10 Things to do in Madrid’s city center

Madrid is one of those cities I constantly long to go back to.  I can see myself living, working and eating here.  I’m in love with the Spanish way of life, the ‘duende’ you’ll hear many of them speak of.  Madrid’s city center is a great place to get an idea of what Madrid is about and it can easily be explored on foot.  After you’ve explored the city center, you can head out into the other areas of Madrid like El Rastro, La Latina, Lavapiés etc.  Here’s my best 10 things to see and do in Madrid’s city center – A Quick Guide.

*This blog article is available on the GPSMyCity App with an interactive map of all the places I mention. Get it here!

Start with a stroll through El Retiro Park

El Retiro Park is a green escape in the center of Madrid.  I like to start off with an early morning stroll through the park, admiring its 18th century style.  The Crystal Palace is a beautiful glass structure overlooking the pond.  It’s a great place to sit and have a picnic lunch or read a book if you get tired of the busy streets.

retiro park crystal palace madrid
Light reflections at the Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace

Visit the Prado museum and the Golden Triangle of Art

The Prado museum has over 9000 artworks and is the largest art gallery in the world.  You can spend hours here, getting lost in the exhibitions.  Goya’s Black Paintings are haunting images and a must see.  I also enjoy the romanticism of Rubens’ paintings, one of the most famous is probably The Three Graces, which you can see in the museum.  If you love art, you can include visits to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum.  Together with the Prado these three museums are known as Madrid’s Golden Triangle of art. The queues for the Prado is ridiculous, so it’s best to buy a ticket beforehand here.

The Three Graces, by Rubens
The Three Graces, by Rubens

Statues and Fountains

Madrid is full of statues and fountains to behold.  Cibeles Fountain on Plaza de Cibeles is an iconic symbol of Madrid.  The fountain of Neptune close to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is another impressive fountain.

Cibeles Fountain
Cibeles Fountain

Wander the narrow streets as you head towards Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) is a famous square in the very center of Madrid.  It was originally one of the entrances to Madrid before the city started developing on its outskirts.  It’s lively, close to many attractions (and shops) on my list, and easily accessible by the metro.  I adore the famous statue of the Bear and the Madrono tree (Oso & Madroño), also the symbol of the city.  The several small streets leading from Puerta del Sol is wonderful to explore with many bars, restaurants and shopping opportunities.

The bear and the Madrono tree
The bear and the Madrono tree
Get lost in the narrow streets
Get lost in the narrow streets

Have a sangria in Plaza Mayor

A few blocks away from Puerta del Sol you’ll find the famous Plaza Mayor.  It’s Madrid’s central plaza with King Phillip III proudly cast in bronze in the center of the rectangular plaza.  It’s lined with restaurants with their chairs and tables spilling onto the plaza.  It’s a great place to have a drink (sangria!), watch the people and relax.

Statue of King Phillip III
Statue of King Phillip III

Eat at indoor Mercado de San Miguel

Close to Plaza Mayor you’ll find the old traditional market that’s had a complete gastronomic makeover.  The iron and glass structure allows a lot of natural light in the building and contributes to the joyful atmosphere.  There’s a variety of meats and cheeses, wine and sangria, fruits, vegetables, seafood, chocolates and snacks galore.  Mercado de San Miguel is slightly pricey though, and there’s better and cheaper ways to go tapa hopping in Madrid.  The quality of the food and drink is so high, it’s quite impossible to stroll through the market without finding something that suits your fancy.

Mercado San Miguel Madrid seafood
Yummy seafood with white wine, yes please!

Chocolate and Churros at San Ginés

Madrid’s oldest chocolateria is open 24 hours a day and welcomes you in with the smells of deep-fried dough and melted chocolate.  Chocolate and churros is a popular breakfast in Madrid but this place can get very crowded with lines out the door.  It’s better to come at a less obvious time (after a night out).  The churros are long and crispy and the chocolate thick, dark and not too sweet.  Just how I like it.  Read about my experience here.

Chocolate and Churros
Chocolate and Churros

See the Palacio Real and Teatro Real

The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) is the huge official residence of the royal family (they don’t stay there) and a beautiful building to behold. It’s next to the Plaza de Oriente, filled with monarch statues and a planned garden, which I really enjoyed.  The Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) is also close to the palace and you’ll find it on your way on a walk from Puerta del Sol to the palace.

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

Get you skip-the-line guided tour ticket for the royal palace here!

Eat suckling pig at the oldest restaurant in the world, Restaurant Botín

This restaurant has been around since 1725 and is the oldest continuously functioning restaurant in the world.  It’s beautiful with a warm and cosy atmosphere.  It serves traditional recipes handed down from generation to generation.  Probably the most famous is the traditional roasted suckling pig (cochinillo asado), soft, salty and fatty.  If you’re not into that, why not try the wood-oven roasted lamb (cordero asado) instead?  Booking is essential and be prepared to dine with other tourists.  This place is popular!

Restaurant Botin, the oldest in the world
Restaurant Botin, the oldest in the world

End with a flamenco show or visit a rooftop bar

I love flamenco.  There I’ve said it.  I love the style of the dance, the music and the history behind the art form.  There’s many shows that caters to tourists for easy access.  I like to do a bit more research to find some of the smaller shows.  Casa Patas is a restaurant with a small flamenco theater in the back.  I love coming here.  They have small productions with two shows on a night usually 20h00 and 22h30.  If flamenco is not your thing you can get the best view of the city from rooftop bars.  Circulo de Bellas Artes is one of the most popular and charges a mere 3 Euros entrance fee.  El Corte Inglés on the corner of Grand Via offers a food court on its 9th floor with loads of dining options to choose from and an amazing view from the rooftop.

Mercado San Miguel Madrid Tapas
Time for tapas!
Sangria and basic tapas of olives and marinated muscles at Casa Patas
Sangria and basic tapas of olives and marinated mussels at Casa Patas
View from the top
View from the top

Stay: Hostal Dulcinea or search for more accommodation options here.

Cool Website offering all about Madrid: My Little Madrid

See the rest of Madrid: Hop on Hop off bus

*You can now download my article for offline reading and get an interactive map of the places I talk about via the GPSMyCity app!  Click here or the banner in my sidebar menu. Disclaimer: I earn a small commission if you buy my article and map from the GPSMyCity app with no extra cost to you.

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Madrid check list - the best ten things to see and do in Madrid