Summary: I’m sharing my top-ten list of things to do when visiting Madrid, Spain as a first-timer.
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This doesn’t happen often, but Madrid took me by surprise. I didn’t think I was going to like it as much as I did. I was expecting more of an urban city and Madrid has a side like that, but there’s also the side with old cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, architecture that will make you wonder who was standing in the same spot as you hundreds of years before.
This also doesn’t happen often, but I think I made the PERFECT itinerary for myself as a first time visitor to Madrid.
I didn’t leave wishing I had done or seen something else. Of course I didn’t get to everything, but I always love a reason to go back to a city that I fall in love with.
Here are 10 things to do on your first trip to Madrid:
1. Visit El Retiro Park
El Retiro Park is the first thing I did when I got to Madrid. It is such a calming, green oasis in the middle of a bustling city. The perfect way to decompress in nature without going to far from the city. There are several different areas of the park to visit. You can easily spend a full day in this park, but I’d give it at least half a day to see most of it.
El Retiro Park certainly doesn’t need to be the first thing you do in Madrid, but it should be on your itinerary for your first trip.
Here are the different places to visit within El Retiro Park:
- Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal)
- Great Pond of El Retiro
- Rose Garden
- Little House of the Fisherman (Casita del Pescador)
- Puerta de Madrid
- And more!
Like I said, you can spend hours walking around this park and always stumbling upon something to look at. Take your time here!
2. Tour the Prado Museum
The Prado Museum is one of the most popular museums in Madrid. In fact, it might be the most popular art museum in Spain (fact check me on that!). I toured the museum as part of a half-day tour of the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Prado Museum, but you can tour both of them separately if you’d like. Either way, I’d recommend getting a tour from a local guide inside the Museum.
This museum houses works of art by many Spanish artists, but my favorite part of it was Goya. On the first level, we saw Goya’s royal portraits. They looked how royal portraits are supposed to look – clean, elegant, flattering (most of the time). However, when we ventured downstairs, we saw Goya’s dark paintings, and they looked like they were from a different artist entirely. They were very dark in color and subject. Most of them contained some sort of demon figure and looked like they were straight out of nightmares.
It was just really interesting to see these two sides of the same man. It’s said that these dark painting started after Goya suffered an illness that left him deaf and darkened his vision.
3. Visit the Royal Palace of Madrid
Aside from the Prado Museum, this is the other important building that you have to tour on your first trip to Madrid. This is the official residence of the Spanish royal family, but it’s mainly used for ceremonies now. It’s also said to be the largest royal palace in all of Europe.
If you’ve toured a royal palace in Europe before, you know what to expect. Opulent furnishings, huge, colorful tapestries, gold and marble everywhere, frescos on the ceilings, etc. It is absolutely beautiful and if you opt for a tour guide to show you around, you’ll be getting a crash course in Spanish history along with it.
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4. Have a Coffee in Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor used to be the center of Madrid. It’s a huge, open, public space surrounded by a bright orange building with (I assume very expensive) apartments. You’ll also find a number of restaurants lining the inside of the plaza.
I don’t typically recommend eating in plazas or squares like this because the restaurants tend to be tourist traps, but I would recommend just getting a cafe con leche and people watching at a cafe on the square. It’s a great place to relax during a long day of sightseeing.
5. Eat Lunch at Mercado de San Miguel
Mercado de San Miguel is a market with a ton of delicious food stalls inside. It’s near Plaza Mayor and is a great option for lunch or dinner, especially if you have a group of people who can’t decide on what to eat! Inside, you’ll find fresh meats, cheese, oysters, ice cream, Italian, and so much more!
6. Get Lost in Old Town
Old Town Madrid was the part that surprised me the most because I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful! This section of the city has all of the old architecture you want when traveling to an old European city.
I’d suggest starting at Plaza Mayor and venturing through one of the many corridors with winding streets and tall buildings with flowers flowing off balconies. You’ll inevitably come across small plazas, statues, and corners worth stopping to take a look and a photo.
