Madrid Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

One of Europe’s most colorful and cosmopolitan cities, Madrid blends a unique mix of historical charm and modern vitality. Madrid is the Spanish capital and the largest city in Spain, comprising diverse neighborhoods, each offering their own distinct character.
Madrid Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Spain’s capital boasts attractions galore to impress every traveler: from historic quarters and multicultural districts to sites of the sizzling nightlife scene that Madrid is famous for.

A visit to Madrid is not complete without a day well spent at the world-renowned Museo del Prado. The Museo del Prado is a fine museum that is home to what is arguably the world’s finest collection of Spanish paintings. Pieces to look out for include Las Meninas by Velázquez, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch and Goya’s “dark paintings.”

The Museo Reina Sofia is another worthwhile museum that is home to a broad array of works created by Spanish artists, including extensive collections of artwork by Picasso and Dali. Picasso’s masterpiece, El Guernica, which conveys the horrors of the Spanish civil war, is alone worth the price of admission.

Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish monarch, is worth a tour if only for the ostentatious riches and wealth on display: lots of gold, many priceless paintings, gilded thrones, crystal chandeliers, Flemish tapestries, porcelain walls, and an imposing armory with armaments dating from the 13th century.

The Flamenco art form is arguably the most precious contribution of the Andalusian gypsies to Spanish culture. While there are many taverns, restaurants and bars in Madrid that host flamenco performances, El Corral de la Moreria is without a doubt the best tablao flamenco restaurant in Madrid.

Madrid’s Catholic past is also on display in the various churches and convents dotting the city. Built in the 16th century, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales convent is the lavish home of the “barefoot nuns”, which features an amazing art collection by European masters, including splendid tapestries by Rubens.

La Latina is the site of medieval streets full of upscale wine and tapas bars, especially along the Calle Cava Baja. In warmer weather, the party spills onto the squares with impromptu drumming circles, picnics, and the occasional gypsy accordionist.

Plaza Mayor has been the main square in Madrid since the 16th century, whose red arcade façades and well worn cobblestones have witnessed royal events, bullfights and the Inquisition. Today, the historic square continues to draw thousands of ‘Madrilenos’ – Madrid’s locals, street vendors, buskers and tourists daily to its souvenir stores, cafés and the lively San Miguel market.

With its plethora of glorious cathedrals, historic landmarks, museums and art galleries, Madrid offers lots to see and do. The city also boasts one of the Europe’s most vibrant nightlife scenes, with clubs, bars and discos, not to mention the exquisite flamenco dinner shows. Whatever you fancy, this gem of a European city is full of sights and attractions that are certain to captivate you for a long time to come.

1. Museo Nacional del Prado

Museo Nacional del Prado is Madrid’s most prestigious museum which houses the most comprehensive collection of Spanish paintings in the world. Home to one of the world’s largest galleries of Classical paintings and lined with masterpieces from the Spanish, Flemish and Italian schools, the Prado is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Madrid’s most visited tourist itineraries.

Opened in 1819, the museum is housed in Neo-Classical building whose construction dates from 1785. The museum itself derives its name from the district in which it is located – El Paseo del Prado, which was in the past an area for market gardens known as “prado” or meadows.

While the museum today houses over 8,000 paintings, due to lack of space, fewer than 2,000 are on public display. Nevertheless, visitors can enjoy a dazzling display of works by some of the greatest European masters including Goya, El Greco, Bosch, Ribera and Velazquez among other major Flemish and Italian artists.

Museo del Prado traces its origins to the queen of Spain who, impressed by the Louvre in Paris, decided to showcase an enormous art collection in her own country. Years of acquisitions and private donations contributed to the enlarging of the museum’s collection.

During the Spanish Civil War, the museum’s artworks were stored in the museum basement behind sacks of sand to protect them from possible bombing attacks. The collection was then taken first to Valencia and thereafter to Geneva, but was quickly returned to Madrid after World War II broke out.

Due to the sheer scale of the collection, you may want to first do some research and go with some highlights in mind to focus on. Some pieces not to miss include Velazquez’s Las Meninas and The Triumph of Bacchus.

