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El Retiro
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10 must-see attractions in Madrid

Need some sightseeing inspiration? These are the monuments, museums and attractions in Madrid you absolutely shouldn’t miss

By Marta Bac
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With all the things to do in Madrid, it can be tough trying to plan your itinerary, so we're here to help you narrow down your quest. Want to ooh and ahh over palaces grand and humble? Appreciate great art in the city's best museums and galleries? Spend some time strolling around outdoors and relaxing in parks? Whether you live in the Spanish capital or are visiting for a few days, you simply have to visit these ten must-see attractions in Madrid.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Madrid

The best attractions in Madrid

1. Gran Vía

Museums Centro

The main tourist and shopping artery in the centre of the capital starts at C/Alcalá and runs 1.3 kilometres to its end at Plaza de España. Throughout over 100 years, Gran Vía has had various names depending on the incumbent government. During the Spanish Civil War it was popularly referred to as the Avenue of Mortars because of the shells that ended up on the pavements and buildings. In 1981, during the Spanish Transition, the iconic street was dubbed Gran Vía. Throughout its long history, Gran Vía has been home to Madrids first department stores and some of the best best entertainment spots in the city.

2. Palacio Real (Royal Palace)

Attractions Historic buildings and sites Austrias

The residence of the Spanish monarchy from Carlos III to Alfonso XIII, this building now functions as a museum where you can learn about the glitz and luxury of the Spanish royal elite. The architecture was inspired by sketches made by Bernini to build the Louvre in Paris, and although Filippo Juvarra began working on the plans, it would be his protégé Juan Bautista Sachetti who eventually finished the formidable job. The décor inside the 3,000 rooms was changed with each shift in power to suit the specific tastes of each monarch. Our highlights include Sabatini's main staircase, the Throne Room, the Royal Chapel, and the Royal Apothecary.

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3. Museo del Prado

Museums Art and design Retiro

Located in a spacious neo-classical building, the Prado is the most important art museum in Spain. Its construction began with Juan de Villanueva by commission of King Carlos III in 1785. In recent years, the Prado has undergone a very ambitious expansion programme, and theres a controversial new cube-shaped building, designed by Rafael Moneo and mainly devoted to temporary exhibitions. Among the most notable works within the Prado are ‘Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, The Third of May 1808 by Francisco de Goya, and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (aka El Bosco).

El Rastro de Madrid
© Rastro de Madrid

4. El Rastro market

Shopping Markets and fairs La Latina

Every Sunday for decades the most famous flea market in Madrid is held around Plaza Cascorro. More than 1,000 street vendors set up first thing in the morning in C/Ribera de Curtidores and the surrounding streets. A necessary weekend activity for tourists and locals alike, the markets stalls offer practically everything you could hope to find, including rare items that can be difficult to find in conventional shops. Set out early, as it can be a battle to get through the midday crowds. Once youve had your fill, the tradition is to go relax with a beer and a snack at any of the bars in the nearby neighbourhood of La Latina.

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5. El Retiro park

Things to do

This 118-hectare park dates back to the construction of the Monasterio de los Jerónimos by the order of Catholic Monarchs. It’s one of the green spaces most used by locals in their leisure time. The park doesn't just boast expansive lawns and well manicured trees – you can check out monuments that remain from previous centuries, including that of Alfonso XII, a colonnade work by José Grases Riera overlooking the pond; the Casón del Buen Retiro, once majestic ballroom that’s now part of the Prado Museum; and the Palacio de Cristal, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition. El Retiro’s gardens boast even more beauty, including a rose garden, the Casa de Vacas cultural centre, and numerous fountains and statues, among which is the famous ‘Ángel Caído’ (‘Fallen Angel’) sculpture.

6. Plaza Mayor

Museums Centro

You’ll find this iconic spot in the heart of the city’s historic district. Once home to the most popular market of the late 15th century, these days the square is the headquarters of the Madrid Tourism Centre. The equestrian statue of Felipe III in the centre of the square was designed by Giambologna and completed by Pietro Tacca in 1616. Another important work in the area is the Arco de Cuchilleros, the most famous of the nine entrances to the square. The archway is the work of Juan Villanueva, who, after the devastating fire of 1790, decided to reduce the façades by two levels, close off the square, and raise the nine arches, so the largest in size with an enormous stairway would give passage to C/Cuchilleros.

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7. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Museums Lavapiés

Don’t even think of leaving Madrid without a visit to this museum that, along with the Prado and the Thyssen Bornemisza, forms part of Madrid’s Art Triangle. The Reina Sofía’s impressive façade features three lift towers of glass and steel that give access to the largest contemporary art museum in the city. The extension on the back section was completed in 2005, adding 30,000 square metres, mainly used for temporary exhibition space. The masterpiece of this museum is without question Pablo Picasso's ‘Guernica’, a painting commemorating the 1937 destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers who flew in support of Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War.

8. Puerta de Alcalá

Attractions Monuments and memorials Retiro

Located on a large roundabout in Plaza de la Independencia, this neoclassical passageway was one of the five ancient entrances to the city. In fact, it got its name because it stands in the road that led to Alcalá de Henares. Its appearance is similar to the triumphal arches built by the Romans, and it was designed by the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini, who finished the construction in 1778. Since then, the statues, engravings and columns that decorate the five arches have undergone five restorations. It’s currently doing splendidly and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Madrid. Our expert advice? Visit at night to admire its impressively illuminated façade.

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9. Puerta del Sol

Museums Sol

The gate of the sun, or Puerta del Sol as it’s locally known, is located right in the very centre of Madrid. Named (unsurprisingly) for the sunlight that shines down on the area, Puerta del Sol began as broad crossing where small traders set up to do business with those coming and going in the city center. Now, the most important building is the Casa de Correos, the government seat of the Community of Madrid. The square is also home to one of the most famous statues in the city, ‘El Oso y el Madroño’ (‘The Bear and the Strawberry Tree’), which stands 4 metres high, weighs 20 tonnes and is understandably always surrounded by tourists.

Templo de Debod
© Templo de Debod

10. Templo de Debod

Attractions Historic buildings and sites Argüelles

This is the Nubian treasure of Madrid and the only Egyptian temple in Spain that is fully preserved. Brought stone by stone from Egypt and carefully reconstructed with regard to its original orientation, this monument was a gift from Egypt and UNESCO for Spain’s part in saving the Abu Simbel temples, which would have otherwise been submerged under water after the construction of the Aswan Dam. At the time of the dam’s construction, the temples comprised one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Africa, dedicated to the gods Amón and Isis with reliefs and carvings that decorate the inside of the sanctuary. When you visit, be sure to hang around to see the sun set, a spectacular sight from where the temple stands.

See more attractions in Madrid

Need a Hotel in Madrid?

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Photograph: Salva Lopez

The 20 best hotels in Madrid

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Looking for a top-notch place to stay? We’re here to help you narrow down your choices with our pick of the 20 best hotels in Madrid. Whatever you want, Madrid’s got it, from exclusive five-star luxury to boutique hotels and those with dreamy spas to the most affordable places to stay that don’t skimp on style and good taste. Don’t worry if you can’t find your dream bolthole on this list – there are literally hundreds of other brilliant places to stay here. This is just the crème de la crème.

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