I dreamed of a life where I could casually take off to somewhere in Europe for a couple days. After seeing Monte Carlo with Selena Gomez in the 8th grade, I was hooked on traipsing around Europe. And years of watching House Hunters International made me drool over the lives these people were living. And it’s crazy to say that I am living that life in Marseille, France, as an English teaching assistant. Because when my friend Robin who lives in Paris proposed a trip through Spain, I said, “Sure, why not?!” I quickly booked flights, we found an Airbnb et voilà. Robin, her friend and I explored Madrid, Spain, and had a blast rowing boats in Parque el Retiro, eating empanadas at Mercado de San Miguel and analyzing art at the Prado Museum. Here’s 18 things to do in Madrid, Spain.
Puerta del Sol
One of Madrid’s most happening squares offers a smorgasbord of places to shop and eat. This spot used to serve as one of Madrid’s city gates, and Puerta del Sol is also home to Oso y Madroño, or a statue of a cute bear nibbling on a strawberry tree, which serves as the city’s official symbol. I have to be honest: I did not do my research in advance. So when I saw all these people taking pictures by this random bear statue, I was a bit confused but took a picture anyway. I mean, if everyone else is doing it, I guess it must be important? Now I’m all filled in and you can be, too, as you’re compiling things to do in Madrid, Spain.
Plaza de Cibeles
We had been walking through urban Madrid from Puerta del Sol, and construction and scaffolding scattered the sidewalks. And then we came to the intersection where Plaza de Cibeles. And its architecture took my breath away. In 1782, the Cibeles Fountain was designed and served water to Madrid dwellers, but in 1895, the fountain was moved to its current location for decoration, according to Civitatis. The buildings that surround the fountain include headquarters for the Madrid City Council and the army among others. We simply walked by to enjoy the views and take photos, but you can go to Palacio Cibeles for a rooftop meal.
El Retiro Park
A trip to Madrid wouldn’t be complete without a visit to El Retiro Park, which boasts more than 300 acres. And it’s not just trees and benches in the park: there are art exhibits, a small lake, beautiful sculptures and many amazing photo opts. Although this park is massive, I want to highlight three different stops you need to add to your itinerary: Estanque Grande de El Retiro, the Crystal Palace and Palacio de Velázquez.
Estanque Grande de El Retiro
Out of all the things to do in Madrid, renting boats at Estanque Grande de El Retiro is another one near the top of the list. We spent 6 euros total between the three of us for a 45-minute boat rental. I can’t complain! We enjoyed the sweet sunshine as we rowed around this lake in El Retiro Park.
Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Crystal Palace sits in El Retiro Park just a stone’s throw away from a gorgeous pond. Today it rotates through temporary exhibitions, but it was first built as a greenhouse in 1887. Although we weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, we admired the architecture framed by the tree’s fall colors.
Palacio de Velázquez
A branch of the Reina Sofia Museum, Palacio de Velázquez is a short walk from the Crystal Palace and still in the heart of El Retiro Park. The building is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses temporary expositions. We visited Palacio de Velázquez’s Vivian Suter exhibition and enjoyed strolling through all her canvases.
El Perro y La Galleta
If you’re in the market for an Instagrammable restaurant, El Perro y La Galleta is calling your name. We visited their Retiro location, which is logically not too far from El Retiro Park. The upscale, sophisticated dining room is sprinkled with dog portraits and is sure to give you a chuckle. I ordered their burger topped with a fried egg, bacon, cheese and carmelized onions. And it lived up to the hype. El Perro y La Galleta is worth a visit not only for its ambience but also quality menu, and luck for you, there are currently five locations in Madrid.
We met up with one of Robin and Riana’s college friends who is teaching English in Madrid. And she took us to grab ice cream at Sham Pasteleria, one of her favorite spots next to El Retiro Park. Sham Pasteleria is a Syrian-Lebanese pastry shop but also serves up ice cream. I was unbelievably delighted to be able to eat my ice cream in a gluten-free cone at Sham Pasteleria, and then we walked over to El Retiro Park to enjoy our ice cream.
