Visiting a city as big as Madrid and managing to see and do all the attractions, events and activities it has to offer is no easy task. From sprawling museums to traditional restaurants and bars, every corner you turn uncovers a spot that draws in tourists and locals alike. To make the choices a bit easier and to make sure you experience as much as you can, we've picked 20 essential things to do when you're in Madrid. If you can't fit them all in, don't worry, you can always come back. So check out our guide to Madrid's best things to do and start exploring.
The best things to do in Madrid
Walk along the Gran Vía
The city's main tourist artery runs the famous Metrópolis building to the Plaza de España. Shops, bars and even a casino line this wide street that stretches for more than a kilometre. If you start walking at the Metrópolis building, with its stunning dome crowned by a bronze statue, the next landmark you'll come to is at Gran Vía 1, the address for Grassy jewellers since 1952. A bit further on, the Hotel de las Letras deserves a peek inside before you're wowed by the window display at the Loewe shop or stop to have a drink in the legendary Museo Chicote, which, despite its name, isn't a museum at all, though there is some art on the walls in the form of photos of celebrities who have passed through the swinging doors.
The impressive Telefónica building kicks off the next leg, where clothing shops compete with each other to grab the eye, and the euros, of a wide variety of clientele. Look carefully - some of the shops are inside old cinemas that have long had to close their doors. Still showing films on the big screen, however, are the Palacio de la Prensa, Capitol and Callao cinemas, in the square that divides this celebrated street. From here to Plaza de España theatres such as the Lope de Vega and the Compac update their programming every season with major works. Gran Vía comes to an end between the Torre de Madrid and the Edificio España, facing the monument to Miguel de Cervantes that's in the centre of the grand square. Book your tickets now!
Visit big museums and small galleries
Exploring the area known as Madrid's Art Triangle is compulsory for any visitor to the city. The Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are the three vertices that make up this traingle that is right on the Paseo del Prado, but they're not the only places where you can see art in the area: Madrid's CaixaForum and its vertical garden are also great places to contemplate beauty.
But you don't have to walk the hallowed halls of the grandest museums and galleries to admire the all the art Madrid has to offer. Small galleries like Elena Ochoa's Ivorypress, urban art created at the hand of the likes of Suso33 and collectives such as BoaMistura, along with temporary exhibitions by young painters in bars and restaurants round out Madrid's cultural panorama.
Take in the city’s best views
The Madrid skyline is one of the most attractive in Spain. And if there's a perfect place to take it all in, it's from the rooftop terrace at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in C/ Alcalá. From this massive patio you can see the whole city, its great avenues, famous monuments, green spaces, and the Cuatro Torres, the capital's big skyscrapers. It's also an ideal spot to have a drink and watch the sun set.
But that's not the only vantage point for enjoying the incredible views. If you're looking for something a bit more central, try the Hotel de las Letras or the Urban (with a swimming pool), which are just a short walk from the Puerta del Sol. The lookout point from the Basílica de San Francisco el Grande or the one behind the Templo de Debod show a lesser-known side of the capital, while if what you're after is more of a bird's-eye view, head for the Teleférico de la Casa de Campo.
Grab some beers
Going out for a few beers (or glasses of wine, or soft drinks) is one of the locals' preferred pastimes. And it's made even better when the weather's nice and all the bars and restaurants open up their terraces. Among the favourite areas to whet their whistle are La Latina in Plaza de la Cebada, a meeting point for many, especially younger crowd. At weekends it's near impossible to make your way through streets like Cava Baja or Cava Alta, where you'll find most of the bars and restaurants.
Other recommended areas for going out for a tipple include Malasaña, where modern bars with vintage decor co-exist with gritty taverns that have stood their ground for generations; Alonso Martínez, neighbour of one of the richest areas in the capital; Tribunal, where you want to head if you're planning to be out till the wee hours; Moncloa, a favourite among university students; and Chueca, with the best gay nightlife in the city.
