Few cities in Europe have a well-balanced combination of artistic pedigree, culinary scene, incredible history, modern architecture, and a trendy nightlife, but Madrid is one of them. The city’s mix of narrow cobblestone streets and modern boulevards offer attractions that could keep you entertained for weeks, but if you only have a weekend to explore the city, here’s a list of places you shouldn’t miss to make the most out of your time in this vibrant capital city.
Puerta del Sol and El Oso y el Madroño
What better way to start than right at the center. Puerta del Sol, or Gate of the Sun, is one of the best known and busiest places in the city. It marks the Kilometer 0, the center from where the network of Spanish roads radiates. At the square, you’ll also see the famous clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes and the beginning of a new year. A great place to spend the New Year if you happen to be in Madrid.
Lastly, do not miss the bronze sculpture of El Oso y el Madroño (the bear and strawberry tree). This is the symbol of the city, which can also be found in its coat of arms.
Walk along Calle Mayor on your way to Plaza Mayor – Main Square. This enormous, beautiful square from the 1500’s may not have much in it, regarding fountains or green areas, but its surrounding architecture is stunning. The square is surrounded by three-story residential buildings adorned with 237 balconies facing the Plaza and a few short towers that accent the long facades.
Mercado San Miguel
Not far from Plaza Mayor is San Miguel Market, one of the most popular markets in the city for gourmet tapas that include ham, olives, baked goods, beer, champagne, wine, and more. Over 30 vendors are located in this beautiful iron structure from 1916.
Plaza del Oriente
Within walking distance, you’ll find Plaza del Oriente, a monumental square built in 1844 after King Joseph I ordered the demolition of several medieval houses. It faces some of the most iconic landmarks in Madrid, including the Royal Palace, the Royal Theater, and the Royal Monastery of the Incarnation.
Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral
This is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, but it is only used for state ceremonies. King Felipe VI and the Royal Family currently reside at Palace of Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. The palace, which is considered the largest royal palace in Europe by square footage, is open to the public except when there’s a state function. The entrance fee is currently 11 Euros. In it, you’ll see the notable wealth collected by the Spanish empire, including several masterpieces by well-known painters like Velazquez, Caravaggio, and Francisco de Goya, among others.
Opposite to the palace is the Almudena Cathedral, currently the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. Even though the cathedral was built in 1879, it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
For centuries, Spanish royals gave praise and riches to the finest artists of the day, like Goya and Velázquez, among many others like Picasso, Dalí, and Miró, to create some of the most stunning art ever created.
World-class art is spread all over the city, but three museums, in particular, should be on your list – the Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Even though all three museums are within walking distance of each other, one morning is not enough to even see one of these museums in its entirety, but with such a short time in the city, you must either pick one or visit two of them by selecting specific masterpieces you want to see. If I were to pick two, I’d start with Prado and Reina Sofía.
Atocha Railway Station
Just steps from Reina Sofia Museum, you’ll see Madrid’s main train station. The beautiful wrought-iron-renewal-style, steel, and glass station was built in 1892 by Alberto de Palacio Elissagne, and Gustave Eiffel (famous for the Eiffel Tower), after the original train station was destroyed by fire.
If you’re traveling by train to any other part of Spain, it’s possible you’ll depart from Atocha Station. But, even if you aren’t, take a few minutes to admire this turn of the century building and its enclosed tropical garden; considered to be one of the most beautiful train stations in all Europe.
Relax in Nature
Spend part of the afternoon relaxing in nature at the Royal Botanical Garden or the Buen Retiro Park. The Buen Retiro Park, which used to belong to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century, is now one of the largest and most popular public parks in the city. As one of Madrid’s premier attractions, this park is full of beautiful sculptures and monuments, a peaceful lake, galleries, and several event spaces, including the Crystal Palace, a glass pavilion inspired by The Crystal Palace in London.
Plaza de Cibeles
Madrid may not have the Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower or St. Peter’s Basilica, but it has the Cibeles Fountain. This charming fountain has a statue of the goddess of Earth, agriculture, and fertility. On special days, like when the Real Madrid team wins, fans jump into the fountain to celebrate the victory and honor its patron. Across the square is the opulent Cibeles Palace. Even though the building is named a “palace” and looks like a cathedral, it is the Spanish postal and telecommunications headquarters.
Walk Madrid’s Gran Via
Lastly, spend your last few hours walking along la Gran Via, one of the most popular shopping avenues in the city. While it might not be the city's trendiest shopping district, most locals and tourists love the Art Deco shops selling anything from clothing to souvenirs and everything in between.
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