The city of Madrid is full of things to see and discover that even lifelong Madrilènos never experience it all. After months living in Madrid and several pairs of sneakers, I got to know most of the cities top attractions pretty well. The following are Madrid’s top tourist attractions that no visitor should miss.
Once the center of the city Plaza Mayor is now one of the largest focal points of Old Madrid, the other being Puerta del Sol. Built in the 17th century, the Plaza is the largest in Madrid and famous for the colorful facade that covers the Casa de la Panaderia. The adopted Goddess of Madrid, Cybele, is illustrated in several paintings that were at one point very controversial.
Many of the streets around Plaza Mayor are closed off for pedestrians so the closest you can get using public transportation is Puerta del Sol. Both the Metro and the buses have large hubs here, the Metro Sol station has transfers possible between three lines. The Plaza, because of its location, is a good beginning or ending point for a stroll through Old Madrid. If you enjoy people watching, this is the spot to do it in. Pick a restaurant, order un cafe and sit back and relax. The best hot chocolate and churros can be found in the restaurants surrounding the Plaza. If you happen to be around on a Sunday morning coin and stamp vendors set up stalls around the edge of the Plaza for collectors to peruse.
Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas
Whether you decide to see a bullfight or not Ventas is definitely worth the metro ride outside of the city center to see. One of the biggest and impressive bullrings in Spain, Las Ventas is attractively decorated with tilework and horseshoe arches all the way around. Walking around the bullring during the bullfighting season with shouts of Ole! in the background is an experience that cannot be duplicated. If you want to attend a bullfight, the season runs from March through October and you can buy a ticket right at the ring until minutes before it begins. If you just want to see the ring anytime is good to go. I recommend catching a view right before the corrida de toros ends and the plaza outside is becomes flooded. The best plan would be to go see the bullring and then head to one of the small bars that line the surrounding area right before the bullfight ends for tapas.
If you like to avoid massive crowds though and find yourself near the bullring right after fight you can head down Calle de Alcala to Plaza Manuel Bercerra. This Plaza has plenty of nice restaurants and bars and is mostly frequented by locals. The surrounding park makes it a nice spot to relax as well. From here you can hop back onto the metro and head to the city centre.
Parque del Retiro
Back in the fashionable area of Madrid you will find the city’s most frequented park and gardens. There are several ways to reach the park, if you are visiting the museums the park is just two short blocks away. From this point you can quickly reach the boating lake and the Artichoke Fountain, where street performers like to congregate. Make sure you leave time to explore the rest of the sights in Retiro including the Rose Gardens, the Crystal Palace and the statue El Angel Caido— or the Fallen Angel. If you want somewhere to just sit down and rest the Chinese Gardens are the most private and quite part of the park. There are also a couple cafes set up near the boating lake where you can sit and people watch for hours.
Museo del Prado
The Museo del Prado holds the nations and world’s largest collection of Spanish art, especially works done by Goya and Velazquez. In addition to the Spanish collection the Prado has an impressive foreign collection from every school of art. If you really want to see the best of Spanish artists though this is the museum to visit. Make sure you have an entire or large chunk of the day to spend roaming around the endless galleries. Even if you decide just to visit those galleries containing the work of Goya and Velazquez, the most popular, you will need plenty of time. If a tour is beginning I highly recommend joining one since they will take you to the most important pieces in the collection. Otherwise small guidebooks are available for purchase in the different galleries that focus on the pieces in that specific gallery. Costing only a few euros they are a great investment because they include historical, artistic and biographical information on each of the most important pieces.
Museo Arqueologico Nacional
Just north of Retiro park is the elegant Castellana district filled with boutiques, granite faced buildings and trendy cafes. Among all this is the excellent National Archeological Museum of Madrid, filled with stunning displays that chronical Spain’s history from the Romans to the Middle Ages. The museum is housed in an impressive palace with a neighboring Plaza to commemorate Chrisopher Columbus. The most impressive part of the museum is the replica of the Altamira caves in Cambria. Don’t miss the panels of Roman mosaics that have been transferred here or the Mudejar ceilings. What makes the museum so memorable is that the artifacts are used as part of the structure of the building. Instead of walking through a doorway you will walk under 11th century Moorish archways, entire rooms are done up with Romanesque furnishings and ceilings fitted with Mudejar carvings.
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants close by the museum. If you are on a tight budget this is not the most ideal place to eat since the cafes cater mainly to the businessmen of the city. Tapas are more ideal since the price range for tapas bars are comparable throughout Madrid.
Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Yes, another art museum. Reina Sofia is a necessary visit though for Picasso and modern art enthusiasts. The most striking feature on the outside of the renovated hospital are the glass elevators that protrude out the side of the building carrying crowds from floor to floor. Like the Prado, Reina Sofia boasts a huge collection. But she has a single piece that everyone goes there for, Picasso’s Guernica. Guernica commands an entire room due to her size and the crowds, but to get to the gallery you must go thru a long string of galleries and exhibits that have been strategically placed. Make sure you take the time to view other works by Picasso filling the walls as well as pieces by Dali, Miro, and Gris.
The Palacio Real
Next to Madrid’s Rio Manzanares is the Royal Palace, a huge and lavish monument meant to impress upon you the importance of the once far reaching Empire. Every room, or at least those the public is allowed to view, is filled with impressive furnishings, tapestries and paintings that it is impossible to take it all in. The most popular spot in the Palace is the Entrance Hall with the fairytale marble staircases and painted ceilings. When you enter the dining room, you will certainly question the use of the word “room” and undoubtedly be blinded by the light shining off all the gold. If you are visiting on a Wednesday you will be able to see the changing of the Guard on the Plaza de Armas. Several times throughout the year there are also military bands playing in the Plaza which are popular with both the locals and tourists.
By setting priorities of what you want to see in Madrid you really can see alot during your visit, especially all of the top tourist attractions. Be sure to take advantage of the late evenings that the museums have on particular days and you can browse the galleries in the evenings. In addition pick up a copy of Metro which lists daily events and concerts in the city. Whichever activities and attractions you do decide on will be worth your time.