Best Things to Do and Incredible Day Trips
Oh, Madrid…the capital imbued with elegance, passion, and mouthwatering cuisine. You won’t find overwhelming crowds of galloping sightseers because Madrid is usually overlooked for the glistening coastal Barcelona. But it’s worth spending a few days discovering what Madrid has to offer. (Check out our guide for day trips here.)
There are only so many must-see attractions compiled about the capital for tourists to tick off. And that means you are unrestricted by expectations and free to find your own hidden gems around the city. So create your own unique experience infused with salty ham, pristine seafood, and smoky hot chocolates as you tapas bar hop, marvel at the art, and linger outdoors. Here are the things we enjoyed doing in Madrid the most, including great eats and day trips.
Things to Do in Madrid
People Watch at Madrid’s Main Squares
The squares Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol are the heart of Madrid. Cafes, bars, and shops encircle the giant esplanade of Plaza Mayor. We don’t recommend eating here but sit down for a beverage of choice, grab some takeaway, and enjoy the locals and tourists waltzing around the square. Afterward, head to the busiest public square and Madrid’s main hang-out spot, Puerta del Sol. The plaza is adorned with a statue of Madrid’s coat of arms: a bear and a strawberry tree. Stroll around and then repeat the leisurely process of grabbing a drink and churros and people-watch. Yes, while in Spain, there is no such thing as too many churros!
Wander Around El Retiro Park
In general, your trip to Spain is going to be heavily food-focused. But Madrid is a perfectly walkable city and one with many parks, so you don’t ever have to feel guilty for eating churros three times a day.
El Retiro is the largest park, with manicured jogging paths offering stunning views over the lake. Go for a long stroll or a run, or enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site while rowing boats on the lake. Aside from being a peaceful escape, the park is full of beautiful architecture to marvel at, including the Palacio de Cristal, a breathtaking crystal palace.
The Golden Triangle of Art
Museo Nacional del Prado
Museo Reina Sofia
Museo Nacional del Prado, Thyssen-Bronemisza Museum, and the Museo Reina Sofia rub shoulders to form the triangle of art, the holy grail for art lovers. While the Prado is more traditional, Museo Reina Sofia offers its visitors a contemporary scene. Instead of framed pieces, you are surprised with video installations and displays of modern expression. If art is your calling, you can easily spend an entire day wandering the halls. But come early because crowds of fellow admirers quickly grow as the day progresses.
Visit Atocha Train Station
Yes, this is not your typical tourist attraction. But this impressive botanical garden featuring more than 5,000 plants right in the middle of the sunlit atrium is a sight to behold. The various shops and dining venues circling the station make it worth your while even if you are not leaving the city. And if you plan on taking the train to either of the following day trip suggestions, arrive early so you can enjoy the atmosphere, explore and take stunning photos.
Day Trips from Madrid
Toledo, Spain’s old capital, is located only 30 minutes from Madrid and is absolutely worth the visit. Its historic quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hides incredible buildings that combine architectural influences by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Get lost navigating the winding medieval streets on your way to Plaza Zocodover. Marvel at the ornately decorated Cathedral and impressive Alazar fortress. Catch stunning views over Toledo from the Jesuit church on the Cuesta de la Ciudad, the city hill. And just before heading back to Madrid, taste the favorite local dishes of meat and chickpea stew and stewed pork with tomato at any of the restaurants on Calle Alfileritos.
In just an hour from Madrid, you can explore the narrow streets of UNESCO-listed Segovia. A day trip to Segovia will be enough to admire the historical buildings from different centuries located on the same square and the world-famous Roman Aqueduct that remains intact today. Take your time observing the imposing structure and notice that the blocks are not cemented together but rather precisely stacked on top of each other. The other infinitely stunning attraction in Segovia is the Segovia Cathedral. The Cathedral sits on the highest point, looking stately above the city roofs. Before heading back to Madrid, try the local specialty – the roast suckling pig.
Madrid’s Scrumptious Foodie Heaven
Tapas Bar Hopping
To dine like a true local, you must embark on a tapas bar crawl through the cobblestone streets of Cava Baja south of Plaza Mayor. There are about 50 tapas bars on this street alone! You certainly will be spoiled for choice. Here’s a spot to get you started: Taberna La Concha. This place follows its own recipe of vermouth, has an extensive Spanish wine list, and the tapas are presented with more love and care.
Churros and Chocolate Coma
You won’t have to look hard when hunting for this traditional combination. But before you smother your face with chocolate and sugar, here are some things you should know.
There are two types of churros – teardrop-shaped churros and stick-shaped porras. Do try both, see which one you like best and order more of it! You can dunk them in sugar, in thick hot chocolate, or your coffee. Churros are usually eaten for breakfast or as a mid-day snack, and the freshest churros are found at the designated churrerias. So, if you have them after dinner, it will be a two-stop affair.
The most famous churreria in Madrid is Chocolateria San Gines, located in the heart of the city, a short walk from Puerta del Sol. It serves signature dark hot chocolate and churros at any hour of the day.
Taste Test Everything at San Miguel Market
Mercado de San Miguel opened as a wholesale market over 100 years ago. Today, it’s the [touristy] place to come to sample the highlights of Spanish cuisine. More than 20 stands serve mouthwatering Spanish delicacies that are a bit overpriced due to being such a hit with vacationers. Still, it’s a wonderful place to come for a drink, sample some regional goodies, and soak up the atmosphere.
Sobrino de Botin Restaurant
This restaurant deserves special mention. If you are a literary lover, you will relish dining at Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, once frequented by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The restaurant still serves the same dishes following original recipes dating back to 1725, so you can try the roast suckling pig Hemingway mentioned in “The Sun Also Rises.”
By the end of your stay, you will have turned into a real food and drink connoisseur!