Tour the city’s parks
You might not realise it, but Madrid has a lot of green spaces. The biggest one is the Casa de Campo, with 1,700 hectares (6.6 sq mi) - five times bigger than New York's Central Park. The interior features a large lake where you'll find small boats and where schools practice kayaking for competitions. There's also a funfair, the Madrid Zoo, a youth hostel, sports facilities and more than a few spaces for concerts and events.
A bit smaller but more central is the Parque del Buen Retiro, also known simply as 'El Retiro', with a pond, tree-linded walks, fountains, monuments such as those to Alfonso XII and the statue of the Fallen Angel, and there's even a space for puppet shows.
You'll also find find a lot of the city's residents out for a jog, skating or walking their dogs along Madrid Río, the green promenade that's a happy result of the excavation of ring road M-30. The Jardines de Sabatini, near the Palacio Real, are a bit more off the beaten path, but definitely worth a visit.
The Paseo de la Castellana, from top to bottom
The Paseo de la Castellana is the axis that passes through the city from north to south along the Paseo del Prado and the Paseo de Recoletos. This is where you'll find Madrid's financial centre, exclusive shops and hotels, and even Spain's most-visited stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, home to the Real Madrid football club.
The Natural Science Museum, the Nuevos Ministerios area, the Kio Towers and Plaza de Castilla with its huge obelisk are just some of the attractions that dotted along this seemingly endless avenue. At the north end are four skyscrapers - Torre Bankia, Torre PwC, Torre Espacio and Torre de Cristal - that together form the well-known economic complex aptly called Las Cuatro Torres. Book your tickets now!
Essential sights to see
Whether you're in town for three days or three weeks, you must visit at least three essential spots before you leave. The first is Plaza Mayor, where you can relax with an expensive cup of 'café con leche', study the equestrian statue of Felipe III is in the centre of the square and do some pretty good people watching around the Tourist information Centre.
With its own song and everything, the Puerta de Alcalá is another must on your list of sights to see. In Plaza de la Independencia, next to El Retiro park, this ancient neoclassical-style gateway to Madrid is at its best at dusk, when lights shine on its arches. You'll also want to have a look at the Royal Palace, next to the Catedral de la Almudena, the official residence of the Spanish royal family, although they now live in the Zarzuela Palace. Die-hard football fans will want to check out the Plaza de Cibeles, where Real Madrid fans celebrate their team's wins, or Plaza de Neptune, territory of Atlético Madrid followers.
Go treasure hunting in El Rastro
Every Sunday it seems like the whole of Madrid is in one place: C/Ribera de Curtidores, in the Embajadores neighbourhood, where dozens of stalls are set up selling second-hand clothes, vinyl records, jewellery and just about any object you can imagine. This is El Rastro, the most famous and oldest flea market in town.
Get there early in the morning unless you're really into crowds, because later in the day the street turns into a raging river of shoppers trying to elbow their way against the current as the vendors wage a shouting war over who has the best deals. Bar and café owners have taken advantage of the draw El Rastro has and have opened up nearby, so you can always find a place to duck out for break or an energy boost. And don't forget to visit the antiques shops down the side streets.
Take in a musical
Back in the day, Gran Vía was nicknamed 'the Broadway of Madrid' thanks to the sheer quantity of cinemas and theatres that lined the street. Even though many of those have since closed, the strip from Plaza de Callao to Plaza de España keeps the culture alive and draws long queues at the box office. Dating back to 1944, the Teatro de la Luz Philips Gran Vía is one of the oldest theatres in the city, and its stage has held dance performances, musicals and more.
The Teatro Lope de Vega has hosted the best and most successful musicals on the Madrid stage, including 'The Lion King', 'The Phantom of the Opera', 'Mamma Mia!', 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Les Miserables', while the Rialto was home for nearly two years to the wildly popular Spanish musical 'Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar' ('Today I Can't Get Up'), based on the songs of Mecano, the best-selling Spanish band of all time that was active in the 1980s. At the foot of Gran Vía is the Teatro Coliseum, built in 1932 as a cinema. It's welcomed such works as 'Cats', 'My Fair Lady', 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'Chicago', among many others.
