16 MADRID EXPERIENCES EVERY VISITOR MUST HAVE
Spain’s capital is a lively city full of new places to discover and experiences to revel in. Unfortunately, many travelers tend to pass through Madrid rather quickly in order to move on to other cities in Spain. These people miss out on many of the unique and exciting opportunities that Madrid has to offer. Don´t be one of these people when you go to Spain! Spend some extra time in Madrid and take advantage of the city!
I´ve come up with a list of 16 Madrid experiences that all visitors should have. It is by no means a comprehensive list; there are definitely other amazing experiences to be had in this city. So, come to Madrid, take part in the following experiences, and create some of your own!
1) MEET UP IN LA PUERTA DEL SOL
Sol is the heart and soul of Madrid. It is the center of the city and one of the busiest transportation hubs in Spain’s bustling capital. Whether you are hanging out with friends and exploring the old city center or just enjoying some tapas and drinks, the Oso y madroño (bear and strawberry tree, a symbol of Madrid) and kilómetro 0 (kilometer 0) are convenient locations to meet up. You can take metro lines 1, 2 and 3, plus many Cercanías (commuter train) routes, to get to Sol. Just be sure to watch your bag as you exit the metro because Sol is a pickpocketer´s heaven.
2) RELAX IN EL PARQUE DEL BUEN RETIRO
El Parque del Buen Retiro is to Madrid what Central Park is to New York City. It is one of Madrid´s largest and most luxurious parks, adorned with luscious gardens, ponds, statues and palaces. Take a stroll around the Palacio de Cristal, a mini-palace made entirely of glass and metal framing, and its adjacent pond where you can see ducks, turtles and, if you´re lucky, a black swan. If you can make it to the Retiro on a Sunday, bring a blanket, some bread, cheese, jamón (ham) and a bottle of wine and have a picnic. There are plenty of grassy spots across the park, but the ones near the Palacio de Cristal have lovely views. If you are feeling up to it, head over to the main pond with a few friends and rent a row boat. Rowing on the estanque is a Madrid classic. Take the metro, either line 2 or line 9, to get to Retiro.
3) DISCOVER ONE OF MADRID’S HIDDEN TREASURES, EL TEMPLO DE DEBOD
Unbeknownst to many, there is a 2,000-year-old Egyptian temple in the middle of Madrid. It was given to the Spanish government in 1968 as a gift from the Egyptian government for helping them save the Abu Simbel Temples. Egypt donated three of the other Abu Simbel Temples to the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S. (The one in the United States can be found inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.) Be sure to visit during the day so you can go inside the Templo de Debod and see the hieroglyphics as well as models of the temple and temple grounds. Visiting hours can be found here. Next to the Parque del Oeste and near the Plaza de España, El Templo de Debod can be reached by taking metro lines 3 or 10 to the Plaza de España stop.
4) WANDER AROUND LAVAPIÉS
The former Jewish neighborhood of Madrid (lava-wash, pies-feet: “the neighborhood of those who wash their feet), Lavapiés is Madrid´s alternative neighborhood. Get lost in its narrow, windy streets and admire its colorful buildings with Spanish tile roofs. Lavapiés is comprised of diverse immigrant groups, as well as madrileños and Spanish people from around the country, so you can find authentic local and ethnic food.
Some of the most notable restaurants in Lavapiés serve Indian and North African cuisines. Strategically located between the Sol and Atocha neighborhoods, Lavapiés is easily reached on foot from Madrid´s major tourist attractions. Lavapiés also has a metro stop by the same name on line 3.
5) TAKE IN THE VIEWS OF MADRID FROM THE ROOFTOP OF THE CÍRCULO DE BELLAS ARTES
One of the best views of Madrid, short of flying over the city in a helicopter, is from the rooftop terrace of the Círculo de Bellas Artes. Located on the Calle de Alcalá, the Círculo de Bellas Artes is easy to get to from the city center. For 3,00 €, you can either climb the stairs or take an elevator to the top of the building to take in spectacular views of the city. If the weather is nice, you can lay out in the sun and enjoy drinks at the rooftop bar.
6) MÍRALA MÍRALA MÍRALA MÍRALA MÍRALA…LA PUERTA DE ALCALÁ
La Puerta de Alcalá is one of the most well-known symbols of Madrid. “Look at it! Look at it! Look at it! Look at it! Look at it!” suggest the lyrics of Víctor Manuel San Jose Sanchez in the famous song about this triumphal arch. Located in the Plaza de la Independencia, La Puerta de Alcalá is a neoclassical arch that was built by the order of King Carlos III (Charles III) in the late-1700´s. The arch has served as a monumental entrance to the city ever since. Walk up from the Palacio de Comunicaciones/Fuente de Cibeles and cross the Calle de Alcalá going towards the main entrance to the Parque del Buen Retiro and stop in the sidewalk in the middle of the plaza for a beautiful picture of the Puerta de Alcalá. It will not disappoint!
