Best Things to Do in Madrid

Don't Miss Madrid's Sumptuous Architecture, Fascinating History and World-Class Museums

Spain’s capital and a gem of a European city, Madrid is full of attractions and sights that captivate both locals and visitors alike with its mix of historical charm and modern vitality. There you will see sumptuous historical buildings and monuments that harken back to Madrid’s fascinating past, impressive museums that display works from Europe’s most revered artists and acres of beautiful formal gardens where thousands of locals come to play every day.

In fact, a visit to Madrid is not complete without a day at the Spanish capital’s top two attractions: the Prado Museum and Retiro Park. The world-renowned PradoMuseum provides an unrivalled survey of European art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century – with an emphasis on Spanish painting. Here significant works like Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808 or Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas grace the walls. For good reason, RetiroPark is Madrid’s favorite breath of fresh air. This extensive park, once a royal preserve, is where the locals come to play and stroll amongst its gardens and manicured paths, or else row on the artificial lake. 

Then if you’re brave enough to face the sport, the Bullfights at Las Ventas are simply incredible. Imagine watching the work of Spain’s top matadors with all their grace and skill inside Spain’s most important bullring, Plaza Monumental de Las Ventas. Both grand and traditional, the brick and tile ring was built in the 1920s and holds more than 23,000 spectators. Truly an unforgettable Madrid experience!


Monastery of the Barefoot Royals
Photo courtesy of Brian Snelson

Founded in 1559 as a Franciscan convent and now a museum, the Monastery of the Barefoot Royals is known for its rich interiors and the splendid collection of art and artifacts accumulated over the years. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the convent famously housed a number of never-married and widowed women from Spain's royal and aristocratic families who brought their dowries with them and made the convent one of the richest in Europe. Besides the fascinating building itself, on display are such treasures as a relic of the bones of Saint Sebastian, Renaissance paintings by Titian and Brueghel the Elder, and elegant tapestries with Rubens' designs.

Local Expert tip: Take a closer look at the staircase.

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Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Photo courtesy of Dalbera

Named after Spain's current queen and housed in a former 18th century hospital, the Reina Sofia Museum features an impressive collection of 20th century and contemporary art with an emphasis on Spanish artists. It completes Madrid's well-known Golden Triangle of Art with the nearby Prado Museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The Reina Sofia is best known as the home of Pablo Picasso's famous and larger-than-life 1937 painting Guernica, created in response to the bombing and destruction of the Spanish town of the same name. In addition to Picasso, the collection includes works by artists such as Salador Dali, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque and Diego Rivera.

Local Expert tip: You can't miss Picasso's Guernica.

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The Plaza de Cibeles is Madrid's most famous confluence of streets, where Paseo de Recoletos, Paseo del Prado and Calle de Alcalá meet. In the middle of the roundabout lies Cibeles Fountain, a 1782 sculpture and fountain of the classical goddess Cibeles who sits in a chariot pulled by lions. Locals consider the statue to represent the city of Madrid itself and the Real Madrid team's soccer victories are celebrated there. Cibeles is surrounded by the grand white wedding cake-like Communications Palace from 1917, Linares Palace from 1900 and now the site of the Casa de America cultural center, the 1777 Buenavista Palace and now Spain's Army Headquarters, and the Bank of Spain, completed in 1891.

Local Expert tip: The iconic Cibeles Fountain becomes ground zero for Real Madrid celebrations.

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Casa-Museo de Lope de Vega
Photo courtesy of Ecemaml

The Casa-Museo de Lope de Vega provides insight into the life of the celebrated Spanish playwright Lope de Vega as well as what life was like in Madrid during the 1600s. Located in what is now known as Madrid's Literary Quarter, Lope de Vega lived in the house turned museum from 1610 until his death in 1635. From the writer's study and library to the kitchen and his servants' rooms, the interiors have been curated to represent how the house looked in Lope de Vega's time. The museum offers guided visits only, which are available in English, Spanish and French. Reservations must be made in advance via email or phone.

Local Expert tip: Find a moment of peace in the garden.