Delight in the chocolate con churros at San Ginés
Over a century ago this chocolatier's opened its doors in a hidden alleyway between Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Ópera. Today San Ginés serves up the most famous churros in Madrid, and it's a popular meeting point for clubbers heading home after a serious night out.
Surrounded by authentic decor and the classic snapshots of celebs on the walls, you'll wait anxiously for your mug of warm dipping chocolate, churros or porras (just like the tasty fried bread of churros, but even bigger around). Be sure to get a glass of water to wash all that delectable sweetness down. The waiters are constantly running up and down the stairs, inside and out, to satisfy the never-ending cravings of their clientele. The churros and porras are made by San Ginés, using the same reliable recipe since 1894. The chocolate is also made on the spot and can be mixed with any of the liqueurs they've got to hand for an added jolt.
Take a picture with ‘El Oso y el Madroño’
The quintessential symbol of Madrid and the meeting point for lost tourists and friends heading out on the town, 'The Bear and the Strawberry Tree' sculpture, at 4 metres and 20 tonnes of bronze, is not only in the centre of the Puerta del Sol, which is in the heart of Madrid, but is also the starting point (0 km) of all the motorways in Spain.
Don't shy away from the typical tourist photo. Be sure to wait your turn with the groups of admirers crowding around for their shot of 'El Oso y el Madroño', which also appears in Madrid's coat of arms. For years the statue was in front of C/ del Carmen, but now stands at the mouth of C/Alcalá and the Carrera de San Jerónim.
Enjoy a really good party
The streets of the Malasaña neighbourhood were the centre of Madrid's post-Franco 'Movida' countercultural movement, and they're still abuzz with nightlife. Bars like El Penta, La Vía Láctea and Tupperware are heaving with party people into the wee hours at weekends. It's worth wandering around the barrio to stumble upon some of the new spots that have opened in recent years.
If a night out dancing is more your thing, you're also spoiled for choice. You'll hear a lot of talk about Kapital, pumping out house and dance music - the funkier the better - in its seven floors. To boogie the night away to the top pop hits of the day, head for Shôko. And indie kids won't be disappointed at Independance Club or Ochoymedio.
Fill your suitcase with local threads
Whether you're feeling flush or counting every penny, you'll find shops in Madrid to suit your budget. For exclusive brands, you might not need to go any farther than C/ Serrano, known as the Golden Mile and home to boutiques by Prada, Loewe, Armani, Roberto Verino, Adolfo Domínguez and more. If you're into big names but low on cash flow, try heading north of the city to Las Rozas Village for some outlet shopping.
When you've got a bit less to spend, you're sure to find a treasure or two in C/ Fuencarral. The city centre's high street is where you'll find brand-name shops intermingling with costume jewellery and affordable cosmetics. If you still haven't found what you're looking for, never fear. But if you're short on time, try C/ Preciados, just next to Puerta del Sol, where you'll find all kinds of window displays tempting you to part with your euros.
Feast on ‘cocido’ and calamari sandwiches
When you're getting to know a city, it's just as important to try the local cuisine as it is to take in the art and culture. Madrid makes it easy with two essential traditional dishes. 'Cocido' is a stew that is typical of Madrid's fare, and there are a thousand different ways to prepare it. The locals love their 'cocido' so much that there are even tours you can go on to try the best in the province. Some of the best 'cocido' can be found at Lhardy, with one of the oldest recipes in Madrid; La Bola, where it's not unusual for them to serve a hundred a day; and Malacatín, a traditional Madrid tavern in La Latina.
For the best calamari sandwich, take a seat at El Brillante café, opposite Atocha station. Be sure to ask for it with or without lemon or mayonnaise, to suit your taste. And the streets around Plaza Mayor are laden with home-grown café bars like Postas and Ideal, where you'll always find these sandwiches filled with tender breaded calamari on the menu.