The other major artist to look out for is Goya whose works comprise such a large part of the museum, that his statue can be seen standing outside the main entrance. Be sure to check out his controversial The Naked Maja.

Another outstanding work is Bosch’s The Garden of Delights. Several of Bosch’s other works are also available at the Prado as he was one of the favorite artists of King Filipe II. Don’t miss out on The Adoration of the Magi and The Three Graces, both by Rubens. Rembrandt is also represented with Artemisia and his self-portrait. Also check out Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait.

The museum is worthy of repeat visits. However, if you are only able to visit it once, those are the major artworks you should not miss out on. Your remaining time will be well spent marveling at Spanish works dating from the 17th century.

Museo del Prado is an ideal spot to learn about the history of Spain, while appreciating the works of Spanish masters. It also has a souvenir store where visitors can buy prints, postcards and books among other items. At the cafeteria in the basement you can take a break from all the art exploring, sit and have a coffee.

2. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Inaugurated in 1992, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is housed in an 18th century hospital that was beautifully remodeled and converted into a museum. Two panoramic glass lifts stand out in the façade in addition to an extension that was added in 2005. The museum is situated close to the Atocha train station.

Two of the museum’s floors are devoted to temporary exhibits, while the other two house a permanent collection of Pop, Abstract and Minimal Art movements. A treasure-house of modern art, the highlight of the Reina Sofia is one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century – El Guernica by Picasso.

The piece was commissioned by the Spanish government for a Paris exhibition to serve as a Civil War protest. However, El Guernica hung in a gallery in New York until 1981 in fulfillment of Picasso’s wish that it not be shown in Spain until democracy was established. After being exhibited at the Prado museum, it was moved to its permanent home at the Reina Sofia in 1992.

Another museum highlight is the Woman in Blue also by Picasso. Dali and Miro are the other two influential artists well represented at the museum. Be sure to check out Portrait II the enigmatic piece by Miro which stands out for its Surrealist elements, as well as Salvador Dali’s showpiece Landscapes at Cadaques.

Visitors can also marvel at The Gathering at the Café del Pombo by Jose Solana. There are also notable works by international artists such as Reclining Figure by Francis Bacon, and Henry Moore’s serene sculpture.

Also part of the museum is a library that specializes in 20th century art and archives, with more than 1,000 periodicals and 10,000 volumes. There’s also a shop that sells pottery, writing materials and design goods. The museum’s adjoining restaurant opens well into the night to serve diners.

3. El Corral de la Moreria

Since the early 19th century, Madrid has been home to the best flamenco and has witnessed the triumph of the art form’s best artists. Various activities that surround this art form continue to flourish, and there are today hundreds of dance academies in Madrid, as well as great flamenco shows in tablaos and theatres.

Flamenco can be watched and heard at many places in Madrid, but your best bet is to watch it performed at a tablao. A tablao is a dedicated flamenco restaurant that holds shows on a daily basis or on most days, as opposed to the bars and restaurants with a flamenco ambience that offer the occasional show. Simply go for an evening meal at one of these spots and listen to the music thereafter.

For the very best of flamenco in Madrid, look no further than El Corral de la Moreria. El Corral is a tablao that is widely considered as the premier flamenco restaurant in the city. In addition to serving amazing Spanish cuisine, the restaurant attracts quality performers.

Inaugurated in 1957, El Corral is the oldest flamenco show restaurant in Madrid. From the very start, its owner Manuel del Rey wanted to offer his customers the very best. He therefore hired the best chefs and most distinguished artists of the craft.

The restaurant is situated in the heart of Madrid, in the old part of the city, next to the Palacio Real. The air-conditioned premises of the restaurant can seat 150 people. Lamps and furniture from the XIX and XVIII centuries give a real Castilian feel to the restaurant, transporting diners to a tablao of the period.

The flamenco troupe of the Corral de la Moreria comprises a group of eight famous artists: 2 singers, 2 guitar players, and 4 flamenco dancers. The show lasts approximately one hour and has in the past featured guest stars and established performers such as Blanca del Rey, the National Flamenco prize winner.

