Madrid is Spain’s second-most visited city after Barcelona, but it’s the country’s largest and most diverse. It’s no surprise, then, that Madrid is full of tourist attractions. Some are forgettable, others are worth a detour if you’ve got extra time, and some are must-sees for any trip to Spain’s capital. The latter are favorites even among locals and make for a more authentic experience of Madrid.
Separating the made-for-tourism from the worthwhile can be tricky. For example, Plaza Mayor looks like a convivial spot for lunch, but the authorities — read: my husband, Floren, who was born and raised in the city, and his friends and family who still live there today — say only tourists dine there. To see Madrid like a local, follow their recommendations.
Pro Tip: For an excellent overview of iconic places in Madrid, download a copy of the city’s new Icons of Yesterday and Today map. It displays the locations and walking routes between many popular attractions and is a great way to orient yourself in the city.
1. Retiro Park
Retiro is more than just Madrid’s prettiest park; it’s also part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses the Paseo del Prado and the Jerónimos neighborhood. Some of the city’s best-known sights are located here, including the Alcalá Gate, the Alfonso XII monument, and the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, which depicts the fall of Lucifer in Paradise Lost.
You can make an entire day of exploring the 350-acre park, from its scenic promenades to its gardens and sculptural pavilions. Velázquez Palace, erected in the early 1880s to host industrial exhibitions, now features temporary displays by modern painters, photographers, and sculptors. The instantly recognizable, tile-lined Glass Palace, built in 1887 as a conservatory, also houses temporary exhibitions overseen by the Reina Sofia Museum.
2. Royal Botanical Garden Of Madrid
Clocking in at 20 acres with seven distinct sections and five greenhouses, the Royal Botanical Garden is located along the Paseo del Prado. Within its confines are an estimated 90,000 plants and flowers and more than 1,500 trees.
Follow the suggested route through the garden for insight on the plants, local history, and the importance of these living, “breathing” species in our lives. Highlights include the rose garden, the wide variety of exotics in the greenhouses, the herbarium, and the library and archive, which contain almost 10,000 botanical drawings.
3. La Casa Encendida
Less than a mile from Retiro Park, this cultural and social center is beloved among residents for its avant-garde exhibits and its programs in four topic areas: culture, solidarity, environment, and education. Inside the accessible-retrofitted historic building, you’ll find exhibition spaces, an adult and a children’s library, media rooms, a café, and a charity shop that specializes in eco-friendly items. Use the Google Translate app to interpret the signage, which is usually in Spanish.
La Terraza, a plant-filled rooftop bar, offers some of the best views in the city. It’s also a great spot for breakfast and brunch.
4. Casa Mingo
In operation since 1888, Casa Mingo is arguably the country’s first cider house. Casual and affordable, it specializes in Asturian-style dry cider, although sweet varieties are also available. Most people come for the succulent roasted chicken, but the menu has other no-frills selections like green salads, potato salad, chorizo cooked in cider, and roasted red peppers.
The restaurant gets crazy-busy on weekends. Skip the lines by arriving before 2:30 p.m. for lunch or before 9 p.m. for dinner. Head to the upper level for seating on the outdoor terrace.
5. The Cable Car (Teleférico) At Casa De Campo
For a unique view, take the Metro to the Casa de Campo urban park. Here you can board a cable car for a narrated tour of the city’s green spaces and historic landmarks. The 1.5-mile journey takes about 10 minutes.
When you’re finished, explore Casa de Campo’s green spaces and family-friendly amusement park, zoo, and aquarium. Stop along the lake, which is ringed by bars and restaurants, for a quick bite or sip. On summer weekends, Madrileños arrive in droves to jog, play soccer or tennis, ride bicycles, or swim in the public pool.
6. Beer And Tapas At Bar Alonso
Petite and perennially popular, Bar Alonso is usually packed after work or just before dinner (9 to 10 p.m.), when residents gather for beer and tapas with friends. While I can’t vouch for it myself, the tripe is universally raved about by our Madrid-based friends. What I can recommend: the salmorejo, a cold Spanish soup made of tomato, garlic, and bread; and the patatas bravas, fried potato wedges topped with a spicy paprika sauce.
7. Plaza De Santa Ana
Santa Ana, located in the Huertas district, is a nightlife hotspot. Sandwiched between the Teatro Español and the stunning Reina Victoria hotel, it’s jam-packed with bars, cafes, breweries, and restaurants, including colorful Irish pubs. At sunset, the best seats in the house are on the Reina Victoria’s swanky and fashionable rooftop bar.
