¡Bienvenidos a Madrid, Svet!
My name is Francisco Goya. I am going to be your tour guide around the royal capital of Spain. A tiny pixie informed me that you have already marvelled at Barcelona’s resplendence. Gaudí had constructed a city that stupefies its visitors in every direction they look.
Now, I will ensure your jaws drop while you contemplate Madrid’s glorious splendour. Among other things, it is going to be a memorable jaunt around royal magnificence, an unforgettable trip around sheer grandeur, and an unparalleled journey through fine art.
On this tour of things to do in Madrid, I’ll play with your sanities and massage your beauty-yearning eyes while a popular attraction takes turns with a verdant park.
Pack your fact-craving shoes, and let’s dive in a world of coquettish charm and unadulterated magnetism.
The Royal Palace of Madrid – Mind-blowing Brilliance
Svet, we are standing in front of the grandiose Royal Palace of Madrid. Try capturing its astonishing exterior in a couple of shots, but let’s get our history-thirsty skates on as the heat is almost scorching in August. In that regard, if you cannot stand hot weather, visiting Madrid in winter is also a good idea.
Madrid’s Royal Palace, Svet, is the Spanish Royal Family’s official residence. Nonetheless, it serves only for state ceremonies. Peculiarly enough, the King and his noble entourage do not reside in the palace’s buildings. They have opted for living in Palacio de la Zarzuela – a more modest edifice, embraced by the outskirts of Madrid.
Grand Facts about the Royal Palace of Madrid
- The floor space of the palace amounts to 135,000 square metres (1,450,000 square feet).
- By floor area, it is Europe’s largest royal palace, containing 3,418 rooms.
The regal interior is prominent for its abundance of art and decoration in its thousands of rooms. This includes:
- Drop-dead gorgeous paintings by world-famous artists, such as Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Francisco de Goya (oops, that’s me).
- Magnificent frescoes by Anton Raphael Mengs, Corrado Giaquinto, Giovanni Battista, and Juan de Flandes.
- Other collections of noteworthy artistic and historical importance, including furniture, porcelain, silverware, watches, and the only complete Stradivarius string quintet in the world.
Parque del Buen Retiro – A Marvellous Hideaway from the City Buzz
¡Buenos días, Svet! A trip to Madrid is not complete without visiting some of its gorgeous parks. Today, we’ll explore one of the finest in the Spanish capital – El Retiro or Parque del Buen Retiro. It translates as “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”.
El Retiro is gently embraced by the present-day Spanish capital from all sides. Until the end of the 19th century, El Retiro belonged to the Spanish monarchy. After that, it became public, so people could marvel at its inimitable gorgeousness.
Encompassing 1.4 square kilometres (approx. 350 acres), the Buen Retiro Park is nestled at the city centre’s edge, in close proximity to Puerta de Alcalá and at a comforting walking distance from the Prado Museum where we will go next.
The truly magnificent park, holding dazzling monuments and sculptures, a tranquil lake (Retiro Pond), and verdant gardens, is definitely one of the things to visit in Madrid, dear Svet.
The long alleys and the fresh air provide for a marvellous place for recreation, and I know your love for sports and working out. Not only you can jog in Parque del Buen Retiro, Svet, but you can also do pull-ups that you love so much. And since I know you also love to party, here’s a list of the best party hostels in Madrid.
People regard El Retiro as Madrid’s green heart. Its numerous breath-taking fountains and gorgeous, artificial pond do remind you of the gardens of my friend Mirabella, don’t they?
Countless activities, such as book fairs, concerts, cultural events, and firework shows, happen throughout the year, which makes the park a wonderful retreat from the city stir.
If you are ready with your pull-ups, let’s head to something artsier, shall we?
Prado Museum – Where Gorgeous Paintings and Intricate Sculptures Flirt with Your Sense of Beauty
Dear Svet, we are now in front of the Prado Museum – the principal, national art museum of Spain. Not very far away from El Retiro and Madrid’s botanical garden, the second of which will be a subject of another of your visits, the museum is widely deemed to possess one of the finest collections of European art in the world.
