I recently returned from 11 glorious days in Madrid. And now I want to pen a love song to this amazing city!
Late April/early May in Madrid is a match made in heaven as the days were sunny and the nights were mild. It’s a dry climate and I saw very few clouds when I was there so the weather was perfect for spending so much time walking around the city. And this is very much a walking city (so pack some comfy shoes), which is right up my alley.
Because tennis (the annual Madrid Open) was my primary reason for heading to Spain’s capital, I wasn’t planning to have endless days to see the sights but what I saw was majestic: fountains, incredible architecture everywhere I turned and lively sidewalks with people enjoying food and drinks day and night. I know the city is fresh in my memory, but I can’t think of many places I’ve visited that I’ve enjoyed so much. Madrid is just a beautiful city and I LOVED my time there.
Here are some tips for what to see, what to do and how to get there!
The Prado Museum
I am not really an art person and usually don’t make an effort to go to art museums and galleries but I was strongly encouraged to see the Prado and it was INCREDIBLE. I was told to see all the Goya and Velasquez and I’m thankful my Lonely Planet gave me detailed info on some of the can’t miss artwork. I was blown away by Goya (particularly the Black Paintings) and found the works by Hieronymus Bosch to be mind-boggling.
The Prado can be overwhelming, as it’s just huge and there’s so, so much to see. I spent about 2-3 hours there and just took my time and probably saw only 20-30% of the works on offer. If you’re in Madrid for many days I’d suggest making a few visits. The museum has a decent cafeteria and wonderful shop and it’s located so close to the gems of Madrid, including El Retiro. The admission fee was about 14 Euro, but luckily I was able to use my tournament media credentials for free admission (how cool is that?).
Located right next to the Prado, El Retiro park is so beautiful. You’re right in the middle of Madrid but the park offers so many quiet, seemingly secluded areas to chill to. I went twice and both times I awed at the beautiful areas, from unique treats to the stunning Rose Garden and Crystal Palace. You’ll see amazing performance artists on display here along the main avenues, which are also bustling with food stalls, etc. But get away from the main lake (you can hire a paddle boat if you’d like) and nearly every other part of the park is so tranquil. Bring a picnic, or a book and just relax. I love how much people in Madrid love to be outside – nearly everywhere I went I saw people taking advantage of the city’s many public spaces.
Another intriguing must-see here is Monumento del Angel Caido (Fallen Angel), one of a few statues of Lucifer anywhere in the world. It’s located near the Rose Garden if you were heading out the west entrance. Also, bonus: El Retiro is free!
Not far from the north entrance to El Retiro is the Puerta de Alcalá which is monument smack in the middle of a roundabout. It’s just a beautiful, very large monument and you can walk over to it for a closer look. Don’t miss it!
Plaza de Cibeles
Another short walk from El Retiro is another stunning, can’t miss area: Plaza de Cibeles. You’re basically looking at a large roundabout with the lovely Cibeles Fountain in the middle and the unbelievably beautiful (and HUGE) Cibeles Palace overlooking the plaza. Oh my goodness. This area blew me away when I happened upon it (this is a good part about not planning too much and just walking around new places). Both the fountain and plaza are icons of Madrid and when you’re standing there just staring at all the grandeur it’s easy to see why. You can’t walk up to the fountain, but you can go up at the top of the Cibeles Palace for a pricey meal or drink. There are several bus stops here and I can’t imagine a more spectacularly scenic place to catch a bus. I’m still blown away by the plaza so I enjoyed walking here twice during my time in Madrid.
I stayed a mere 5-minute walk from the Palacio Real so I walked by this beauty at least half a dozen times. It’s stunning. When I first walked up to it much of the access was blocked off and I saw some official cars leaving and people waving flags I didn’t recognize so I assume there was some dignitaries visiting. But usually you can buy a ticket and wander all around the square in front of the palace, which is HUGE. It’s extremely scenic and the road (pedestrians only) adjacent to it is always bustling with people, who are also happy to visit the Plaza de Oriente which is located right across from the Royal Palace.
I saw many people enjoying the sun in Plaza de Oriente whether napping (seriously – so many public nappers in Madrid) and hanging out. The Teatro Real is located by the Plaze de Oriente so there are lots of great places to eat as opera lovers flock here throughout the year. Also, next door to the Royal Palace is the Almudena Cathedral – I never went inside but it’s pretty beautiful from the outside!
One of the most popular areas for tourists in Madrid is the beautiful Plaza Mayor. I can’t say I really spent much time here tho because I tend to stay away from overpriced touristy areas (which in addition to being crowded are typically a danger area for pickpockets) but I cannot deny Plaza Mayor is very beautiful. The entire plaza is lined along its sides with restaurants so if you do wish to eat tapas and drink Sangria in a place with English menus this is the place. There’s many souvenir shops near and another cool option for eating is the popular Mercado San Miguel which is an indoor market with stalls selling all sorts of delicious foods and drinks.
Also right near Plaza Mayor is another beautiful (albeit much smaller and quieter) plaza called Plaza de la Villa. This is just a pretty, historic plaza to visit. There are no shops or tapas bars here just a lovely square with stunning buildings, statues and a garden.
Puerta del Sol
Equally beautiful as Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol (aka Sol Square) is a huge plaza that is also very busy. Unlike Plaza Mayor, this is more a functional square, as there’s a metro stop here and lots of stores instead of bars and restaurants. The fountains here are handy meeting spots, and you can’t miss seeing the famous “El Oso y El Madroño” (the Bear and the Strawberry Tree) statue. The streets around Sol Square are well worth a wander for eating and drinking.