Sit down for lunch, order wine, take in the flamenco atmosphere and enjoy the exquisite service offered at El Corral. Madrid is a paradise for gourmands and gourmets alike, so while at El Corral, be sure to eat like the Madrilenos do. For a complete Spanish culinary experience, visitors can sample traditional specialties such as the Cocido Madrileno or enjoy a snack of churros with thick, hot chocolate.

4. Palacio Real

Palacio Real is Madrid’s royal palace and the largest royal palace in western Europe. The most beautiful and biggest building in Madrid, the palace boasts a beautiful Baroque exterior of white stone and opulent interiors designed to impress any visitor.

While Palacio Real is the official residence of the current Spanish royal family, the royals of Spain actually reside at the Zarzuela Palace which is less opulent. The last royals to reside in Palacio Real were Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie who left in the early 1900s.

Palacio Real is built on the site of the Old Alcazar, a Moorish castle that was destroyed in 1734 by fire. The site had been occupied by the Moors since 10th century, long before Madrid became the Spanish capital.

It was Emir Mohamed I who chose Magerit (Madrid’s Arabic name) as the site for a fortress to protect Toledo from the advancing Christian Crusaders. He named the Manzanres River “Al Magrit” which means “source of water”, and referred to the area as Mayrit, which later became Magerit and subsequently Madrid. The old city walls surrounding this area can still be seen today.

The building was eventually used by the Castile Kings, before becoming the Old Alcazar fortress of the 14th century. It was Charles I and his son Philip II who transformed the building into the permanent residence of Spain’s royal family.

The palace’s massive size is its most imposing feature. It boasts over 2,500 ornately decorated rooms, having been initially designed to accommodate the court of Felipe V, which comprised over 3,000 courtiers. The construction project was initiated in 1737 and seventeen years passed between the laying of the first foundation stone and completion of the work.

The palace design was inspired by sketches made for the construction of the Louvre in Paris and is built in the form of a square overlooking a large courtyard of galleries and a parade ground.

Located on Bailen Street, the palace is surrounded by the beautiful Campo del Moro and Sabatini parks. The Campo del Moro palace gardens are also worth a visit, as is the adjacent Plaza de Oriente, an equally beautiful square with an immense garden area that houses a number of statues of monarchs and other important Spanish nobles. This is a good spot to take a photo of the palace exterior.

The palace is a fascinating place to stroll through with its maze of themed rooms ornately decorated in the richest fabrics and finest metals. Fifty of the palace’s elegant rooms are open to the public almost the whole year round. It is only during official ceremonies and receptions that the public can only access certain areas.

The Painting Gallery is a popular room in the palace which contains furniture, paintings, ceramics, tapestries, frescos by Tiepolo, as well as other important works of art. Goya, Velazquez, Mengs and Giordano are all represented here among the many valuable paintings and tapestries, thereby making the palace one of the most important museums in Europe.

Some of the artistic treasures you can expect to find here include Luis Morales Virgin with Child, Juan de Flandes Portrait of Isabella the Catholic as well as Caravaggio’s Head of John the Baptist.

Other highlights of the palace tour are the Royal Armory’s collection of suits of armor; the Porcelain Room’s ceramic pots; the Royal Dining Room which is used to host state dinners and “Salon del Trono”, the lavish Throne Room, which features a ceiling painted by Baroque artist Tiepolo. Also visit the Royal Chapel which is home to a collection of string instruments made by Antonio Stradivari.

The immense Main Staircase is another attraction, as is the Royal Pharmacy that’s filled with all sorts of natural medicines, cabinets as well as prescriptions issued to members of the Spanish royal family. You can also explore the Hall of Halberdiers which was transformed into the Guards Room; and the Gasparini Room which features grand 18th century decorations with a floral theme.

During the guided tour, visitors will learn about the fascinating history of the Bourbon dynasty during whose reign the Palacio Real was mostly used.

5. Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is located within the Plaza de las Descalzas in the center of Madrid. The enigmatic convent whose name translates to “Monastery of the Barefoot Royals” is a Franciscan convent, also known as El Monasterio de Nuestra Senora la Consolacion de Madrid.

The convent comprises 16th century buildings located within the former palace of Carlos I and Isabel of Portugal, and was founded in 1557 by their daughter Juana.

