How long should I stay in Madrid?
Well, you could spend a long weekend in Madrid or several weeks, and there’s still so much yet to be seen. But take at least an extended weekend of around 3-4 days to get a feeling not only for Madrid’s highlights but also to explore some hidden gems in Madrid.
Alternatively, you could consider extending your stay in this beautiful country and see more of Spain. Especially if you take a flight, it’s more sustainable to stay longer.
How to get around?
This question is quickly solved: on foot. Even though Madrid is a megacity, the center can be easily explored on foot, as you can walk to most places.
Also, you can rent a bike at one of the many bike stations in the city.
If you prefer taking a rest every now and then, take the Metro or bus. Madrid has a great and affordable transport system. There’s also a metro from the airport right into the center for 5 Euros.
Spanish rhythm – how to plan your day
I remember visits from my family or friends when I used to live in Madrid. By 8 in the morning, they were ready to go out and about, getting some breakfast and then exploring the city. But here’s what you need to know: Madrid has its own rhythm. At 8 a.m., the city is still asleep, you barely see any people on the streets or any cafés open.
Everything starts later over here. People go to work later, and so they also have dinner later. So if you’re hungry and ready for dinner by 7 p.m. be aware that most restaurants don’t open before 8 p.m.
But don’t get irritated by that. You’re on holiday, so just go with the flow and get used to a different rhythm. And if you’re hungry waiting for dinner, just grab a snack.
The classics – Madrid highlights you can’t miss
With my experience of living in Madrid and having friends over there, I want to focus on giving you some juicy insights, authentic insider tips and show you a few hidden gems in Madrid.
Still, there are some spots that are worth checking out. Even though they’re on any typical “highlights in Madrid” list, they are just too beautiful to skip:
Puerta del Sol – The “gate to the sun” is literally THE center of Madrid from which several streets depart – just like sun rays. This makes it also a great start for exploring Madrid’s highlights. On the pavement, you can also find the “kilometro cero” marking the official center of Spain. On the busy Plaza, Madrid’s symbol can’t be missed: Among the tourist masses the famous bear statue nibbles on a strawberry tree “El Orso y el Madrono”.
Gran Vía – Walk up one of the many streets from Sol and you automatically get to Gran Vía – often called “The Spanish Broadway” or Madrid’s sister version of Champs Elysees. This major street is home to many theatres, and some of the best spots for shopping, and it’s beautifully lightened at night.
Plaza Mayor – One of the oldest squares in the city where you can soak up the vibes of historical old Madrid. Always crowded with tourists and waiters trying to woo guests into their restaurants. It’s nice to have a look but I highly recommend eating elsewhere to enjoy authentic food which is not as overpriced.
– When in Madrid, you can’t miss taking a look at one of the largest palaces in Europe. The official residence of the Spanish royal family blazes pompously between the center and the huge park Casa de Campo. You can enter the palace for just a few Euros (buy skip-the-line tickets
online in advance to avoid the long waiting line, or even skip-the-line tickets for a guided tour
) or even for free from 4 – 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday afternoons.
Plaza de Cibeles – If you’re into soccer you may have seen this Plaza when Real Madrid was celebrating one of their championships over there. Next to the huge fountain is the Palacio de Cibeles – an impressive building with a white facade that used to be Madrid’s main post office.
Puerta del Alcala – Located on a huge traffic circle, this iconic arch is even older than its famous sister in Paris. Just learned another fun fact, huh?
Atocha Station – Spain’s oldest station has been transformed into a tropical garden and is definitely worth checking out among the highlights in Madrid.
Museo del Prado & Reina Sofia –
Among many things, Madrid is also famous for its iconic art museums. Home to thousands of masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the Prado is one of the most popular art museums in the world and can easily keep up with the Louvre in Paris. Again: Don’t forget to buy a skip-the-line ticket
in advance or a tour with a skip-the-line ticket
! For marveling at some Picassos, Dalís, and other pieces of modern art, Reina Sofia is the place to go (straight to the skip-the-line ticket for Reina Sofia
Gran Vía | Palacio Real | Plaza de Cibeles
Insider tips and hidden gems in Madrid
Now that we’ve ticked off the typical list of highlights in Madrid, get ready for the juicy insider tips and hidden gems in Madrid. Here are some of the local recommendations on what to see and do that a Madrileño would give you.
How deep you dive into the culture, explore some hidden gems, and soak up some true Madrilenian flair all depend on how much time you have and what your focus is. One thing is clear: Great food and Spanish culture are always around the corner in Madrid.