I can’t say I was that wowed by Gran Via, but many tourists flock along this long, wide road to eat, drink and shop. If you start here after visiting Plaza de Cibeles, that entry into the street is much more beautiful and the architecture here is certainly very pretty. Maybe I’m missing something, but I wouldn’t recommend spending that much time here – it didn’t impress me much.
The main railway station in Madrid is so pretty to see even if you’re not catching a train or bus here. The station is across from the very beautiful Ministry of Agriculture building and it’s close to the Reina Sofia art museum.
Real Basilica de San Francisco
I saw this every day as the apartment I was staying in was half a block away from this beautiful Basilica. I never ended up inside but apparently single women go here to pray for a husband….whether day or night this is a stunning view in La Latina, and in hindsight I’m regretting not going in yet. They do offer a Spanish tour, but not English. If you walk up next to the basilica there’s a beautiful garden with some lovely statues and the view of the city at sunset is stunning.
Puerta de Toledo
Honestly, I feel like a tour of the most scenic roundabout areas of Madrid would be amazing. I stayed near Toledo (a major avenue) and on my bus back from the tennis every day we went past the Puerta de Toledo. I finally decided to hop out a few stops early to inspect this lovely old gate. You can’t really do much here, but there are lots of vibrant places to grab a bite to eat or a drink in this area.
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
On a whim, my friend and I decided to try to get tickets to see a Real Madrid match. Originally, we’d planned to go check out Santiago Bernabéu stadium which is only 10-15 minutes from the city center, but instead we learned from my Airbnb host that it might be possible to get tickets the day of. And get tickets we did! Season ticket holders can apparently sell back or give their tickets to that people can buy them on the day. I believe the ticket office opens at 10am on match day and we got there around 12.30pm. We probably queued about 90 minutes until we got to the ticket office and left with two tickets in hand. My lovely British friend was beyond thrilled as she’s a big footy fan, whereas I love seeing live sports and was equally excited that my first-ever football match was going to be watching REAL MADRID! They were playing Valencia and even tho the match ended 2-2 it was an incredible experience. Highly recommended! The atmosphere is just surreal – constant buzzing and the excitement is just palpable in the air (the crowd was also pretty well behaved for a stadium full of 81,000 people)
- Temple of Debod – apparently seeing a sunset here is a highlight. Bring a picnic – no admission fee. I’m bummed I didn’t make it here.
- Basilica de San Miguel – I walked by this church a few times, but never went inside.
- El Rastro – I’m not much of a shopper in general but many visitors to Madrid visit this huge Sunday flea market. Be prepared for crowds!
Admittedly, when I go to tennis tourneys I tend to eat on the cheap as much as I can, so I didn’t really eat too many meals out. But for the most part I ate in the Opera and La Latina areas. My best advice for local food is to avoid the really touristy areas (the prices are insane) and pick places that are busy. Often it’s pretty hard to find any place with an open table outdoors but good luck!
A few travel planning tips:
- Accommodation: I am a big fan of Airbnb and I was lucky to book a room in a great apartment in La Latina. I wanted somewhere pretty central and close to the Metro and I was so happy with the location of my accommodation in Madrid. I could walk to the Royal Palace in about 5 minutes, and to many of the top sites including Plaza Mayor and Sol Square in less than 15. It was superbly ideal for me. Many tourists stay near Gran Via (a wide, massively touristy street) but I would much rather stay in a ‘neighborhood’ and La Latina was perfect.
- Airport arrival: as I got in at 9am (which to my body was like 2am), I chose to get a taxi which is a flat rate of 30 Euro to the city. Add in another 5 Euro if your driver takes care of your suitcase. To me, this was well worth the money since I didn’t fancy dragging my suitcase on public transport after a long trip. But if you don’t want to spend that much, there’s a very handy bus to the city for 5 Euro and you can get out at Plaza Cibeles or the main Atocha rail station. More info is here.
- Phone: I always buy a local SIM card whenever I’m outside the US because it’s cheaper and so much easier ( I got burned once using data in South Korea and France and ended up with a NZ$1000 bill!). I also rely heavily on Google Maps to get me around a new city so I use a lot of data when traveling. Sometimes I buy a SIM card right at the airport but this time my host took me to a local shop and for 15 Euro I got a Spanish SIM (Lebara is the one I used) and this was all I needed to have my iPhone working the whole time I was in Madrid. I never had to top up and was able to text, call and use data for 11 days. iPhones are always unlocked now, but if you have a different phone make sure your phone is unlocked so you can switch SIMs for your visit.
- Public transport: If you plan to use the Metro or buses, I highly recommend buying a 10-ride “Metrobus’ pass from any Metro station for 12 Euro. This will work out to be 1.20 per ride instead of 1.50+ each and just make your life easier (who wants to queue at a ticket machine every time you’re in a Metro station or make sure you have small change in a bus?). Be warned that the credit card machines in the Metro require a PIN number so if you don’t pay with cash make sure one of your cards can be used this way. My trusty AMEX does not have a PIN so I had to use another card (thankfully someone in the station saw my confusion and told me why my card was being rejected).
- Info: Before I left for Madrid I bought my trusty Lonely Planet pocket guide and I did a little bit of research online to find out what some essential sites were. Some other sites I consulted include Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet as well as the official Madrid tourism site.
Thinking of going to Madrid and have questions? Hit me up in the comments! I’ll close with a few more pics from this amazing city. Adios!