City Guide to Madrid, Spain: Part 2 | Must See Attractions
Madrid, Spain is a wonderfully lively and beautiful city to explore! There are so many things to do when visiting, so we’ve put together all of our favorites. From the most famous attractions to the truly unique places you must see when visiting Madrid. Whether you’re looking for family fun in parks, historical landmarks and maps (cartography), intriguing architecture, classic tourist sights and Spanish culture, or all of the above, look no further!
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We were nearing the end of our yearlong travel adventure abroad (mostly Europe) and we’d yet to cross the border into Spain. So you better believe that we were thrilled when we heard the sweet sound of the flight attendant announcing ‘Welcome to Madrid’!
There’s something special about Spanish culture to us, whether it be the vibrant people, Sergio’s family heritage, the language, or a combination of it all, we were elated to finally be in Spain and couldn’t wait to set out and explore!
The Decision: Reasons to Visit Madrid (vs Barcelona), Spain
It’s a common notion that if you’re visiting Spain, you’d probably enjoy Barcelona more than you would Madrid. While Madrid is the Spanish capital, Barcelona has a reputation of having more to do and see. We’d have to agree on this point, solely based on comparing online lists of must see attractions.
Therefore, when considering where we’d go after our time in Rome, Italy, Barcelona was first on our list. However, the more we considered it, the more Madrid seemed to be a better option for us at the time. Here’s why:
It’s the Capital of Spain
While it may not boast a long list of sightseeing attractions, it’s still the capital, so there’d still be plenty to see. While Barcelona is known for its beach and night life scene, we found Madrid to be more along our style of travel. The capital of Spain is full of historical sites, beautiful gardens, modern architecture, and a rising underground scene of street art.
A common rule of thumb to save money on flights is to be flexible with your travel dates and time of day, but if you’re flexible with your destination, you can save as well!
We used Google Flights to find the destinations with the best deals on airfare (either with their ‘Explore’ tool, or ‘Discover Destinations’ tool). Leaving from Rome, we found that for our dates of departure, a flight to Madrid, Spain was a fantastic deal at about a third of the cost to go to Barcelona!
We have many resources in our toolbox for saving money on lodging and one of our favorites is to stay at hotels for ‘free’ by using reward points (plus we have status with many hotel chains, so we get upgrades and freebies).
We of course don’t want to burn through points unnecessarily, so finding a category one or two hotel that requires the fewest number of points is our goal. The AC Hotel by Marriott Coslada Aeropuerto is a category two hotel located near the airport and a short metro ride to city center, but the equivalent Marriott hotel in Barcelona was located much further out of the city.
In other words, by going to Madrid instead of Barcelona we had a ‘free’ hotel and it was close to city center!
Visiting Madrid, Spain
Once it became clear that we were heading to Madrid, Spain, we excitedly purchased our plane tickets, booked our hotel, and started planning our must see attraction itinerary. It wasn’t hard to find plenty to do in Madrid, in fact we filled our itinerary so full that by the end of our first day sightseeing, we’d done a 17 hour day and walked over 23 miles! It wasn’t our plan, but we were having so much fun it just happened that way.
Ultimately, between our planned sightseeing and our exploring the city, we really enjoyed the beauty and charm of Madrid, Spain. And while there wasn’t as many must see sights, museums, and attractions as there are in many other major cities (although there are plenty), the lively Spanish culture made up for it!
We spent plenty of time researching the popular and the unique things to see in Madrid, Spain, so to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Madrid (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. Most prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Euros (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Madrid, Spain.
Our Favorite Must See Attractions in Madrid, Spain
Parks in Madrid, Spain
What do Paris and Madrid have in common? Well, it didn’t take us long in either city to realize that the locals love spending time in their parks! From late morning until sunset, Madrid’s parks are full of residents walking, playing sports, sunbathing, picnicking, and exercising. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that there are parks and gardens abundantly scattered throughout the city, many with manicured gardens, some with recreational areas, most with monuments and fountains, and a few that are absolutely huge.
Sadly, during our time in Madrid, we weren’t able to make it to them all, but here are some of the parks we found that we highly recommend visiting if you have the chance:
El Retiro Park
At just under 310 acres, this massive park has become a popular retreat in the heart of Madrid.
El Retiro Park hasn’t always been open to the public, as in the 17th century it was laid out for King Felipe IV and used as a retreat for the royal family. A century later, the park opened to the public but entrance was still limited, as a formal dress code was enforced. As time passed and the dress code was dropped, the park became a central piece of the culture of Madrid.
