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Things to Do in Madrid

Spain's buzzing capital city offers grand architecture, lively public plazas, a thriving culinary scene, and legendary nightlife. Madrilenos are known to work hard, play hard, and stay up very, very late. And while it may not be as popular among travelers as Paris or Rome, Madrid's art scene is equally impressive. Some of the world's best museums and galleries are found here, featuring Spanish masters like El Greco, Velazquez, and Picasso, as well as top international artists. The Prado Museum and Reina Sofia are top draws for visitors; opt for a VIP-access or skip-the-line tour to avoid the crowds. Easy to explore by walking, bicycle, or Segway tour, Madrid's highlights include Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, and Puerta del Sol. Sample a variety of typical dishes on a tapas-and-wine tasting tour, like the classic Spanish tortilla (baked omelette), fried calamari, marinated pulpo (octopus), and many tasty versions of Iberian hams, cheeses, and olives. Wash it all down with a glass of Rioja or Spanish-style beer, and you're ready to dance the night away. The city also has many up-and-coming restaurants, and don't worry if you like to linger over dinner—bars and nightclubs open after midnight and continue to thrum well into the morning. Be sure to catch a fiery flamenco performance at respected venue, like Corral de la Moreria. Madrid also makes a convenient gateway to the rest of Spain's major cities and attractions—just in case Valencia, Seville, Barcelona, or Granada happen to be on your wish list.
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Corral de la Morería
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As one of Spain’s most famous tablaos (flamenco clubs), the Corral de la Morería in Madrid has been producing flamboyant and moving flamenco performances for nearly 60 years. Thanks to its reputation, the Corral de la Morería attracts its fair share of world-renowned dancers as well as the occasional A-List celebrity spotted among the audience.

With seating around individual tables for a capacity of just 140, the club feels intimate and cozy, furnished in simple rustic style and with great views of the small stage from all sides. With two shows lasting over an hour every night, each featuring 11 performers, revered names from the world of flamenco who have danced their wild, passionate flamenco here include Blanca del Rey and Antonio Gades. The current artistic director, Blanca del Rey, has also received many awards for the stunning choreography of the flamenco shows.

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Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid)
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The Palacio Real (or Royal Palace, also referred to as the Palacio de Oriente) is the lavish site of royal events, but is not home to the royal family (they have lived in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela for some time).

The Palacio Real is still a fascinating place to walk through though, with its maze of 50 themed rooms decorated in the finest metals and richest fabrics - though this is only a small sampling of the total 2,800 rooms of the palace. On the guided tour, you will also learn much about the interesting history behind the Bourbon dynasty, during whose reign the palace was most in use.

Highlights of the tour include the throne room, the immense staircase, the collection of suits of armor and the peculiar royal pharmacy, filled with all sorts of strange concoctions.

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Plaza Mayor
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Plaza Mayor is a large square in central Madrid. It serves today as a meeting place for tourists and locals alike, and has played host to a variety of festivities throughout history, including bull fights, soccer matches, and executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

The plaza was built in the early 17th century during King Felipe III's reign - the central statue is a nod to him overseeing the project's completion. Forming the outer walls are a series of three-story residential buildings with balconies overlooking the center, providing excellent views of the action below.

The most prominent of the buildings in the plaza is the Casa de la Panaderia - House of the Baker's Guild, which today serves municipal and cultural functions. There are also several shops and eateries that occupy the ground level of the buildings and provide refreshments for hungry and thirsty travelers admiring the square.

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Puerta del Sol
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As the central hub of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol makes a popular starting point for sightseeing tours of the city, with a vast number of hotels, hostels and tourist apartments lying on or near the plaza. The famous public square, laid out in its current form back in the 1850s, was once the site of the city’s gates, whose sun emblem gave the area its name – Puerta del Sol translates to ‘the Gate of the Sun.' Not only is the square a key navigational landmark but it’s also home to a number of iconic sights. The 18th century Real Casa de Correos is best known for its monumental clock tower – the city’s principal timekeeper and the centerpiece of the city’s lively New Year’s Eve celebrations – and by its entrance lies the famous Kilometer Zero stone, the official starting point for Spain’s 6 National Roads, laid out in 1950. Take a moment by the legendary stone to ponder the square’s turbulent history - the 1766 Esquilache Mutiny, the 1808 resistance against Napoleon’s troops and the 1812
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Gran Vía
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Meaning "Great Road", Gran Vía is a main thoroughfare in Madrid, built to connect Calle de Alcalá to Plaza de España. Lined with a mixture of high end shops, eateries, and bars that cover both ends of the spectrum, this lively bustling street is best enjoyed at night when the locals and tourists alike come out to eat, drink, and mingle into the wee hours of the morning. Besides the shopping and nightlife scene, Gran Vía is best known for the 20th century architecture that creates landmarks along its way. One such example is the Edificio Metropolis, which stands at the head of Gran Vía and boasts a magnificent rooftop statue of the Goddess Victory. There are also several old movie theatres including the Capitol, built in the art deco style.
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Prado Museum (Museo del Prado)
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The Museo del Prado - Prado Museum - is considered to house one of the finest art collections in the world. It displays thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art throughout its halls - and this is only a fraction of their collection!

