Best Historic Sites in Madrid

Trace Madrid's Fascinating History at the City's Best Historic Sites

Hands down, Madrid is one of Europe’s most fascinating capitals with its well-preserved architecture and dozens of remarkable monuments and historic sites. While you can still appreciate some remnants of the city’s origins, most of Madrid’s historic sites were actually built after it became the capital of a nation and grew into a world-class city. 

For a full picture of Madrid’s past, try gazing at the churches of its early days, touring the Renaissance houses of its greatest writers, admiring the palaces and gardens of the Spanish Enlightenment, strolling past the grand houses and boulevards of the 19th century, enjoying the café haunts of its artistic generations, finding the vestiges of Franco’s dictatorship, and then, appreciating today’s ardent efforts at preserving all of the city’s tumultuous and impassioned history.

While the visiting history and architecture enthusiasts will no doubt be eager to appreciate Madrid’s treasures, you certainly don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy Madrid’s historic sites. From the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Royal Palace to the fun Railroad Museum located inside the remarkable Delicias Station to the city’s charming transplant from Egypt, the ancient Temple of Debod, Madrid’s historic sites are a prominent and well-deserved feature on any Madrid itinerary.


Containing the largest Christian dome outside of Rome, the Basilica de San Francisco El Grande is an 18th century Roman Catholic basilica built in the Neoclassical style. The interior is richly decorated with murals, paintings and statues and has been restored several times over the years. One of its attractions is the collection of 17th to 19th century Spanish paintings, which includes works from celebrated Spanish painters Goya and Zurbaran. While the basilica was once used as Spain's National Pantheon, today it is a National Monument. Unless there is a religious service, the basilica's museum is open to visitors for most of the day.

Local Expert tip: This is one of La Latina's essential landmarks.

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Parque de Templo de Debod

One of Madrid's most unique attractions is the Temple of Debod. Located in the Parque del Oeste and mostly surrounded by an artificial pool of water, the ancient Egyptian temple dates from the second century BC and was dedicated to Amun and later to Isis. The temple was a gift from Egypt to Spain in recognition of Spain's support in saving Abu Simbel's temples from the construction of the Aswan Dam. Inside the temple you can see a series of religious reliefs and admire the temple's architecture. Entrance to the museum is free during the day, but at any hour, visitors can and do come to appreciate its exterior.

Local Expert tip: The exterior of the temple against the backdrop of the sky is quite beautiful at sunset.

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This busy crossroads is Madrid's main meeting place and crowds always loiter around the statue of the bear and the madro?o ("strawberry tree") at the bottom of C/Carmen. It is also officially the geographical official heart of Madrid and therefore Spain; it holds the kil�metro cero (a plaque on the pavement outside the Casa de Correos, under the clock): the point from which all distances from the city are measured. Here thousands of revelers gather at midnight on New Year's Eve to eat their grapes, one for each chime of the clock, and drink champagne. The Puerta del Sol is also where Napoleon's Egyptian cavalry charged locals on 2 May 1808, as depicted in one of Goya's most famous paintings, El Dos de Mayo. METRO: Sol

Local Expert tip: The bear and madro?o statue is a popular meeting spot.

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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 fa�ade of what is known as the Casa de la Panader�a 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: Stand in the middle of the square to get the full effect, but don't forget to examine the arcades, either.

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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 Alcal� 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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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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Built as Madrid's main central rail station, Atocha was inaugurated on February 9, 1851, under the name Estaci�n de Mediod�a. After a fire in 1864, the station was revamped by Alberto de Palacio, a colleague of Gustave Eiffel, in a classic design of wrought iron and glass. It remained thus until Rafael Moneo's renovation for Spain's big year of 1992 (the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville Expo). The old structure could not cope with modern transport requirements, so it was filled with a tropical garden and caf�s to resemble a large and very elegant conservatory. An entirely new section was added for the high speed AVE and the cercan�as (the local rail network). METRO: Atocha

Local Expert tip: Here you can catch a train to anywhere in Spain.

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Founded in the 16th century and housed in a Renaissance-style royal palace, the Convent of the Barefoot Royals amassed great riches over the years from the dowries of the Spanish noblewomen who were once cloistered here. Today the church and museum (now administered by the Spanish state with permission from the Pope) displays an impressive wealth of paintings, frescoes, statues, tapestries and religious artifacts, such as Saint Sebastian's bones. The richly decorated palace is a must-see on any Madrid itinerary and is conveniently located near the Puerta de Sol. Though no longer of noble extraction, the convent still houses a few nuns.

Local Expert tip: You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate the amazing art and history of the place.

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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: Make a reservation or you'll be out of luck.

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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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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