I like to do this around dinner time for two reasons. The first is that the sun is going down, so the light and atmosphere is even more beautiful than it usually is. The second is that when you get hungry, you can just stop at any restaurant you come across that looks good. Make sure to site outside to continue to watch the sunset and see all the people walking to and from dinner. Can you tell I love to people watch?!
7. Take a Wine and Tapas Tour
This should honestly be higher up on the list. Aside from history, taking a wine and tapas tour is my number one recommendation when visiting Madrid for the first time. Before my tour, I didn’t really know what to order or which restaurants to try, but our guide was SO helpful when it came to this. All of the restaurant owners and waiters knew her and she ordered for us every time.
We went to four different restaurants and had a few tapas and a glass of wine at each one. While walking around, our guide also gave us a few fun facts about the area, including history of Plaza Mayor. I was traveling alone in Madrid, so it was really nice to be able to chat with people about our travels and the food and wine we were tasting!
8. Watch Real Madrid Win a Football Match in a Pub
If you’re visiting Madrid during football season, you’ll understand quickly that football is HUGE here. Real Madrid (pronounced ray-al Madrid; real is “royal” in Spanish) is very widely supported in Madrid, and it’s supporters are PASSIONATE! Lately, I’ve been wanting to get more into football (it has nothing to do with watching Ted Lasso twice through, I swear), so I decided to watch a match at a pub while I was in town.
I read on a few blogs that the best places to watch football in Madrid is Irish pubs, so I found the closest one and walked over. To be honest, I was kind of intimidated to walk in alone. I’m not a huge sports person, so I thought I might be walking into a neighborhood pub where everyone knows each other and they all simultaneously turn their heads to look at the newcomer like she doesn’t belong. But that didn’t happen at all!
No one even noticed I was there.
All the tables were full, so I headed to the bar and had a beer while watching the game and it was fun! There was a projector screen at one end, so everyone was watching the same screen. It almost felt like a less-formal, louder movie theater…with beer!
9. Shop at El Rastro Market on Sundays
If you’re in Madrid on a weekend, you must walk or metro over to El Rastro Market on Sunday (9am-3pm). This is a HUGE outdoor flea market that I swear the entire city flocks to. The stands range from clothes to antiques to leather goods to linens to everything in between. This isn’t the kind of flea market where people are selling their old junk – these are stands with quality goods that you’ll actually want to take home with you!
The market spans for several blocks and the streets are packed. I’d recommend walking or taking the metro to the La Latina stop. You can get a cafe con leche and some breakfast at a cafe nearby and then start shopping.
I’d also recommend being intentional with whatever bag you’re bringing with you. I had a backpack and I ended up carrying it in my hand because I kept feeling people bump against my back and while it could have been nothing, pick pockets are in every large city, so I didn’t want to take any chances. A wristlet, a zippered tote, or a crossbody bag held in front would all be great options.
10. Take a Walking Tour of the City
A walking tour of the area you’re staying in is always a good idea when you first arrive in a new city. When I did the half-day tour of the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace, we walked between the two and got a walking tour of the different streets and neighborhoods we walked through.
If you don’t do a big full or half-day tour like this, I’d still recommend a walking tour to get a local’s perspective of the area. They usually have great recommendations for restaurants and night life as well!
Where to Stay in Madrid
I always like to stay in the Old Town in European cities simply because I think they’re pretty and they’re usually very close to most of the things I want to see and do. This was true for Madrid. I walked to everything on this list.
I stayed at Apartamentos Matute 11 on my trip and I can’t recommend it enough!
This is an apartment-style hotel. There is a lobby at the bottom where you’ll check in, but all of the rooms are different-sized apartments. I stayed in a studio that included a queen-size bed, a table with chairs, a couch, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. It was the perfect size for me to sleep, eat, and work in the space.