Europe

The Ultimate Madrid, Spain Travel Guide

Even though the name “Madrid” might be over 2,200 years old, the city of Madrid has only been the capital city of Spain since the 16th Century.  In the time between then and now, Madrid has grown to not only be the largest city in Spain, it is also the third largest city in the European Union.  In addition to being one of the largest of Europe’s cities, it is also the continent’s sunniest.  There are more days of sunshine in Madrid than any place else in Europe.  Madrid is also considered to be one of the cultural capitals of the European Union.  This would explain why the city is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, if not the whole world.

The beautiful architecture, parks, and neighborhoods are fun to explore on walking or bicycling tours.  For those who are travel to eat, the local cuisines in Madrid are nothing short of amazing.  In fact, Madrid is home to the oldest restaurant in the world, so you know the people of Madrid know how to cook.  Tapas tours are a very popular attraction for foodies visiting Madrid and really give you a good sampling of the amazing food scene.  In addition to the beautiful architecture and amazing cuisine, the city of Madrid is also an excellent place for museum enthusiasts to visit.  You know the museum scene is good when you hear talk of a “Golden Triangle” of must-see museums that include the Paseo del Prado, the Museo Reina Sofía, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.  All three are world-class and definitely worth checking out if you love museums.  However, no matter what brings you to Madrid, you are guaranteed to to have a travel experience that you will always remember.

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In this guide, I am going to give you all of the information you need to plan a successful trip to Madrid, Spain.  I cover the best times to visit and the best ways to get there so that you can maximize what you are able to see and do on your trip.  In addition, I outline the top things to see and do while you are there and where the best places to stay and eat are.  With this information in hand, you can be confident that your trip to Madrid will be one that you remember for the rest of your life.

At A Glance
Top Things to See
How to Get There
Best Time to Visit
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Recommended Tours and Excursions
Photo Gallery

At a Glance

Before you start making any travel plans, you will want to make sure to take care of all of the passport, VISA, and immunization requirements for your trip.   In addition, you will want to make sure you have a clear understanding of what language they speak in Spain and what currency they use so that you can plan any translation needs you might have for your trip and exchange currency before your trip if necessary.  I have included some of this key information below for you to review as you start to make your travel plans.

Passport requirements exist. See below for details.
Immunization recommendations are listed below.
The official language in Spain is Spanish.
The official currency in Spain is the Euro.

Passport, VISA, Customs, and Immunization Requirements

In order to assist you in navigating the legal requirements for visiting Spain, I have included a link to my Spain Passport, VISA, Customs, and Immunization Requirements for Visitors Guide as well as some information on the EU’s new ETIAS VISA requirements below for you to review.  These guides will give you all of the information that you will need to meet the VISA, passport, customs, and immunizations requirements and recommendations for visiting Spain.

READ MORE:
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New Visa Requirements for Americans to Visit Europe Starting in 2021
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Spain Passport, VISA, Customs, and Immunization Requirements for Visitors

Travel Immunizations

Before you leave for your trip to Spain, you need to make sure you have all of the proper vaccinations.  Not only to protect yourself but to protect others.  If you have questions on what immunizations you will need and what to look out for when you go to get them, below are some general guidelines I can pass on to you from experience.

  • Most specialized travel clinics will not accept insurance so you will have to pay for your travel consultation and immunizations and then request reimbursement from your insurance company later.
  • Some immunizations aren’t accepted by every insurance company, so check with your insurance provider before getting your immunizations.
  • Check with your regular doctor first, as often they can do a travel consultation for you and write you the necessary prescriptions for your immunizations, even if they aren’t able to give them to you.  This way you can ensure that at least your travel consultant will be covered by your insurance up-front.
  • Check with Walgreens or other drug stores that give flu shots to see if they have any of the immunization shots that you require before going to a specialized clinic that doesn’t accept insurance to get them.  Walgreens can give you many of the immunizations necessary for international travel, and they accept insurance up-front.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website can be a great resource for answering any travel immunization questions that you have.

In case you are unsure of what travel vaccinations you might need, I have compiled a list below of some of what you might expect your physician to recommend.

  • Hepatitis A & B (if you haven’t had them).
  • Tetanus (if you aren’t current).
  • Transderm SCōP Patch (for motion sickness) or at minimum Dramamine pills if you get motion sickness easily and you plan on getting out on the water or doing adventure activities.
  • Flu Shot

Packing Tips

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Outside of taking care of the passport, visa, and immunization requirements so that you can get into Spain and don’t get sick, there is no more important pre-travel planning task than making sure you pack the right clothing and gear for your trip.  To help make sure you are properly packed and prepared, I have included links to some of my packing resources below for you to review.

