Why visit Madrid? My guide to the capital of Spain

May 15, 2023 6:45:00 AM | Spain Why visit Madrid? My guide to the capital of Spain

I spend a lot of time in Spain. That means people ask me for my advice when they visit Madrid. Here are the facts, according to me.

Is Madrid worth visiting?

Want to skip to the good stuff? Click the links below

👉 Free things to do/see
👉 Google Maps pins
👉 Paid Attractions
👉 Tips for first-timers
👉 Rec for Chocolate y Churros

Yes, I used AI to write most of this post & pick the title for "SEO reasons". The locations, commentary, and photos are all mine though.

| One of the first questions I often get: "Is Madrid worth visiting?"

If your ideal vacation is sitting on a beach drinking cocktails under a tropical cover then no, take the time back, skip this post.

Inland sunset in Madrid from the Aloft Gran Via Hotel bar

If the picture above appeals to you, then Madrid might be the right choice. Madrid is an inland European city that will appeal to history and culture enthusiasts, art lovers, foodies, nightlife seekers, sports fans, and those looking for a vibrant city experience.

Top tips for first timers visiting Madrid:

  1. Taxis from the airport to the center are a capped fixed price (30 Euros). 
    Uber is the same price as a taxi at the airport and you will have to wait. If you are traveling with more than 2 people and luggage, you may not be guaranteed a car large enough. Taxis are the same price regardless of size. There is one guaranteed to be waiting, and you'll be at your hotel in about 30 minutes from stepping out of the airport.
  2. Buy train tickets as far in the future as possible. 

    Renfe train at a station in SpainTrain tickets are dynamically priced which means that they get more expensive the closer it gets to travel. When planning your trip, use google maps to identify the train you need, then purchase them directly from the carrier. Don't show up to Atocha station the day you want to head to Barcelona and expect to pay less than €100. 

    Most trains are run by the Spanish National Rail Company: Renfe. There are also low-cost trains (IRYO & OUIGO) that run between the major cities (such as Madrid to Barcelona). OUIGO trains to Barcelona from Madrid are often around $10/ person if you book when they open. Day of, they can easily be 7-10x that price.

  3. Buy a metro card and use it to go anywhere.

    The Madrid Metro is super cleanPlan on using the public transit, it's awesome. The Metro is clean, safe, convenient, inexpensive, and goes everywhere. With 12 lines and over 300 stations, it is one of the most extensive metro systems in the world. A single ticket will set you back €1.50, there are multi-ticket options as well.

  4. Purchase a sim card once you've gotten to the city, not at the airport.

    Note my advice on going directly to the taxi queue, go to your hotel, and while you're on the wifi there, look up the location of the nearest Vodafone. Walk there, and buy a sim for about 15 euros.

    If you really want to have data the moment you land, I use a service called Airalo (this is a referral link, we both get 3$ in credit if you sign up) that offers e-sims. The rate will be 2-3x, but it is incredibly convenient to check email while you taxi to the gate.

My favorite free places to visit in Madrid

Once you've gotten to the city, and have data, it's time to explore. For those coming from the states: resist the urge to nap after the redeye on day 1, it will help you acclimate easier if you stay awake until at least 8pm. Easy, free activities are always at the top of my list for days like these.

Hit the main plazas and stop for Tapas

Plaza Mayor, Plaza del Sol, & Mercado San Miguel will be on every list, article, or blog you read about Madrid. I'm not one for crowds so my suggestion would be to walk in about this order. You'll note that I placed a handy restaurant pin at the end of that tiring 600m distance. You will probably be hungry with all the beautiful food, signs, and smells.

Fun times at Mercado San Miguel

If San Gines isn't terribly crowded, it's a good place to enjoy refreshments with friends. Often it's body to body so you probably will not want to stay long.

If it's packed, don't be too tempted & trust me here. Head to Amicis (It is very helpful to have a reservation) which is literally a few feet away. It's an oasis within the craziness of the last hour you just had. If you walk in the opposite direction, have your tapas at El Minibar. Neither option will leave you disappointed.

Visit the El Corte Ingles on Callao for a beer (bonus points for sunset)

IMG_0937If you are still standing and have not fallen asleep yet after lunch, you should head up to El Corte Ingles. Yes, I know it's a department store. And it isn't really free to buy the beer, but it still makes the list because anyone can go inside and walk up to the top level for free.


Meat lovers will love El Camino SacramentoOn the top floor, you'll find an amazing view of Madrid, lots of awesome things to eat. Meat eaters, note my pin for El Camino Sacramento in my Google Maps list), and cool gourmet foods to buy.

My rec: go for sunset. You'll need to get there a bit early as the tables outside get taken quickly. 

Enjoy the green spaces

My three favorite parks in Madrid are Casa de Campo, Templo Debod & Parque de El Retiro (El Retiro Park). Templo de Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled, moved to Madrid, and reassembled in Parque del Oeste overlooking he city. I mention it first because if you like to walk, pick up after lunch from my tip above, walk by the Almudena Cathedral & the Royal Palace then enjoy a spectacular view.

If your legs have not given up yet, you can continue walking towards the Teleferic that takes you to Casa de Campo. Casa de Campo is a former royal hunting estate. Today it features a lake, an amusement park, the zoo, cable car, and miles of walking and cycling paths. Stay to the southern side of the park for easy exit on the metro: If you visit the zoo or amusement park, it'll be on that side.

Retiro Park is near the art museums so worth bundling with them. It is 125-hectare of manicured gardens, sculptures, fountains, and a lake where visitors can rent boats, as well as several historical landmarks, including the Crystal Palace (which usually has a free art exhibition) and the Monument to Alfonso XII.

El Rastro

IMG_1976If you're around on a Sunday and like flea markets, the Rastro is a must do. Held every Sunday in the historic La Latina neighborhood.

You can find all sorts of goods from antiques to clothing and souvenirs in this open air market. Like this rad shirt that I decided to change into on the street. *Not seen, enormous crowds, I ducked into an empty street a few blocks away. Beware of pickpockets.

Paid attractions & restaurants

I'll stick to locations around the heart of Madrid in this post. There are numerous things to do and cities near madrid to visit (the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, Toledo, Manzanares el Real, etc.), but I'll save them for another writeup on day trips from Madrid.

Visit Reina Sofia

El Prado may get all the hype (and in my mind is still a must see), but I prefer Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (also known as the Picasso museum). The museum includes his masterpiece "Guernica" which for history buffs is truly evocative.

At some point if you are around Retiro or Reina Sofia you will probably want a snack. I believe El Motteau is one of the best bakeries in the world. They are often super busy and sell out of things relatively early so don't go right before closing.

Check out trains @El Museo de Ferrocaril

A historic train station housing a museum with steam trains. They often have family-style events on Saturdays, but at 5 euros for admission, it's a fun inexpensive activity regardless.

Everyone has to eat Chocolate y Churros in Madrid.

Chocolat is a must. I would skip San Gines, it's okay, but caters to tourists and always has a long line. If you want boutique, cute, and high quality, visit Chocolat instead.

For the greasiest, unhealthiest, counter-service churros, Churreria Santa Anna* is the cash-only place you want. 

*Note, it's located in the heart of La Latina, so perfect if you are at the Rastro. Be warned, on Sundays there can be an intense line that goes more than a block. As much as I hate lines, it moves quickly. 

Madrid is a great city to eat. Unfortunately I can't write about every place I recommend. However, you can scope my list of pins on Google Maps. You can also get in touch with me, I love shooting the shit about travel.

Mike Lee

Written By: Mike Lee