The convent was one of the richest in Europe due to the large number of noblewomen who took the veil there. The women came often as a way of seeking refuge from unpleasant marriages, and brought with them large dowries that built up the convent’s wealth of art treasures and holy relics in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Today, the convent boasts an impressive collection of relics and art, including a dazzling array of marble sculptures, as well as works by Sanchez Coello, Luini and Tiziano. Caesar’s Money by Tiziano forms a particularly valuable part of the convent’s collection. The convent’s Flemish Hall features works by Breughel the Elder and Hans de Beken, while its tapestries are based on drawings by Rubens.

The convent has a collection of reliquaries, which are the legacy of centuries of dowries, and which are said to contain pieces of the True Cross, as well as some of St. Sebastian’s bones. Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria worked at the convent from 1587 until his death in 1611.

Despite the wealth contained in the convent, the Franciscan Sisters, having taken a vow of poverty, were forbidden to auction their treasures or spend any money raised from their dowries. By the mid-20th century, the nuns were living in conditions of starvation amid a sea of artistic treasures.

Upon realizing the conditions in which the nuns were living, the state intervened and they were granted a special dispensation from the Pope in 1960 to open the convent to the public as a museum. In 1985, the convent was recognized as the European Council’s “Museum of the Year”.

Today, the convent offers a haven of tranquility amid Madrid’s bustle and noise. A number of Franciscan nuns still live in the convent in an enclosed order as solitaries, while devoting their lives to prayer, contemplation and tending to their vegetable garden.

The cloister is well known as the site for processions during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday whose events are accompanied by music from the period when the convent was founded.

6. Real Fabrica de Tapices

Tired of the previous monarch’s dependency on Flemish and Belgian craftsmen and thread mills for luxurious tapestries, King Felipe V of Spain established the Real Fabrica de Tapices in 1721. The factory is today still in operation and applies traditional weaving techniques from the 18th and 19th centuries to classic and modern designs.

The ancient art of tapestry making is kept alive at the Real Fabrica de Tapices by artists who create intricate fabrics using traditional methods of weaving. This age-old process of crafting exquisite tapestries carries on in the factory with consummate skill, using cartoons and sketches by artists as patterns for the tapestries.

The Royal Tapestry Factory moved to its present location a short walk southeast of Atocha railway station in 1889 and has since witnessed some of Europe’s best artists collaborate in its tapestry designs. The most famous was Goya who produced sixty three rough plans. It is said that Goya put so much detail into his plans that the craftsmen complained he would make their work miserable.

Almost every tapestry manufactured at the factory today is based on a cartoon of Goya, the factory’s most famous employee. Many of the Goya patterns such as The Pottery Salesman are today still in production, although the original drawings are housed at the Museo del Prado. Other designs are based on cartoons by Goya’s brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu.

Visitors to the factory can watch the artists at work, learn about the history of tapestry, the industry, as well as the skills required to produce the marvelous functional works of art. You can also marvel at the many beautiful finished tapestries on display, which date from the 16th to the 20th century, as well as some famous drawings of originals also on display.

The factory also has textiles available for sale, in addition to custom made designs that you can have made to suit your individual preferences. The factory also operates a training center that teaches traditional weaving techniques to unemployed teenagers who seek a future career as weavers.

7. La Latina

Situated on the southern edge of historical Madrid, a short distance from Palacio Real, La Latina is one of Madrid’s most authentic and traditional neighborhoods. The area is also called “Los Austrias” for the 16th- and 17th-century Hapsburg nobility who previously resided there.

The neighborhood rests on the site of what was Madrid’s first medieval urban walled enclosure. Even today, some remains of the defensive wall that originally surrounded it can still be seen. In the past, the area was occupied mainly by artisans and manual workers, while the squares of both Plaza de la Paja and Plaza de Cebada were home to busy markets selling fodder and farm produce respectively.

La Latina features medieval walls and cobblestone streets that make a charming labyrinth which confuses even lifelong residents. But of course, getting lost in the winding alleys of La Latina is part of the fun. The neighborhood comprises a maze of narrow, winding streets that lead to dark, noisy taverns in which life-loving Spaniards indulge in copious amounts of wine, beer and some great tapas.