7) WATCH A REAL MADRID GAME IN SANTIAGO BERNABÉU
As a huge Real Madrid fan, watching a game was on my Madrid bucket list for quite some time. Having not been able to see a game during my semester abroad in college, I made it a priority this past year to see a game. Naturally, I did not make it to one until May.
Real Madrid´s massive home stadium is located on the super posh Paseo de la Castellano, right near Madrid´s financial district. It has its own metro stop on line 10. Inaugurated in 1947, Santiago Bernabéu can hold over 81,000 fans, making it a crazy place to watch Real Madrid massacre their opponents (*cough cough* that means you, Barça!). On game day, try to take the metro even though it will be packed to the brim with people. It´s a lot of fun to sing and chant along with fellow fans as you make your way to the stadium.
If you don´t have time to go to a game, you also have the option to purchase tickets to take a tour of the stadium. You can go behind-the-scenes and see the team´s lockers, learn more about the players and take all the pictures you want of this sacred temple of football.
8) ENJOY FINE ART AT THE MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO
With over 40 museums, Madrid is a fantastic destination for art lovers. I could go on and on about the amazing variety of museums in Madrid-there are art museums, military museums, and even a museum for the blind-but I understand that not everyone gets as excited by museums as I do. Although I´m sure many people will not agree with me, I think the Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the best museums in Madrid because it has the widest representation of Spanish art and can paint a beautiful picture of Spanish history for visitors to Madrid, especially the “not-so-art-savvy” ones. In the Prado, you can see pieces by famous Spanish artists, such as Goya, Zurbarán, El Greco and Velázquez, as well as famous European artists from other countries. Stop by the museum after 18 on weekdays and 17 on Sunday for free entry.
9) PEOPLE WATCH INTHE PLAZA MAYOR
One of my favorite places in Madrid, the Plaza Mayor, is only a few blocks away from the Puerta del Sol. In the sixteenth century when Madrid was only a small village, the Plaza Mayor served as the village market. After King Felipe II moved the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the Plaza Mayor experienced many renovations and growth. It evolved into a large public square for people to congregate. Over the years, it has been the site of bull fights, street performances, concerts, and an annual Christmas market. Today, La Plaza Mayor is an excellent place for people-watching-especially street performers!
10) MARVEL AT THE BEAUTY OF MADRID’S CATEDRAL DE LA ALMUDENA
Located next to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena de Madrid is the cathedral of Madrid´s patron saint, La Virgen de la Almudena. A relatively modern cathedral, the first stone was placed by King Alfonso XII in 1883. The cathedral was finished throughout the end of the 19th century and the 20th century.
A truly unique cathedral, La Catedral de la Almudena was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993, making it the only Spanish cathedral to be dedicated by a pope.
The cathedral is open almost everyday, except major national holidays, and you can visit the museum and the crypt as well. It is best reached by the Ópera stop on metro lines 2 and 5.
11) ADMIRE THE FASCINATING ARCHITECTURE OF THE PUERTA DE EUROPA IN THE PLAZA DE CASTILLA
Located in the heart of Madrid’s financial district, the symmetrical towers of the Puerta de Europa are two of Madrid’s tallest skyscrapers. Although there is not a whole lot to see in this part of the city, these two towers that incline towards each other at 15º angles are a modern symbol of Madrid that is well worth the visit. Each tower is over 100 meters tall, making them almost 30 stories high! They were designed by two American architects, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, in 1989. Originally promoted by Kuwait Investments Office, the towers were nicknamed, Torres Kío (KIO Towers). They were eventually taken over by Caja Madrid and finished in 1996. The Torres Kío were the first inclined skyscrapers in the world. To see these architectural wonders, take metro line 1, 9 or 10 to the Plaza de Castilla station.
12) CHECK OUT THE PALACIO DE COMUNICACIONES AND THE CIBELES FOUNTAIN
The current seat of the Ayuntamiento de Madrid (Madrid City Council), the Palacio de Comunicaciones (Communications Palace) also known as the Palacio de Cibeles, is one of the most majestic and impressive architectural works in the city. Responding to the need for a larger center for the distribution of mail and telegraphs, the Palacio de Comunicaciones was inaugurated in the year 1919. It served as a postal mail distribution center throughout most of the 20th century. In the late-1980´s/early 1990´s, its use as a postal mail processing center began to decline and in the beginning of the 21st century, it became the official seat of the Madrid City Council.
Right in front of the Palacio de Cibeles is another important Madrid monument, La Fuente de Cibeles, or simply La Cibeles. La Cibeles was built much earlier than the Palacio de Cibeles, in the late-1700´s, during the European Enlightenment. King Carlos III was trying to compete stylistically with big European capitals of his time, such as Paris and Saint Petersburg. This lead to the building of Neoclassical monuments and structures in Madrid, such as the Puerta de Alcalá and, of course, La Cibeles.