The exhibits date from the 12th century to the 20th century and are on the basis of the former Spanish Royal Collection. Revered as among the world’s most visited museum sites, it encompasses masterpieces of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, and Peter Paul Rubens, to name the most eminent ones.
Art-curious Svet, the museum collection currently unites 8,200 drawings and 7,600 paintings, together with 4,800 prints and 1,000 sculptures, next to the huge number of invaluable historic documents and other enthralling artworks. Over 3 million visitors explore the permanent and temporary exhibitions with beauty-seeking eyes every year.
Although Goya (ah, what do you know, that’s me!) is the single most represented artist in the Prado Museum, the work on display that attracts the most visitors is Velázquez’s masterpiece – Las Meninas.
The fine selection of Italian masterpieces is also due to the sensibility and keen eye of Velázquez. Currently, it holds the first place outside of Italy.
Madrid’s Atocha Station – An Unexpected Tropical Paradise
Svet, behold Madrid’s largest train station. The roof, taking the form of an inverted hull, possesses an impressive height of 27 m (86 ft) and a striking length of 157 m (515 ft). The glass and steel roof spreads between two gorgeous brick buildings.
My dear friend, the station has a drop-dead fascinating façade, not to mention the vibrant tropical gardens that line Atocha’s gigantic concourse. The gardens were created in 1992 and the covered botanical garden, resembling Paris’s Orsay Museum, is a mind-boggling 4,000 m2 (43,056 ft2).
Spending time in the tropical paradise that the station is, makes for a truly relaxing way to sip sangria and salivate over tapas while waiting for your train departure. And since I know you are a lover of art, Svet, there is a permanent sculpture display inside.
Estación de Atocha, finding its location in the Arganzuela district, has been through fire and hell, literally. In the 19th century, the building was largely destroyed by a raging fire, but in 1892, with the help of Alberto de Palacio Elissagne and Gustave Eiffel, it was re-built and re-opened. The station’s name stems from the nearby basilica – Our Lady of Atocha.
A bus station and two metro stations – Atocha and Atocha Renfe – facilitate reaching the train station and hopping on a bullet train to the rest of Spain. Barcelona, for instance, stands at less than three hours.
Let’s not forget, Svet, that 11 March 2004 saw the Madrid train bombings, which befell in Atocha’s vicinity. Three months later, a minimalist and sombre memorial was dedicated to the victims of the devastating attacks. The monument comprises 192 cypress and olive trees, one for every person who perished. A stream, with water symbolising life, surrounds the forest.
The Best Way to Ponder at Madrid’s Skyline – from the Rooftops
I find contemplating at a city from above to be among the best ways to feel its charm, besides meandering the small streets, of course.
What about you, Svet? Don’t answer! I know you are going to love what I am about to show you. If you are going sightseeing in Madrid, exploring its rooftops should be on your must-see-and-do list. And here’s an expanded list of non-touristy things to do in Madrid if you have more time.
Alright, let’s head to El Corte Inglés. This is a grand chain of shopping malls in Spain. Since there are many in Madrid, we are specifically going to the one, just off Gran Vía – Madrid’s main boulevard.
While we are in the elevator, let me shoot you several peculiar facts about Madrid, Svet:
- It is the second highest capital in Europe – after Andorra la Vella.
- It is the third biggest agglomeration in the European Union – after London (14,5 million) and Paris (11,3 million) comes Madrid with 6,25 million. Some locals say its population might have increased to more than 7 million.
- An astonishing number of students call Madrid their home. Not surprisingly, this is owing to the fact that the city is one of the unmatched hot-spots of university education on the European continent.
I am cognizant of your huge geography and quiz knowledge, Svet, so I am sure you will appreciate these facts. Now that know you so much about Madrid, why don’t you test your knowledge with this Spain ultimate quiz?