Get lost in the maze of Malasaña (and Chueca) among all the bars and cafés
In Malasaña you realize why some people call Madrid the city that never sleeps. It’s a very hip neighborhood sprinkled with trendy cafés, authentic restaurants, and unique little shops. First and foremost, it’s the best area to get a drink – no matter what time of the day or night. Also, you can stumble upon cool street art on many corners.
The area around Plaza de San Idelfonso is a great place to head to. And then it’s time to get lost.
So why not check out Malasaña and Chueca for dinner and a few drinks after that? Do it like the locals.
Alleys in Malasaña & Chueca
Visit one of the many markets
Aww, I love the markets in Madrid, especially to try some local foods. They are a great place to try many different dishes (and drinks!) and enjoy the local culture. One of the major Madrid highlights for any foodie like me!
Here are some markets worth checking out:
Mercado de San Ildefonso
If you’re already checking out Malasaña, why not drop in on Mercado de San Ildefonso? With several foods and drinks stalls, you have a great choice for reasonable prices here. The atmosphere is also very cool and if you catch a good place, you can even peek down on the busy Calle de Fuencarral to watch all the crazy shoppers from the upper floor.
Mercado de San Antón
Here you can find many local specialties with a food court or street food vibe right in Chueca. Spread over two floors, the indoor market is popular among locals as well as visitors. While you can also buy produce, many locals love to come here to eat with friends. Check out the rooftop!
Fun fact: Mercado de San Antón has a sustainable concept with the central skylight acting as a large photovoltaic energy collector. Also, they have a waste collection system reducing the amount of organic waste, and the floor is made from recycled basalt.
Mercado de la Paz
If you happen to be around the area of Salamanca, visit one of Madrid’s oldest markets – Mercado de la Paz. It’s a great place for a great selection of high-quality foods. And it’s probably the market with the most local feeling. So definitely worth checking out!
Mercado de San Miguel
Close to Plaza Mayor, Mercado de San Miguel is usually quite busy and therefore not really a hidden gem in Madrid. But it’s also one of the city’s oldest markets with a huge choice. From all kinds of cheese, olives, wine, Tortilla, and of course Jamón (the Spanish ham – which I find not very appealing hanging on the walls). I’d recommend this market rather to walk through instead of eating here, as you can find more authentic food places in Madrid (we’ll get to that in a bit). But it’s always nice for a stroll.
Mercado de San Fernando
In the colorful neighborhood of Lavapiés, this old market hall has been recently renovated and transformed into a modern, inviting market space. There’s much more than just food, such as book stalls or clothing shops.
Try aaaaall the food
Speaking of food… By strolling through the markets you probably already got a taste for Spanish food. Does your mouth water already? Well, we’re going to dive even deeper. There’s so much stuff you need to try!
But be aware that the Spanish like to eat late, really late. Most restaurants don’t open before 8 p.m.
Tapas have to take the leading role when it comes to food in Madrid. Eating tapas is more than food intake. It’s part of the Spanish lifestyle – meeting friends, and sharing small portions while sipping a glass of cold beer or wine. Instead of focusing on a huge meal in front of you, this way of eating and sharing small servings automatically stimulates conversations and a shared experience.
Typical tapas are heavy on meat, but you can find so many yummy vegetarian options as well:
Patatas Bravas (fried potatoes with a yummy tomato sauce)
Croquetas (yes, there are also versions without ham, such as mushroom filling or spinach!)
Tortilla (the Spanish omelet with potatoes), sometimes you also get a Bocadillo (sandwich) with Tortilla
Pimientos (fried green peppers with sea salt)
There is an insanely huge choice of Tapas bars in Madrid. Just pick a place where a lot of locals hang around. I never had a bad experience at a Tapas bar, no matter if it was a really chic one or a down-to-earth place.
Circo de las Tapas
is a great place, also for drinks, and of course the Mercados mentioned above. There are also several nice Tapas bars in Calle de la Cruz, such as Fatigas del querer
, in Calle Cava Baja in the Lavapiés neighborhood or in Calle Ponzano in the Chamberí neighborhood. The latter one is where you find many hidden gems in Madrid’s tapas bar scene.
Around Calle Pez and Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo there are many great restaurants as well.
If you want to dive deep into the Spanish Tapas culture, check out this amazing Wine & Tapas Tour!
Here you stroll through the best Tapas bars in Madrid with a local.
For the budget version
(which we used to love as students) head to El Tigre
where you only order one drink and get a large portion of filling tapas, especially when you’re in a group. It’s far from a pretty bar, but it’s definitely an experience!
In general, don’t get irritated when the floor of a tapas bar is full of napkins or prawn shells. That used to be a sign that the food is good.