Sunday evenings are the best time to visit La Latina’s taverns as you can watch locals gather in clamorous defiance of the work week ahead. Madrid’s locals like to frequent this district because of its numerous pubs, bars and traditional taverns that are full of character. Although lively at all times of the day, the atmosphere becomes particularly animated in the evenings and during the weekends.

Another ideal time to visit the neighborhood is during the festivities to honor the Virgin of La Paloma which occur around 15 August each year. These are some of the most authentic celebrations in Madrid, during which the streets of La Latina are filled with high spirits, good cheer and dancing by the many Madrilènos dressed in regional costumes.

One of Madrid’s most picturesque neighborhoods, the La Latina Quarter is home to several beautiful churches and plazas. Points of interest within the quarter are the giant Basilica de San Francisco el Grande whose dome is one of Europe’s biggest, and the park of Las Vistillas, which is an ideal spot for watching the sun set against the backdrop of Santa Maria Real de la Almudena cathedral.

San Isidro Museum is also worth a visit while in La Latina. Here you can learn about the unique history of Madrid which was still a small town when the royal court moved here. Also visit the Calle Segovia, one of the oldest streets in Madrid which has a number of restaurants strung along it. The street also offers a rather impressive view of the old viaduct.

Also on Calle Segovia is the El Arrozal, a famous rice restaurant that is known for its excellent paella. Round off your tour with an aperitif at one of the local bars where you can enjoy a glass of Spanish wine or beer with a paella tapa.

Have a coffee at Plaza de San Andres under the shadow of its church, Iglesia de San Andres or visit Cava Baja, one of Madrid’s most famous streets for tapas and drinks. Casa Granada is another good place for tapas. Vegetarians will find sanctuary at Plaza Paja, a picturesque square that is home to two vegetarian restaurants, along with several terraces to sit and have a coffee or beer.

If you happen to be in the La Latina area on a Sunday morning, be sure to check out the El Rastro, Madrid’s open-air street market. This famous market is more than just a market – it is a fun day out, with restaurants that offer sumptuous menus and the odd street performer to entertain the crowd of shoppers. The surrounding area has many vintage furniture stores, discount and antique stores.

If you have some time, cross Calle Toledo into the old Quarter of Lavapies, which is home to a significant segment of Madrid’s immigrant population. Here you can relax in a wide variety of small bars and restaurants amid the chatter of lively patrons.

8. El Museo Naval

El Museo Naval is Madrid’s naval museum which forms part of the Spanish Armada’s Naval Headquarters. One of the world’s most important naval museums, El Museo Naval exhibits collections of diverse historic items that reflect the rich history of the Spanish Navy and its leading role in the history of European navigation.

Exhibits at El Museo Naval deal with various historic items housed in 24 rooms in chronological order from the 15th century and the period of the Catholic monarchs, to the cutting-edge maritime advances of the present-day. The museum is a treasure trove of naval charts, weapons, flags, original figureheads, and scale models of ships, paintings of naval battles and famous sailors, as well as artillery fragments.

The museum’s most prized exhibit is arguably the Mappa Mundi, a map of the world dating from the 1500s, which was drawn by Juan de la Cosa, the Spanish cartographer. De la Cosa was a mariner and explorer who made 7 voyages to America, traveling in the company of Columbus on two of these voyages.

On the Mappa Mundi, de la Cosa made note of the places arrived at during the first 3 voyages of Columbus, including an outline of Cuba. Mappa Mundi remains Europe’s first known representation of the American continent, and was drawn on a section of ox-hide exquisitely illustrated in watercolors and ink.

Mappa Mundi was discovered in 1832 in a Parisian shop and brought to the world’s attention in 1833. The Queen of Spain purchased the fascinating map in 1853, thereby returning the de la Cosa legacy to the Spanish nation.

Although the Mappa Mundi is now considerably deteriorated, visitors are still able to admire the map making skills of de la Cosa, who died of poisoned arrow wounds dealt by the Native Americans of Columbia.

Naval history enthusiasts will have plenty of things of interest to appreciate at Spain’s naval museum. Visitors can admire exhibits of great sentimental value such as the personal keepsakes of famous Spanish mariners.

