Madrid is the capital of Spain and home to around 3.3 million people. It is the political, economic, and cultural center of Spain and it’s located right at the heart of the country.
The city also houses the headquarters of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a special agency of the United Nations (UN).
But what is Madrid known for? Madrid is known for its historical buildings, food markets, and the royals. It’s also known for its renaissance and contemporary art museums, sunny blue skies, unique neighborhoods, and bustling nightlife.
Madrid is a city of joy and life. Once you visit, you’ll most definitely wish to go back – I know I did! I’ve visited two years in a row and can hardly wait for the third.
So let’s go over the 15 things that Madrid is known for!
1. Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol, literally “door of the sun”, is one of the most famous squares in Madrid and a meeting point for locals and tourists alike. It’s the center of the city and the first stop for most visitors.
Here, you’ll find three of the main symbols Madrid is known for. The first is El Oso y el Madroño (Statue of the Bear and Strawberry Tree), which represents Madrid’s coat of arms. It’s where you’ll find people impatiently looking at their watches, as this is a popular meeting spot. The second is Real Casa de Correos (House of the Post Office), which isn’t known for its impeccable postal services but for its clock instead, where thousands of people gather annually to eat 12 grapes before welcoming the New Year. Third and last is Kilometer Zero, the starting point for every road in Spain.
It’s also a lovely place to shop for souvenirs or have a lovely Spanish brunch, complete with toast with tomato sauce and jamón ibérico (smoked ham), a slice of tortilla (potato and egg omelet) and a freshly brewed café con leche.
2. Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is located just a few meters from Puerta del Sol and the Royal Palace. Designed by Juan de Herrera and Juan Gómez de Mora in the Baroque style, it is another of Madrid’s must-sees.
One of the main points of this square is the Equestrian statue of Philip III. It was during a free guided tour around the city that I learned about the symbolism of horse statues… Apparently, if the horse is rearing (with both front legs in the air), the rider died from battle; if only one front leg’s up, that means the rider was wounded in battle; if all four hooves are on the ground, then the rider died outside battle. Interesting, right?
Here, you’ll also find Casa de la Panadería, one of the first bakeries to be established in Madrid back in the 1500s, and El Arco de Cuchilleros, the most famous out of the nine different entrances to the square.
If you happen to be visiting during the holiday season, there’ll be a traditional Christmas market that’s been happening for nearly 150 years, where you’ll find plenty of festive decorations and gift options.
3. Royal Palace of Madrid
The Royal Palace of Madrid was built in the 18th century and is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family.
Actually, nowadays, the palace is used exclusively for receptions, ceremonies, and official acts, as the monarchs of Spain have taken up residency in the Zarzuela Palace.
The Palace is surrounded by Campo del Moro Park, to the west, that dates back to the Middle Ages, and the gardens of Sabatini, which you may visit during the daytime.
The changing of Guard at the Royal Palace of Madrid takes place every Wednesday from October to July at 11 am.
4. Gran Vía
Gran Vía, the most famous boulevard of Madrid, was built between 1910 and 1929 to connect the Salamanca and Argüelles neighborhoods. It’s filled with shops, restaurants, and some of the city’s most iconic buildings, like the Metropolis or the Carrion building with the famous Schweppes sign.
In the olden days, Gran Vía used to be named the Spanish Broadway, but every year more theaters and cinemas close down.
Regardless, it’s still “the street that never sleeps”, as it’s one of the epicenters of nightlife in Madrid and even most shops stay open until dark.
5. Parque del Retiro
Parque del Retiro is Madrid’s most famous park and, since opening to the public in 1868, it has become a backwater of history and peace.
It was originally built for the enjoyment of King Philip IV. It got somewhat damaged during the War of Independence, but later regained its charm and elegance, becoming a place for commoners and royals.
There’s a scenic lake, where you can rent rowboats or hop in a larger boat that goes around the pond; there’s a Crystal Palace, a greenhouse turned exhibition gallery; and the monument to King Alfonso VII, an impressive statue at the end of the lake where musicians usually gather around to entertain passing visitors.
This is the best place to rest after a long day of touring. If you can, get some tapas to go, a nice bottle of wine, and have yourself a picnic, whilst enjoying the best sunset in Madrid.
6. Museo del Prado
Madrid is known for its art and Museo del Prado is the most renowned museum in the city and one of the most important art museums in the whole world. The building is the work of Juan de Villanueva and was inaugurated in 1819.
The collection is primarily based on paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries. Among those, masterpieces by painters such as Velázquez, El Greco, Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch, and Goya.
You can visit the museum for free from Monday to Saturday between 6 pm and 8 pm, Sundays and holidays between 3 pm and 5 pm. Children up to 18 and students under the age of 25 may enter the museum for free at any time.