Ah, we have reached the rooftop. From here, we can marvel at Madrid’s baffling skyline. Interestingly enough, there aren’t many high-risers. Rather, the skyline of this voluptuous city is dotted with amazing pieces of architecture that seep into the insatiable eyes of keen tourists.
From this height, you can spot the resplendent Royal Palace, the Gran Vía, as well as many other of the things to visit in Madrid.
Now, let’s get you to three of Madrid’s most famous squares.
Plaza de España – a Scintillating Square Against the Backdrop of Skyscrapers
Wasn’t that a gorgeous peek at Madrid’s skyline, Svet? Brace yourself, we are going to marvel at some of the city’s most eminent skyscrapers.
Standing at Gran Vía’s western end, we have reached Plaza de España – a gigantic square that is gracefully embraced by imposing high-risers. In its very middle stands erect the monument of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, probably Spain’s greatest novelist, poet, and writer.
If you saunter south of the plaza, you will reach the Royal Palace within a short walking distance. Adjacent to the square are the Torre de Madrid (“Madrid Tower”), measuring 142 m (466 ft), and Edificio España (“Spain Building”) whose height is 117 m (384 ft).
Svet, get on the stairs and give me your best jump, and I will take a flying photo of you. Ready? JUMP!
Parque del Oeste – a Verdant Park with Egyptian Charm
Within a tiny walking distance of the Royal Palace lies the city’s Western Park (English for “Parque del Oeste”).
You will have to ascend several flights of stairs to reach the park. Before the park’s inception, which occurred in the 20th century, the land for the park was the city’s main landfill.
Parque del Oeste offers one of the best views of the Spanish capital. Besides the tempting verdure everywhere, perhaps the park’s most famous landmark is an ancient Egyptian temple complex – the Temple of Debod.
The State of Egypt donated the temple to Spain as a sign of gratefulness for the Spanish help in saving the two temples of Abu Simbel.
According to my friend Anna Howarth who lives in Madrid and is a passionate travel vlogger – the temple complex offers the best vantage point for contemplating sunsets. Take a look.
The complex constitutes one of the very few examples of ancient Egyptian architecture outside of Egypt and the single one of its type in Spain.
Plaza Mayor – a Humongous Square of Royal Significance
Plaza Mayor is an enormous, rectangular piazza just a couple of Spanish blocks away from the city centre. Magnificent three-story residential buildings graciously hug the square from all sides with 237 balconies that face the Plaza.
Svet, in the 16th century, the old Plaza del Arrabal was a chaotic area, which needed intensive remodelling and restructuring. The then King Philip II asked the eminent classical architect Juan de Herrera to remodel the old square.
Nonetheless, the current outlook of Plaza Mayor is due to the work of the adept architect Juan de Villanueva. This happened during the reign of Philip III. Villanueva had the glorious yet daunting task to reconstruct the square after a series of devastating fires. This commenced in 1790.
Throughout the Spanish Inquisition, the piazza saw the abhorrent autos-da-fé against alleged heretics and their executions there.
Nowadays, Plaza Mayor attracts myriads of tourists. In its middle stands proudly the statue of King Philip III.
Mercado de San Miguel – Satiate Your Hunger with a Taste of Delectable Spanish Delicacies
In Plaza Mayor’s vicinity is the San Miguel Market (English for “Mercado de San Miguel”) where one can gratify his hungry palate with irresistible Spanish bites.
It is the city’s most eminent market and rather than a traditional grocery market, El Mercado de San Miguel is a gourmet tapas market. Among the 30+ stands, you will find:
- fresh tapas,
- cured hams,
- alluring olives,
- scrumptious baked goods,
as well as:
- cold beer,
- fragrant wine, and
- tempting champagne offers.
This makes the market a great place for a breakfast or brunch in Madrid.
I started salivating, Svet, and, as I can see, so did you.
Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s Pulsating Heart
Svet, we’re marching the public square of Puerta del Sol (translated as “Gate of the Sun”). This is among the busiest, most central, and most famous places in the vivacious Spanish capital.
Puerta del Sol originates as one of the city gates, which surrounded Madrid back in the 15th century. The gate’s name stems from the rising sun because the gate faced east.
Multitudes of prominent buildings superintend the square. At its east side, lies one of Madrid’s heraldic symbols – The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (“El Oso y el Madroño” in Spanish). Under the square is one of the city’s largest metro stations – El Sol – where three lines intertwine.
Let’s now head north to another one of Madrid’s eclectic landmarks. The walk is only around 15 minutes.
Plaza Cibeles – Where a Roman Goddess Flirts with Lions while Eagerly Sipping Water
Svet, we are metres away from Plaza de Cibeles. Sitting at the intersection of several main boulevards, it is a plaza where neo-classical, marble sculptures chat with a stunning fountain.
Incepted in 1782, the Cibeles Fountain depicts the Roman Goddess bearing the same name (Cybele in English). A symbol of the Earth, fertility, and agriculture, Cybele is on top of a chariot, which is drawn by lions.
Among the most emblematic squares of the Spanish capital, it is surrounded by gigantic edifices of the Linares Palace (Casa de América), the Bank of Spain, the Buenavista Palace (the general headquarters of the army), and the Cybele Palace (the current City Hall).
Peculiar fact alert: When the world-famous football club Real Madrid celebrates a win, its fans usually parade around the fountain as they regard the goddess as an icon.
Purple marble from Montesclaros (Toledo) was used to sculpt Cibeles and her awe-inspiring lions. Francisco Gutiérrez was the genius who cunningly sculpted the figure of the goddess, while the two lions were the splendid creation of the French sculptor Roberto Michel.
Day Trips from Madrid
A day trip from Madrid is always a good idea if you’re having more than 3 days in the Spanish capital. Below, you’ll find several ideas:
- Day Trip from Madrid to Toledo. The gorgeous Toledo is a UNESCO heritage site, known as the City of Three Cultures because of the historical co-existence of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures. The short trip takes an hour by car or 30 minutes if you hop on the high-speed train.
- Day Trip from Madrid to Salamanca. Salamanca is another UNESCO-listed city that’s 2.5 hours by car or 90 minutes by train from Madrid. The city packs a fantastic university life and has one of the most gorgeous cathedrals in Spain.
- Day Trip from Madrid to Segovia. A Roman aqueduct, a 16th century Gothic cathedral, and a peculiar Jewish quarter await you in this UNESCO city. The 100km (62 mi) distance takes an hour by car and 30 minutes by train.
- Day Trip from Madrid to Aranjuez. If you’re feeling in a royal mood, Aranjuez’s Royal Palace and its drop-dead beautiful gardens are your game. Take a look at the old town if you’re a Baroque architecture aficionado. The trip to the the town takes around 40 minutes.
- Day Trip from Madrid to Ávila. If you’d like to explore Spain’s delectable meat scene, Ávila is certainly one of your best choices. Most Spaniards consider the Avileña-Negra Ibérica beef breed to be Spain’s best. The 115 km (71 mi) distance takes around 80 minutes by car.
Madrid – Spain’s Energetically Pulsating Heart
Svet, these were among the most prominent things to see and visit in Madrid. The Spanish capital is a vibrant, vivacious, and voluptuous combination of inimitable royal splendour and self-effacing fine art.
It is a city of long steep streets, large lush parks, and gigantic royal squares. Nestled in Spain’s very heart, it pulsates with vivid colours, effervescent rhythms, and incomparable cadences.
And if you grow weary of promenading its grand boulevards, stop and marvel. That’s how you suck in every inch of its beauty – slowly yet surely.
PS: Francisco Goya is quite busy, but you can march the streets of Madrid by going on a self-guided tour via this link.