Madrid is one of those cities that you will fall in love with, whether you go for a weekend or for a longer stay. Spain’s capital is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe each year, and is a reference point for both cultural and historical attractions. Its easy accessibility from almost anywhere in the world makes it a very interesting city to visit and discover.
Like any other Spanish city (Barcelona, Seville, Cordoba…), making a list of things to do and see in Madrid is a complicated task. There are a lot of essential places to visit and you don’t always have all the time in the world to do it. That is why we have the help of local official guides who will help us to select the buildings, monuments, churches and other points of interest that we should not miss.
The best way to see and visit Madrid: take a free tour!
One of the alternatives that has been gaining momentum in recent years to get to know and discover the culture of this city is to take free tours in Madrid with local gurus who help travellers to better understand the history surrounding each part of the tour, making it a pleasant and enriching walk.
If you haven’t yet had this experience, you can find out more about what a free tour is to understand what this new way of visiting a city is all about. In addition to meeting people from other parts of the world, you get out of the conventional guided tours, being more dynamic and fun.
What to see in Madrid in 3 days (a weekend)?
If you are going to travel to Madrid and you still don’t know which places you want to visit, you can make this guide your itinerary. In it we want to show you the 15 must-see places in the Spanish capital that you can’t miss on your trip.
It’s possible that if you want to visit each of these places in depth, you won’t have time to do it in a weekend or 3-day getaway. Don’t worry, because that’s not a problem. It’s always good to leave some places to discover in a city like Madrid to have more excuses to come back.
Even if you are not a tourist and you live in this city, you will surely find a new vision and anecdotes that you did not know about places that are very close to you. Will you join us to find out what to see and do in Madrid?
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol is one of Madrid’s most recognisable icons and is located in the centre of the capital. It is home to some of Madrid’s most significant buildings and was the site of the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931.
What not many people know about it is that it was built in different stages. The first was the Casa de Correos, which was built in the mid-18th century. Later, thanks to the architects José Morer, Juan Rivera and Lucio del Valle, between 1857 and 1862, it took on its final form. Finally, the fountain, the gardens and the pedestrian area that you can see today were added in the 20th century.
In addition to the clock of the Casa de Correos, from where you can see the chimes on New Year’s Eve, in Puerta del Sol you will find three other very famous elements: Kilometre Zero, the place where the radial roads of Spain start, the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, symbol of the city, and just above the latter, the Tío Pepe advertisement.
From Puerta del Sol you can walk to other essential places in Madrid such as Plaza Mayor, Gran Vía, Palacio Real or Plaza Cibeles. It is one of the most central places in the city, which is very well connected thanks to its metro station, which connects with the suburban train and the numerous bus stops.
2. Prado Museum
Although you can find a wide variety of museums in the Spanish capital, the Prado is the best known. It was inaugurated in 1819 and during this time it has become one of the most important museums in the world, with a collection based, above all, on paintings from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
This museum is the work of Juan de Villanueva and here you will be able to find paintings by painters of the stature of Goya, El Bosco, Rubens, El Greco and Velázquez. To see all its rooms and works, you will need about a full morning, although this will depend on whether you are a great art lover and do not want to leave any corner unvisited, or whether you prefer to enjoy only some of the best-known works on display. Some of its most important pieces are The Naked Maja, by Goya; The Three Graces, by Rubens; The Gentleman with the Hand on his Chest, by El Greco; and Las Meninas, by Velázquez.
If you are not an art expert and you are interested in soaking up all the culture you can find in the Prado Museum, you may want to book a guided tour to get the most out of the experience.
If you want to get to know the Prado Museum in depth, one of the most important museums in Spain and Europe, let yourself be accompanied by an expert local guide. He or she will tell you everything you need to know about the works and the history behind this marvel of Madrid.
3. Plaza Mayor, one of the must-see places in Madrid
The Plaza Mayor is located about 350 metres west of the aforementioned Puerta del Sol, that is, it is situated in the centre of Madrid. Its 94 metres wide and 129 metres long are surrounded by three-storey buildings and different arcades and, what you probably didn’t know, is that it has suffered different fires that have meant that this square has had to be rebuilt at different times throughout history.
And just as it has needed rebuilding, it has also undergone several name changes. The current name has been preserved since the end of the Civil War, but previously it was called Plaza de la República, Plaza Real, Plaza de la Constitución and Plaza del Arrabal, the name it received during the 15th century.
Despite having points of interest such as the Arch of Cuchilleros, the Casa de la Panadería or the Statue of Felipe II, what you should not miss is the spectacle of this square at Christmas time. During the festive season, and for almost 150 years now, you can see a multitude of stalls with Christmas articles of all kinds.
