You’ll never run out of things to see in Madrid, Spain’s historic capital city. With royal palaces, world-renowned museums, and a thriving cultural scene, it’s a cosmopolitan city blessed with a sunny, dry climate — different from a lot of European capitals, if we’re being honest! To help you get started planning your Spain vacation, we’ve lined up ten things to see in Madrid that you can fit into a couple of action-packed days… plus some great city sights to stop into for pics along the way. It’s perfect for anyone looking for an affordable Madrid vacation.
Royal Palace of Madrid
The opulent royal palace of Madrid was built in the late eighteenth century, but its site has been used as a fortress ever since Moorish times. In medieval centuries, that original fort would be home to the Kings of Castile until it burned down in 1734, giving way to a grander, more modern incarnation inspired by Bernini’s designs for the Louvre.
Today, the palace is the official residence of Spain’s royal family, but it’s only used for state functions. That’s great news for visitors, because that means it’s open for tours most of the year! Unlike Buckingham Palace in London, which is only open a few weeks out of the year, Madrid’s Royal Palace offers admission to incredibly beautiful spaces like the opulent Throne Room, vast dining room and even state bedchambers. You’ll find world-famous art in the palace collection from artists like Caravaggio. Plus, it’s air-conditioned, making the Royal Palace a perfect hideaway on a summer afternoon.
Located on the Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), a one-kilometer stretch of Madrid boulevard containing multiple museums, the botanic gardens, theater and other notable buildings, the Prado is one of the world’s great art museums. You could spend days amongst the museum’s 8600 paints and 700 sculptures, so this is one case where planning and a map can go along way! Since 1819, when the royal art collection was first shared at the Prado, this museum has been showcasing some of Europe’s most spectacular works of art.
Spend some time admiring the Spanish School of artists, one category where the Prado excels. From 11th century murals to the Renaissance masterpieces of El Greco, and onward through the centuries, you’ll be surrounded by the history of Spanish art. Elsewhere, look for Boticcelli, the famous Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt and more. Afterwards, you’ll find more things to see in Madrid just by continuing on the Paseo del Arte, including…
Thyseen-Bornemisza National Museum
Another Paseo del Arte gem, this museum is housed in the Villahermosa Palace, a neoclassical house which was built as the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Villahermosa — you can see their family name and crest on the facade facing the gardens. The collection within was amassed by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich, with the lofty goal of exploring the development of Western art, from medieval times to 20th-century pop.
Today the museum’s galleries sport artwork signed with impressive names like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso.
But we know art museums aren’t the only things to see in Madrid! Get outside on your next stop…
Royal Botanical Garden
When your feet need a break from art museums, point them towards the Royal Botanical Garden. Founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI, and moved to its present location in 1774, the garden’s beautiful terraces are decorated with statuary, fountains and other classical structures. Take a guided tour for insights into the curiosities, histories and significance of the plantings you’ll find here. The Royal Botanical Garden wasn’t just built as something pretty for the king to enjoy, but also as a kind of natural sciences museum, where scholars could begin to understand the mysteries of life.
The Cibeles Fountain
Located at the Plaza de Cibeles, a crossroads where Calle de Alcalá, Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado meet, this grand icon of Madrid is a neo-classical marvel of white marble and dancing water. In the center, the Phrygian Mother Goddess Cybele rides a chariot drawn by lions, flanked all around by fountains. The water around her once supplied the city with drinking water.
Across from the fountain, the buildings rising are icons in their own rights. Directly behind the goddess, the white fantasy of Cybele Palace is another Madrid must-see. Inside, you’ll find exhibitions and a viewing platform looking over the city. Also in the square is the beautiful neo-classical Palace of Linares. Neighboring greenery softens the edges of this lovely, but sun-baked, plaza.
