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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 27 December, 2022
Expert travel writer: Dana Facaros

Maybe it’s the bright sunshine that lights up the city’s majestic plazas for most of the year – even in winter – but Madrid always seems to have that feel-good factor.

Some visit Spain’s capital for its three world-class art museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen – but most simply come for the exceptional food, great boutique shopping and vibrant nightlife. Indeed, there are few world capitals where it’s so easy to slip into the local way of life.

This is one place where even the best-laid sightseeing plans are likely to go astray.

Orientation

Puerta del Sol marks the centre of Madrid, and is the main orientation point. Immediately west of here lies the old centre, known as Madrid de Los Austrias and packed with tapas bars and pavement cafés. Just east of Puerta del Sol, the major museums are strung out along Paseo del Prado, between Retiro Park and Plaza Santa Ana.

North of Retiro Park lies the hip and prestigious Salamanca district. Head up to the roof at the Circulo de Bellas Artes cultural centre for a wraparound view of the city.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Prado Museum

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s most renowned museum, home to the single best collection of Spanish art and arguably the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century.

Best for ages: 18+ | £13

Reina Sofia National Museum

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Spain’s National Museum of 20th-century art is the third of Madrid’s world-class art museums. Reina most famously contains Picasso’s Guernica, and outstanding collections of Spain’s two greatest 20th-century masters, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

Best for ages: 18+ | £8

World-class art in Madrid

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Home to the three of the world’s greatest art museums and a whole slew of masterpieces, Madrid justifies its rank as one of the world’s greatest art cities.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Almudena Cathedral. A cathedral, with a central dome, pillars, and decorative elements. Pedestrians walk in the square in front of it.
Experience

Almudena Cathedral

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Opposite the Royal Palace and the seat of Madrid’s Catholic Archbishop. Building started in 1880 and only officially finished in 1993, when it was subsequently consecrated by Pope John Paul II. Inside, it surprises with contemporary chapels, cupolas, statues and décor. Worth a stop if churches are your thing.

Best for ages: 18+ | £1

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A traditional Spanish hand fan - black lace on top of the fan fabric which shows a pastoral scene.
Experience

Casa de Diego

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Founded in 1858. Spain has long been one of the greatest producers of abanicos – traditional hand fans. This small studio upholds that tradition. The highest quality hand-made fans – with handles made from wood, ebony or bone – are made on site. Each one is a unique, gorgeous work of art.

Best for ages: 10+ | Free

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Busy market stalls with many people looking around and shopping.
Experience

El Rastro Flea Market

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s lively Sunday morning flea market sells everything from ceramics to fabrics, handmade shoes and antiques. It has been held in the La Latina district for over 400 years.

Best for ages: 10+ | Free

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A close-up image of a ring-tailed lemur with its tongue sticking out.
Experience

Faunia

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Take a tour of the planet’s ecosystems, at this quirky wildlife park, home to penguins, manatees and snakes.

Best for ages: 4+ | £18

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

3 hrs highlights bike tour Madrid

3 hrs highlights bike tour Madrid

Madrid

This tour is ideal for everyone who wants to get to know Madrid in a short time but in a relaxed way. In about 3 hours and 12 km biking, you...

€28 | Rating 4.95 / 5 [144 ratings]

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Guided Walking Tour of Historical Madrid

Guided Walking Tour of Historical Madrid

Madrid

On this 2 hour walking tour you will stroll down through the core of medieval Madrid accompanied by a guide. The winding streets of the Arch...

€45 | Rating 4.41 / 5 [12 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Half-Day Madrid History and Legends Private Walking Tour with Hotel Pick Up

Half-Day Madrid History and Legends Private Walking Tour with Hotel Pick Up

Madrid

Enjoy this 4-hour, private walking tour that can be customized according to your preference. Your private guide is a native and local, profe...