7. Templo de Debod
Templo de Debod (Debod’s Temple) is one of the biggest hidden treasures of Madrid. It’s so unknown, I only knew of it the second time I visited! It is located west of the Plaza de España, next to the Parque del Oeste.
The temple was originally from Egypt and over 2,200 years old. It was later gifted to Spain as a thank you gift for their help with rescuing the temples of Nubia.
The best time to visit is at dusk when you can see the temple light up under the dark blue sky. You can also visit the interior for free! Although it’s not quite the same as visiting the temples of Egypt, it is definitely worth it, especially if you’ve never visited the real thing. You can learn about Egyptian mythology and hieroglyphics.
8. Museo Reina Sofía
The Reina Sofía Museum is one of the most important museums in Madrid and offers visitors an extensive collection of Spanish contemporary art.
It features paintings by renowned Spanish artists such as Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró.
You can visit the museum for free on Mondays from 7 pm to 9 pm, Wednesday through Saturdays from 7 pm to 9 pm, and Sundays from 1.30 pm until 2.15 pm.
9. Puerta de Alcalá
Puerta de Alcalá is one of the most representative and photographed monuments of Madrid. It’s a neo-classical arch, located at the beginning of Calle Alcalá, in Plaza de la Independencia, close to one of Parque del Retiro’s entrances.
It was inaugurated in 1778 by Francisco Sabatini, an Italian architect who spent most of his life working in Spain. He’s also known as the architect behind the gardens surrounding the Royal Palace.
10. Real Madrid
Located in the Paseo de la Castellana, Santiago Bernabéu is the stadium of Real Madrid, a soccer club loved by some and hated by others. It is one of the most visited places in the city, with more than 1 million visitors per year.
Real Madrid is known for having had legends of the sport roam its pitch, legends Zinédine Zidane, David Beckham, the Brazilian Ronaldo, AND the Portuguese (arguably the best of all time) Cristiano Ronaldo.
You can tour the stadium, visit the presidential box, the changing rooms and even step foot on the field.
11. Mercado de San Miguel
Right next to Plaza Mayor, you’ll find the historic Mercado de San Miguel, is a lovely gastronomic space that preserves its original iron structure of the early 20th century.
Here, you can enjoy many of the Madrid’s famous foods, such as patatas bravas (also known as papas bravas, fried potatoes with a spicy sauce), calamari sandwiches, pimentos padrón (small green peppers, often coal-roasted), and a nice glass (or two) of the authentic sangría.
12. Oldest restaurant in the world
I was very skeptical when told that Sobrino de Botin was the oldest restaurant in the world, but if Guinness attests to that, then who am I doubt it?
Inaugurated in 1725, it has since never stopped working. It’s famous for the house special – roasted piglet.
Initially, it was an inn created by Jean Botin and his wife, who then passed it over to their nephew, who turned it into a restaurant – hence the name which literally translates to “Botin’s nephew”. Its image retains the spirit of the 17th century.
However, the building dates way back to 1580. The wood oven used today is still the original of that time. It’s very popular amongst tourists so don’t go in thinking you’ll be paying the original 17th century prices!
Chueca began to stand out as a nightlife epicenter a few decades ago when the LGTB+ community filled its streets and squares with life, which until then had remained somewhat forgotten.
Nowadays, Chueca is a neighborhood open to anyone who’s looking to have some fun in a respectful and supportive environment.
Here you will find the legendary Museo Chicote, elected multiple times the best bar in Europe. Through it passed many of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden age, as well as the famous Ernest Hemingway.
Although flamenco has its origin in the south of Spain (cities such as Seville, Granada, and Cordoba), Madrid is where you’ll find the absolute best flamenco shows in the country.
Its origin was the combination of Andalusian music and dance with a Roman touch. The clapping, tap dance, and the singing are the pillars of flamenco.
There are shows in restaurants, theaters and stages all over Madrid but the most famous and oldest venue is unarguably Corral de la Morería, a restaurant that showcases flamenco since 1956.
15. Madrid nightlife
Madrid is known for its nightlife; it’s one of the best cities in Europe to enjoy a night out.
When it comes to pubs, the aforementioned Chueca neighborhood has amazing outdoor spaces, perfect for the summer heat. Huertas, very close to Puerta del Sol, is the tourists’ favorite neighborhood for drinking. Bohemian Malasaña, at the heart of the city, is known for its 70’s and 80’s vibe.
One of the biggest nightclubs in Europe is in the Spanish capital – the suitably named Kapital. It’s built out of an old theater and has seven floors, all with different environments. On its top floor, there is a rooftop that’s usually opened on warmer evenings.
Now that you know what Madrid is known for, it’s time to start planning your trip!