When the sun is shining, locals and visitors often partake in one of countless activities this park has to offer!
El Retiro’s beauty begins even before entering the park, as visitors must pass through ornate gates with beautiful ironwork. Although it’ll be crowded, we recommend entering at the northwest corner for it’ll leave you with the best first impression.
As we entered via this entrance, behind us was the first post-Roman triumphal arch, Puerta de Alcala, and in front of us was an entrance gate that could only be described as royal. Through the gate, the grand promenade was decorated with a center row of blossoming flowers that were flanked with two fountains. We could only imagine all that there was still left to see!
When you visit the park don’t miss some of these highlights, although we recommend also exploring on your own to see what wonders lay in wait.
Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal)
The Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park is a beautiful structure made of iron and glass that screams Victorian elegance.
In 1887, it was used to house exotic plants but it’s now open to the public and often used for exhibitions.
During our visit, there was a modern art exhibition by Doris Salcedo which featured the names of refugees who’d died while fleeing their home country to seek asylum. The art was enhanced by the play of light and shadows through the glass and ironwork of the building.
Keep in mind that exhibitions change throughout the year, and unfortunately we came up empty handed when we searched for an exhibition schedule.
Monument to Alfonso XII
The Monument to Alfonso XII is a focal point of El Retiro Park and directly in front of it, Lake El Estanque is a favorite leisurely place for couples and families to spend the afternoon (rowboat rentals are located on the northern shore).
Visitors can admire Monument to Alfonso XII up close or stroll the promenade on the far side of the lake, where street performers routinely fight for your attention.
Monument to Alfonso XII is incredibly dominating and can take a moment to be able to focus your attention on the details. The colonnade that stretches to each side of the monument represents the monarch and holds allegorical marble and bronze sculpted figures. The main figure is, of course, Alfonso XII who was known as the ‘Peacemaker King’. His figure therefore is inspecting the troops as he rides his Arabian horse and points an unsheathed saber pointed to the ground, indicating the end of the battle.
Casita del Pescador
Casita del Pescador translates to the Fisherman’s House (although diminutive, as in little house or cottage). This small and vibrant house sits on a small island in the middle of a man-made pond. It’s out of the way from most of the foot traffic, making it a great place to relax on a bench, take in the serene pond, and admire the design of the house.
The Fallen Angel by Ricardo Bellver (Fuente del Angel Caido)
The Fallen Angel is a much loved, yet very controversial (for its subject matter) fountain in Retiro Park. Ricardo Bellver created the sculpture depicting Lucifer, the famous fallen angel, for which he received the first place at the National Fine Arts Exhibition. After being displayed at the Prado Museum it was transferred to El Retiro Park for park goers and visitors to enjoy.
Tip: For a different artistic take on a fallen angel, don’t miss ‘Accidente Aero’ by Miguel Angel Ruiz Beato!
The Rose Garden (La Rosaleda)
La Rosaleda wasn’t on our list of sites to see within El Retiro Park, but as we walked the grounds of the park the colorful roses surrounding rows of vine covered archways perfectly framing a fountain wasn’t something we could pass up!
Created in 1915, and designed after its inspiration, the Paris Rosaleda de Bagatelle Garden, the garden features roses from all over Europe and is a romantic escape within El Retiro Park.
Gardens and Monuments
There are several gardens housed within El Retiro Park and as you wonder through it you’ll notice that many of the pathways lead to monuments and fountains. While seeing all of El Retiro Park probably can’t be done in a single visit, an afternoon exploring the park would lead to many discoveries.
Additional areas of particular note are the Plaza Parterre, the Cecilio Rodríguez Garden, the Plaza Nicaragua, and the Paseo de las Estatuas. However you explore the park, by foot, bike, or even rollerblades, you’re bound to find something you enjoy!
Madrid Rio Park
Madrid Rio is not only a park and green belt, it’s also a large recreational area. Among the manicured gardens and the children’s play areas (a whopping 17 in total!), are soccer fields, a skate park, and even an urban beach. Throughout the summer, many events and festivals are also hosted here.
Since Madrid Rio Park runs an impressive 6 kilometers (3.72 miles) along the river and averages 82 feet wide, there are plenty of walking paths throughout the popular green belt. Additionally, if the above features of the park aren’t enough to keep you engaged, maybe the individual and unique architecture of the different bridges spanning the river will get your imagination going.
Western Park (Parque Oeste)
It’s always amazing to venture into a park that’s green, spacious, and filled with trees and to then learn that it was once a landfill. Western Park’s (Parque Oeste) days as a landfill ended in 1906 and today it’s filled will people enjoying the afternoon within its lush green areas.