4. Gran Vía of Madrid
When visiting Madrid, you can’t miss the city’s most famous boulevard: the Gran Vía. It connects the Argüelles neighbourhood with the Salamanca district and is a project that took several decades to complete (from 1910 to 1929, although the first sketches were made in 1862) and involved the demolition of 300 houses.
In this case, as in the case of the Plaza Mayor, it has not always been called that. Are you surprised? If you had tried to find it in other times you would have had to ask for the avenida del quince y medio, for the avenida de Rusia or for the avenida de José Antonio, which, in homage to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, was its most transcendental name.
And what are you going to find on Gran Vía? Basically three things: cinemas, fashion shops and restaurants. There is a 24-hour atmosphere and, although there are fewer and fewer cinemas, in its heyday this area was known as “Madrid’s Broadway”.
5. El Retiro
Its full name is Parque del Buen Retiro, and it is one of the must-see places in Madrid for tourists and locals alike. It was inaugurated in 1968 and has a large number of places to visit and activities to do, and is about 750 metres from the aforementioned Prado Museum.
Do you want to see musicians, puppet shows, actors dressed up as children’s characters, seers or fortune tellers? Well, believe it or not, this is the place for you. What’s more, there are a number of points of interest inside the park that you won’t want to miss if you want to get to know this gem of Madrid in depth.
What to see and do in El Retiro, Madrid?
- Paseo de las Estatuas: although it is actually called Paseo de la Argentina, it took this name because you can see the statues of the different Spanish monarchs.
- Palacio de Cristal: it was initially used as a greenhouse, but nowadays it hosts a large number of temporary exhibitions.
- Pond: where you can rent one of its rowing boats and enjoy a relaxing time.
- Monument to Alfonso XII: you will find it on one of the banks of the pond and, if you visit it on a Sunday, you will find groups of people playing timbales and other instruments.
- Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez: located on the side of the park, very close to the metro station Ibiza. They are a small treasure within the marvel that the Retiro represents for Madrid. These gardens are specially cared for, and you can find peacocks and ducks inside them. It is a corner that is not very well known and there are usually few people strolling around, being one of the quietest places in the whole park.
6. Puerta de Alcalá
Now it’s the turn of one of the city’s most emblematic monuments: the Puerta de Alcalá. Do you remember the famous song by Ana Belén and Víctor Manuel? Well, it was dedicated to this place, which was inaugurated by the Italian architect Francisco Sabatini in 1778.
Previously, there was another Puerta de Alcalá, which Charles III ordered to be demolished and then rebuilt. This first one was made of brick and the second (which remained as the definitive one) of two different types of stone. It is very close to the Retiro Park, so a visit to the Puerta de Alcalá is a very good option for entering the park through one of its main gates.
A curiosity you should know about its name is that it is called “gate” because it was originally one of the five gates that existed to enter the city. It was not until 1889 that it became a square. On the other hand, the surname “de Alcalá” refers to the fact that it is located on the road that was used to reach the town of Alcalá de Henares. Alcalá Street itself, which is the longest street in the city, continues in the direction of this town, which is 30 km from the capital.
7. Plaza de Cibeles
This square is about 370 metres from the Puerta de Alcalá, so it is easy to get from one to the other, and is located at the crossroads between Calle Alcalá and Paseo del Prado. You probably know it from the fountain that presides over it, which represents a chariot pulled by lions carrying the goddess Cibeles herself, and it is the place where the football titles won by Real Madrid are celebrated.
In addition, you may have in mind the imposing buildings that surround it, which have their own particular history. It is very common to see many travellers and tourists strolling around the Plaza de Cibeles taking pictures of the monument and the surrounding buildings.
What to see in Plaza de Cibeles?
- Palacio de Linares: built by the Marquis of Linares in 1900, it later became an institution that sought to foster cultural relations between Latin American countries and Spain: the Casa de América.
- Banco de España: the central headquarters of the Banco de España was inaugurated in 1891 and, although its imposing exterior is sparsely decorated, its interior has a large collection of paintings, including works by Vicente López, Maella, Mengs and Goya.
- Buenavista Palace: it was originally the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Alba, although it is currently the headquarters of the Army Headquarters.
- Palacio de Cibeles: this majestic building, which was the central headquarters of the Post Office, nowadays houses the City Hall and you can see exhibitions of all kinds throughout the year.
8. Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is also known as the Palacio de Oriente and is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. However, the King and Queen reside in the Zarzuela Palace and the Royal Palace is only used for official acts, ceremonies and receptions.
