According to Forbes, Spain’s capital is its most touristic city, and the seventh most touristic city in the world, getting more than 50 million visitors a year. Madrid is the third largest city in the EU (after London and Berlin), so it’s really not surprising that it has a lot to offer. In fact, there’s too much to cover in just one blog post, so we’ll just focus on the epicenter. A lot of attractions are fortunately packed into a conveniently walkable downtown area, and you can pick and choose what sounds most interesting and still have a very full day or two of intensive sightseeing. If you have more time, relax and check out other neighborhoods as well. Madrid’s modern and efficient metro system makes it even easier to get around, meaning that you can stay in a more inexpensive and hip neighborhood and still make it to the city center to catch the big sights without having to pay for expensive cabs.
Start at El Parque del Buen Retiro, the Spanish equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. Long jogging and biking paths, ponds, fountains, rose gardens, statues, and elegant buildings sit among well-tended grounds. Spaniards come here for morning runs with their dogs, afternoon breaks with their coworkers, and romantic evening strolls with their spouses and lovers. Not far from the park is what is often called the Golden Triangle of three fantastic art museums—Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. These collectively hold a massive quantity of European artwork, with particular emphasis on Spanish masters like Goya, Picasso, and Dalí. Don’t attempt them all in the same day, no one has attempted and survived. Just north of the Thyssen is El Palacio de Cibeles, a beautiful building that means you’ve almost made it to the famous Gran Via. La Via is a huge avenue flanked on both sides by impressive architecture in a myriad of styles, and walking along it is one of Madrid’s great pleasures. Follow it west, trying to not buy too much fashionable clothing, and you’ll pass the elegant Monasterio Descalzas Reales, and then find yourself nearing the modern-ish senate building. Just beyond and to the south of that is El Palacio Real, the official (though generally unused) home of the royal family. This massive, decadent building is the second largest palace in Europe, though most of it is off limits to tourists. Even its gardens are impressive, though. To its south is La Catedral de Almudena, which took about 115 years to complete and perhaps as a result has an odd mixture of architectural and design styles that reflect very different periods. Finally, double back to the east to end your day in Plaza Mayor, the rectangular square that at one point formed the heart of the city. Plaza Mayor is known for its street performers, overpriced but good restaurants, and pleasingly symmetrical architecture. This is one of the great centers of Europe, and taking it all in is a requisite experience for any first visit to Spain.
Tired yet? An itinerary as intense as this one deserves a hearty Spanish meal and the adult beverage of your preference at its conclusion. Our top recommendations are, of course, paella and sangria. You can’t get any more stereotypically Spanish than these selections, but you’ll instantly understand why they’re so famous once you try them yourself in an elegant Spanish restaurant or bar. After a day as long as this, you’ve earned it.