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Museo Thyssen Bornemisza
Photo courtesy of Dalbera

Along with the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum forms what is known as the Golden Triangle of Art � Madrid's tour de force in the art world. Housed in Villahermosa Palace, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum contains different collections ranging from the 13th to the 20th centuries, including Italian Renaissance, French Impressionist and 19th century American paintings. The impressive private collection was leased by the aristocratic Thyssen-Bornemisza family to the Spanish state and is considered to complete the gaps in the Prado and the Reina Sofia's more focused collections. Simply put, the museum is a must see when in Madrid!

Local Expert tip: Don't miss the French Impressionist paintings.

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Plaza Mayor
Photo courtesy of Dalbera

Madrid's Plaza Mayor is a grand, historical square in the heart of the city. There you should admire the mural-like facade of what is known as the Casa de la Panaderia and the equestrian statue of King Felipe III. Wander, too, around the pedestrian arcades with restaurants and shops. When the weather is nice, the restaurants set up tables with umbrellas and chairs for dining in the square. Since the 15th century, locals have gathered here for markets and important events, and they still do, like the annual Christmas market. However, due to a series of fires, the larger-than-life square's splendid architecture dates primarily from the 1700s and reconstructions from the 1800s.

Local Expert tip: Sit down, have a drink and enjoy the square at your leisure.

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With its beautiful Baroque exterior of white stone and opulent interiors designed to impress all who enter, Madrid's Royal Palace is a must see. Madrid's monarchs resided there from Charles III in the 18th century until Alfonso XIII in the early 20th century. While Madrid's Royal Palace is the official residence of Spain's current royal family, the country's royals actually reside at the decidedly less opulent Zarzuela Palace. Admission to Madrid's 3,418-room Royal Palace includes a circuit visit to dozens of rooms like the Throne Room, Porcelain Room and the dining room that is now used for state dinners as well as visits to the Royal Armory and Royal Pharmacy.

Local Expert tip: Don't forget to look up at the ceilings.

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Inaugurated in 1931, Las Ventas is Spain's largest and most well-known bullring - the fights that take place there are followed across Spain and abroad. The attractive brick and Spanish tile building hosts bullfights every Sunday from the March to October season, including the most important two weeks on Spain's bullfighting calendar, the San Isidro events in May. San Isidro tickets are notoriously hard to get, but regular Sunday tickets can usually still be had the same day you decide to go. During the week you can visit Las Ventas's bullfighting museum and see some of the ring and the sport's fantastic history. In the offseason from November to February the Las Ventas bullring hosts other events like motocross and the circus.

Local Expert tip: It isn't odd to see Spanish children at a bullfight.

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Retiro Park is Madrid's most popular green space and for good reason. The extensive downtown park has hectares of manicured lawns and paths good for strolling as well as several picturesque gardens and multiple exhibition spaces. Flanked by stone columns and an equestrian statue, the boating lake in the middle of the park is an attraction in summer. Occasional concerts, fairs and events are held at different locations in Retiro Park. Locals flock to the park throughout the week and during all seasons, but Sundays are a particularly popular day for Spanish families, couples and groups of friends to enjoy their urban retreat.

Local Expert tip: Seek out the circular rose garden in summer.

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Museo del Prado
Photo courtesy of Dalbera

One of the world's most celebrated museums, Madrid's Prado Museum is an extensive first-class art gallery containing 16th to 19th century European art. The emphasis is naturally on Spanish art as the Prado's collection was originally composed of Spain's Royal Art Collection. Come to walk the high-ceilinged halls primarily built in the 19th century and reflect on masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, Bosch, Tiziano, Tintoretto and others. As the gallery is so large, it would be easy to spend days immersed in the Prado, so if you're short on time be sure to strategize well and hit the highlights like Velázquez's Las Meninas, Goya's two Maja paintings and Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Local Expert tip: Don't miss the extensive Goya collection.

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Meet Sarah Rogers

Born and raised in northern California, Sarah grew up to become an expat, traveler and wordsmith. She spent seven years in Madrid, Spain and now calls Buenos Aires, Argentina home. She has had...  More About Sarah