Making the Most of a Madrid Short Break
Madrid, the Spanish capital, is home to grand palaces, world-famous museums, cosy tapas bars, and a multitude of stunning parks and plazas. Add to that a compact, walkable centre, a good Metro system, and plenty of sunshine, and you have the perfect place to spend a weekend exploring while also topping up your vitamin D.
Here are our deal experts' tips for places to visit on a Madrid city break.
Stroll through the Centro district
Centro, the central district of Madrid, is home to some of the most important landmarks in the city. The stunning Royal Palace of Madrid, built in the mid 18th century, was formerly home to Spain's monarchs, although it's now used primarily for official occasions. You can take tours of some of the palace's more than 3000 rooms, including the Royal Armoury, with its impressive collection of weapons and armour worn by Spanish kings, the Royal Chapel, the Apartments of Infante Luis (home to string instruments made by Antonio Stradivari), and the historic Royal Kitchen. You can also see the Changing of the Guard every Wednesday and Saturday.
Cross the Plaza de la Armería from the palace and you'll reach the stunning Romanesque Revival Almudena Cathedral, which was only completed in 1993. The interior includes a large crypt that features 400 columns and is the resting place of a number of noble families.
Five hundred metres east of the cathedral is Madrid's main square, Plaza Mayor. At the centre of this portico-lined square is the bronze statue of King Philip III, and there are plenty of cafés to sit outside and admire the surrounding buildings, which include the Casa de la Panadería, a former bakery that's now home to a tourist information centre.
Puerta del Sol, five minutes' walk from Plaza Mayor, is a bustling square that's one of Madrid’s most famous sites. It's where thousands of madrileños head on New Year's Eve to celebrate as the clock on the Casa de Correos building strikes midnight.
Museums and galleries
There are loads of incredible galleries and museums in Madrid, the most famous being the Museo Nacional del Prado, in the east of the city centre near the Retiro park. The Prado is one of the world's great art museums, and houses collections of European art dating from the 12th to the early 20th centuries, including works by some of the best-known artists of all time such as Goya, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, and many others.
A few minutes' walk away you'll vind the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, home to over 1600 paintings, including works by the likes of Holbein and Rembrandt, through to Impressionist artists including Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin, and 20th-century names including Munch, Dalí, Pollock, and Bacon.
This part of Madrid is known as the Golden Triangle of Art, as it consists of those two galleries plus a third, the Reina Sofia Museum, which is 10 minutes' walk from the Thyssen. The museum has a fine collection of 20th-century art, including works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Man Ray, Diego Rivera, Henry Moore, Vasily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. The most famous piece on display, though, is Picasso's "Guernica".
A stroll in the park
A good time to travel to Madrid is May, as you'll avoid the stiflingly hot summer, while the April showers that have soaked into the ground and the warm sunshine combine to produce spectacular floral displays. The summer crowds will not yet have arrived, and walking around the city will be more pleasant. Thankfully, Madrid has lots of pretty parks for a stroll.
The beautiful Parque del Retiro has almost 1.5 square kilometres to explore, including a rose garden, the Retiro Pond with its adjacent colonnaded Alfonso XII monument, and the Paseo de las Estatuas — a walkway decorated with statues of Spanish kings. Probably its best-known feature, the Palacio de Cristal, is a spectacular glasshouse with a cast-iron frame that sits in front of a lake. Look out for free concerts at the park's bandstand from May to October.
In the west of the city centre, La Montaña Park, home to the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple dating from the 2nd century BC that was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government to save it from floods following the construction of the Aswan Dam.
Continue north to Parque del Oeste, with its beautifully manicured rose garden, and meandering paths leading between a variety of trees. The park is near the Faro de Moncloa, a 110-metre former communications tower featuring an observation deck offering panoramic views across the city from 92 metres up. Alternatively, take in the views from the Teleférico de Madrid cable car, which departs from Parque del Oeste and runs up to the wide expanse of Madrid's largest public park, Casa de Campo, a former royal hunting ground where you’ll find walking trails, lakes, an amusement park, and Madrid Zoo Aquarium.
If you’re in Madrid when it's hot, you can head down to the new Madrid Río Park, just below Casa de Campo on the banks of the Manzanares River. In summer, it's home to an urban beach.
Shopping in Madrid
If you're hoping to indulge in some retail therapy while in Madrid, there's plenty to keep you occupied. The city centre is full of mainstream shopping options, including department stores like El Corte Inglés, as well as many international-brand stores.
However, one of our favourite places to shop is El Rastro's bustling flea market, held every Sunday (from around 9am-3pm) in the south of the city centre. You'll find all sorts of goods on sale from around 1000 sellers, including antiques and collectables, clothes, and items for the home. El Rastro is a great area for shopping even when the market's not on, with a wide range of independent shops selling handcrafted furniture, records, antiques, books, and much more. There are plenty of charming little bars and restaurants in the area if you want to take some time out from shopping.
If you're near the Royal Botanic Gardens and Retiro Park, head to the pedestrianised Cuesta de Moyano, which hosts around 30 book stalls every day; it's a good place to browse for books on all subjects, including out-of-print works.
Eating out in Madrid
Madrid's many food markets are great places to grab a bite to eat. They include Mercado de San Antón, which has a floor dedicated to fresh produce, and another to food stalls offering all kinds of cuisine, including seafood, Japanese, Greek, and tapas. There's also a floor full of restaurants.
Mercado de San Miguel is a great place to taste produce from all over Spain, and you can pick up a wide choice of snacks to eat on the go, made using ingredients like Iberian ham, Galician shellfish, and Basque cheese. Mercado de San Miguel is housed within a historic iron-framed market hall near Plaza Mayor.
Chocolatería San Ginés, a couple of blocks from Puerta del Sol, is the ideal place to satisfy your sweet tooth. It opened in the late 19th century, and retains a traditional feel, with its white marble tables and tile-covered counter. We recommend grabbing some churros con chocolate and looking at all the pictures of famous people who have been in to sample this fried-dough dessert over the years.
For an iconic Madrid dish, head to Bar La Ideal (in Calle Botoneras, next to Plaza Mayor) to sample the bocadillo de calamares — a squid sandwich with lemon juice and/or mayo. You could also head to the lovely little Bodegas Ricla, on Calle de Cuchilleros, south of Plaza Mayor, which dates back to 1867 and serves delicious tapas with vermouth or wine in atmospheric surroundings.
Madrid has a well-deserved reputation as a great late-night destination. One place to explore is the Literary Quarter, around Calle Huertas (the area has famous verses from 15th- and 16th-century literature etched on the pavements) and a host of statues of famous writers who have lived there. It offers an eclectic mix that includes cocktail bars, nightclubs, and quiet bars. It's also home to Café Central on Plaza del Ángel, a great place to listen to live jazz, while you can also take the opportunity to experience the famous Spanish flamenco dance at Cardamomo.
Multicultural Lavapiés, an area southeast of the city centre, offers a great choice of bars, many of which offer live music or DJs. You could also head to the Teatro Real, near the Royal Palace, for opera, ballet, classical concerts, and more.
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Giorgio Petti and Nick Elvin contributed to this post.