From the private collections of Spanish royals to the trinity of Madrid’s top-tier museums emerge a culture circling around art. Gifted with the masterpieces of Goya, Picasso and Miró, artistic pursuit is deeply entrenched in the city. This eye for design is similarly reflected in the architectural patchwork of renaissance plazas, medieval mansions, neoclassical theatres and grand palaces; Spanish history written out in stone and iron masonry. Food too, is brimming in every corner, offering up tapas and roasts and innovative culinary delights in form of tavernas, classy restaurants and market stalls. Digging through an overwhelming choice of attractions and must-experience venues, we present a dynamic list of Madrid’s cultural highlights:
Marvel at the Royal Palace’s riches
Watch as guards parade the open square before this grand architecture constructed in the 1700s. Built atop the ruins of Madrid’s Moorish Alcázar, King Philip V’s commission is a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles. The Royal Palace is a well-rounded history classroom, intermingling displays of Goya and Veláquez masterpieces beside delicate porcelain and exquisite tapestries. Amid the embroidered riches are musical rarities mired with a weighted reputation; the Royal Palace boasts the world’s sole quartet of Stradivarius instruments. Don’t miss out on the Royal Armory either – join a guided tour for intriguing stories behind these countless artefacts!
Be an art connoisseur at The Prado
The renaissance and baroque movements spurred on a great many artists on the European continent. Where Veláquez and El Greco can be credited to Spain, other masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio and Botticelli hail from Italy and neighboring countries. Regardless of origin, the Prado has claimed an overwhelming collection of their works, winning its reputation as one of the best art museums in the world. Notably, Goya’s 14 Black Paintings are displayed here as a point of pride.
Segway around Retiro Park
A source of history ringed with green, Retiro Park was once royal property until late 19th century. Another historical marker is a Montezuma Cypress; planted in 1633 and still counting days, it is the oldest tree in the city. Take a Segway tour around Retiro Park’s natural highlights, elegant gardens and shrubbery-lined paths a delightful strolling ground. The Grand Pond is best during heated summers, keeping families with kids happy and active with light paddling. For some sheltered beauty, seek out the iron and glass pavilion which once housed the 1887 Philippine Exhibition.
Watch a game at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
Football fans will swarm towards Santiago Bernabéu Stadium for a glimpse of the Real Madrid home team, but you don’t need to be squished amid mountains of game-watchers to feel the sheer vastness of this venue. Even non-fans will enjoy touring the training facility of a record-winning European Cup champion. When else will you visit an 85,000-seater stadium? You no longer have to wonder about what goes on behind the scenes during a game; the tour will take you through the press room, presidential box, trophy collection and the team’s dressing room. You even get to stand on the dugouts.
Look back in time with the National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum reads like a timeline of Spain’s conception and growth, having cultivated items that predate even the Roman period. Under careful maintenance and restoration, the rich collection of sculptures and artefacts hardly reflect their thousands of years. Keep an eye out for the Treasure of Guarrazar, a Visigothic set of crosses and crowns dating to the 600s.
Entertainment at Gran Vía
As the name may suggest, this avenue is not only grand in visage but for its role as the heart of modern Madrid. Along the Telefónica Building, a 1920’s facsimile of a skyscraper, are blocks of balconied buildings. Thronging crowds filter in and out of the many malls and boutiques, making most of this commercial center. Come sunset, the streets pulse with the low thumping bass of nightclubs and soaring vocals of musicals, dynamic entertainment keeping the cultural heartbeat steady until early hours of next morning.
Pass through Plaza Mayor
Briefly stop by Plaza Mayor for another of Madrid’s requisite landmarks. Enter through any of the nine entrances for walls of renaissance architecture; pillared arches make the base, stacked with balconied residences of solid colors or intricate artwork, topping off with pointed clock structures. Decorative lampposts round the plaza in lieu of public seating, but the square is left otherwise empty apart from the four centuries-old King Philip III statue. Seat yourself at one of the cafés and people watch; imagine the clatter of horse-drawn carriages and costumed people bustling about at the height of the Spanish empire.
