo del Prado, the famed Mile of Art, paralleling Retiro Park. These highly-rated hotels in Madrid are all in this central area:
- Luxury Hotels: Catalonia Las Cortes is between plaza Mayor and the Prado art museum and offers free snacks throughout the day, good for those not accustomed to Madrid's late dining hours. Hotel Atlantico, on Gran Via in the heart of the shopping district and an easy walk from all the major attractions, has a rooftop terrace and offers free airport pick-up. The Westin Palace Madrid occupies an elegant Belle Epoch building on Paseo del Prado opposite the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a five-minute walk to the Prado.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Ibis Styles Madrid Prado has comfortable, basic rooms, some with balconies, near Paseo del Prado. NH Madrid Nacional is opposite the botanic gardens on Paseo del Prado, near the Atocha rail station. Artrip Hotel gets raves for its large modern rooms and boutique atmosphere, although it's somewhat south of the center and a 10-minute walk from the Reina Sofia Museum and Atocha station.
- Budget Hotels: Between the Royal Palace and Puerta del Sol, Hotel Francisco I is on a no-traffic street amid shops and restaurants. Room Mate Mario, also near the palace and Gran Via shopping, is chic and modern with its cutting-edge design. Close to Plaza Mayor, Mayerling Hotel has large rooms with a minimalist décor and excellent service.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Madrid
- Sightseeing Tours: If you want to see the city's top attractions without the hassle of navigating your way around the city, the four-hour Madrid Combo: City Sightseeing and Skip-the-Line Prado Museum Tour blends two of the city's most popular tours. Enjoy a three-hour tour around the city in an air-conditioned coach, learning all about Madrid's culture and history, and then save time and skip the lines with a fast-track entrance ticket into the Prado Museum, included in your tour. For a more intimate way to see the sights, consider the Madrid Segway Tour, which includes a safety briefing, helmet, English-speaking guide, and either a 1.5 or 2.5-hour city tour. This is a small-group excursion with a maximum of 10 people.
- Day Trip Tours: Picturesque towns steeped in history and beautiful scenery surrounds Madrid, and the easiest way to explore them is on a day trip tour from the city. These tours allow you to sit back and relax on an air-conditioned coach without worrying about driving and finding your way, and many include entrance tickets to key attractions. The full-day Avila and Segovia Day Trip includes a tour of these World Heritage-listed cities and entrance to the Basilica of San Vicente in Avila and the Alcazar in Segovia. More history and culture awaits on the Toledo Half-Day or Full-Day Trip, where you can admire masterpieces from El Greco and stroll the city's medieval streets. The tour covers guided walking tours and entrance to the Church of St. Tomé, the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca, and the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. Choose the full-day tour and you also score entrance into the Cathedral of Toledo. You can explore more World Heritage-listed splendor on the El Escorial Monastery and the Valley of the Fallen tour. This five-hour day trip from the city includes transport by air-conditioned coach, entrance fees, and a local guide. You also have the option to add a half-day Madrid sightseeing tour.