Reina Sofia Museum
Madrid is home to a bustling art scene, which includes the Reina Sofia Museum. This museum filled with contemporary art opened in 1990 and is home to the likes of Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar. The museum normally costs 10 euros and is closed on Tuesday, but if you can, arrange your trip to take advantage of the free hours. Currently, you can visit the museum for free on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m., but definitely reserve your tickets well in advance. There was a mega long line even with our tickets. You can also visit for free on Sundays between 1:30 and 2:15 p.m.
For those of you who prefer classical art, then the Prado Museum is something to add to your list of things to do in Madrid. The museum boasts more than 200 years of existence and houses the haunts of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Rubens among its nearly 9,000 paintings. Out of the Reina Sofia and Prado museums, I preferred the latter, but both have much to offer.
The Prado Museum normally costs 15 euros, but take advantage of their free hours: Monday to Saturday 6 to 8 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 7 p.m. But just like the Reina Sofia Museum, be sure to book your tickets in advance.
Drink tinto de verano
I always thought of sangria when I thought of Spain, but there’s a drink I had yet to discover: tinto de verano, which is basically sangria but bubbly. It’s so light and sweet, and I can’t recommend it enough while dining out in Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid
My life goal is pretty much to be a princess, so when there’s a palace, I’m so there. So naturally, the Royal Palace was on my list of things to do in Madrid. There were no more available visits left on the day we visited. Although I would’ve loved to explore inside and take a tour, it was still cool to walk around outside. And just several steps away from the palace is Almudena Cathedral. And sandwiched in between the palace and cathedral is an amazing view of Madrid.
Mercado de San Miguel
When I returned to Marseille, my friends asked me how my trip to Madrid was, and on different occasions, people added, “It looked like you ate well!” And boy, did I! Mercado de San Miguel was truly one of my favorite memories from this trip. When friends had recommended we go to this food hall while in Madrid, I shrugged. Because I’ve been to so many food halls in Europe, and they’re all pretty much the same.
But Mercado de San Miguel truly wowed me. The food hall was tapas style, meaning the goal was to have small bites from stands — instead of grabbing a full meal or buying fresh-market produce, cheese, deli meat, etc. From spicy chorizo to sangria, Mercado de San Miguel had a wide range of boujee bites. And there were good gluten-free options, too, because they often use corn as a base.
I am still thinking about and drooling over my barbecue ribs empanada. My cheese sticks with a corn flour base from P.A.N. were also rich with flavor. I also made a stop at Mas Gourmets/Carrasco Ibéricos for some chorizo. All that to say, you must stop by Mercado de San Miguel, and come hungry.
Another classic spot in Madrid, Plaza Mayor is a beautiful square filled with restaurants and shops. This square’s history dates back to the 1400s, and the three of us enjoyed sitting on a bench and people watching to rest our weary legs.
Chocolateria San Ginés
Another classic Madrid activity is grabbing churros at Chocolateria San Ginés, which opened in 1894. But not just any churros but churros dipped in a thick chocolate sauce. Swoon. When I read about this spot before coming to Spain, I expected a super fancy dining experience, but it was very casual. Definitely a great spot to get a sweet snack.
Temple of Debod
What is an Egyptian temple doing in the middle of Spain? Glad you asked because I had the same question. The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian temple dating back to the 2nd century, and it was gifted to Madrid to save it from flooding in the 1900s. All the parts were shipped from Egypt to Madrid, and its opening was in 1972.
Before our trip, we asked several friends their recommendations on the best things to do in Madrid, and multiple said watching the sunset at the Temple of Debod. Many others had the same idea that night, and it was so pleasant listening to live music and watching Madrid’s beautiful skyline.
Our two or so days in Madrid were jam-packed, but we have a lot to show for our time in Spain. From truly the best food market I’ve visited to its expansive art scene, there’s plenty to add to your list of things to do in Madrid.
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