Its location was the same as that of the Hapsburg Palace before it was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve 1734. Now, it is about 600 metres from the Plaza Mayor and about 670 metres from the Gran Vía, which makes it very convenient for you to visit all these areas in the same day.
This palace was designed during the 18th century, its construction lasted around 17 years, and in 1764 it became the residence of Carlos III. It is surrounded by the Sabatini Gardens, which date from the 20th century, and the Campo del Moro Gardens, which were created in the Middle Ages.
It is a palace worth visiting, but especially from October to July, every Wednesday at 11 am, as this is when you can watch the changing of the guard, as well as the official rooms, the royal armoury and the royal pharmacy, which you can visit any day during opening hours.
Just opposite the Royal Palace is one of the most representative buildings in the city: the Almudena Cathedral.
9. Temple of Debod
This temple is located next to the Parque del Oeste, about 400 metres from the Plaza de España and 700 metres from the Royal Palace. It was a gift from Egypt to our country for having collaborated in the salvage of the Nubian temples and, if you go to visit it, you will find a spectacular piece that is 2,200 years old.
During the move, some stones were lost, which, together with the lack of good plans, made its reconstruction complicated. It took two years to complete, and during the first period when this temple was in Madrid, not as much time or resources were devoted to it as would have been necessary to keep it well preserved and, in fact, it was considered unsafe.
However, this has changed, and now you can enter the interior of the temple, where you will find explanations about the hieroglyphs, a model with the temples of Nubia represented, and information about Egyptian society and mythology. The exterior is also a real discovery, especially at sunset, when the Temple of Debod is dyed in golden colours that you should not miss.
You can also enjoy the surrounding gardens, where many people do yoga exercises, picnics or simply come to relax and get away from their routines. In addition, the location of the Temple of Debod means that you can see beautiful views of Madrid from the viewpoint, which is very close to the exit of the cable car that connects this part of the city with the Casa de Campo.
10. Royal Theatre
Given its name, you won’t be surprised to know that the Teatro Real is located opposite the Royal Palace, in the Plaza de Oriente. Although it is currently used as an opera house, this has not always been the case.
Its construction began in 1818, although it was not inaugurated until 1850. If you had visited it then, you would have found a theatre that became one of the most important in Europe for 75 years, until a collapse meant that it had to remain closed for more than four decades. In 1966 it was able to reopen its doors, but this time as a symphony concert hall. Although this was not its last remodelling, as it had to undergo a major refurbishment that kept it closed for another 9 years, until it became what you can see today.
On your audio-guided tour, you will be able to visit a large number of rooms with palatial decoration or its incredible stage box with articulated platforms, which allow a large number of stage combinations to be made for the enjoyment of the audience. You will also be able to see the views you would have if you were to attend one of the shows at this theatre in its best seats: in the Royal Box.
As a curiosity, you should know that when you enter the theatre’s restaurant (which was a former ballroom), you will find a starry sky created with thousands of LED lights. The arrangement of the stars in that sky represents the star map that was in place on the opening night, when the stage had an open ceiling.
11. Almudena Cathedral
The Almudena Cathedral is the most important religious building in the city. It has a very particular style, with a ceiling and stained glass windows in bright colours and straight lines, which sets it apart from the more classical style.
Its construction began with the first stone, laid by King Alfonso XII in 1883, and it was the first cathedral to be consecrated outside Rome, thanks to Pope John Paul II in 1993. It is located about 300 metres from the Royal Palace and about 600 metres from the Plaza Mayor.
You can also visit the 12 rooms that form part of its museum which, although quite small, is much more interesting than you might think. Here you can enjoy episcopal coats of arms, mosaics and a large number of objects from the archdiocese of Madrid.
You can also climb up to the dome when you enter the museum, although the views are not as spectacular as those of other cathedrals. We rate this place of interest as one of the essential places to see and visit in Madrid if you go for a weekend.
12. Colon Square
This nerve centre of Madrid is bounded by the Paseo de la Castellana, the Paseo de Recoletos, and the streets Jorge Juan, Goya and Serrano. In this square you can see an enormous monument, built between 1881 and 1885, dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Some of the points of interest worth visiting here are:
- The Spanish flag: you will be impressed by the sight of this flag flying from a mast more than 50 metres high. The flag itself measures 21 x 14 metres.
- Jardines del Descubrimiento (Discovery Gardens): they have several tree cores among which you can find a group of three large concrete sculptures with inscriptions and reliefs: the Monument to the Discovery of America.