What doesn't fit in the display space is stored or sent on loan to other fine galleries throughout the world. The Prado specializes in European art from the 12th-19th century (Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum is home to the post-19th century art), that was built from the Spanish Royal Collection.

The most famous piece in the collection that is on display at the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. He dedicated many of his own pieces to the museum and had a hand in obtaining several works from great Italian painters as well. In tribute to Velazquez, his statue is one of the few marking the entrances to the museum.

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Cibeles Fountain (Fuente de Cibeles)
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Madrid’s most memorable statue is Cybele’s Fountain, or Fuente de la Cibeles, depicting the Greek goddess of fertility, Cybele, being pulled by two lions on a chariot. Designed by architect Ventura Rodriguez for King Carlos III in 1782, the white marble monument stands encircled by water in the center of the historic Plaza de Cibeles.

Once providing water to local residents, the fountain is now merely decorative, doubling up as a popular meeting point for locals. Real Madrid’s football fans, in particular, have adopted the spot for post-game celebrations. Its job as a water source might be redundant but Cybele’s Fountain is still one of the most prominent symbols of Madrid and if you look closely, you’ll see the 8-meter-tall goddess not only holds a scepter but also a set of keys – said to be the keys to the city.

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Reina Sofia Museum (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia)
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The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia - or Reina Sofia Museum - is Madrid's premier modern art gallery featuring mostly works by Spanish artists. Amongst them is Guernica, a political statement on the Spanish Civil War by Picasso, as well as a room devoted to Joan Miró's paintings and a collection of about 20 Dalí pieces.

One's adventure through the gallery begins with a ride up the glass elevator, which provides excellent views of the plaza and buildings below. The second floor houses the permanent collection, broken up into about 10 rooms while the top floor is taken up with works from artists of the 1980's as well as those of international artists.

Don't forget to stop at the gift shop on your way out to grab a print or postcard of your favorite piece!

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Madrid Plaza de la Villa
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Those hoping for a taste of 16th-century Madrid will find just what they’re looking for at the tranquil Plaza de la Villa, or Town Hall Square. An easy stroll from the lively Plaza Mayor, Plaza de la Villa is a world away from the bustle of Madrid’s modern center – a small medieval square lined with some of Madrid’s oldest buildings.

The centerpiece of the ancient square is the Casa de la Villa, used until recently as Madrid’s Town Hall and once housing a 17th-century prison. Built in 1664 by architects Juan Gumez de Mora and Teodoro Adremans, the real highlights are hidden in the interiors – a series of 17th century frescoes by Antonio Palomino, a dramatic Goya painting and exquisite stained glass ceilings, showcased on guided tours of the building.

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More Things to Do in Madrid

Lázaro Galdiano Museum (Museo Lázaro Galdiano)

Lázaro Galdiano Museum (Museo Lázaro Galdiano)

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The Prado and the Reina Sofia are must-see museums when in Madrid, but the often overlooked Museum of Lázaro Galdiano has been called “the best kept art secret” in the city. The elegant mansion housing the collection was once the home of José Lázaro Galdiano, a 19th-century Spanish publisher, entrepreneur, and art collector. Galdiano gifted his exquisite collection of almost entirely Iberian art — including works by Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, Zurbarán, and Murillo — to the state upon his death in 1947.

Today it is an impressive display of more than 13,000 works of art ranging from sculpture and furniture to jewelry and ceramic, among some of Madrid’s finest paintings. You’ll also find the work of French, Italian, and English painters on the second floor. The room dedicated exclusively to Goya’s work is particularly special, though the house itself with its fresco ceilings and magnificent ballroom is worth a visit alone.

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Almudena Cathedral (Catedral de la Almudena)

Almudena Cathedral (Catedral de la Almudena)

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The Almudena Cathedral is the official Cathedral of Madrid and is dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena. Taking over a century to complete, the Almudena is one of the youngest cathedrals in Europe, consecrated by Pope John II himself in 1993. A statue of the pope stands outside of the cathedral to mark the momentous occasion.

The lengthy construction process was due to the change in status from a church to a cathedral a year after breaking ground, which warranted an upgrade in style from Neo-Gothic to Neo-Classic and required new blueprints. Another event that put construction on hold was the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, during which building stopped entirely until 1944.

