Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Madrid
Plaza Mayor is a large square in central Madrid. It serves today as a meeting place for tourists and locals alike, and has played host to a variety of festivities throughout history, including bull fights, soccer matches, and executions during the Spanish Inquisition.
The plaza was built in the early 17th century during King Felipe III's reign - the central statue is a nod to him overseeing the project's completion. Forming the outer walls are a series of three-story residential buildings with balconies overlooking the center, providing excellent views of the action below.
The most prominent of the buildings in the plaza is the Casa de la Panaderia - House of the Baker's Guild, which today serves municipal and cultural functions. There are also several shops and eateries that occupy the ground level of the buildings and provide refreshments for hungry and thirsty travelers admiring the square.
The Palacio Real (or Royal Palace, also referred to as the Palacio de Oriente) is the lavish site of royal events, but is not home to the royal family (they have lived in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela for some time).
The Palacio Real is still a fascinating place to walk through though, with its maze of 50 themed rooms decorated in the finest metals and richest fabrics - though this is only a small sampling of the total 2,800 rooms of the palace. On the guided tour, you will also learn much about the interesting history behind the Bourbon dynasty, during whose reign the palace was most in use.
Highlights of the tour include the throne room, the immense staircase, the collection of suits of armor and the peculiar royal pharmacy, filled with all sorts of strange concoctions.
The Puerta de Alcalá - or Alcalá Gate - stands in the center of the Plaza de la Independencia - Independence Square - and just outside of the Parque de Buen Retiro - Park of the Pleasant Retreat. This Neo-classical monument was commissioned by King Carlos III in the mid-18th century to replace the 16th century gate that served as the entrance to Madrid from what was then the eastern border.
Italian architect Francesco Sabatini was given the job and with help from two French and Spanish sculptors created what is now recognized as a symbol of Madrid. The Puerta de Alcalá is one of the city's most historic and beautiful landmarks.
The Museo del Prado - Prado Museum - is considered to house one of the finest art collections in the world. It displays thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art throughout its halls - and this is only a fraction of their collection!
What doesn't fit in the display space is stored or sent on loan to other fine galleries throughout the world. The Prado specializes in European art from the 12th-19th century (Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum is home to the post-19th century art), that was built from the Spanish Royal Collection.
The most famous piece in the collection that is on display at the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. He dedicated many of his own pieces to the museum and had a hand in obtaining several works from great Italian painters as well. In tribute to Velazquez, his statue is one of the few marking the entrances to the museum.
The Almudena Cathedral is the official Cathedral of Madrid and is dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena. Taking over a century to complete, the Almudena is one of the youngest cathedrals in Europe, consecrated by Pope John II himself in 1993. A statue of the pope stands outside of the cathedral to mark the momentous occasion.
The lengthy construction process was due to the change in status from a church to a cathedral a year after breaking ground, which warranted an upgrade in style from Neo-Gothic to Neo-Classic and required new blueprints. Another event that put construction on hold was the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, during which building stopped entirely until 1944.
While in the heart of Madrid’s tourist center, get closer to the culinary side of the Spanish capital and its history by visiting Mercado de San Miguel. Located just steps away from the city’s Plaza Mayor, or main square, it’s the perfect spot to take in some culture while you refuel on good eats at this restored, old-fashioned covered market.
The mercado, or market, has roots dating back to the early 1800s, when it was first created as an open-air market on the site of a former church of the same name. Later converted to a covered market, it was finally renovated and restored in 2003. What you’ll find there today is a wide selection of tasty items, ranging from fresh market goods to ready-to-eat delicacies such as paella, olives, cheese, and the city’s favorite drink, fresh-from-the-tap vermouth.
Madrid’s most memorable statue is Cybele’s Fountain, or Fuente de la Cibeles, depicting the Greek goddess of fertility, Cybele, being pulled by two lions on a chariot. Designed by architect Ventura Rodriguez for King Carlos III in 1782, the white marble monument stands encircled by water in the center of the historic Plaza de Cibeles.
Once providing water to local residents, the fountain is now merely decorative, doubling up as a popular meeting point for locals. Real Madrid’s football fans, in particular, have adopted the spot for post-game celebrations. Its job as a water source might be redundant but Cybele’s Fountain is still one of the most prominent symbols of Madrid and if you look closely, you’ll see the 8-meter-tall goddess not only holds a scepter but also a set of keys – said to be the keys to the city.
