From tempting tapas tours to international art exhibits, there's something to thrill every visitor in the Spanish capital
Madrid is well known for its big-hitter art museums such as The Prado and Reina Sofía, but there are plenty of lesser-known attractions and local experiences that are well worth your time too. Start with a tapas tour to get to grips with the city’s food and culture, and make time for rowing boats at Retiro Park and the Faro de Moncloa observation tower. That said, even the best-laid plans tend to get forgotten after a couple of days as you slip into the swing of the city. Our Madrid expert has plenty of ideas to get you started.
For further inspiration, see our guide to Madrid and the city’s best hotels, restaurants, bars, tapas, nightlife, shops and things to do for free.
Dipping churro fritters into a cup of gloopy hot chocolate in a traditional café is one of the most entrenched customs in Madrid. Although it is most typical to indulge in this calorific combo at breakfast time, it goes down particularly well in the early hours after a night on the tiles and is also an effective pick-me-up in the late afternoon.
Insider’s tip: Watch the ridged strips of batter being piped into huge vats of bubbling oil at the Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been keeping Madrilenians carbed up since 1894. You may well have to queue but service is quick.
Nearest metro: Opera
The Descalzas Reales convent is hidden away in a little square behind the El Corte Inglés department store and dates back to the 16th century. Inside is a secret world that gives a fascinating insight into the Habsburg royal family. It was founded by Princess Joan of Austria, the sister of Philip II. Although it is a closed order, part of the historic building is a magnificent museum with paintings by artists including El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Zurbarán. Note that online tickets are only available for guided tours in Spanish.Insider’s tip: From the upper cloister, peep into the inner courtyard where the nuns have their own vegetable plot.
Nearest metro: Callao
Mercado de San Miguel sparked the trend for gourmet markets in Madrid where visitors can taste all sorts of local produce. The dainty ironwork structure, which dates back more than a century, is packed with stalls specialising in charcuterie, cheese, seafood and lots more. You can devour your choices at the stalls, wander around with your glass or find a stool at one of the high tables in the middle of the market.
Insider’s tip: Get a glass of cava from Pinkleton, which serves a wide range of wines by the glass, or go native with a Madrilenian vermouth from La Hora del Vermut.
Nearest metro: Sol
Taking a food tour on your first night is a fun way to learn how to order tapas and find out about the most popular dishes. Along the way, you will try local drinks and get a potted history lesson as you stroll from one bar to the next through the streets of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city.
Insider’s tip: Devour Tours focuses on family-run places and offers a variety of routes, taking in the oldest taverns, modern gastrobars and speciality food shops. If you are travelling with children, you can book a private tour with activities for them to enjoy.
Flummoxed by flamenco? Spend an evening with expert Yolanda Martín (The Flamenco Guide) and let her unravel the secrets of this passionate art. You’ll visit one of the best places to experience all that wailing and stomping and, importantly, beforehand you get a clear and concise explanation of what it is all about while having a drink or two.
Insider’s tip: The tour lasts around three hours and takes in a flamenco school, shops specialising in all the gear and a guitar workshop, all while drifting around the most characterful streets of the centre.
Drifting around the Retiro Park’s lake on a rowboat is a soothing experience after traipsing around the sights. Originally the gardens of a royal palace, the Retiro is now Madrid’s main park, with cafés and exhibition venues as well as the large lake at its centre. Back in the 17th century, it was used for extravagant theatrical performances.
Insider’s tip: In the summer months, go rowing before noon or after 6pm – you can sunbathe under the trees when the heat is fierce. The park is particularly popular on Sunday mornings, so expect to queue for a boat then.
Nearest metro: Retiro
The Prado is one of the greatest museums in the world; inside it contains superb works by Spanish masters such as Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, as well as wonderful Italian and Flemish collections, with paintings by Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Bosch and Rubens. There are usually at least two temporary exhibitions running as well.
Insider’s tip: Prebook online to cut down on queuing time. The Velázquez paintings are in the centre of the first floor, and Goya is at the southern end over three floors. Entry to permanent collections is free after 6pm (5pm on Sundays).
Nearest metro: Banco de España
Seeing Pablo Picasso’s great masterpiece Guernica for yourself at Madrid’s vast modern art museum Reina Sofía is an unforgettable experience, but there is a lot more to see too. Be sure to check out intriguing works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies. The museum is housed in an 18th-century former hospital, with a new section designed by Jean Nouvel.
Insider’s tip: Entry is free after 7pm (after 12.30pm on Sundays). Arzábal and Nubel are two great places to eat and drink, both with outdoor tables. You can also access the restaurants from the street without going into the museum.
Nearest metro: Atocha
The Thyssen-Bornemisza family has built up superlative collections of Western art from the 13th century to the present day, which are housed in a neo-classical palace remodelled by Rafael Moneo. Highlights inside the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum include paintings by Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Degas and Kandinsky, and there is usually at least one temporary exhibition running.
Insider’s tip: There is free entry on Mondays from noon until 4pm, which usually means a queue. The displays are arranged chronologically, starting on the top floor, so stay on the ground floor if you are more interested in contemporary art than old masters.
Nearest metro: Banco de España
The Palacio de Liria, home of the Duke of Alba, was built in the second half of the 18th century and houses the family’s jawdropping art collection. Visiting with an audioguide, you see paintings by Rubens, Titian, Fra Bartolommeo, El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán and Goya, with many portraits of members of the Alba family, as well as tapestries, sculpture, ceramics, books and historic documents. Book well ahead online as numbers are limited.
Insider’s tip: In the library, don’t miss the first edition of Don Quixote, printed in Madrid in 1605, or the collection of letters signed by Christopher Columbus.
Nearest metro: Plaza de España
Zoom up 360ft to the top of the Faro de Moncloa observation tower for panoramic views across Madrid and beyond to the Sierra de Guadarrama. To the north, your eye is drawn to the Cuatro Torres skyscrapers. The Casa de Campo park sprawls out to the west beyond the Manzanares river and you can also see the Royal Palace, the Almudena Cathedral and the Telefónica building.
Insider’s tip: The combination of all that glass and the height means this is obviously not recommended for anyone prone to dizziness. Tickets have an allocated time slot and you can either book online or pay at the entrance.
Nearest metro: Moncloa
On a self-guided tour of the Real Madrid Bernabéu Stadium, you will see the dressing rooms and the press room, walk down the players’ tunnel and out on to the pitch, visit the Presidential Box, and have a look at all those trophies up close. Madridistas big and small will be in heaven here.
Insider’s tip: On match days, tours are only available until five hours before kick off. It is advisable to buy tickets online, but you can also get them from ticket office 10, which is by Gate seven at the entrance to Tower B on the Paseo de la Castellana.
Nearest metro: Santiago Bernabéu
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