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Retiro Park (Parque de El Retiro)

Retiro Park (Parque de El Retiro)

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Parque del Buen Retiro - or Park of the Pleasant Retreat - is Madrid's most expansive park and landmark, covering 1.4 km2 (350 acres). Known locally as just "El Retiro", the park is referred to as "The Lungs" of Madrid, providing the majority of the greenery to feed off of the carbon dioxide of urban life and release enough oxygen to keep its many residents and visitors alive.

One of the city's most popular attractions, Parque del Buen Retiro is filled with numerous statues, gardens, galleries and a beautiful lake. People go to meet with friends, to read or picnic, and to admire the art, both indoors and out. You can even rent yourself a boat to paddle around the lake. During the warmer months, also be sure to catch the free concerts in the park every Sunday afternoon.

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Alcalá Gate (Puerta de Alcalá)

Alcalá Gate (Puerta de Alcalá)

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The Puerta de Alcalá - or Alcalá Gate - stands in the center of the Plaza de la Independencia - Independence Square - and just outside of the Parque de Buen Retiro - Park of the Pleasant Retreat. This Neo-classical monument was commissioned by King Carlos III in the mid-18th century to replace the 16th century gate that served as the entrance to Madrid from what was then the eastern border.

Italian architect Francesco Sabatini was given the job and with help from two French and Spanish sculptors created what is now recognized as a symbol of Madrid. The Puerta de Alcalá is one of the city's most historic and beautiful landmarks.

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San Miguel Market (Mercado de San Miguel)

San Miguel Market (Mercado de San Miguel)

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While in the heart of Madrid’s tourist center, get closer to the culinary side of the Spanish capital and its history by visiting Mercado de San Miguel. Located just steps away from the city’s Plaza Mayor, or main square, it’s the perfect spot to take in some culture while you refuel on good eats at this restored, old-fashioned covered market.

The mercado, or market, has roots dating back to the early 1800s, when it was first created as an open-air market on the site of a former church of the same name. Later converted to a covered market, it was finally renovated and restored in 2003. What you’ll find there today is a wide selection of tasty items, ranging from fresh market goods to ready-to-eat delicacies such as paella, olives, cheese, and the city’s favorite drink, fresh-from-the-tap vermouth.

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Temple of Debod (Templo de Debod)

Temple of Debod (Templo de Debod)

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The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian 4th century BC temple that now stands in the Parque de la Montaña near Plaza de España. While it seems out of place in Madrid, the temple has been there since 1971 when it was dismantled, shipped, and carefully reconstructed in the city. This was done to protect it from flooding caused by the Aswan Dam. Spain was chosen to receive the temple as a thank you for helping to save Abu Simbel, another archaeological site that was threatened by flooding in Egypt.

As for the temple itself, it stands behind two stone gates rising out of a calm shallow pool. Inside the temple, there are hieroglyphs as well as photos documenting its history, including the reconstruction in Madrid. The temple and gates are illuminated at night, creating a clear beautiful reflection of it in the water.

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Santiago Bernabéu Stadium (Estadio Santiago Bernabéu)

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium (Estadio Santiago Bernabéu)

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Football fans won’t want to miss a visit to the magnificent Santiago Bernabéu, home to the legendary Real Madrid football team. The stadium opened its doors in 1947, boasts a capacity of 85,000 spectators and has a 5-star rating as a UEFA-classified Elite Stadium.

Watching a game at the famous stadium – the 4-times host of the European Cup finals – is a memorable experience but if you’re not lucky enough to score tickets for a game, you can still visit the grounds. Fan tours allow behind-the-scenes access to the stadium, where you can take the lift to the top of the stadium towers for an impressive panorama of the vast playing field and walk in the footsteps of your heroes across the pitch. You’ll also get to sneak a peek into the players’ dressing rooms, the presidential box and the trophy room, and even walk through the players’ tunnel.

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Plaza de Toros de las Ventas

Plaza de Toros de las Ventas

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Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is one of the city’s most renowned and largest public squares, dominated by the iconic Las Ventas bullfighting arena. Whatever your views on the notoriously controversial sport of bullfighting, there’s no doubting its prominent place in Spanish history and the Las Ventas bullring (the largest in the world) remains one of the city’s biggest attractions.

Built by Joseph Espeliú in 1929, the 4-story stadium seats up to 25,000 spectators and draws in huge crowds of both locals and tourists. The annual Corrida de Toros (bullfighting) season runs from May to October, but the biggest date on the calendar is the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival held each June. Daily bullfights are held for 2 weeks during the festival, featuring the world’s top bullfighters and including both traditional and mounted fights.