Temple of Debod
Every good city should have its own Egyptian monument, right? London, Paris and New York each have their own version of Cleopatra’s Needle, but Madrid’s piece of ancient Egypt goes much further than an obelisk. This second-century BC Egyptian Temple was donated to Spain when its original location was due to be flooded by the Aswan Dam. Built as a royal chapel dedicated to Amun and Isis, the temple saw additions over its centuries by high kings and Roman emperors. Today it can be visited in Cuartel de la Montana Park, not far from the Royal Palace. If you can, visit at sunset, when the temple’s original west-east alignment creates a striking picture against the light-filled sky.
Puerta del Sol
On New Year’s Eve, Madrid celebrates by eating twelve lucky grapes when Puerta del Sol’s clock chimes at midnight. But all year round, this central square is worth a visit. Here you’ll find Casa de Correos, home of the clock tower, Madrid’s regional government, and once the royal post office. Outside its main entrance, look for the stone slab marking Kilometre Zero, the starting point for Spain’s major roads.
Across the square, look for the bronze El Oso y el Madroño — The Bear and the Strawberry Tree. Regarded as the symbol for Madrid but for murky reasons — one theory is that Madrid used to be called Ursa, Ursa means bear, and so-called ‘strawberry trees’ grew in a forest that used to be here — it’s undoubtedly one of the cutest city mascots you’ll ever encounter in Europe, and definitely a fan favorite for the best things to see in Madrid.
It means “Great Way” and in many ways, Gran Via might remind you of that other Great Way, New York’s Broadway. It’s home to Madrid’s theater district, where you can catch not just the latest musicals but Spanish plays, flamenco, ballet and more. Fine dining and flagship stores love this street as well, so you can taste Madrid’s signature flavors before picking up a little something from Chanel. The clubs, lounges and rooftop terrace bars are open late, in keeping with Madrid’s up-all-night lifestyle, so the nighttime views here are best appreciated with a cocktail in hand. And along the way, savor the Beaux-Arts architecture, best represented in the famous Metropolis building, with its statue of Winged Victory atop the dome.
El Retiro Park
Every city needs a park — for a lunchtime stroll, for a break from afternoon crowds, for a late morning recovery from a very late Madrid night. Madrid’s glorious El Retiro Park was once reserved for royalty. Now everyone is welcome to roam the park’s paths, walk or row at the lake, and discover the beautiful Palacio de Cristal, based upon London’s famous Crystal Palace. The original burned down in a spectacle Winston Churchill called “the end of an era,” but Madrid’s smaller, more intimate version looks over a lake and is surrounded by trees, giving it a fairy-tale feel. Inside, you’ll find changing art exhibits on display. Floral aficionados, look for the park’s La Rosaleda rose garden.
This spectacular cathedral, located alongside the Royal Palace, has had a long history, but probably not the one you’d expect. Although plans were first drawn for a grand church in Madrid since the 16th century, construction didn’t begin until 1883. Unfortunately, this was also just before a rather tumultuous period for Europe, and the Spanish Civil War didn’t help any. Construction was paused and didn’t restart until 1950, and the cathedral was finally consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. With so much planning behind it, the neo-Gothic design perfectly compliments the Royal Palace as you might expect, lending a very pleasing air of symmetry to the royal center of Madrid.
Other Great Things to See in Madrid
Add these to your itinerary for great photo spots!
Plaza Mayor: This broad square lined with arching porticos dates back to the Hapsburg centuries (1516-1700) although much was rebuilt following a 1790 fire. The popular thing to do here is buy a calamari roll from one of the restaurants or bars here, then snack while you stroll.
Puerta de Alcala: This gateway designed in the triumphal arch style was built for King Charles III to replace a traditional city gate in the late 1770s. Its massive arches and columns are especially impressive considering this the first example of a modern Roman arch — older even than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Atocha Train Station: Madrid’s central station is unlike any train station you’ve been to before — it has a tropical garden inside! Even if you’re not boarding a train, you’ll want to stop in and experience this beautiful station.
With this list of things to see in Madrid, you’re all set for a great visit to Spain’s capital city! Add Madrid to Barcelona, Valencia or Lisbon — you can easily get around Spain by rail, making for a perfect build-your-own vacation. Or join a tour, which will include many of these sights plus more amazing things to see in Madrid that only your local tour guide will know about!