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The Ultimate Travel Packing Check List
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The Essential Carry-On Checklist

Top Things to See and Do

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It is said that the city of Madrid is a “city of students” because it is one of the most popular study-abroad destinations in the world.  It is no coincidence that students are lining up to study in Madrid because the city is chock-full of fun and amazing things to see and do.  Whether you are into history and culture, outdoor activities, exploring new cuisines, or just enjoy exploring one of Europe’s most exciting cities, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Madrid.  If you are planning a trip to Madrid and are looking for some things to see to fill out your itinerary, I have included a list of my favorite things to see in Madrid for you to review below.

Madrid - Top Things to See Map

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Royal Palace (Palacio Real)
Plaza Mayor
Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro)
Gateway to the Sun (Puerta del Sol)
Basilica of San Francisco El Grande
Mercado San Miguel
Plaza de Cibeles
Plaza de Independencia
Gran Vía
The Prado Museum

Royal Palace (Palacio Real)

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Although Alfonso XIII was the last King to live in the Royal Palace of Madrid, this beautiful palace (and it’s original) have been attracting visitors to Spain for over a Millenium.  The palace was originally built by Muhammad I between 860 and 880 when the Moors controlled Spain.  When Henry III of Castile took control, he added several towers to the palace and it has been slowly refined ever since.  While King Felipe VI and the royal family do not reside in the palace today, the palace is still one of the largest royal palaces in the world and one of Madrid’s most popular tourist attractions.  Believe me, with its 870 windows, 240 balconies, and 3,418 rooms that take up roughly 1,450,000 sq ft of floor space, the palace is really hard to miss.  If you have the time, I would definitely recommend taking a tour of the palace.  There are exquisitely decorated rooms that will blow your mind, with some looking exactly like they did hundreds of years ago.

Plaza Mayor

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Originally called the “Plaza del Arrabal”, the name was eventually changed to Plaza Mayor, which is translated to mean “oldest square”.  Throughout its history, the plaza has hosted markets, performances, festivals, celebrations, sporting events, and even live bullfights.  The Plaza Mayor that you see today is actually relatively new.  After devastating fires in the late 18th Century, the famed Spanish architect Juan de Villanueva was commissioned to rebuild the square and designed much of what you see in the square today.  This included the beautiful buildings that surround the cobblestone square on all sides.  In these buildings, with their beautiful window balconies, you will find some of the most expensive residential real estate in all of Madrid.

Among the notable features in the square is a statue of King Felipe III on horseback.  Constructed in 1616, the statue was moved from Casa de Campo Park to the center of the Plaza Mayor in 1848 by Queen Isabel II.  The square is also home to the infamous Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House).  Although bread is no longer baked there, this beautiful building on the north end of the square is now a municipal building.  In addition to enjoying the stunning architecture around the square, Plaza Mayor is also a great place to shop, grab a bite to eat, or just sit back and people watch.

Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro)

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While the city of Madrid is well known for its beautiful, old buildings and breathtaking architecture, the city also has its fair share of stunning green spaces for visitors to enjoy.  One of the most famous of these green spaces is undoubtedly Parque del Buen Retiro, or “El Retiro” as it is known locally.  The name of the park loosely translates to mean “Park of the Good Retreat”, and it is exactly that.  I cannot think of a better place to recommend if you are looking for a break from the crowded tourist attractions and want to just slow things down and enjoy a beautiful day in the city.

While El Retiro isn’t Madrid’s largest park (that distinction goes to Casa de Campo on the west side of the city), it is still a very large park.  During the weekdays, the park is fairly quiet and you can enjoy a relaxing stroll along the park’s many walking paths.  However, on the weekend the park is more alive with activity as many people venture to the park to enjoy the nice weather.  If you get hungry, there are even several small cafes inside the park that you can visit for a snack.  Whatever reason you have for deciding to visit the park, you are certain to enjoy the beautiful views and the tranquility.

Gateway to the Sun (Puerta del Sol)

Puerto del Sol

If you are a traveler that likes to be in the middle of the action when you are on a trip, then Puerta del Sol is a spot in Madrid that you absolutely will not want to miss. Translated to mean “Gate of the Sun”, the Puerta del Sol is one of the most action-packed spots in Madrid.   In addition to being one of the busiest spots in Madrid, Puerta del Sol is also the central hub of the city.  It is the radial center for most of the major roads that extend out thru the city and it is the location of the kilometre zero, with a plaque situated in the tiled floor of the square.

