Madrid is a regal city, with breathtaking architecture at every turn and an electric vibe that never seems to dissipate. With some of the tastiest tapas and most revered art in the world, Madrid is often forgotten about by visitors that head to Barcelona or Seville without a second thought. But Madrid is indeed worth a visit, and you’ll immediately become enamored with the easy way of life there as you stroll past manicured gardens, through magnificent plazas and by smiling locals. While you’ll never tire for activities in Spain’s capital city, these are some of the most authentic and essential things you can’t leave Madrid without doing.
Getting To and Around Madrid
You can fly nonstop from several cities in the US to Madrid on airlines like Iberia, Delta, United or American. Keep an eye out in off-season for airfare deals. You can sometimes find fares for as little as a few hundred dollars roundtrip.
Once in Madrid, the city’s underground metro system is easy, affordable and safe to use. The EMT bus system may be a little more complicated, but connects you to even more spots. Although you can easily get an Uber, Cabify or taxi, Madrid’s city center is best explored on foot. You can also rent bikes or scooters to get around.
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Tapear is the verb meaning ‘to eat tapas‘ in Spanish. Hopping from bar to bar ordering small plates of food paired with beers or wine is an excellent way to experience the Madrileño culture. If you get lucky, you may even stumble upon a bar which gives you a free tapa when you order a drink. One of the best areas to bar hop for tapas is along Calle Cava Baja, one of Madrid’s most historical and famous streets.
Wander the Markets
Food markets are at the top of the Madrid must-do list. There’s a market for everyone: a tourist-catered San Miguel, the chic rooftop of San Anton or the glamorous Platea. Watch locals do their daily shopping at stalls overflowing with fresh produce at the local Mercado de Maravillas or have a beer at the hipster Mercado de San Ildefonso. Hang out at the underground Mercado de la Cebada or wander the chic stalls at Mercado de la La Paz. Visit as many markets as you can while in Madrid, as each one has an entirely different vibe and clientele.
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Admire the Art
Madrid’s golden triangle consists of three of the most famous art museums in the world. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía features famous modern masterpieces by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, the Museo del Prado is home to some of the most important classical paintings in the world by Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez and the private collection at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza has a bit of everything. Seeing these museums when visiting Madrid is a must, but don’t forget about the smaller museums or more contemporary ways to see art in Madrid. Visit the Museo de Sorolla, a collection of Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings housed in his former mansion. Or, search for a few impressive ‘larger than life’ statues by Colombian artist Fernando Botero scattered about the city. You can always do a street art tour to see some of Madrid’s coolest graffiti designs.
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Drink Rooftop Cocktails
Madrid’s rooftop scene is exploding, and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see the sun set over the city’s never-ending tiled rooftops. The most famous of all is the Círculo de Bellas Artes, which charges a four euro charge to head up, but we promise the 360° views are worth it. Many of Madrid’s hotels are opening rooftops too — check out the Nice to Meet You Sky Lounge at the Dear Hotel, Hyatt Centric’s Jardin de Diana or the H10’s El Cielo de Alcalá. Or, visit one of the sky-high newcomers, Picalagartos in the NH Collection or the Gingko Restaurant at the VP Plaza España Design.
Stroll The Retiro
One of Europe’s most beautiful parks, the Retiro, combines nature which Madrid’s classical architecture for a mix of monuments, fountains and statues surrounded by hanging trees and manicured shrubs. The park, which was once a private garden for royalty, features a serene lake where you can rent rowboats and a palace made almost entirely of glass. Have a picnic on the grass or head to the Retiro’s recently renovated Florida Park bar for an aperitif.
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Visit the Plaza Mayor
If you’ve read Wine Traveler’s post on Europe’s most beautiful squares, the Plaza Mayor should already be on your list. The square, which dates back to 1619 has lived through three fires and several renovations, surviving hundreds of years. The 237 balconies throughout square exist in a perfect symmetric harmony, culminating in the center with a statue of Felipe the III. Street performers and tourists roam the square today, but it’s still easy to imagine what the square once was: a place where important town events were held such as public executions, Spanish inquisition trials and bullfights.
See The Many Monuments
While Madrid may not have one standout architectural wonder like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, it has a number of important monuments. The Puerta de Alcalá was once the door to the city center. You can still see gouges in the stone arch from bullets dating back to the Spanish Civil War. Cibeles square features the magnificent Cibeles building and a fountain with a Greek goddess and her chariot, and the city’s many squares are worth visiting too. Madrid’s Palacio Real and Almudena cathedral are sights to behold, especially on a sunny morning.
Take In A Flamenco Show
Although flamenco hails from southern Spain, the best flamenco is in Madrid as the most coveted artists move to the city to share their art with the world. Book a show at famous spots like Corral de la Morería or Casa Patas. Or, visit a bar like La Taranta over the weekend and hope to see some spontaneous flamenco action. Either way, immerse yourself in the dance and song — a passionate world of stomps, claps and soulful melodies.
Obviously here at Winetraveler we recommend you indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: drinking wine. While you can do this in every city, town or village in Spain, Madrid has an excellent wine bar vibe. But don’t expect a menu of options or in-depth tastings where people gargle and tout wine vocabulary. Madrid’s wine scene is delightfully unpolished, and you simply order your wine by color. When you tell the waiter vino rojo, you’ll be gruffly offered Rioja or Ribera, and white, Verdejo or Albariño. If you want just a few more options, head to Angelita or La Fisna. These spots offer more varieties by the glass.
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Snack On Chocolate and Churros
One of Spain’s most famous breakfasts, desserts or midnight snacks, sample churros and chocolate. Dip the long sugary sticks of dough into the piping hot, thick chocolate and enjoy! While San Gines may be the most famous place to order them, Valor’s are just as delicious and often have less lines and tourist hordes.