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Sabatini Gardens (Jardines de Sabatini)

Sabatini Gardens (Jardines de Sabatini)

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One of the many formal gardens encircling Madrid’s magnificent Royal Oriente Palace, the Sabatini Gardens, or Les Jardines de Sabatini, lie on the northern border of the palace grounds. Named in honor of the renowned 18th-century Italian architect, Francesco Sabatini, who designed the former royal stables that once stood on the plot, the gardens were opened to the public in 1978 by King Juan Carlos I and drew wide acclaim for their innovative Neoclassic style. Set around a monumental pond and fountain, the Sabatini Gardens feature a maze of sculpted hedges fashioned into elaborate geometrical patterns that look even more impressive from overhead.

One of the most atmospheric times to visit is during the summer Los Veranos de la Villa festival, when the Sabatini Gardens and the Casa de Campo park host a series of open-air music concerts, theater, cinema showings and Flamenco performances.

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Paseo de la Castellana

Paseo de la Castellana

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Chances are that on your visit to Madrid you’ll cross over the Paseo de la Castellana — or an extension of it — at some point. That’s because it’s the city’s main north-south thoroughfare, and, along with its continuations Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado, it passes by many of the city’s most popular sights.

La Castellana, as it is usually called, in fact begins at Plaza de Colón and reaches to the northern border of the main city. Along this stretch, it goes by many of the capital’s biggest bank buildings and, perhaps most notably, Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, home to the Real Madrid soccer team. It also travels through (rather, under) Plaza Castilla, one of the city’s largest squares, which serves as a main transport hub. Cutting through exploration-worthy neighborhoods such as Chamberí and Salamanca, the avenue is also bordered by tree-lined walkways, playgrounds, and many outdoor restaurant terrazas.

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Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza)

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza)

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With one of the largest and most thorough collections of artwork in Madrid, ranging from the 13th to the late 20th century, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum opened to much acclaim in 1993 and is now one of the city’s leading art museums. A veritable paradise for art lovers, the museum contains over 1000 works and is an important part of Madrid’s so-called ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ – formed by the streets connecting it with the Prado Museum and the National Art Centre Reina Sofia.

The museum’s permanent collection was once the personal collection of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich, amassed over half a century and renowned as one of the world’s most important private collections. Opened to the public by Hans in 1988, the collection was later purchased by the Spanish state and expanded in 2004 to include a further 200 works collected by Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza.

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Plaza de Colón

Plaza de Colón

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There’s perhaps no more Spanish stop you can make in Madrid than Plaza de Colón. Spanish because not only is it home to the largest Spanish flag in the world, but the square commemorates one of the country’s most famous historic figures, Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, hence the plaza’s name). As such, the square has a statue in Columbus’s honor, in addition to three giant rock-like sculptures dedicated to the discovery of America.

The square is located along the border of the Chamberí and Salamanca neighborhoods as well as two of the city’s most famous streets: Serrano, known especially for its high-end shopping; and Paseo de la Castellana, the stroll-friendly, north-south thoroughfare. It’s also surrounded by other visit-worthy sights, which include the Spanish National Library, the recently opened National Archeology Museum, and the Fernán Gómez Theater (which sits below the plaza, and often hosts intriguing exhibitions).

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Lope de Vega House Museum (Casa Museo Lope de Vega)

Lope de Vega House Museum (Casa Museo Lope de Vega)

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This historic Madrid structure was once home to one of Spain’s most celebrated writers, Félix Lope de Vega Carpio, who spent the last 25 years of his life here. Lope de Vega is Spain’s most famous playwright, sometimes referred to as ‘the Shakespeare of Spanish literature.’ In his lifetime he wrote over 2,000 plays. It is also one of the few three-story houses that still remains from the 16th century. The home now functions as a museum, telling not only the story of Lope de Vega’s life and work but also of everyday life in Spain’s Golden Age of Literature. Period features such as whale-oil lamps and historic furniture bring the past to life. The bedrooms, his study, kitchen, and prayer room have been carefully preserved restored. Visitors can also see the courtyard and gardens where he would often sit to write.

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Barrio de Salamanca

Barrio de Salamanca

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Shopping, sightseeing, and elegant architecture are all good reasons to head to one of the Spanish capital’s most famous neighborhoods, Barrio de Salamanca. This posh pocket of Madrid is where you’ll find the famous Puerta de Alcalá, the massive and path-filled Retiro Park, and the world’s largest Spanish flag, which waves proudly in Plaza de Colón.

It’s also the ideal destination for shoppers keen to hit up high-end boutiques as well as budget-friendly stops, such as the giant and many-floored Zara store (which, along with some of the area’s biggest shops, is located on Serrano Street). Foodies can find a bit of tasty heaven here, too, visiting places such as the traditional market, Mercado de la Paz, or the theater-turned-gourmet-food-court, Platea, and even the rooftop Gourmet Experience found at the country’s biggest department store, El Corte Inglés.

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