We've lined up ten of the biggies – the iconic places and sights you won't want to miss when you're in Madrid, whether you live in town or are just visiting for a few days.
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 its more than one hundred years of history, Gran Vía has had various names depending on the incumbent government, from Avenida de la Unión Soviética during the Second Republic to Avenida de José Antonio in honour of Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange. 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. It was in 1981 during the Spanish Transition when they changed and stayed with the name Gran Vía. The street housed the first department stores in the city, called Madrid-Paris, and for decades it has become the main meeting place to take advantage of the best entertainment in the city, thanks to its many cinemas, theatres, hotels and shops. Book your tickets now!
The residence of the monarchy from Carlos III to Alfonso XIII, this building now functions as a museum where you can admire the glitz and luxury of the Spanish royal elite. The construction of the palace was commissioned by Felipe V on the remains of the Royal Alcázar of Madrid, destroyed by fire in 1734. 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 disciple Juan Bautista Sachetti who would eventually finish the job. The décor of the 3,000 rooms that make up the Royal Palace has been changed to suit the specific tastes of each monarch. Highlights include Sabatini's main staircase, the Throne Room, the Royal Chapel, and the Royal Apothecary. Directly opposite this complex is the Almudena Cathedral, Madrid's largest and newest, consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Book your tickets now!
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, and although it was initially to be a natural science museum, it soon turned into the perfect place to show the public the royal art collection. In recent years, the Prado has undergone a very ambitious expansion programme that includes the remodelling of Casón del Buen Retiro, an annex opposite the park of the same name, and the start of its expansion in 2007 behind the main building, on the site of the cloisters of San Jerónimo. There's 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). Book your tickets now!
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 spread out over the surrounding streets, including San Cayetano, Fray Ceferino González, and Carlos Arniches, among others. A must for tourists and locals alike, the market's stalls offer practically everything you could hope to find – antiques, new and second-hand clothing, costume jewellery, vinyl records, Madrid souvenirs, and rare items that can be difficult to find in conventional shops. Around midday it can be a battle to get through the crowds that have built up over the morning looking for a great bargain and haggling with vendors. Once you've 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.
This 118-hectare park dates back to the construction of the Monasterio de los Jerónimos (today only the parish of San Jerónimo el Real and a baroque cloister remain standing) by the order of Catholic Monarchs. Next to this complex, Felipe II later established an area of retreat and religious devotion, hence its name. But it wasn't until Carlos III arrived to the throne that it was opened up to the public, and then only when they met the standards of hygiene and dress. Currently, it is one of the green areas most used by locals to go jogging or boating, have a picnic, or walk their dogs. The monuments that remain from previous centuries and that are worth visiting are the monument to Alfonso XII, a colonnade work by José Grases Riera overlooking the pond; the Casón del Buen Retiro, a majestic ballroom in its day that's now part of the Prado Museum; and the Palacio de Cristal, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition. El Retiro's gardens hide 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. Book your tickets now!
You can't leave Madrid without a visit to this museum that, along with the Prado and the Thyssen Bornemisza, forms Madrid's Art Triangle. The Reina Sofía's impressive façade features three lift towers of glass and steel, designed in collaboration with British architect Ian Ritchie, 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. Book your tickets now!
This famous square is in the heart of the city's historic district, built on the site of the old Plaza del Arrabal, which was home to the most popular market in the late 15th century. It was Felipe II who in 1580 commissioned Juan de Herrera with the project to remodel the square, although it would be Juan Gómez de Mora who would finish the job in 1619. The first building that was erected in Plaza Mayor as we know it today was the Casa de la Panadería bakery, designed by Diego Sillero. 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. Book your tickets now!
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 its 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. It's worth viewing at night, to admire its impressively illuminated façade. Book your tickets now!
This is the very centre of Madrid and kilometre zero for all roads in Spain. In the 16th century, Puerta del Sol was one of the access points to the city from the outskirts of town. It was named for the sunshine that graced the entrance. The Puerta del Sol was first envisaged as a broad crossing with a constant flow of people, and small traders soon set up there, trying to do business with all those coming and going. Many buildings were constructed that have either not survived the passage of time or have been demolished, such as the Buen Suceso Church, the San Felipe el Real Convent, and the Nuestra Señora de las Victorias Convent. Currently, the most important building is the Casa de Correos, 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 constantly surrounded by groups of tourists. Book your tickets now!
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 in the capital, including 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. In its time it was 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. With the construction of the first Aswan Dam, the temple was badly damaged, since it was under water for nine months a year. Despite subsequently receiving major restorations, the full iconography that stretched its walls could not fully be recovered. When you visit, be sure to hang around to see the sun set, a spectacular sight from where the temple stands. Book your tickets now!