There’s perhaps no more Spanish stop you can make in Madrid than Plaza de Colón. Spanish because not only is it home to the largest Spanish flag in the world, but the square commemorates one of the country’s most famous historic figures, Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, hence the plaza’s name). As such, the square has a statue in Columbus’s honor, in addition to three giant rock-like sculptures dedicated to the discovery of America.
The square is located along the border of the Chamberí and Salamanca neighborhoods as well as two of the city’s most famous streets: Serrano, known especially for its high-end shopping; and Paseo de la Castellana, the stroll-friendly, north-south thoroughfare. It’s also surrounded by other visit-worthy sights, which include the Spanish National Library, the recently opened National Archeology Museum, and the Fernán Gómez Theater (which sits below the plaza, and often hosts intriguing exhibitions).
More Things to Do in Madrid
Parque del Buen Retiro - or Park of the Pleasant Retreat - is Madrid's most expansive park and landmark, covering 1.4 km2 (350 acres). Known locally as just "El Retiro", the park is referred to as "The Lungs" of Madrid, providing the majority of the greenery to feed off of the carbon dioxide of urban life and release enough oxygen to keep its many residents and visitors alive.
One of the city's most popular attractions, Parque del Buen Retiro is filled with numerous statues, gardens, galleries and a beautiful lake. People go to meet with friends, to read or picnic, and to admire the art, both indoors and out. You can even rent yourself a boat to paddle around the lake. During the warmer months, also be sure to catch the free concerts in the park every Sunday afternoon.
One of the last great monumental squares of Imperial Madrid, the Plaza de Oriente boasts an enviably grand location, flanked by the magnificent Royal Palace to the west and the Teatro Real opera house to the east. Although originally planned by Joseph Bonaparte, the plaza wasn’t finished until 1844 under the reign of Isabel II, opening to the public in 1850.
Laid out by architect Narciso Pascual y Colomer, the plaza features a set of beautifully landscaped gardens, punctuated by a series of 44 statues depicting prominent Spanish monarchs. Most famous is the 17th-century bronze equestrian statue of Felipe IV, designed in 1640 by Italian sculptor Pedro Tacca. The iconic figure shows the King’s stallion rearing up on its hind legs – a striking sight which towers 12 meters high over the central walkway.
The Prado and the Reina Sofia are must-see museums when in Madrid, but the often overlooked Museum of Lázaro Galdiano has been called “the best kept art secret” in the city. The elegant mansion housing the collection was once the home of José Lázaro Galdiano, a 19th-century Spanish publisher, entrepreneur, and art collector. Galdiano gifted his exquisite collection of almost entirely Iberian art — including works by Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, Zurbarán, and Murillo — to the state upon his death in 1947.
Today it is an impressive display of more than 13,000 works of art ranging from sculpture and furniture to jewelry and ceramic, among some of Madrid’s finest paintings. You’ll also find the work of French, Italian, and English painters on the second floor. The room dedicated exclusively to Goya’s work is particularly special, though the house itself with its fresco ceilings and magnificent ballroom is worth a visit alone.
Located at the end of one of Madrid's busiest streets, Plaza de España forms the western base of Gran Vía. Its borders are also delineated by two of the city's most famous and tallest skyscrapers: Torre de Madrid - Madrid Tower - and Edifico España - Spain Building.
Occupying the center of the plaza is a monument to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the famous Spanish playwright, poet and novelist. Surrounding the base of the monument are statues of characters from the writer's most famous work, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The protagonist and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, are accompanied by figures of Don Quixote's love, represented on one side by the peasant woman Aldonza Lorenzo and on the other as the imaginary Dulcinea de Toboso.Day and night, the Plaza de España is a popular meeting spot for locals and tourists often find themselves here to rest on the benches and snap a few photos.
The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian 4th century BC temple that now stands in the Parque de la Montaña near Plaza de España. While it seems out of place in Madrid, the temple has been there since 1971 when it was dismantled, shipped, and carefully reconstructed in the city. This was done to protect it from flooding caused by the Aswan Dam. Spain was chosen to receive the temple as a thank you for helping to save Abu Simbel, another archaeological site that was threatened by flooding in Egypt.
