If you have been longing to visit Spain for the first time, Madrid should be your first stop. Been there, done that already? You will be surprised to hear about what’s new and will want to put the cosmopolitan city of Madrid at the top of your travel list for 2020.
The capital of Spain, Madrid, is located at almost the dead center of the Iberian Peninsula, which is made up of Spain and Portugal. Situated over 2,100 feet above sea level, Madrid is one of the highest European capitals.
Devote at least two days in Madrid to immerse yourself in its vibrant culture. Make Madrid your home base since you can easily travel from this city by car or train to experience more that Spain has to offer from the seacoast of Valencia, the mountains of the Pyrenees, or even birdwatching in Extremadura.
With so much to do between visiting museums, shopping, and sampling regional and international food, it might be hard to know where to begin. To help you with your itinerary, here are the top 10 can’t-miss, iconic attractions.
Just celebrating its 200th anniversary, the Prado Museum must be your first stop. There you will see the work of Diego Velázquez, the well-known 17th-century artist of the Spanish Golden Age, and Francisco Goya, renowned for his portraits created during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With over 8,600 paintings and more than 700 sculptures, you can spend hours at the museum. It thankfully provides one-, two-, and three-hour suggested itineraries.
The magnificent green space is one of the largest parks in Madrid. Being over 300 acres in size, you can take a walk, go for a jog, or rent a bicycle and ride through the park.
The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish royal family, containing a staggering 3,400 rooms. Although it’s now used primarily for state ceremonies, it is a special place for learning about Spanish history. It’s where you can see the breathtaking art of artists such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Juan de Flandes, de Goya, and Velázquez,
Located in the center of Madrid, the plaza was originally the center of ancient Madrid. Built in the 1500s, the 423-by-308-foot plaza is surrounded by three-story residential buildings with over 230 balconies, nine gates, and 10 entrances. Events are held there regularly. Ringed by shops and cafes, the plaza is considered a major tourist attraction. Many cafes serve a calamari (octopus) sandwich, a typical treat in the plaza.
Three top museums to see in Madrid are the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. Located near the Prado, Thyssen boasts paintings through seven centuries of art, including works by El Greco, Canaletto, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Marc Chagall.
The Reina Sofia, the newest of the three museums, opened its doors in 1992 and presents an outstanding collection of 20th-century art. It was named for Queen Sofia and represents the third part of the Golden Triangle of Art. At the museum, you have the opportunity to see paintings by Picasso and Dalí. Picasso’s famous Guernica is here. Also on display are works by Joan Miró, Eduardo Chillida, Pablo Gargallo, Julio González, Luis Gordillo, Juan Gris, José Gutiérrez Solana, Lucio Muñoz, Jorge Oteiza, Julio Romero de Torres, Pablo Serrano, and Antoni Tàpies.
You might say this is the Times Square of Madrid. Puerta del Sol, or Gate of the Sun, was originally one of the gates leading to the city in the 15th century. Today, it is a bustling, jampacked public square lined with shops and restaurants. Each New Year’s Eve, crowds gather to hear the bells of the clock ring in the coming year.
This is the place for photo ops. You can’t go wrong with a backdrop of Cibeles Fountain, the magnificent marble fountain sculpture of the Roman goddess of fertility, Cybele, riding majestically on a chariot pulled by two lions. The fountain is located at the head of the Art Walk.
Sports fans, this stop is for you. Santiago Bernabeu Stadium holds over 81,000 spectators and has four restaurants. Take the Bernabeu Tour to see up-close-and-personal parts of the stadium, from the Presidential Balcony, the field, the heated seats, players’ dressing rooms, sports paraphernalia, and more.
This is the iconic flea market that has taken place for 250 years, every Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you will find clothing, shoes, jewelry, books, household furnishings, art, and more. Make sure you stop at the following locations to sample the local fare:
• El Capricho Extremeño (Carlos Arniches, 30) for its famous toasted bread, served with octopus, eels, breaded chicken, smoked salmon, and Iberian ham.
• Casa Amadeo (Plaza de Cascorro, 18) for the local snails in sauce.
• Bar Santurce (Plaza del General Vara del Rey, 14) where you’ll belly up to the bar—there are no chairs—to try the roasted sardines.
• Malacatín (Ruda, 5) for vermouth.
• La Bobia (San Millán, 3) for the traditional Asturian dish.
Madrid is renowned for its shopping from luxury international brands to local fashions created by the latest young designers. Check out Barrio de Salamanca—known as the Golden Mile—for its upscale stores, top restaurants, and trendy nightlife.
Calle del Almirante, Gran Via, and Calle de Fuencarral are other spots for shoppers on a mission.
Madrid’s theatre scene is lively. It’s considered the capital of Spanish musicals. Theaters of note include the Teatro Real opera house, Lope de Vega, Teatro Nuevo Apolo, Teatro Circo Price, and Teatro Español.
A new hotel that opened its doors in Madrid is the hotel Pestana Plaza Mayor, housed in Casa de la Carnicería, a historic 17th-century building that once supplied the city with meat.
Its interior is a veritable homage to the artisanal trades that are so closely tied to Madrid’s past and present.
The Basque chef, who has amassed 10 Michelin stars, just opened his first restaurant in Madrid, Etxeko, in the Bless Hotel is a trendy meeting place in Barrio de Salamanca.
Centro Cultural Flamenco de Madrid opened in February 2019.
This is a new space in Madrid devoted to flamenco. Located in the neighborhood of Las Salesas, you can see exhibitions, sit in on lectures, and experience activities relating to the art and culture of flamenco. It also offers a flamenco show every day in its auditorium, which can hold up to 60 people.
Ofelia Home Decor, located in the shopping district of Las Salesas, is a “slow life” decor shop, meaning it sells goods that make life more relaxing and less stressful. Its furniture and decorative items are sourced from all over the world and include artisan pieces, pieces of its own design, special pieces, antiques, and more. There’s also a decor studio that advises customers on how to decorate every corner of their home.
Ice & Dreams is quite an original and surprising ice cream parlor that recently opened in the neighborhood of Malasaña. Its ice cream is always served in a cone, and there are three options for the base flavor: sundae (the original ice cream), dark (suitable for people with coeliac disease and lactose intolerance), and a mix of the two. The syrups and toppings include some unique flavors, ranging from strawberry, chocolate, and Smurf (blue) to colored sugar pearls and Pop Rocks. A layer of candy floss is wrapped around the star ingredient, ice cream, making not only the flavor but also the format unique.
Amaiketako, the brand from San Sebastian that began its life as an online shop three years ago, has made the leap and established a physical presence in San Miguel Market, where it showcases the artisan products it sells, using them in dishes based on traditional Basque recipes. Amaiketako’s menu, which varies from season to season, includes offerings such as the tuna, anchovy, and piparra pepper salad; tasting boards of pates, rillettes, and foie gras; and tinned foods—to name a few.