Madrid, particularly in the summer, can be a tourist madhouse. More than 8 million people flocked to Madrid in 2011, making it the fourth most visited city in Europe. And while we typically steer far clear of the city’s guiri areas (tourist spots, as they call them in Spanish), there are a few ultra-touristy places that are just too good to miss.
Here are nine tourist attractions in Madrid that are definitely worth the guidebook hype:
What it is: With more than 3,000 rooms, The Royal Palace of Madrid is one of the largest palaces in Europe. The palace was constructed in the mid-1700s on the site of a Moorish fortress from the 9th century. While Spain’s royal family does not live in the palace, it is still considered their official residence and is used ceremonially.
Why it’s worth the hype: This giant palace commands attention, standing a garden apart from Madrid’s Opera house in the center of the city. Inside, the grandiose décor and architecture are absolutely worth the 11 euro entrance fee. You can stroll through the Throne Room, where red golden lions guard the thrones of the Spanish King and Queen, gaze down the extravagant banquet hall, where the table seats 120 for official state dinners, and explore the Royal Armory, where knights and their steel-plated horses glisten with impressive antiquity.
El Prado Museum
What it is: This sprawling museum is home to some of the most renowned pieces of Spanish art, from Velazquez’s Las Meninas to Goya’s The Third of May 1808. It is the 11th most-visited museum in the world, with nearly 3 million visitors last year. Over 8,000 works of art from the 12th through 20th century are on display at the Prado.
Why it’s worth the hype: El Prado is home to masterpieces of Spanish, Flemish and Italian art. Strolling through its impressive corridors you’ll find windows into Spanish history, portals to past centuries and glimpses of both heaven and hell. Set aside at least half a day to explore El Prado. It’s absolutely worth it! Check here for 1, 2, and 3-hour guides of what to see at the Prado.
Royal Botanical Gardens
What is it: Situated next to the Prado Museum, Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden is a pristinely designed web of more than 5,000 plant species from around the globe. The Gardens celebrated their 250th anniversary in 2005 and now stretch over 7,000 square meters.
Why it’s worth the hype: There are two greenhouses, more than 100 types of Bonzai trees, expansive beds of exotic flowers (including a row of Irises with stellar names like “Romantic Evening”), archways of wine grapes, paths lined with dozens of varieties of olive trees, and tomatoes that grow on trees! If that’s not worth the hype we don’t know what is.
Reina Sofia National Art Museum
What it is: Reina Sofia is Madrid’s most famous contemporary art museum, showcasing the works of Picasso, Miró and Dali. The museum was formerly Madrid’s General Hospital and was converted into an art museum in 1992.
Why it’s worth the hype: Two words: Picasso’s Guernica. This spectacular work of art hangs alone in a white-walled room, covering an entire wall with its gray-scale intensity. The painting depicts the moment in which German bombs fell upon the civilian town of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The adjoining room is filled with the sketches Picasso made of the many characters that he would eventually paint into Guernica. These two rooms alone make the Reina Sofia a staple on any list of Madrid must-sees.
Mercado San Miguel
What it is: One of Madrid’s most modernly renovated markets, San Miguel is a beehive of Spanish cuisine, buzzing with tapas eaters, wine drinkers and pastry revelers at all hours of the day and night. The 33 vendors at San Miguel dish up delicacies from across the country, including octopus from the northwest, cured ham from the south and wine from the north-central Rioja region.
Why it’s worth the hype: While the market is often packed with visitors from around the world, the quality of food and drinks that you’ll find at San Miguel is, by and large, Spanish. The tapas are scrumptious, the atmosphere is festive and the wine, beer and vermouth are delicious and reasonably priced. What more could you want for a Madrid evening?
What it is: Created in the mid 1600s as a refuge of leisure and beauty for King Felipe IV, Retiro Park is a sanctuary from the bustling streets of Madrid. The nearly 300-acre park is the largest within the city and boasts an array of gardens, tree-lined paths, running circuits, sports areas and prime picnic spots.
Why it’s worth the hype: If pristinely manicured rose gardens, winding footpaths beneath canopies of chestnut trees and clusters of kid-friendly playgrounds aren’t inspiration enough to visit Retiro Park, considering taking a row boat on the small man-made lake or going for a jog along the running path that runs along its perimeter. Or stop by and ponder the only statue of the Devil in all of Spain, El Ángel Caído. If the sun is shining, as it often is here, Retiro is the place to be in Madrid.
Tapas in La Latina
What it is: Madrid’s La Latina district is located in the oldest part of the city, where ninth-century Islamic city walls used to stand long before Madrid became a capital city. On Sunday mornings, the district is home to Madrid’s most famous flea market, El Rastro. During the evenings it is equally packed, but instead of antique furniture and records, the narrow streets are packed with Madrileños grabbing their nightly cerveza, vino and tapa!
Why it’s worth the hype: Calle Cava Baja in the center of the La Latina district is lined with tapas bars, nearly all of which serve up a spectacular array of Spanish deliciousness. Two of our favorite stops near Cava Baja are Casa Lucio, which is known for its huevos rotos (fried potatoes topped with an over easy egg and, usually, spicy sausage) and Txirimiri, a Basque-style tapas bar where the counter is overflowing with bites of pintxo heaven!
Chocolatería San Gines
What it is: This century-old chocolatería has been serving churros with chocolate to Madrileños since 1894. Churros, a fried stick of dough usually dipped in a cup of sweet, thick chocolate are a go-to for a mid-afternoon snack or a late-night, post-discoteca treat!
Why it’s worth the hype: Every guidebook will tell you San Gines has the best churros in Madrid and, for once, the guidebooks are right! San Gines’ churros have the perfect balance of crunch and fluff and their chocolate boasts the perfect blend of bitter and sweet. If the late-night lines at San Gines are any indication, then it may just be the best place to get churros in the center of Madrid!
What is it: Madrid has a plethora of guided tours to choose from, many of which are a far cry from the stuffy “official” tour usually led by a grey-haired woman holding a red umbrella or the same-in-every-city open-topped red bus. In Madrid you can walk, bike, segway, eat, dance and drink your way through the city’s history!
Why it’s worth the hype: With such a rich and tumultuous history, a guided tour of Madrid is a stellar way to start to understand this magnificent city. To see the sights, sap up a bit of history and get in a bit of exercise try a bike tour, like Bravo Bikes One Day tour. To experience the heart and soul of the city, hop on a Madrid Food Tour and see the city from the perspective of a local. There’s no better way to enjoy Madrid than with a glass of some Spanish wine in your hand and a tapa on your plate!
What Madrid tourist attraction would you most recommend?