As for the temple itself, it stands behind two stone gates rising out of a calm shallow pool. Inside the temple, there are hieroglyphs as well as photos documenting its history, including the reconstruction in Madrid. The temple and gates are illuminated at night, creating a clear beautiful reflection of it in the water.
Those hoping for a taste of 16th-century Madrid will find just what they’re looking for at the tranquil Plaza de la Villa, or Town Hall Square. An easy stroll from the lively Plaza Mayor, Plaza de la Villa is a world away from the bustle of Madrid’s modern center – a small medieval square lined with some of Madrid’s oldest buildings.
The centerpiece of the ancient square is the Casa de la Villa, used until recently as Madrid’s Town Hall and once housing a 17th-century prison. Built in 1664 by architects Juan Gumez de Mora and Teodoro Adremans, the real highlights are hidden in the interiors – a series of 17th century frescoes by Antonio Palomino, a dramatic Goya painting and exquisite stained glass ceilings, showcased on guided tours of the building.
Football fans won’t want to miss a visit to the magnificent Santiago Bernabéu, home to the legendary Real Madrid football team. The stadium opened its doors in 1947, boasts a capacity of 85,000 spectators and has a 5-star rating as a UEFA-classified Elite Stadium.
Watching a game at the famous stadium – the 4-times host of the European Cup finals – is a memorable experience but if you’re not lucky enough to score tickets for a game, you can still visit the grounds. Fan tours allow behind-the-scenes access to the stadium, where you can take the lift to the top of the stadium towers for an impressive panorama of the vast playing field and walk in the footsteps of your heroes across the pitch. You’ll also get to sneak a peek into the players’ dressing rooms, the presidential box and the trophy room, and even walk through the players’ tunnel.
One of Madrid’s most splendid, iconic views is from Plaza de Cibeles at the end of tree-lined Paseo del Prado. Fuente de la Cibeles, the fountain at the center of the grand roundabout, depicts Cybele, Greek goddess of nature and fertility, steering a lion-drawn chariot. The fountain was built in 1780 and has since become a symbol of the city. The fountain has also become a rallying point for fans of the soccer team Real Madrid whenever the team wins a major tournament.
Surrounding the plaza sit some of Madrid’s grandest buildings, including the ornate Cybele Palace, red brick Buenavista Palace, the Palace of Linares and the dignified Bank of Spain building.
The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia - or Reina Sofia Museum - is Madrid's premier modern art gallery featuring mostly works by Spanish artists. Amongst them is Guernica, a political statement on the Spanish Civil War by Picasso, as well as a room devoted to Joan Miró's paintings and a collection of about 20 Dalí pieces.
One's adventure through the gallery begins with a ride up the glass elevator, which provides excellent views of the plaza and buildings below. The second floor houses the permanent collection, broken up into about 10 rooms while the top floor is taken up with works from artists of the 1980's as well as those of international artists.
Don't forget to stop at the gift shop on your way out to grab a print or postcard of your favorite piece!
Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is one of the city’s most renowned and largest public squares, dominated by the iconic Las Ventas bullfighting arena. Whatever your views on the notoriously controversial sport of bullfighting, there’s no doubting its prominent place in Spanish history and the Las Ventas bullring (the largest in the world) remains one of the city’s biggest attractions.
Built by Joseph Espeliú in 1929, the 4-story stadium seats up to 25,000 spectators and draws in huge crowds of both locals and tourists. The annual Corrida de Toros (bullfighting) season runs from May to October, but the biggest date on the calendar is the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival held each June. Daily bullfights are held for 2 weeks during the festival, featuring the world’s top bullfighters and including both traditional and mounted fights.
With one of the largest and most thorough collections of artwork in Madrid, ranging from the 13th to the late 20th century, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum opened to much acclaim in 1993 and is now one of the city’s leading art museums. A veritable paradise for art lovers, the museum contains over 1000 works and is an important part of Madrid’s so-called ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ – formed by the streets connecting it with the Prado Museum and the National Art Centre Reina Sofia.
The museum’s permanent collection was once the personal collection of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich, amassed over half a century and renowned as one of the world’s most important private collections. Opened to the public by Hans in 1988, the collection was later purchased by the Spanish state and expanded in 2004 to include a further 200 works collected by Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza.
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