Templo de Debod: an Egyptian relic
Parque del Oeste is an amalgamation of interesting sites; it is also home to a thousands of years old Egyptian Temple. Dedicated to the gods Amon and Isis, the original structure was deconstructed and rebuilt brick by brick, each stone piece sent over by the Egyptian government in the 1960s. Admire its authentic form and duck inside for a comprehensive look. We recommend visiting late afternoon to catch a spectacular sunset view.
Circle around Mercado San Miguel
Iron-wrought crosses and framework wrap around ceiling-to-floor glass windows, giving Mercado San Miguel an art nouveau look. Dating back to 1916, this marketplace offers herbs and local garnishes such as cava, paprika and saffron instead of fresh produce, making it a great destination for tourists who work the kitchen back home. The tapas bars also lure in hungry wanderers, menus featuring much loved patatas bravas, boquerones and refreshing beer to complement.
Engage in cultural discourse at Círculo de Bellas Artes
The layered design and tower extension of Círculo de Bellas Artes is representative of its innovative manifesto, but its true value lies with its extensive collection of art. Housing paintings, sculptures, engravings and furniture, this cultural arts and cultural center has come a long way since its conception in 1880. Literature and philosophical works are similarly revered; there are over 3,000 featured books and documents. Círculo de Bellas Artes’ main mission however is fostering artistic development and influence, a forerunner in cultural conferences, workshops, exhibitions and performing art events.
The rooftop is not to be missed either; a trendy spot with stunning city view over Gran Vía.
Diving into El Rastro flea market
El Rastro is more than just a treasure cave of trinkets and handicrafts; it is an integral part of Madrid living. Drop your Sunday sleep-in plans and sweep onto Ribera de Curtidores and Plaza de Cascorro alongside the rest of the city for a flea market fiesta. A dizzying array of some 3,500 stalls will have you dropping to ground for non-stop inspection of everything; from ceramics to iron-cast pots, glassware, vintage phones, trinkets, accessories and toys both thrift and new. Or maybe the antique shops along Ribera de Curtidores will be of interest instead.
Browse through Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art
Another glowing art collection resides within Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art, on par with The Prado. Focusing on English and German schools of art, the exhibitions feature pieces by Hans Holbein and Hans Baldung Grien, as well as renaissance artists such as Tintoretto, Veronese and van Dyck. Monet and Renoir galleries offer up impressionist and post-expressionist artworks in demonstration of this museum’s collective range.
Watch a Spanish classic at Cine Doré Filmoteca Española
Cine Doré Filmoteca Española is the archive for Spanish films, toting everything from silent movies to classic productions. Nested within an art nouveau-styled building, it is a dreamland for film lovers, sometimes presenting film screenings with live music accompaniment. Summer months add a touch of outdoorsy charm by bringing the cinema to the rooftop.
CaixaForum goes green
Another repurposed space, CaixaForum is an old power plant transformed into cultural center. It is what you expect – a rotating schedule of exhibitions, educational courses, workshops, conferences and concerts for all ages. What really steals the spotlight is the vertical garden looming over the entryway, a grand menagerie of 15,000 plants.
Go modern with Reina Sofía Museum
Complete Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ with a visit to Reina Sofía Museum, whose glassy elevator shafts reflect its more modern approach. Presenting artworks by Spanish artists in contemporary times, the museum proudly hosts galleries featuring Picasso and Dali. Joan Miró, Juan Gris and Eduardo Chillida are other represented artists, showcasing a range in art medium and style. If you prefer works of the 20th century, this museum is for you.
