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From the Royal Palace to the tapas bars: Madrid’s must-see sights and must-do activities


| 6 mins read

By Joseph Francis

The ceaseless beat and energy of Spain’s political and economic centre are just the thing you’d expect of a city elected to be the figurehead of all those insatiable Spanish passions and Iberian nuances. A booming metropolis of more than six million people, Madrid squeezes the romantic homes of the Huertas neighbourhood next to the impossibly elaborate Baroque palaces of the Palacio Real, the aromatic tapas joints and sleepless nightclubs of La Latina around the chic boutiques of the Gran Vía, the laid-back boating lakes of El Retiro next to the Romantic gardens and grasses of the Parque del Capricho – the list goes on. To help travellers heading to this truly global city of life-affirming Madrileños, here is a Madrid travel guide of must-see sights and must-do activities.

Explore the Royal Palace

No Madrid tour guide would pass up the chance to extoll the indubitable beauties of what is arguably the city’s most important architectural creation: the Royal Palace. Although now not in continuous use by Spain’s reigning monarchs, this sprawling structure that mixes everything from mysterious Moorish designs to Doric colonnades and elaborate Baroque decorations is still the site of state ceremonies, and comes complete with such wondrous pieces as the Plaza de la Armeria and the Campo del Moro Gardens (where Spain’s onetime North African invaders were said to have camped out). Inside, travellers can spy out royal apartments and a medley of Rococo and Renaissance art, the formidable arrays of the state armoury, and even the regal pharmacy.

Royal Palace Madrid

Check out Museum Triangle

This trio of world-class exhibition centres takes the biscuit for culture-vultures and art lovers in the city. Start by hitting the extensive rooms of the Museo del Prado, where the gorgeous classical exterior of fountains and carved cornices conceals works by Botticelli, El Greco, Goya, Dürer, Rubens, Brueghel and many, many more. Next up is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which continues the theme of fine art but with something of a modern twist afforded by the addition of Lichtenstein, Mondrian, Picasso and the French impressionists. Finally, it’s on to the Reina Sofía, where the fascinating mural Guernica by Picasso graces the walls in the company of works by other totemic Russian and European forward-thinkers.

Reina Sofía Museum

Taste calamari sandwiches and chocolate con churros around Plaza Mayor

Culture done and dusted, head for some gastronomic rejuvenation courtesy of Spain’s rich foodie past. Start by hitting the open-air bars and holes-in-the-wall around Plaza Mayor (the acclaimed seafood joints of La Ideal, Bar Postas and Magerit all come highly recommended), where the salty aromas of calamari sandwiches issue forth from the fryers. To dust of this typical treat of the capital, head to the legendary San Ginés chocolatier some streets away from the bustling square. This is where the famous chocolate con churros dish awaits; a fine finish to a real Madrileño lunch.

Calamari Sandwich

Watch some Flamenco

It’s true what the Madrid travel guides say: the capital is one of the top spots in the country to go searching for that impassioned and romantic display that is the traditional Flamenco dance. Restaurants featuring the art (known locally as tablao) pepper the various districts here, offering dinnertime shows or afternoon matinees. Some of the top tablaos in town can be found at Corral de la morería in La Latina, Corral de la pacheca near the Plaza Castilla Station, or the flamenco school of Casa Patas. Call ahead to make reservations.

Flamenco Dancers

Strut your stuff down the Gran Vía

A bustling drag of overwhelming light and sound, the Gran Vía is arguably the most action-packed street in all of Spain. Done out in Art Deco and elaborate fin de siècle styles, the buildings that line its lengthy edges play host to everything from high-fashion boutiques to throbbing night clubs, making it the perfect place for some serious retail therapy or a late night party. Don’t miss the angel-tipped dome of the Metropolis Building, oozing Beaux-Arts, or the Telefónica Building, which was one of the first skyscrapers constructed on the European continent as a whole.


Party the night away in the company of Madrileños

There are plenty of reasons why Madrid is hailed by so many as the most hedonistic city in the nation. They can be found oozing jazz and soul behind the facades of late medieval houses in the Barrio de las letras, or echoing in the Plaza de Santa Ana nearby with the all-night drinkers and oodles of al fresco terraces. Meanwhile, Chueca pulsates with LGBT-friendly clubs and bars, while Argüelles thumps with European electro and techno and is driven forward into the night by students fed on sangria. Then there’s La Latina, which sandwiches lively pubs between its countless tapas bars, and the swish super-clubs of the Gran Vía and Salamanca. And to top it all off, these all come with a healthy resident crowd of local Madrileños – a people famed for their fun-loving, carpe diem attitude.

Plaza de Santa Ana - Madrid

Hop between the parks

Just a glance at the map of central Madrid will reveal great swathes of greenery waiting to be explored. These come in all shapes and sizes but are topped off by the exquisite reaches of the El Buen Retiro Park, which was first established at the hands of the Spanish kings and queens. Here, visitors can wander between lanes of jacaranda and eucalyptus where the statues of heroes from the Age of Exploration peer down from above, lawns of pruned flower beds and the great monument to Alfonso XII. Other must-see parks include the Casa de Campo, the rose gardens of the Rosaleda del Parque del Oeste, and the Parque del Capricho on the northeast fringes of the centre, where overgrown villas and wilder areas make for something of a more rustic experience. The best way to see these is definitely by bike, so be sure to ask your Madrid tour guide about hiring one whilst in town.

Lake and Palacio de Cristal, Retiro Park, Madrid

Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.

Image Details and Licenses: (Jack Cousin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (Víctor Martín, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (InterContinental Hong Ko, CC BY-ND 2.0), (Nik, CC BY 2.0), (Daniel Lobo, CC BY 2.0), (Viviendo Madrid, CC BY 2.0), (fmpgoh, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (Jose Maria Cuellar CC BY NC 2.0)