€206 | Rating 4.88 / 5 [26 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Highlights & Hidden Gems With Locals: Best of Madrid Private Tour

Highlights & Hidden Gems With Locals: Best of Madrid Private Tour

Madrid

This is not just another city tour; this is the best of Madrid from a unique perspective! Get to know Madrid on a city tour that gives you t...

€72 | Rating 4.68 / 5 [165 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Hostal Gala

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

A great budget choice – this modern-day hostel housed in an elegant, 19th-century building has chic rooms and the perfect central location.

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The Hat Madrid

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

One of the new generation of hip, urban ‘poshtels’, this 2-star hotel offers highly affordable rooms in an unbeatable central location.

Official star rating:

Mayerling Hotel

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Four-star fixtures at two-star prices – a budget but stylish boutique hotel in the heart of Madrid.

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Room Mate Alicia

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

A funky design boutique in the buzzing heart of Madrid, packed with restaurants, bars and nightlife. Excellent value for the central location.

Official star rating:

When to go

Madrid is at its best in spring and autumn, when the sun usually shines and temperatures range from around 18°C to 25°C – ideal weather for eating out and late-night drinks at pavement cafés. Many locals escape to the coast during July and August, when it becomes uncomfortably hot, even at night. On the plus side, there’s less pollution and some great street festivals. Many shops and restaurants close for at least a fortnight during this period.

Owing to Madrid’s altitude, winter is colder than you might expect, but the city’s cultural scene stays in full swing.

Getting there and away

Barajas International Airport is 12km from the city centre. Taxis are the quickest way into the centre – though traffic is often heavy, so allow 20-30 minutes to get to a downtown location. It takes about an hour to get to the centre by metro: at Nuevos Ministerios, change to Line 10 for the two main stations, Gran Via and Sol. The 24-hour bus service takes about 40 minutes, with stops at Plaza de Cibeles and Atocha station.

Getting around

You can walk between most of the major museums, shopping and nightlife areas. Madrid’s metro and buses are efficient and easy to use, but they’re often packed and pickpocketing is common. Taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced. There’s no need for a car in the centre and parking is difficult – there’s a strictly enforced pay-and-display system for street parking. If you insist on hiring a car, book a hotel with a garage.

Where to stay

Plaza Santa Ana is a great area to stay for a first visit, as it’s near the major museums and the shopping area around Puerta del Sol – it’s also packed with tapas bars and restaurants. There are a lot of hotels along the Gran Via – which is also handy for sights and shops – but it’s rather brash and not as atmospheric as Plaza Santa Ana.

The Salamanca area is more upmarket, less frenetic and will suit luxury shoppers. The upper part of the Paseo de la Castellana is more suitable for business trips.

Where to eat or drink

Plaza Santa Ana and the surrounding streets are good for tapas bars and live music. Malasaña is lively too, with dozens of bars and restaurants. Chueca is the main gay area, but certainly not exclusively so, and is packed with bars and cafés. Los Austrias, particularly along Cava Baja, is also excellent for tapas and bars. Restaurants and bars in and around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor tend to be touristy, and best avoided.

Where to shop

High-street shops are packed around Calle Preciados, Puerta del Sol and Gran Via. The old centre (Los Austrias) has the most traditional shops. Find designer boutiques in Salamanca and in the grid formed by Serrano, Jorge Juan, Ortega y Gasset and Velázquez. Some of Spain’s most interesting designers are in the Salesas area, around Almirante and Conde de Xiquena. Fuencarral is lined with funky shops, and Malasana and Triball are sprouting cool new boutiques.

Madrid is a great shopping destination for shoes, bags, clothes, Spanish wines and gourmet foods such as Iberico ham and artisan cheeses.

The Madrid Card

The Madrid Card gives free or discounted access and priority entrance to more than 50 museums and attractions, plus discounts at various shops and restaurants, so it’s worth a look if you plan to see a handful of museums.

Our writer’s recommended itineraries for this destination