In Madrid you can truly say you’re at the center of it all. Not simply because Madrid is in fact the very center of Spain (que the eye roll from Leah…) but also because Madrid is full of culture, history and neighbors some of Spain’s must see day trip locations. Read on as we discover the top attractions and sites of Madrid as well as highlight several nearby towns you should consider adding to your itinerary. But before we get into the sights, let’s spend a minute to get our bearings and tell you what you need to know about visiting Madrid.
When to go
Madrid is Europe's sunniest capital city with over 300 days of sunshine. Like most major cities in Spain, Madrid is great anytime of the year but we’d recommend late spring or early fall. Avoiding the busy season of June thru September will cut the number of people knocking shoulders down a little and increase the odds of snagging a seat on the metro. With all that sun, Madrid can be hot and humid in the peak of Summer and while this won’t detract from it’s beauty, traveling on the shoulder season is more pleasant in our opinion.
Getting around Madrid
Madrid is a big city so getting around is best done via bus or metro. Buses operate from approximately 6 am to 11:30 pm on Mondays thru Fridays. Bus routes and their frequency are displayed at the stops.
The other option is to use Madrid’s expansive metro system, the seventh longest metro in the world. The Metro has 231 stations on 12 lines differentiated by color and name. Metro line directions are listed by the name of the last stop for each line in each direction. Once you know what line and stop you need, look for the final stop in that direction and grab that train. Consider buying a 10 pass ticket to save money and time. A map of the metro can be found here.
It’s sunny and hot in Madrid so come prepared with adequate sun protection. You’ll be logging several miles walking around the city so be sure to bring comfortable shoes. Be ready to eat at times you’re not accustomed to as lunch is often served around 2-3pm and dinner after 9pm. Finally, whenever possible, book in advance. Many popular sites will let you book your entry tickets far in advance allowing you to skip the long cues common in Madrid. With that said, let’s explore the must see sights of Madrid and 3 of our favorite day trips as well.
What to see in Madrid
Madrid is an enormous city with so much to see. As the main airport hub in Spain, odds are your trip with either start or end here. So let’s look at our favorite sites in the city. We’ll break it up by discussing the cities parks, palaces and museums.
Parks of Madrid: Even in a city as expansive and populated as Spain, there are still plenty of beautiful green spaces to escape the sun. All the way up to the 19th century, Retiro Park belonged to the Spanish Monarchy, however it is now one of Madrid’s largest public parks. The park is over 350 acres and is centrally located near the Prado museum. Wander the paths and find beautiful gardens, fountains, manmade lakes and children playing happily. There are few things we’d recommend you see while in the park. After entering the main gate, follow the path straight ahead to the Retiro Pond. Here you will surely find locals basking in the sun, a few people rowing small boats and lucky kids enjoying ice cream cones. Next to the pond is a large monument to King Alfonso XII, featuring a semicircular colonnade and a statue of the monarch riding a horse. When in season, the Rosaleda rose garden is not to be missed with its colorful flowers and sweet smelling roses. Finally, the Glass Palace, in the shape of a Greek cross, is made of an iron framework from Bilbao, Spain. It was built in 1887 to exhibit flora and fauna from the Philippines, then a Spanish colonial possession.
Once you’ve strolled the park and enjoyed some fresh ice cream at the pond, make your way to La Plaza Mayor. While admittedly not a park in the truest since, the Plaza Mayor is one of Madrid’s most popular gathering spaces. Built in the early 1600’s under the rule of King Philip III, this large plaza is over 400 feet long by 300 feet wide. All around, three stories of residential homes face inward complete with over 200 balconies. In the center you’ll find a statue of King Philip III on horseback. This plaza is a great space to grab lunch and do some people watching. Festivals are often held in the space which are an improvement from the ritual of public penance for condemned heretics that took place during the Spanish Inquisition.
A final gathering space to visit is the Puerto del Sol which features a plaque signifying the geographic center of spain and the point from which all main roads branch from. Also here you’ll see a famous clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes each New Year.