- Columbus Monument: this statue, carved in white marble and 3 metres high, stands on a 17-metre pedestal.
- Torres de Colón: these twin buildings have a peculiarity that will catch your attention: they were built from top to bottom between 1967 and 1976. In addition, at the top there is a curious green structure.
13. Reina Sofia Museum
This Reina Sofía museum is located in a building that was built at the end of the 18th century, in the former Hospital de San Carlos, about 570 metres from the Prado Museum and about 800 metres from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. If you like contemporary Spanish art, you can’t miss it. It was founded in 1992 and covers the period that does not take place in the Prado Museum, i.e. since the birth of Picasso in 1881.
Its most memorable painting is Guernica, by Picasso himself, although at the Reina Sofía you can also see the work of other geniuses, such as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. If you are only looking to see the main works in this museum, you will need one or two hours to visit it, although if you are a real art lover and want to see the whole museum, you will need to set aside an extra hour or two.
In addition, the museum itself offers a third option, which is to get to know the museum and its most important works with a guide who is an expert in art and history. Choose the way you are going to enjoy it most, but don’t miss this museum, as its collection is really interesting.
14. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
We have already talked about the Museo del Prado and the Reina Sofía, so now it is the turn of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which complements the works of the two previous museums.
It is housed in an 18th-century palace, the Palacio de Villahermosa, and is so called because the 1,000 pieces it contains were bought from the family of the same name in 1993 by the Spanish state. Throughout its three floors you can enjoy works from the 17th to 20th centuries by painters such as Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Caravaggio and Van Eyck.
It is advisable to start on the first floor, the top floor, and continue downwards to see the historical evolution of painting. Despite being a museum with less important works than the Prado Museum, its selection is very interesting and will leave you with a good taste in your mouth.
15. Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas
The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is the third largest bullring in the world, the largest in Spain and has a capacity for more than 23,000 people. It was built in 1929 and its bullring has a diameter of 61 metres.
Bullfighting became more and more popular from 1913 onwards and the bullring that had been built in 1874 became too small, leaving many people outside. Thus, the construction of the current bullring was proposed. The place that was chosen did not have the prestige it has today, being one of the most marginal neighbourhoods of Madrid.
Even if you are not a big fan of bullfighting, it is an enclave worth visiting and it is not necessary to attend a bullfight to do so. You simply have to book a tour that will show you all the ins and outs, with the help of an audio guide, and take you through the paseíllo, the bullring, the courtyard and the upper tiers.
How to get to Madrid?
Madrid is one of the best connected European cities for travelling from anywhere in the world. Whether by plane, train, bus or car, there are plenty of alternatives for getting to the Spanish capital depending on your location and how you want to get around.
- By plane: Adolfo Suárez airport (formerly Barajas) is the main entry point to the country, welcoming thousands of national and international travellers and tourists. From the airport you can reach the city centre by metro (line 8) in 25 minutes or by EMT bus which takes a little longer, although there is a direct bus to Cibeles.
- By train: Another alternative that allows you to get to Madrid relatively quickly is the AVE, although it is not available to all destinations. The most direct trains leave from Valencia, Seville and Zaragoza, although there are also trains from Malaga, Vigo, Tarragona and Segovia itself.
- By bus: Madrid has several bus stations that connect with the whole of Spain and Europe. There are connections to Lisbon, Oporto, Paris and Amsterdam, although there are many more destinations. You can find a wide range of transport companies offering services from the Spanish capital, such as Alsa and AvanzaBus.
- By car: The options for getting to Madrid by car are practically endless. If you are travelling from anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula, as it is located in the centre, it is likely to be closer to you than other major cities in the country, although it will depend on where you are leaving from. For example, from Barcelona, the distance is 620 km, from Valencia 355 km and from Seville 530 km. As a reference if you are going to another European city, Florence is 1,700 km away and Rome is almost 2,000 km away.
Map with the essential places to see in Madrid
We provide you with a map of Madrid with the location of the points of interest we have described. This way, you will be able to locate each monument and building so that you can plan your getaway to the millimetre and not miss any essential places to visit.
As you have seen, there are a large number of parks, monuments, squares, theatres, museums and, in short, essential places to visit in Madrid. Although with this list we think we have made it very easy for you to save time and see the most characteristic areas, there is much more to see in the city.
The list of essential places to see and visit in Madrid is not perfect, or at least not for everyone. We are aware of this fact, as there are destinations that are impossible to cover in a single weekend, and we are sure to leave some points of interest out of any selection we make. But the idea is to be able to see the essentials of the city, being able to understand the culture of Madrid while leaving those places that we have not been able to cover for other visits.
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