Many travelers like to visit the square just to people watch, but you are also able to see a number of prominent buildings and landmarks near the square as well.  The Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real, and the museum district are all just a short walk from Puerta del Sol. One of my favorite landmarks in the square is the Bear and the Berry Tree, known as “El Oso y El Madroño” locally, which is a popular meeting spot for tour groups.  No trip to Madrid is complete without a visit to Puerta del Sol.

Basilica of San Francisco El Grande

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As one of Spain’s most beautiful and historical churches, the Basilica of San Francisco El Grande is one of Madrid’s can’t miss tourist spots.  In case you are worried about missing it during your visit, the basilica’s stunning fresco-ed dome is really hard to miss.  Located near the Palacio Real, this stretch of Madrid is one of the most important historical areas of the city.  As for the church, the legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi built a chapel on the site of the church back in 1217.  This would make this spot one of the oldest and important spots in Spain for the Catholic church.  If you are interested in seeing the church, visitation inside is free during mass times, though there is no access to the museum.  During all other times, there is a small admission fee to get in and tour the church and museum.

Mercado San Miguel

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When I traveled throughout Spain a number of years back, I made it a point to visit the markets in the cities that I visited.  I am a firm believer that visiting the markets and seeing what people eat and how they socialize while shopping and eating together is a great way to learn about the local culture.  One of my favorite markets that I visited while in Spain was the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid.  In addition to having a simply astounding selection of amazing local meats, seafood, produce, and other ingredients, there are also a number of stands where you can buy and taste an amazing selection of local foods.  If you are in the mood to browse and taste what is good to eat locally, then you won’t want to miss out on visiting this market!

Plaza de Cibeles

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While the Plaza de Cibeles may not be the busiest or most famous in the city of Madrid, it very well could be the most beautiful.  With its breathaking marble sculptures and magnificent fountains, the plaza has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Madrid.  In addition to the sculptures and fountains, you will find the Bank of Spain building, the Palacio de Buenavista, the Palace of Linares, and the Cybele Palace within this beautiful plaza.  The plaza sits at the intersection of Calle de Alcalá (which runs from east to west), Paseo de Recoletos (which runs to the north), and Paseo del Prado (which runs to the south).  With a central location that is easy to access, there really is no excuse for not adding this amazing place to your itinerary while in Madrid.

Plaza de Independencia

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Another plaza in Madrid that is worthwhile exploring when you visit is the Plaza de la Indepencia, or Independence Square as it translates to mean.  This important historical square sits at the intersection of Calle de Alcalá (which runs from east to west), Calle de Alfonso XII (which runs to the south), Calle de Serrano (which heads to the north), Calle de Salustiano Olozaga (which goes to the northwest), and the Paseo de Mexico (which heads into Retiro Park to the southeast).  The square, which was designed by architect Francesco Sabatini, was originally opened in 1778, but has undergone redesigns since then.  The current version of the square dates back to 1869, during the expansion of Madrid.  The centerpiece of the square is the magestic Puerta de Alcalá, an 18th-century gate that has become an important symbol of Madrid.

Gran Vía

Gran Via Madrid

If you are looking for some excitement during your stay in Madrid, then one spot you will want to make sure to include on your itinerary is the Gran Vía in the center of the city.  It runs from Calle de Alcalá, passed the Plaza de Cibeles, to the Plaza de España.  Often compared to Broadway in New York City, the Gran Vía is the heartbeat of Spain’s capital city.  Among other fun things to do in the area, you will find plenty of theaters, restaurants, bars, cinemas, and beautiful architecture to enjoy.

The Prado Museum

Prado Museum Madrid

One thing that the city of Madrid is definitely not short on is amazing museums for visitors to explore.  In fact, three of the cities museums are so famous that they are said to comprise the “Golden Triangle of Art” within the city of Madrid.  These museums include the Reina Sofía Museum, which showcases 20th century modern art, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which displays historical through contemporary art, and the Prado Museum (otherwise known as the Museo del Prado), which is world-renown for its collection of pre-20th century art.  The Museo del Prado has the largest collection of Spanish art in Spain and has especially impressive collections of Renaissance and Baroque art.  The museum was designed in 1785 by the famous architect Juan de Villanueva and opened to the public back in 1819.  Ever since then it has been captivating the imagination of art loving travelers who visit Madrid.