Western Park’s claim to fame are twofold. First is the Rose Garden (Rosaleda), which is renowned for its spectacular roses from around the globe that are on display.
Second, and even more impressive is the Temple of Debod. It’s so popular that a queue commonly forms as only 30 visitors are allowed to enter at a time and for a limit of 30 minutes.
You may be in awe to see an ancient Egyptian temple (circa 2200 BCE) on a pond in Madrid, but it has only been in this spot since 1968.
The temple was donated by the Egyptian government as a gesture of appreciation towards Spanish archaeologists who helped save monuments that were in danger of ruin after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Southern Egypt. Spain received the temple, sent brick-by-brick from Egypt to Madrid, and rebuilt it in its current location.
If you’re one for legends, it’s said that the Goddess Isis gave birth to Horus in this temple!
Folly Park (Parque El Capricho)
We couldn’t wait to see the park that made many ‘Best of Madrid’ lists, as the descriptions, history, and images of Parque El Capricho (Folly Park) were fantastic and intriguing!
The challenging part though, is it only opens on weekends and during off-season it closes at 6:30 pm. With that being said, while we were looking forward to this excursion, visiting it didn’t quite work into our plans.
Parque El Capricho, often described as a ‘Natural Paradise’ is divided into a French Garden, an English Garden, and an Italian Garden. When visiting, consider walking the labyrinth, visiting Casa de la Vieja, or having a romantic moment in front of the Temple of Bacchus. On the other hand, you could investigate the old site of a bull-fighting ring which now holds sculptures that depict a duel between two people fighting to the death!
For those who plan ahead and schedule a free guided tour (they fill up quickly!), they’ll see the bunker that was headquarters to the Republican Army of the Central Region during the Spanish Civil War. The bunker was built in 1937 and is said to offer protection against bombs of up to 100 kg. Tours are free, last about 50 minutes, and can be reserved online, however the website is currently only in Spanish, so you may need to use the translation feature of your browser.
Since El Capricho is a historic park, there are a few things to keep in mind before visiting. Food and drinks, pets, skates, bikes and activities with flying objects (balls, Frisbees, etc.) aren’t permitted in the park.
October – March: 9 am – 6:30 pm on Saturday, Sunday, and Holidays
April – September: 9 am – 9 pm on Saturday, Sunday, and Holidays
We’re not sure what we enjoyed more, the walk to Plaza Mayor or the plaza itself!
The plaza was originally called Plaza del Arrabal and is located in the center of old Madrid. Narrow streets and historic buildings with beautiful architecture surround the public square, so the walk that transitions from a modern city with wide streets and newer buildings is a journey through time.
Within nine different arched entrances, visitors will find themselves surrounded by three-story residential buildings that are similarly designed and feature a total of 237 balconies. In the center, what was at one time gardens, now has a monument of Philip III from 1616, although it didn’t make its way to Plaza Mayor until 1848.
In December the plaza hosts a holiday market, but year-round visitors can find helpful information from the city’s tourist office that’s located here as well. Plus, don’t miss the beautiful frescoes by artist Carlos Franco that depict the zodiac which were inaugurated in 1992.
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol earned its name from the 15th century wall and gate that operated as an entrance to the city. Translated to ‘Gate of the Sun’, the name was given for the rising sun that shines on the eastern facing gate each morning as well as the image of the sun decorating the facade.
Today, Puerta del Sol is one of the most popular squares in the city and besides being a meeting place for tourists and locals, it holds a few treasures. When you visit Madrid, visit at night (after 9 pm) to experience a bustling square with people surrounding street performers, others people watching and meeting friends, and still others passing through to get to and from the public transportation hub beneath the square.
On the other hand, visit during the day and don’t miss these top features of the square:
El Oso y El Madroño
Since the Medieval Era, the symbol of Spain’s Capital, Madrid, has been a bear eating the fruit from a tree.
As the story goes, the nearby forests were full of bears who, of course, couldn’t resist the sweet fruits from the trees. So today, as you move through the city you’ll see the image of a bear snacking on the fruit of a tree everywhere, including city crests and manhole covers.
To see a sculpture of the famous bear you’ll need to go to Puerta del Sol. And if you want a picture in front of the famous Madrid icon, be prepared to wait in line.
The Clock of Puerta del Sol
Located at the top of a building adjacent to the plaza, this clock is used in the famous Spanish New Year’s Eve celebration of Madrid.