Hit a high note in concert
If you're looking for live music, you've come to the right place. Madrid boasts plenty of venues, enormous and intimate, where the biggest national and international stars have played. If you're a jazz fan, you'll find the real thing at Café Central and Café Populart - both host live jazz nightly. If you're looking to rock out or get down and funky, look no further than La Boca del Lobo, where all concerts are free. La Coquette is a meeting place for blues lovers, El Búho Real is where you want to go to catch unplugged singer-songwriters onstage, and Gruta 77 is a favourite among fans of good ol' rock 'n' roll.
Bands that fill stadiums take their big sounds to the Palacio de los Deportes, in the heart of Madrid; La Riviera, next to the Manzanares River, with a slightly lower capacity; or Palacio Vistalegre, which is the farthest out of the city. These are just a few of the highlights in a city hopping with live music, including big festivals such as Dcode.
Visit the gay heart of the city
When you talk about Madrid's gay centre, you're talking about Chueca, where the bars, shops, clubs, travel agencies, bookstores, and other shops mostly focus on the gay community living in the area and always welcome the respectfully curious. At the heart of the barrio is Plaza de Chueca, where you'll find the eponymous metro stop is a popular meeting place, especially in summer when the terraces take over the entire square. Among the best known clubs in the scene are the Delirio, Truco, and Fulanita de Tal.
If you want to plan a visit during the biggest gay celebration of the year, be sure to save the dates at the end of June and beginning of July, when Gay Pride hits Madrid in all its shimmering glory. The streets are packed with revellers, beer or mini 'calimocho' (red wine with Coke) in hand, watching the Pride parade float by along Gran Vía. Once that's over, the party carries on and Chueca is chock-a-block with shiny happy debauchery for a few more days.
Venture outside the city limits
When you're in town with time to spare, why not take a day trip and explore the surroundings? Strolling through the gardens of La Granja de San Ildefonso, a royal palace formerly used as a summer residence by the Spanish monarchs, is a real treat. As is a visit to the immense San Lorenzo del Escorial Monastery, about 45 kilometres from downtown.
Find more green spaces in the gardens of Aranjuez, which are located next to another royal palace and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for some hearty traditional cuisine, be sure to visit Chinchón and its old town square.
Enjoy the winter snow…
When you're planning your skiing holiday, the first destination that pops into your head probably isn't Madrid. But keep in mind the city is surrounded by mountains where you can slide into winter. Valdesquí is the most popular resort, with 27 tracks (3 red, 15 blue, 9 green), 15 ski lifts, 9 snow-making machines, and several cafés and rest areas.
Families in Madrid more typically spend the day at Puerto de Navacerrada, where they can rent sledges for the kids to play on gentle slopes. As the first flakes fall, the nearest parking area is immediately overstuffed, and traffic jams can be monumental. If the weather's not cooperating, you can always have a go on the covered slopes at Snowzone, open all year round in the Xanadu shopping centre.
...And the blooms of spring
There's a park in Madrid that even a lot of the locals don't know about where the almond trees bloom each spring. The Quinta de Los Molinos boasts 21.5 hectares that make a lovely home for a large number of tree species, including olive, pine and eucalyptus, plus several fountains and a lake.
But the real stars are the pink and white flowers of the almond trees, which also give off a heady scent. This garden was owned by the Count of Torre Arias, but in 1920 became part of the estate of César Cort Botí, an engineer and architect. Since 1997 it has been considered a Historical Park, and at weekends it welcomes families kicking a ball around, couples taking a romantic stroll and groups of friends who can't stop snapping shots of the colourful trees with their mobile phones.
Celebrate with a local festival
If you can stand the heat, Madrid's summer festival season is the best time to see the capital in all its splendour. Spring has its share of celebrations, with Dos de Mayo, marking the 1808 uprising against French occupation; and the San Isidro festival honouring the patron saint of Madrid with outdoor concerts, street stalls selling food and drink, and spending the day in the park named after the saint.
Once those are history, the parties really pick up, with the streets filled with festivals and merry-makers virtually every weekend throughout summer. The big one in mid-July is the Virgen del Carmen, which is a big deal in the barrios of Puente de Vallecas, Chamberí and Villaverde Alto. And August celebrates the Verbena de la Paloma in La Latina, honouring the neighbourhood's very own patron saint.