How to Get There

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If you are visiting Madrid from outside of Spain, there are a number of ways that you can get there.  For those visiting from outside of Europe, the easiest way to get to Madrid is to fly into the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport (MAD).  If you are visiting from elsewhere in Europe and have the time, an attractive alternative to flying into Madrid would be to take the rail system.  The rail system in Europe is quite advanced, and the rail system within Spain is no exception.  In fact, taking the train can save you time versus driving if you are heading to Madrid from other locations within Spain as well.  If you are traveling to Madrid from another location within Spain and would like more information on travel times by train and by car, I have included a map below for you to review.

Madrid, Spain - How to Get There Map

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Best Time to Visit

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Average Temperature (°F)

With low temperatures that don’t fall much below the upper 40’s during the winter, the city of Madrid is a great place to explore year-round.  Most of the year the average high temperature ranges between the 50’s and 70’s, but the summer months of June thru August can see the temperatures that reach into the 90’s.  So if you are planning on spending a lot of time outdoors and don’t do well in hot temperatures, you might want to take this into consideration.  If you are looking for the perfect temperatures for exploring Madrid, they can be found in the shoulder months of the spring and autumn where the temps aren’t so hot during the day and the crowds are typically much smaller.

Average Precipitation (Inches)

The city of Madrid doesn’t get an extraordinary amount of rain throughout the year, but there are certain months of the year that are typically wetter than others.  For instance, if you don’t want rain to ruin your day out in the city, then the spring months of April and May and the autumn and winter months of October thru December should probably be avoided.  Instead, I would suggest targeting the month of March in the spring, the month of June in early summer, or even the month of September in early autumn.  These tend to be the driest months of the year in Madrid.

Where to Stay

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One of the most important decisions you are going to have to make when planning your trip to Madrid is where you will stay.  When you travel, the accommodations you choose are oftentimes among the biggest expenditures for your trip.  So not only do you need to be comfortable where you are staying, but you also need to be comfortable with how much you are paying to stay there.  Finding the right accommodations for your trip involves looking at the amenities, the location, and most importantly, the price.  If you are starting to plan your trip to Madrid and want some hotel and hostel suggestions, I have included some great options at different price points below for you to review.  As always, don’t be afraid to expand your search to room sharing sites such as Airbnb or VRBO if you aren’t finding a hotel or hostel that meets your needs.

Madrid, Spain - Hotels and Hostels Map

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Ok Hostel Madrid ($)
Way Hostel Madrid ($)
Hotel Francisco I ($$)
Hotel Catalonia Puerta Del Sol ($$)
Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes ($$$)
NH Collection Madrid Abascal Hotel ($$$)
NH Collection Madrid Gran Vía ($$$$)
Hotel NH Collection Madrid Palacio de Tepa ($$$$)
The Westin Palace, Madrid ($$$$$)
Hotel Palacio Del Retiro, Autograph Collection ($$$$$)

Where to Eat

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When most people plan a trip, the primary focus is one how to get there, where to stay, and what is on the list of things to see and do.  What many travelers neglect to plan, is where to eat when you are there.  Granted, it is sometimes fun to be spontaneous when choosing a restaurant while traveling, and it is always smart to get recommendations when you arrive.  However, it can also be advantageous to have some ideas of restaurants you would like to try during your trip written down beforehand as well.  This way you can be assured that you won’t miss out on a highly recommended culinary experience that you will regret.  To help you decide on some restaurants in Madrid to add to your list, I have included a list of some highly recommended options for you to review below.

Madrid Restaurant Recommendations
Restaurant Cuisine Price
Cerveceria El Padrón Restaurante Mediterranean, Spanish $$-$$$
Los Montes de Galicia International, Mediterranean, Spanish $$-$$$
El Mollete Mediterranean, European, Spanish $$-$$$
Entre Santos Madrid Mediterranean, European, Spanish $$-$$$
Taberna los Delgado Spanish, Contemporary $$$$
Cebo Mediterranean, Spanish, Contemporary $$$$

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There is an abundance of amazing things to see and do in the Madrid area and one of the best ways to experience those things is on a tour.  If you are looking for fun tours and excursions to fill out your trip, I have included some category links to recommended tours and excursions you can review below.

Tours, Sightseeing, and Cruises
Art and Culture
Food and Drink
Tickets and Passes
Outdoor Activities
Classes and Workshops
Seasonal and Special Occasions
Transportation

The city of Madrid is an absolutely amazing place to visit if you are a street or travel photographer.  There are so many interesting and beautiful things to see and photograph around the city.  If you are interested in seeing some of the pictures that I was able to take while touring the city, I have included a gallery for you to review below.

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