On Sunday mornings, families take a fresh-air stroll around Santa Ana and stop at a panadería or two for bread and pastry.
8. Temple Of Debod
You’d be forgiven for wondering what an Egyptian temple is doing in Madrid’s Cuartel de la Montaña Park. The structure was built in the 2nd century B.C.E. and abandoned when the Nubian empire converted to Christianity. In 1907, to save Nubian monuments during the flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam, Egypt donated four temples to different countries. Debod was dismantled, stone by stone, and reconstructed in Madrid. It reopened to the public in 1972.
The Temple of Debod sits on a stone platform over a small pond to mimic its original location along the Nile. It’s decorated with a variety of reliefs, many originally polychrome, although the colors have long since faded. At night, the buildings are lit from below with an otherworldly glow.
9. Chocolate And Churros At Chocolatería San Ginés
Just outside Puerta del Sol lies San Ginés, the original outpost of a café that has been selling Spanish chocolate and churros since the 1890s. San Ginés has been covered in many Spain guidebooks and can get packed, especially on New Year’s Day and on weekend mornings.
For a quieter experience, go on a weekday and sit at one of the old-school green banquettes in the tiled interior or pull up an outdoor table so you can dip your churros in thick, decadent chocolate while people-watching. Pick up a bag of chocolate mix to take home at the across-the-street retail shop.
10. Tortilla Española
Meaning “little cake” in English, tortilla is Spain’s national treasure of an omelet. The traditional versions are egg-only and tortilla de patatas, which are filled with potatoes cooked in olive oil.
Perhaps the most famous Spanish tortilla is made at Méson de la Tortilla, a cavelike restaurant beneath the Plaza Mayor. But Casa Dani’s has won a number of awards, and Txirimiri, a Basque-inspired restaurant, serves a memorable tortilla de patatas with truffles and caramelized onions.
As for the eternal debate on whether a tortilla should include onions, you’re either team cebollistas or team sin cebollistas. Floren’s friend Elena says, “I vote ‘with’!” He counters, “I can’t stand onion in a potato tortilla.” For the record, I’m team cebollistas; the addition of tender sauteed onions really makes the dish sing.
11. Capricho Park
Capricho, in the Barajas district, is both one of the most charming and least known of Madrid’s superb parks. It was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s under the direction of Doña María Josefa de la Soledad Alonso Pimentel, Duchess of Osuna, a benefactor of artists and intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment. On her estate, she created a natural paradise where the city’s great thinkers and artists could get away from city life and stoke their creativity.
The park fell into decline after the duchess’s death in 1834. In 1974, the Madrid City Council purchased Capricho and rehabilitated it. Many of its historic structures survive, including fountains, pavilions, and hermitages. Capricho has three gardens — French, English, and Italian — as well as a labyrinth of laurel shrubs. Currently, the park is open only on weekends and holidays. The beautiful Palace of the Dukes is undergoing renovation, with plans to reopen it as an interactive art space.
12. El Rastro
On Sundays and public holidays in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood, the streets transform into one of Europe’s largest open-air flea markets, in operation since the 1730s.
There’s virtually nothing you can’t find at El Rastro — from clothing and textiles to ceramics, antiques, home goods, art, food, and collectors’ items — as long as you have the patience for combing through more than 1,000 vendor stalls. The largest portion is in Plaza de Cascorro, and the triangular block bordered by Calle de Toledo, Calle de Embajadores, and Ronda de Toledo. Although the streets are accessible, El Rastro gets busy, and hard to navigate with a mobility vehicle. Plan to visit shortly after opening, and avoid peak traffic, which begins around 11 a.m.
If you do go in the afternoon, stop at one of the many bars in La Latina for a vermouth, a typical Sunday tradition in Madrid, along with a calamari sandwich.
13. Sangria At Las Cuevas Del Sésamo
Spaniards are particular about sangria, their home-grown party punch. Taste the real deal at Las Cuevas del Sesamo, a dimly lit subterranean bar where Ernest Hemingway knocked back a few — okay, more than a few — in the 1950s.
While Las Cuevas attracts tourists, its entrance is often obscured by the crowds at the restaurants around it. A set of stairs leads into the barrel-shaped bar, which is crowned by a series of arches stenciled with quotations. There’s a piano on one side, where a musician taps away nightly. Grab a table and sip some sangria, which is exclusively sold in pitchers and has an excellent balance of the sweet and acidic.
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