Palace of Madrid: The Palacio Real is a sight to see as its intricately decorated with the Royal families items and artifacts. It remains the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family but today it is only used for ceremonial events. Tours are available daily and tickets and more info can be found here.
The Palace itself sits on the site of a prior Alcazar, which burned down in 1734. King Felipe V ordered the construction of the current palace which stands on the same site. Its construction lasted from 1738 to 1755. The palace is immense at over 135,000 square feet. It contains over 3,400 rooms and is the largest royal palace in Europe. No expense was spared in its construction as is evident in the gold leaf work, numerous frescos and other fine artwork. Inside you’ll gorgeous paintings by famous artists including Caravaggio, de Goya and Velazquez. Every turn is home to priceless sculptures, furniture, tapestries and the world’s only complete Stradivarius string quintet.
Complete with audio guide, this tour is informative and, at times, breathtaking. After you’ve left the palace be sure to visit the Royal Armoury of Madrid. Here you will find the personal collection of arms from the Kings of Spain along with numerous weapons, armor for man and horse and several trophies and works of art. Directly across from the Palacio Real sits the Almudena Cathedral which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid.
Museums of Madrid: A visit to Madrid isn’t complete without a visit to a few of its outstanding museums. The Prado Museum is considered one of the finest art museums in the world and houses European art from the 12th to 20th centuries. With over 8,000 drawings, 7,500 paintings and 5,000 other pieces of art, one day would not be enough to see everything. Highlights include works by Francisco Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco (one of my favorites), Rubens, Velazquez and Titian. A few not-to-be-missed pieces include Las Meninas by Velazquez which captures the Spanish court in a moment of everyday life. Velazquez includes himself in the painting as he stands at the canvas in the reflection of a mirror. It has been recognized as one of the most reviewed and important paintings in the history of Western art. Other noteworthy pieces include Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi and El Greco’s The Fall of Man. Information and tickets can be purchased at the museums website found here.
Another important museum is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Picking up where the Prado left off, el Reina Sofia houses Spain’s 20th century artwork. Completed in 1992 and dedicated to Queen Sofia, the museum is home to the works of Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The most famous piece is Guernica by Picasso, considered by some to be his finest work. This large canvas was painted by Picasso in response to the bombing of Basque village of Guernica by German Nazis. Using only a palate of gray, black and white, the painting shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. Highlighting many works by Spanish artists, the Reina Sofia is special and worth your time. Information on the museum can be found here.
For a museum that fulfills your belly as opposed to your mind, be sure to visit the Museo del Jamon. A popular tourist attraction, the Museo del Jamon is home to hundreds of legs of cured ham hanging from the ceiling. Grab a plate of your favorite jamon or try a sample platter. This fun stop is a great way to grab a quick bite on the go.
Day Trips from Madrid:
While Madrid has so much more to offer, there are also several day trips from the capital worth a visit if your schedule allows. Our top three are El Escorial, Segovia and Toledo.
El Escorial: The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a former residence of King Philip II of Spain. King Philip, along with Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo who also worked on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, designed and built El Escorial to represent Spain’s role in the Christian world. The building itself is austere and massive. El Escorial has served many purposes since it was constructed including a monastery, basilica, royal palace, pantheon, library, museum, university, school and hospital.
There are several interesting aspects to the building. The basilica was designed in the shape of a latin cross. Its main naive is long with high arched ceilings. Juan Bautista carried forward his experience from working on St. Paul’s in Rome in the design and construction of the dome of the basilica which rises nearly 300 feet into the air. The high altar is decorated with gold, jasper and red granite and stands over 75 feet tall. Once you’re neck is sore for craning your eyes to the ceiling, make your way to the library which houses over 40,000 volumes including Philips personal documents. The stunning library is 150 feet in length with an awe-inspiring ceiling. The vault of the ceiling depicts the seven liberal arts in brilliant fresco. Finally, after leaving the library, make your way to the Pantheon of Kings which contains the burial site for most of the Spanish Kings of the last 5 centuries. El Escorial itself is about 30 miles west of Toledo and can easily be reached by commuter train. For tickets and information, click here to visit their website.
