The following guide to Madrid I assembled while living and studying in the city. This guide should be useful to first-time visitors to the city, as it gives a brief overview of Madrid’s major tourist sites.
Must See Sites
Puerta del Sol/ Plaza Mayor/ Calle Gran Via
Puerta del Sol is literally in the center of the city, and this area serves as the hub of tourist activity. There is a main plaza, touristy shops, and plenty of restaurants and bars. From the main plaza you can walk to Plaza Mayor, which is another big plaza surrounded by outdoor cafes and filled with street performers and tourists. Narrow cobblestone streets surround Plaza Mayor, and they are cool to check out.
Plaza mayor is probably the most “touristy” place to go in the city and is a good place to start your visit to Madrid.
On the other side of Puerta del Sol are some other newer shopping streets which have been blocked off to traffic. If you walk through these streets, you will come to Gran Via, one of the biggest shopping streets in the city. Gran Via has a good assortment of department stores and chain restaurants, alongside strip clubs and sex shops. Gran Via is the most lively street in the city and is worth checking out.
Reina Sofia art museum/ Prado art museum
The Reina Sofia is the more interesting of the two museums in my opinion, as it houses works from Picasso, Dali, and some other wild artists. Unless you are an art fanatic, you can do the entire museum in less than two hours and feel like you have seen everything. The museum is free on Saturdays.
The Prado is the older and more famous of the two museums. It is mostly filled with classical Spanish paintings, but you can also find Rembrandts and Renaissance works in the museum. The Prado is free on Sundays.
These museums are a short walk from each other and it would be easy to do both in one day.
If art is your thing, you can also check out the Thyssen and the Sarollo museum, both of which I’ve heard are pretty good.
Retiro is a big park done in the French style, and it is basically the Central Park of Madrid. When the weather is good, the park fills with people, and you can find the young people by the huge statue of a man on a horse. The crowd here is pretty bohemian, and you’ll likely find a drum circle around the statue, especially if you come on Sunday afternoon. As long as the weather’s good, there is always a big group in this area kicking around the soccer ball, juggling, smoking hash, etc.
Palacio Real used to be the royal palace of Spain, and it is now used only for government functions. The façade of the building is impressive and the interior is nice as well. If you’ve done Versaille before, you can skip the tour of the palace, since they are really similar. Next to Palacio Real is a huge cathedral that you can peek into for free.
El Rastro Flea Market
El Rastro is a big flea market at metro stop La Latina. It is best on Sundays. Here you can buy cheap souvenirs and other junk (nothing of any quality). The cafes in this area are pretty nice and a good place to go to escape the crowds of the flea market.
The Salamanca district is the nicest residential and commercial area in the city. Here you’ll find upscale restaurants and all the shops you would find on Rodeo Drive. This area is easily accessible by metro stops Velasquez and Serrano.