What would be Spain without Paella? I honestly can’t imagine.
But here’s the Madrid insider tip: What many people don’t know is that locals don’t eat Paella for dinner. It’s traditionally prepared to be ready around noon. So, in order to get it fresh, you have to order it for lunch.
One of the most authentic places I love is Taberna La Fragua de Vulcano
. I used to bring all my guests here for a traditional Paella lunch. I don’t eat meat anymore though, and it’s always mixed Paella (with chicken and seafood).
is supposed to have great vegetarian Paella.
Churros and more typical sweet treats
Ok, I have to make one thing clear: You cannot leave Madrid without having some Churros at Chocolatería San Ginés. San Ginés is an institution! Since 1894 the café has been open. And that means it’s been open 24 hours every single day. It still does, so the story continues. Every day, all day, they offer the typical Spanish weekend breakfast: Churros con chocolate.
I also love the Porras there – the thicker version of Churros. As opposed to Churros, Porras are lesser-known, but supper yummy – so definitely a hidden gem in Madrid! And honestly, the chocolate at San Ginés is simply out of this world.
Just as old as San Ginés is the traditional bakery La Mallorqina
. Located right at Puerta del Sol, this is one of the oldest bakeries in Madrid. The typical treat to try is an Ensaimada. So yummy, and just as good as the original ones you get in Menorca
Have breakfast the Spanish way
Yep, you’ve read correctly. Traditionally, Churros are a heavy but typical breakfast snack in Spain.
For those with a less sweet tooth, the other typical breakfast option is a slice of bread with tomato sauce and olive oil or simply bread with butter. The best option is to head to a little bar around the corner and order some typical Spanish breakfast. That’s also how the locals do it. A simple cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a piece of bread or a small sweet treat, and Spaniards are ready for the day.
To give you an idea of what you can order for a typical breakfast:
Tosta con tomate (toast with olive oil and tomato spread)
Tosta con mantequilla (toast with butter)
Pincho di Tortilla (Spanish omelette with potatoes)
Cafe con leche (coffee with milk)
Zumo de naranja (orange juice)
Churros con chocolate (for a sweet breakfast)
Have a drink on one of Madrid’s many rooftops
Awww, how I love thinking back to all these beautiful evenings over the roofs of this bustling city. All the fizzy drinks, amazing views, and good times in rooftop bars. There are so many rooftop bars that some can actually be called hidden gems in Madrid. They are definitely one of the Madrid highlights you can’t miss. And you won’t regret it, believe me.
Visit at least one to have a Tinto (red wine), Gin Tonic, Sangría, Tinto de Verano (a fizzy sweet drink with red wine), a Caña (a small beer), or a Clara (a mixture of a beer and lemon, similar to the German Radler).
Here is a nice choice of more popular and lesser-known rooftop bars in Madrid:
Azotea Forus Barceló (on top of Mercado Barcelo)
An urban garden with reasonably priced drinks, vegan and healthy food options. It’s so beautiful, you want to spend hours up here, believe me! All the lush plants create a cozy oasis on top of the roofs of Madrid. Don’t miss this hidden gem in Madrid! It’s certainly a place many tourists don’t know about.
Close to Plaza España, on the corner of Gran Via, this super nice restaurant and lounge is an awesome place for sunset. With its urban garden and a 360° view, it’s one of my favorite places in Madrid. It opens from 8pm until midnight, but the restaurant is quite pricey. So head there for a drink and enjoy the atmosphere!
Azotea del Círculo (Círculo de Bellas Artes)
I’d say this is one of the most spectacular views in the city, but it’s also a popular highlight in Madrid. So you won’t have the terrace and the view of Gran Vía for yourself. The building itself is an important piece of Madrileño culture, where lots of concerts, events, and exhibitions take place. Meanwhile, it’s 5 Euros to get up, but you’ll be blown away by the view from the bar on top.
Located on top of the cute hostel called The Hat
there’s a nice terrace with affordable but yummy drinks and food. One of my favorite hidden gems in Madrid! A massive plus for sustainable travelers: The hotel runs on biomass energy, isn’t that awesome? It’s a perfect place to relax after a day of exploring the city.
What a botanical oasis! From noon until midnight you can enjoy this lush outdoor terrace on the 10th floor. It’s more of a hidden gem in Madrid, but it’s stunningly beautiful! Come for a cocktail or even a fancy dinner.
This beautiful rooftop garden has been open already since 1995. It’s not as high as some other rooftop highlights in Madrid but still offers awesome views across a very historic part of Madrid. With its great laid-back atmosphere, it’s a perfect break at any time of the day.