Twourism quick guide: Madrid

the area

Madrid blew us away with its gorgeous Spanish architecture, network of cosy cobbled streets, and vibrant bar and café culture. It’s one of our favourite cities in the world and should definitely be high on your to-visit list.

Here is our quick guide to the city, helping you make the most of your time in Madrid. Our Madrid custom Google Map (below) is also available to download.

When to go
Summer gets incredibly hot (and there’s no nearby sea to cool you off), so opt for spring or autumn. We went in February and enjoyed 10-15 degree weather. Aim to spend three to four full days to leisurely explore the city. Though if you love art, you could easily spend that in the art museums/galleries alone.

Getting there
Madrid airport is one of the biggest in Europe and served by a multitude of airlines, including several low-cost airlines. We flew with Norwegian from Copenhagen for around €120 return each. From the airport it’s easy to catch the Metro (subway) into the city. Expect to pay around €5 each one way to/from the airport. If you’re travelling from somewhere nearer Madrid than us, it’s worth checking out train services and the many Spanish long-haul bus companies.

two skyscrapers by square
It certainly was a buenos días waking up to this view.

Where to stay
Central Madrid is easily walkable (at least with comfy shoes on!) and well-connected with a great subway network, so you can’t go too far wrong. The tourist heart is along the famous Gran Vía boulevard and around Calle Mayor, but we prefer the areas slightly north of that. Malasaña is a vibrant area full of quirky cafés, shops and bars. We could spend a whole weekend just hanging out in Malasaña, and particularly love the streets around Plaza Juan Pujol and Plaza del de Mayo. The Justicia area, around the Chueca station, is also more relaxed than the tourist hot spots but offers plenty to do and see.

If you book a hotel room, note that many hotels charge extra (~€30) for checking in late in the evening.

old cobbled square surrounded by red buildings
Plaza Mayor is a must-see in Madrid.

Main sights
Most of the famous sites are dotted around the old town. Our top sights were: Plaza Mayor market square, the Royal Palace and Plaza de Oriente, Parque El Retiro with its beautiful landscaped gardens and pavillions, and the southern part of Gran Vía boulevard.

Free walking tours depart daily from Plaza Mayor and include most of the central sights. Several companies offer free tours, as well as numerous paid for tours. We went with Sandemans and enjoyed the two hour walking tour, despite the large group size.

Art museums and galleries come aplenty in Madrid, and many offer free entry during certain days/times. We particularly recommend the Reina Sofia museum, if you only have time for one.

old houses surrounding square with cross on it
Walking through the La Latina area.

Alternative activities
Grab a cable car from inner city Madrid across the river, motorway, and old royal hunting grounds. The Teleférico cable car stations are pretty dated and the cafeteria at the other end isn’t worth more than a quick photo stop. But for €5.90 each you get a return ticket with unbeatable views and a new perspective on the size of Madrid.

Pack a picnic and enjoy a break in the wonderful park area. (There is a huge playground and picnic tables as well.) Check the opening hours before you go, and make sure you ask the staff for the English audio guide before you climb in.

cable cars across a park
The Madrid Teleférico cable cars offer lovely views.

Go for a walk down Paseo de la Castellana to see a different part of Madrid. Catch the Metro to Plaza de Castilla and wander south. You’ll wander through financial district, past ministries, Bernébau stadion, Natural History Museum, and much more.

Head south to the riverside Parque Madrid Rio (metro stop: Marqués de Vadillo) for a stroll and picnic in the beautiful gardens and park. The river itself is tiny but served by beautiful oversized bridges.

Shopping
What? I know polkadot bright red flamenco dresses are AWESOME, but Madrid is designer heaven. Many smaller brands and independent designers sell both homeware and clothing in boutiques dotted around the city. The second hand scene is also excellent.

narrow street with many shops on it
Madrid is second hand shopping heaven, especially Malasaña.

Where? If you prefer highstreet fashion, Spain is home to several large chains like Zara, Bershka, and Mango. Most highstreet stores can be found around Gran Vía. El Corte Inglés has several department stores with international brands. Head to Calle del Pez and the surrounding streets for cute boutiques.

If you like vintage shopping, head to Malasaña. Especially Calle Velarde and Calle del Espíritu Santo – check out La Mona Checa and Magpie, or try second hand shopping by the kilo at Flamingos Vintage.

Consider avoiding the famed El Rastro flea market on Sundays – nowadays it’s mostly cheap tatt. Go to the La Latina area on another weekday and visit the antique stores around the middle of Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores instead.

sweet narrow street surrounded by old houses
We discovered most shops by taking cute detours like this one.

Eating
What? Tapas are the obvious choice. Portions are generally small here, so embrace the tradition of eating little and often. The many parks and plazas also make Madrid an excellent place to enjoy a city picnic with some Spanish pastries. And for the love of chocolate, don’t miss out on churros!

several floor levels with people seated or food stalls
A visit to Mercado San Anton is sure to fill you up, though it’s not the cheapest of mercados.

Where? The mercados market halls (e.g. Mercado de San Antón, San Miguel, and San-Fernando) are great places to grab a few smaller dishes. For a sit-down meal, Malasaña, around Plaza del de Mayo, has dozens and dozens of relatively cheap restaurants serving most international cuisines.

Vegetarian food is relatively easy to find – just ask restaurant staff to recommend you something! (Making sure to stay away also from pescado – that is, fish in Spanish.)

churros being dipped in chocolate
These churros alone are worth a trip to Madrid.

For churros, definitely go to Chocolatería San Ginés. It’s been around for 120 years and for good reason.

Great picnic spots (worth going out of your way for) are the Temple of Debod with its gorgeous hillside views, and the huge landscaped Parque El Retiro.

Jo standing in front of park
Parque El Retiro offers plenty of picnic spots.

Drinking
What? The local beer is tasty and the Spanish wine selection is – as expected – fantástico. A simple but delicious glass of rioja sets you back around €2.50-3 and that includes a small snack (olives or nuts, usually).

Where? The outdoor tables, terrazas, in any of the plazas, of course. (Note that many bars and restaurants will charge you extra per item you drink/eat outside – sometimes as high as €1 extra per item.) The nightlife around Tribunal and Plaza del de Mayo is excellent. Walk or grab the Metro to Tribunal or Chueca and pop in wherever takes your fancy. For casual drinks, try colourful Verbena in Malasaña, or the quirky El Imperfecto if you’re around Calle de Las Huertas.

beer and coffee on a small table outside
A beer/coffee break at El Imperfecto in Madrid.

You can access all of the named places (including streets and squares) in our custom Madrid Google Map here. To use offline, download the app MapME and then download the Spain map inside the app. Export the custom Google Map (in the web browser) to .KML format, then download that file to your phone. In the MapME app, you can now open the .KML file and view it offline. Here’s a great tutorial.

Have you been to Madrid? What are your top tips?

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