Visiting a Flamenco tablaos
Madrid might not be the roots of Flamenco dance (it originated from Andalusia and Extremadura), but it does host some of the country’s best tablaos. Referring to both the flamenco stage itself and special establishment, tablaos first appeared in the 1960s. In a one of a kind dining experience, these halls present a riveting performance complemented with Spanish specialties; nibble on iberico ham and paprika-seasoned bread to the beat of this passionate dance style.
Experience culture at Matadero Madrid
There is no missing Matadero Madrid’s unique complex of brick and iron warehouses, rectangular structure and capped roofing revealing its previous slaughterhouse identity. Behind the tan façade is Madrid’s cultural heart, a center of all things modern and artsy – it is now a multidisciplinary space housing galleries, exhibitions and weekend markets. Some notable spaces include the Cineteca, Sala del Lector and Central del Diseño, drawing together the disciplines of theatre, cinema, literature and design.
Catch impressive performances at Teatros de Canal
Teatros de Canal’s colorful exterior catches the eye, but plan ahead for some of Madrid’s best contemporary performances. Its two theatres carry a myriad of theatre and dance forms, including plays, cabaret shows, opera, zarzuelas and dance performances that tend towards modern productions. If you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of dynamic productions, join a guided tour for backstage reveals and spooky stories.
Dine at El Sobrino de Botin
Definitely dine at the oldest restaurant in the world. A centuries-old relic and consummate foodie heaven, El Sobrino de Botin keeps the delicacies coming. Some must-tries at this atmospheric eatery include suckling pig roast, tenderized lamb and its famous clams dish.
Museo del Ferrocarriil
Set in the abandoned 1880s Estación de Delicias is this unsuspecting railway museum; the Museo del Ferrocarril. Featuring 30 steam locomotives, sleeping car and the original Talgo II long-distance train, you can observe them at close distance along the platforms. Related memorabilia and train dioramas are set up in special rooms, inviting not only train-spotters but anyone interested in olden-day transportation to visit.
Bullfighting is alive at Plaza de Toros
A controversial destination, Plaza de Toros is nevertheless a cultural heritage. A massive building seating 23,000 people, the brutal clashes between man and bull still fills the stadium to full capacity. If watching a match doesn’t sit well with you, take a tour during off-hours and learn more about the history of this cultural past time.
Exploring the old neighborhood of La Latina
Explore the old medieval fort of La Latina neighborhood, narrow streets of tanned residences punctuated by small plazas, churches and at one point, the Segovia Viaduct. The area’s authentic Spanish cuisine comes in form of tapas bars, with Calle Cava Baja catering to all budgets and atmospheric preferences. Of historical monuments, Iglesia de San Andrés, Basilica de San Francisco El Grande and Calle de Segovia stand out in architectural bliss. The Sunday morning market El Rastro and Plaza de la Paja also breaks up your eating adventure with lively outdoor shopping and history lessons, presenting a truly diverse range of activities.
Admire the Basilica de San Francisco El Grande
This national monument is one of incredible historical and religious significance, sitting on the land believed to have been offered to Saint Francis of Assisi during his pilgrimage in early 1200s. Comprised of the main chapel and six similarly domed counterparts, this neoclassical basilica houses the works of famed Spanish artists such as Goya, Velázquez, Castillo and Moreno Carbonero. Tour its carpet-lined galleries and well-preserved grounds, with a focus on the intricate artwork that line the main worship halls.
Wander through El Capricho Park
Catering to romantic tastes is the El Capricho Park, aptly translating to ‘The Whim’. An 18th century influenced space; the park is a blend of English and French landscaping. Stroll through the composition of lakes, gardens and artificial river, intermittent temples and nooks perfect for romantic canoodling.
Celebrating the arts at Centro Cultural Conde Duque
The tongue-twister of a name may suggest fun and games, but this center is actually a converted military base. Now a lively cultural center with a focus on musical and theatre arts, Centro Cultural Conde Duque’s pink exterior hides a flexible indoor venue. Where exhibitions, workshops, talks and shows are held indoors, the open square plays host to outdoor concerts in the summer. Warm weather marks a busy period for the center as its outdoor cinema series and music festivals draw in huge crowds for good reason.