In centuries past, the clock that was in Puerta del Sol didn’t tell accurate time, which was a concern considering residents didn’t carry their own timepieces and used public clocks to follow time. On several occasions, the city attempted to set the correct time, however it was never successful. Finally, a watchmaker from the Spanish Navy donated a new clock in 1866, which fortunately and still to this day displays the time accurately.
If you’re lucky enough to visit on New Year’s Eve, wait for the clock to reach midnight and you’ll be treated with the traditional eating of 12 grapes to bring in the new year.
If you cross the street from Puerta del Sol and keep your eyes down toward the street, you’ll come across a stone slab that’s inscribed with “Origen de las Carreteras Radiales”, meaning it’s the origin of the radial roads and the official starting point for six of Spain’s national highways. The plaque is known as Kilometer Zero and is the the starting point for the numbered streets in the city.
If you’re having trouble finding the Kilometer Zero marker, it’s across from the doorway of Casa de Correos.
Plaza de Cibeles
At the intersection of Alcala Street and Paseo de Recoletos is the symbolic Cibeles Square. Visitors will no doubt see the beauty of the central Neo-Classical fountain depicting the Roman Goddess of Nature, Cybele, who’s on her chariot being pulled by two lions.
Surrounding the fountain are four grand and iconic buildings.
Cibeles Palace – Built in 1909, it became Madrid City Hall in 2007.
Buenavista Palace – Built in 1777 by the Duchess of Alba and was ceded to the Spanish Army for its headquarters in 1939.
Bank of España – Built between 1882 and 1891, it was originally the Palace of the Marquis of Alcanices. Declared a Site of Cultural Interest (Bien de Interes Cultura) in 1999, the Bank of España building is beautiful on the outside, but modest compared to the Art Deco interior and grand lobby.
Linares Palace – Built in 1873 by a wealthy banker and renovated in 1992, it currently houses the Casa de America cultural center. Beware though, legend has it that the building is haunted by its first owner.
Plaza de Cibeles is the symbolic meeting point of three Madrid districts: Centro, Retiro, and Salamanca. It makes for a busy intersection and it’s a classic tourist spot in Madrid!
A stroll on Gran Via is an experience that showcases 20th century architecture. It’s been dubbed Spain’s version of Broadway, and as we waked the street we could see why. The street is lined with theaters, hotels, and shopping centers, making it a central destination for activities.
If you’re wanting the see the famous Metropolis Building featured in many skyline images of Madrid, follow Gran Via to where it meets Calle de Alcala. If you want to indulge in views from above, head to the top of Circulo de Bella Artes, where for an entrance fee you can go to the rooftop terrace.
El Rastro Flea Market
On Sunday mornings (9 am – 3 pm) an open air flea market takes over Plaza de Cascorro and Calle Ribera de Curtidores.
El Rastro Flea Market is crowded and hectic, so you’ll be best served to watch your pockets, and although it may not be the best place for hidden treasures and deals, it’s certainly a great flea market experience!
Tip: If you’re after a deal and want to pick up souvenirs, venture to the side streets where you’re more likely to find treasures. Oh, and don’t forget to price bargain!
Accidente Aereo by Miguel Angel Ruiz Beato
The lesser known of the fallen angels is the rooftop angel created by Miguel Angel Ruiz Beato. Located on the corner of Calle Milaneses and Calle Mayor, some argue that it’s the more realistic version of Madrid’s fallen angels.
You’ll need keen eyes to see Accidente Aereo on the rooftop, as many people pass it by without ever realizing it!
Bonus Must See!
After walking 23 miles around Madrid, Spain, you can imagine we saw so many wonderful things! Here are a few more of our favorites:
Almudena Cathedral (Santa María la Real de La Almudena)
Mercado de San Miguel
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Maritime Museum (Museo Naval)
Plaza de Oriente and the Monumento a Felipe IV
The Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid)
Promotion of Art (Tabacalera Promoción del Arte)
Neptune Fountain (Fuente de Neptuno)
Vertical Garden in CaixaForum (Jardín Vertical CaixaForum)
Plaza de la Luna
Chamberi Station Museum (Estacion Museo Chamberi)
Street Art in Madrid, Spain
In our humble opinion, Madrid shouldn’t be discounted as a place not to visit simply because you’ve already been to Barcelona. Between the culture, the people, and the many sights of the city, we’re left with genuine memories of a great city. We’re not the betting type, but we’d say there’s a good chance that because of the experience in Madrid, we’ll return to Spain!