Segovia: For anyone interested in visiting one of Spain’s best preserved Roman aqueducts, one simply needs to travel an hour north of Madrid to the city of Segovia. A charming town, Segovia has so much to offer. For a short visit, make sure to see the following three sites.
From the moment you enter the city, the aqueduct of Segovia is impossible to miss. Running right the main square, this aqueduct dates back to the 1st century AD. It transported water from the Rio Frio 17 km to the city. Impressively the aqueduct was built without mortar and contains 36 semi-circular arches rising over 80 feet into the air. If possible, be sure to stay til sunset and watch the setting sun paint the aqueduct with brilliant colors.
As you stroll thru town, make your way to the Segovia Cathedral. Completed in 1577 and built in Basque-Castilian Gothic architecture, the cathedral sits on the edge of the Plaza Mayor. It has a ground plan with three naves, lateral chapels and a semicircular sanctuary with an ambulatory. From here, finish your trip by visit the Alcazar Palace. Built on a stone peninsula between the rivers Eresma and Clamores, the Alcazar dates back to the 12 century. It is structured around two courtyards and has two towers. It was a favourite residence of Alfonso X the Wise and Henry IV. At sunset, the Alcazar glows pink with the setting sun to the east. What a perfect way to end your time in Segovia.
Toledo: The town of Toledo was once the capital of Spain before this was moved to Madrid. Sitting high on a hilltop and surrounded by a river, Toledo is as picturesque of a town as you’ll find in Spain. Known as the “city of the three cultures”, because Christians, Arabs and Jews lived together there for centuries, Toledo is filled with wonderful sites such as churches, palaces, mosques and museums. Be prepared to hike your way around town as the old stone streets often don’t leave room for cars. Aside from the logistical reasons, Toledo is best seen by foot to stop in all the metalwork and jewelry shops throughout town.
The biggest draw for us to Toledo is its magnificent cathedral. Started in the year 1226, this cathedral wasn’t completed until 1493, over 260 years later. The cathedral of Toledo is one of our favorites for two of its unique attributes. The first is the Baroque altarpiece called El Transparente. The El Transparente altar combines stucco, bronze and marble and is not to be missed. Once, you’ve admired the altarpiece, turn around and look to the sky to admire the cathedrals beautiful skylight. Yes, this cathedral literally has its own skylight and it’s magnificent! Beautiful rays of sunshine cascade onto the altarpiece. Aside from illumination, the skylight also serves as a metaphoric doorway to heaven.
The other reason to visit not only the Cathedral of Toledo but also Toledo in general, is to see the magnificent artwork of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or as he’s commonly known, El Greco. Of Greek origin, El Greco spent most of his formative years painting masterpieces of Spanish Renaissance art in Toledo. One of his most famous works, the Disrobing of Christ was completed in 1579 and now sits on the high altar of the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo. Christ, dressed in a vivid red robe, looks to the heavens as he awaits his crucification. Men and soldiers around him are in uprest while three Marys set the foreground showing remorse and distress. It is worth a visit in itself. And for more from El Greco, head over to the small church of Santo Tomé to view his work The Burial of the Count Orgaz or simply head to the El Greco Museum for more on his life and work.
Be sure to also visit some of Toledo’s other great sites. The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca is a museum and former synagogue built in 1180. Uniquely, it was built by the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use representing the peace between these cultures during the middle ages. The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, built in the late 15th century, was founded by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile to commemorate both the birth of their son and their victory at the Battle of Toro. Toledo is also known for its master sword makers. Consider taking a tour of one of their factories and watch swords being made as they’ve been for centuries.
No matter how much time you spend in Madrid or its surrounding cities, there will be a never ending supply of awe-inspiring moments. The beauty of Spain can be found anywhere you look and the sites we’ve shared above are certainly no exception. Happy travels in this beautiful country.