Visit the stunning City Hall (Palacio de Cibeles)
The royal dredges of Palacio de Cibeles linger in its well-maintained coating and miniature turrets, a beautiful vision of white. Located in Madrid’s historical center, it acts as both City Hall and multicultural venue. Exhibitions and workshops discussing urban culture are often hosted within its walls, as are conferences and concerts. If you have seen your fair share of cultural hubs, visit anyway for its architectural measure.
Settle in for stunning views at Jardines de Las Vistillas
The open-air cafes (or terrazas) of Jardines de Las Vistillas offer soaring views over Sierra de Guadarrama. Sitting at the intersection of Calle de Segovia and in close vicinity to the heart of La Latina, it is a departure from the clustered tapas bars. Sit back with a chilled drink in hand when the streets are most crowded; Madrid might be a city that lives it up, but it knows to rest as well.
Reflect on current issues at La Tabacalera
Urban renewal once again makes an appearance, this time at the ex-tobacco factory of La Tabacalera. A 30,000-square-meter building dedicated to discourse on feminism and other current issues, majority of its exhibitions are socially reflective art pieces. Co-managed by the Minister of Culture as well as the center’s private committee, it is at once a place for social collectives as well as a free hang out spot for local residents.
Catch a film screening at Casa de América
Spooky haunts are part of the local experience! Take a turn around Casa de América and ask about its ghosts; its historical Palacio de Linares precedence guarantees plenty of legends. Extraordinary history aside, it is made for film and photography aficionados. Stage plays and live music performances complement the main exhibitions focusing on the medium of film; catch film screenings at this unique setting.
Fundación Juan March
Of the various foundations, Fundación Juan March is one of the most prestigious. On one hand, it functions as a museum for indie names and alternative art, pushing for innovation in paint form, architecture and every other artistic medium. Its ‘foundation’ title comes with the aim of cultivating an independent art community, arranging concerts and conferences to that effect.
Opera at its finest at Teatro Real
Elegance settles over Teatro Real’s innocuous façade, layered design and rounded arches rendering a quietly beautiful aura. It is also a recognizable symbol of Madrid culture, a venue that accepts only the brightest national and international stars. Tending towards the classical, Teatro Real is revered for its opera, zarzuela and ballet showings. Visitors hungry for more of this iconic stage can join a guided tour, plumbing the auditoriums, dressing rooms and hidden depths of this theatre.
Pushing artistic boundaries at La Neomudejar
Redefining art by means of a quirky location, La Neomudéjar is located in an old train car storage building. ‘Unconventional, experimental and creative’ is the basis of its foundation, pushing forth avant-garde art that runs from sculptures to performances. Film series and workshops bring together artists from across the country, but visitors will have a blast exploring this interesting space.
The heart of it all: Plaza de Santa Ana
Within walking distance to Madrid’s prominent museums, Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Santa Ana is a vibrant attraction of its own value. Radiating out from the open square are streets teeming with cafés, pubs, tavernas and all manners of restaurants, keeping the neighborhood buzzing with activity. The site of the demolished Convent of Santa Ana, it was first founded in 1586, making it a heritage site.
Marvel at the night-loving Joy Eslava
Even those not made for night scenes will be impressed by the grandiose interior of Joy Eslava. A tiered 19th-century theatre converted into Madrid’s top nightclub, its modern beats are a huge contrast to the remnant décor of this historic structure. Regardless if you’re there to boogey with the best of them or not, spend some minutes admiring the epic dance floor and spirited crowd. It also hosts the random concert and comedy nights for alternative vibes.
Art lovers return time and again to Madrid; its list of museums are never ending. And art is inlaid in historical buildings and parks, street art and unique gallery spaces. In a city that celebrates life and memory so vividly, you will learn the importance of cultural richness – and hope to revisit it again.