If you happen to be in Madrid when Real Madrid wins a game, follow the madridistas (Real Madrid fans) to La Cibeles to celebrate their victory! Both of Madrid´s big teams have a history of congregating at this fountain when their teams win. However, in 1991, Atlético de Madrid moved to the nearby Fuente de Neptuno, making La Cibeles, the official spot for Madridistas to celebrate. One of my fondest memories of living in Madrid was running to Cibeles after Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey. All of the surrounding streets were blocked off and they had set up a huge stage, speakers and a section for fans to dance, drink and be merry. They were also shining lights with soccer balls and the Real Madrid insignia on the Palacio de Comunicaciones. It was an amazing experience.
The Palacio de Cibeles and the Fuente de Cibeles can be reached by taking metro line 2 to the Banco de España stop.
13) HANG OUT IN THE PLAZA DE ESPAÑA
Close to the Templo de Debod, you can find another Madrid must-see, La Plaza de España. The Plaza de España is a small park/plaza in downtown Madrid. During the day, sunbathers and picnic-goers frequent its grassy areas. A few times during the year, such as Christmas, you can find artisan markets sprawled out throughout the sidewalks. At night, the plaza turns into a meeting point for friends before they hit Madrid´s bars and nightclubs. The most notable part of the Plaza de España is the enormous fountain in the center, which is dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes. You can get to the Plaza de España by taking metro lines 3 or 10 to the metro stop called, Plaza de España.
14) STROLL AROUND THE PLAZA DE ORIENTE/ PALACIO REAL
Arguably one of the most beautiful parts of Madrid, the Plaza de Oriente connects the Teatro Real (Royal Theater) to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). The Plaza de Oriente, which may have been named as such due to its location to the west of the Palacio Real, is centered around a memorial fountain to King Felipe (Philip) IV. Green gardens sculpted with square and spiral hedges surround Felipe IV and, nearby, statues dedicated to past Spanish kings look towards Felipe IV, providing support.
Stroll a little farther to the east, and you will reach the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid). It is the official residence of the King of Spain, but the royal family does not actually live there. They use the palace for special ceremonies and events. It was built in the 18th century by orders of King Felipe V (Philip V), the first Spanish King from the House of Bourbon, in order to replace the old Madrid Fortress, which was destroyed in a fire in 1724. With over 3,148 rooms, the Palacio Real de Madrid is the largest royal palace in Western Europe. Check out the Royal Palace and all its splendor from 10-18 daily or 10-20 during the summer. The closest metro stop is Ópera, which can be reached by lines 2 and 5.
15) EXPLORE LA GRAN VÍA BY FOOT AND FROM ABOVE
If Madrid had a Times Square, it would definitely be the Gran Vía. Packed with restaurants, clothing stores, souvenir shops, pedestrians and six lanes of traffic, the Gran Vía is Madrid´s busiest street. If you´re in the mood for entertainment, the Gran Vía has cinemas, comedy clubs and theaters, which give it the nickname of the “Broadway madrileño.” (Madrid Broadway). If you happen to visit Madrid during Christmas, come down and admire the beautiful lights, ornaments and Christmas trees. One of the best views of the Gran Vía, during Christmastime and in general, is from El Corte Inglés department store in Callao. Take the elevator to the top floor and pass through the “Gourmet Experience” (and maybe order some food along the way). The view of the Gran Vía from the windows in the back gives you an idea of the sheer size of the street and the beauty of this lifeline of Madrid.
16) GO OUT IN MALASAÑA!
One of Madrid´s most famous characteristics is its legendary nightlife. A typical night out in Madrid starts around 1am, after tapas and drinks, and ends when the metro opens at 6am. Start with a tapas crawl before you go out and experience small tasting dishes in a few different tascas. After your drinks and tapas, you are ready to check out Madrid´s bars and nightclubs. With six bars for every one hundred inhabitants, you are sure to find one that suits you! A good neighborhood to start in is Malasaña. It is one of Madrid´s alternative neighborhoods, packed with bars, restaurants and nightclubs to keep you entertained. If you are looking for bars, La Musa, La Vía Láctea, and Freeway are great choices. For a fun nightclub, go to the popular Ocho y Medio. For a chill night with coffee cocktails/mixed drinks and board games, go to Café Manuela. For a fun place to meet friends for drinks, tapas, and a good ambiance, don´t miss the newly-opened three-floor market, Mercado de San Idelfonso. To get to Malasaña, your best bet is to take the metro. Lines 1, 2, 4 and 10 all stop in different locations throughout the neighborhood. Malasaña is also easy to reach on foot if your accommodation is in the city center.