10 Memorable Experiences in Madrid
With a rich and fascinating history, remarkable architecture, incredible range of outstanding culinary options, amazing art and culture…as well as lively nightlife and fun shopping, Madrid has it all! In fact, there is so much to do and see in this vibrant city, that it can be hard to prioritize, especially if you have limited time.
To help you plan your itinerary, here are 10 experiences our family greatly enjoyed during our recent four-day visit to Spain’s capital:
1. Marvel at Palacio Real, the Largest Royal Palace in Western Europe
You won’t bump into the royal family even though this is their official residence, as the Royal Palace is only used for official engagements today. Your visit, however, will still be worthwhile. The palace’s vast courtyard and a tour of its opulent rooms with remarkable furnishings and artwork by some of the world’s greatest masters are sure to leave you in awe. If you can, sign up for a tour with a guide (vs. self-guided), everybody in our family thought is was worth it.
When you are done touring the palace, stop by the Royal Armory, which is considered one of the best in the world and displays pieces from as early as the 13th century, and the Royal Pharmacy, which is usually a favorite of kids. Another worthwhile stop is the Almudena Cathedral, which faces the palace from across the south border of Plaza de la Armeria.
A Few Tips:
- The palace is closed to the public on days of official receptions and a few other days of the year. Check the website prior to your visit to avoid any potential disappointment.
- A colorful changing of the guards takes place at 12 noon on the first Wednesday of every month (except August and September) in the plaza.
- Inside the palace, photography is not allowed, but there are plenty of great photo opportunities outside, particularly in the main courtyard or in the royal gardens.
2. Step on the Center of Spain at Puerta del Sol
It is crowded and touristy, but one cannot visit Madrid without going to Puerta del Sol, located in the city center. Once the site of Madrid’s city’s gates, which were decorated with image of the sun (hence the name), Puerta del Sol’s energy reminded us of Times Square in New York City. You can stand on kílometro zero, a plaque serving as the symbolic center of Spain and take a cute family photo.
Then cross the street to see El Oso y El Madroño, the famous sculpture of the bear eating a strawberry-tree and admire the Monument to King Charles III, especially striking with the House of the Post Office in the background (pictured above). There are a large number of stores and restaurants scattered in the many streets that lead into and out of the Plaza.
3. Step Back in Time at Plaza Mayor
Only a few blocks from Puerta del Sol is Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s central and most famous square, known for its epic past. Built during the 17th century, Plaza Mayor has had many different names and has hosted a variety of events during its history, ranging from royal coronations and executions to bull fighting, markets and even soccer games. Another one of Madrid’s main attractions, it can feel touristy, but it is nevertheless a great place to visit.
I recommend taking a break at one of the restaurants facing the square to enjoy a glass of sangria or rioja wine. Your kids might like Fanta Limón, a soft drink both of our kids absolutely loved in Spain and which we unfortunately cannot find in the U.S. Relaxing with our drinks and a few tapas, we observed the impressive architecture, imagining life in Madrid centuries ago and were entertained by performances by the many street artists, who fill up the plaza every day.
4. Sample Delicious Tapas at Mercado de San Miguel
You never really get to know a country unless you eat and drink like the locals. In Spain, this means tapas, which you can enjoy anywhere in Madrid, but just west of Plaza Mayor is Mercado de San Miguel, one of the oldest and most famous Madrid food markets, which you should visit at least once during your stay. We loved taking in its colorful sights, smells and sounds. Move from stall to stall and sample delicious gourmet bites ranging from seafood, jamón, cheeses, and olives to baked goods and desserts.
Tip: Mercado’s bustling crowds and energy can be overwhelming at first, but it’s a worthwhile experience. Don’t expect traditional table service. Instead, share a few bites as you “tour” the stalls or alternatively, grab any seat or standing table space you can find and then move on when you are ready.
5. Dine at the World’s Oldest Restaurant
When you find yourself in a city that boasts the oldest restaurant in the world, you must pay a visit! El Sobrino de Botín (known to most simply as Botín) was founded in 1725 and is certified by the great Guinness Book of World Records. In addition to its impressive long-running history, the restaurant has been mentioned in many literary works such as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (the author was a regular during his time in Spain). Not many know that a young Francisco De Goya, trying to make it as an artist, was rumored to be at one point a dishwasher at Botín’s.
The world’s oldest restaurant is famous for its cochinillo asado, roast suckling pig. You can find other fare, but why would you want anything else? The suckling pig is incredible!
Tip: If the restaurant is not too busy, ask its friendly owner, Antonio Gómez, to show you the remarkable, centuries old wine cellar. It’s located below the restaurant in a section of Madrid’s secret underground tunnel system which dates as far back as the 11th century.
6. Dip churros into chocolate at Chocolatería San Gínes
Make sure to save some room for dessert, because you are not too far from Chocolatería San Gínes, another one of Madrid’s food institutions you must experience. Sit down at one of the outside tables on the narrow and quaint street, perfect for people watching, and enjoy dark, rich and thick hot chocolate, great for dipping San Gínes’ famous churros (long donut-like sticks) or porras (bigger, thicker version of churros).
We learned that while most tourists come during the day, the restaurant’s busiest hours are often late at night or early in the morning when Madrileñeos (natives of Madrid) come here after a night out on the town. Either way, it is very Spanish and very delicious!
7. Be Wowed by World-class Art
Madrid is home to several fantastic museums, but Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemizsa, often called “Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art,” are the three most famous. It’s hard to say which one you should visit if you can only fit one in your schedule, as each is special in its own way. Prado, one of the world’s most famous museums, has an incredible collection of classic art including Spanish masters, such as Velazquez and Goya. Reina Sofia is known as Madrid’s premier collection of contemporary art and houses works of Picasso, Dalí and Miró. The Thyssen Bornemizsa museum, slightly less well known than the first two, showcases a remarkable private collection of art, spanning several different centuries and styles.
8. Take a Break at the Buen Retiro Park
Madrid’s largest park is located to the east of the city center, not far from the city’s many main attractions and particularly close to the three art museums, very convenient if you are planning to visit them. It used to be reserved only for the royal family, but luckily this is no longer the case as its splendid grounds offer a great place to take a break from the bustling city. Enjoy a leisurely stroll, take in the beautiful gardens, sculptures, monuments and fountains. Make sure to stop by the striking Crystal Palace, originally built as a greenhouse, but today serving as a venue for many contemporary art exhibitions. For a fun family experience, you can head to the lake and rent a small rowboat. In the summer, Retiro hosts concerts as well as many street artists.
9. Cheer with the Fans at Real Madrid’s Home Stadium
If you are a soccer fan, you must visit Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid’s famous headquarters. For a complete experience, try to catch a game if you are visiting between August and May (La Liga’s season). If this is not possible, the Bernabéu Tour, available to visitors year round, is still worth your time. You can marvel at the panoramic view of the beautiful stadium, admire the club’s countless trophies and awards in the “Best Club in History” room, walk through the player’s tunnel and even onto the pitch, visit the lockers and press rooms, see the Presidential Box and more. The club’s official store offers some great Real Madrid sports memorabilia.
10. Be Seduced by a Classic Flamenco Show
I saved the best for last. We were told that one cannot visit Spain without seeing a classical flamenco show and I have to agree. Madrid is famous for its many tablaos (flamenco clubs) that wow its guests with electrifying performances of this genuine Spanish art, originating in Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. We chose Corral de la Morería, one of the oldest and most famous tablaos in Madrid. Everybody in our family agreed that the performance, extraordinary in every way, was the highlight of our trip to Spain.
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