Another popular item on display at the museum is the submarine invented by Isaac Peral, the Spanish sailor, inventor and scientist, which was conceived in 1884 and pioneered new designs in hull, air and control systems.

9. Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor is the main square in Madrid, which is situated right in the centre of the city, just a short walk from Puerta del Sol. The square was inaugurated in 1620, during the reign of Felipe III, whose statue sits at its very center. Since the 15th century, Madrilenos have gathered in the Plaza to hold markets and other important events, and continue to do so with the annual Christmas market.

The plaza dates back to a period when it lay outside the city limits and was used to host bullfighting events. Since then, it has been the site of crowning ceremonies, public executions, the Inquisition trials and a diversity of fiestas. The square has had various names over the years, but received its current name at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

The three sides of the rectangular cobblestone square are bordered by rows of 18th century three-storey apartment buildings surrounding and looking out onto the square, and which are home to Madrid’s well-to-do. The apartment buildings are decorated with frescoes, topped with elegant slate spires and ornamented with balconies framed with wrought-iron railings.

Visitors to the grand, historic square can admire the mural-like façade of what is known as the Casa de la Panaderia, a four-storey building located at the north end of the square. Established in 1590, the building features a colorful façade of frescos and is named after the bakery it replaced.

Take a stroll around the pedestrian arcades and enter the shops, cafés and restaurants that skirt the square under its arches. When the weather is pleasant, the restaurants will set up tables with chairs and umbrellas where you can indulge in some alfresco dining. This makes for a wonderful spot to sit, sip some good Spanish wine and sample delicious tapas.

Tapas is a culinary tradition in Madrid that has many Madrilenos foregoing dinner to enjoy this evening fare. Be adventurous and explore the tapas bar scene on your own. At Mercado San Miguel, Madrid’s maid market which is situated within walking distance of the Plaza Mayor, you will find a dizzying array of stalls offering scrumptious tapas and drinks.

Mercado San Miguel is a popular shopping destination for local foods and delicacies. Its intricate cast-iron architecture features glass walls showcasing goods that range from oysters and salted fish to cakes and fresh pasta.

On weekends, the market stays open as late as 2 a.m., which makes it a popular nightspot for locals and visitors who gather to enjoy tapas, drinks and appetizers. The market also hosts events such as cooking classes, concerts and private parties.

10. Gran Via

Gran Via is Madrid’s most famous street. You will find it commonly mentioned in zarzuelas – Spanish operettas, shown in numerous films and depicted in books. The street begins at the Plaza de Alcala square and stretches across the city to the expansive Plaza de Espana, to form a grand boulevard that is integral to the bustling capital.

Along the Gran Via, whose name translates to the “Great Way” there are hundreds of business enterprises – stores, shops, hotels, bars, restaurant, cinemas, theatres and banks. All of these contribute in making the area one of Madrid’s most important commercial districts.

Dating back to the 19th century, Gran Via originated from a need to connect the city’s northwestern area to its historic center. Before its construction, the center was characterized by a chaotic maze of small streets that made the journey across the city a laborious task. Construction began in 1910 and the street was completed in 1929.

Gran Via is today regarded as the “Broadway of Madrid” because it is a street that “never sleeps”. The street along with its various sections has had several different names over the years, which changed most frequently in the years leading up to and during the Spanish Civil War.

The current name “Gran Via” was given in 1981 after democracy was re-established, by then Lord Mayor, Enrique Tierno Galvan, who is said to be Madrid’s most loved mayor. The name reflects how the locals originally visualized and named the project in the 19th century as the “Great Way” across their city.

Several interesting buildings are located along the Gran Via, including the Edificio Metropolis which is situated at the corner of Gran Via and Calle Alcala. The building features grand columns that hold decorative statues which are worth a peek.

There is also the Telefonica building located at number 28 which stands at 88 meters and until 1953 was the tallest skyscraper in Madrid. Another local landmark is the clock atop the Baroque-American style structure.

Visitors can take a walk along the Gran Via and look to the rooftops of its impressive buildings. You can admire their lavish decorations and massive statues, some of which perch precariously on the roof ledges.