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Best recommendations for a fantastic visit in Madrid

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Madrid is a leading, world-class metropolis. It’s vibrant, historic, easy to get around, and inexpensive. You’ll love it as much as I do. Here are my top recommendations for a fantastic visit in Madrid.

Europe is huge. Deciding which cities to visit, especially on your first trip, can be overwhelming. I’ve been traveling to Europe for years, and my first choice will always be Madrid.

Many travelers are afraid to miss something important. They wind up going for a multi-city ground tour that includes too many cities in too short a time. If you think choosing one city to visit in Europe is overwhelming, going on a  multi-city tour will make you lose your mind. I know because I went on one of those tours to Italy during my first trip to Europe. It takes the idea of a vacation and throws it out the window. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, but that kind of jam-packed itinerary is for novice travelers. Don’t rush me while I’m on vacation.

If you live near an international airport, you should have no problem finding good deals on direct flights to Europe. That’s where you’re going to spend the bulk of your budget. I suggest searching for a fantastic flight and hotel package from a specialty travel website that provides these combo deals. You can also choose to go with a travel agent.

Madrid isn’t small—with 3.2 million inhabitants, it’s the largest city in Spain and the second largest in the EU. It has a vast metro network and bus system that can take you all over the city in no time. And It’s incredibly walkable, and with its clean, wide sidewalks; large, green spaces; and pedestrian-only areas, running in Madrid is a dream. Spaniards are notoriously sarcastic. But their witty sense of humor, kindness, and willingness to help you find your way make visiting Madrid a top destination.

Whether your visit is for two days or more than, Madrid is fun and full of things to do. I’ve been visiting Madrid for a while now, and on every trip we make, we always discover something exciting. Here are my top recommendations for your stay in Madrid. Don’t worry if you can’t get to all of them. It’s so endearing, you’ll definitely return.

I’m focusing my recommendations in three major areas: El Centro, Retiro, and Salamanca.

El Centro (city center)

All roads lead to Puerta del Sol (the sun’s door), literally. And with Kilometre Zero (mile marker zero) marking the starting point of six national highways, it’s an accurate assessment. Sol is the busiest public square in Madrid. Just try to get a centimeter’s worth of space on New Year’s Eve or even on a random Tuesday. It’s the perfect starting point to your walkabout in Madrid. So lace up your walking shoes…we’re on the move!

Calle Mayor is on the south end of Sol. If you head  west, you’ll lose yourself in a network of interconnecting streets and maybe, eventually, make your way to Plaza Mayor.

Surrounding the square are a number of bars, restaurants, cafés, accommodations, boutiques, and, of course, souvenir shops. I recommend you visit a few points of interest in Madrid before you walk into a souvenir shop, though. Their knick knacks are tempting because their witty offerings can be like shiny things to kittens.

Sol is also a major transportation hub for Madrid. Staying in the area, everything is within reach. It’s the centralized location for political protesters, street performers, creative live statue displays, and people watching.

If you’re a shopper and a foodie, you’re in luck! El Corte Inglés, the biggest department store group in the EU and the last one of its kind remaining in Spain, has come up with an interesting concept to keep shoppers, well, shopping. On the top floor of the Gran Vía location, a short walk north from Plaza del Sol, you’ll find a fantastic food hall, The Gourmet Experience, with spectacular Madrid city views!

The food is tres gourmet, so go hungry. With 11 gastro options, there’s something for everyone, even, perhaps a vegan—definitely a vegetarian. You’ll have a foodgasm in this place. It’s also a gourmet market that sells wine, cheese, and other accoutrements. A few recommendations here: this is the perfect place to visit after a long day of sightseeing. Relax with a glass of wine or a cañita (small beer on tap) and enjoy the city center’s phenomenal views. The sunset over Madrid is particularly despampanante (stunning).

Chocolatería Valor a Madrid staple

Speaking of food, you must have something sweet, and what better dessert is there than chocolate y churros? It’s not vegan. But every time I travel to Madrid, my backside is in one of those outdoor chairs at Chocolatería Valor, enjoying a rich, thick hot chocolate. I always accompany mine with a surgery fried dough called churros.

This Spanish delight is so thick you can set a spoon on top of the hot chocolate without it sinking. It’s like hot mousse! Try the dark chocolate version, it will surely tickle your tastebuds. It’s the best late night treat when you’re winding down your day because it’s open until 10:30 p.m. Valor is located just steps away from Sol, on the corner of Calle del Postigo de San Martín and Calle de las Navas de Tolosa. It’s easier to get to if you make your way to Sol from Plaza del Callao. 

Madrid pubs and bars

You can find something to nosh on anywhere in the city center. Just about every café, pub, or bar will have similar offerings for low prices, and all are delicious. For something delectable, and worth your time, especially if you’re in the area, let me recommend Cuevas el Secreto. Nestled in a pedestrian-only area, this is the bar where you will devour the best tostas de cabra ever.

To the layperson, this confection is merely cheese on toast, but it’s so much more than that. It’s not vegan by any means, but it is vegetarian. The bread is a crunchy slice of artisan goodness, toasted, and slathered with a thick chunk of melted, soft goat cheese. But it’s not your typical goat cheese. This is a brie style cheese. It has a soft, scrumptious rind and served with a finishing touch of warm honey. Exquisite. 

In that same area, visit charming eateries, all of which serve up delectable tapas and drinks, so if one is completely packed, I recommend hopping to the next option. One that stands out for me, and you’ll know what I mean as soon as you check it out is La Negra Tomasa. It’s a Cuban restaurant that also hosts live Cuban music. It’s worth going in for a couple of drinks and one play set from the live band. There are an abundance of Cubans living in Madrid. In fact, Spain conveniently offers citizenship to citizens of all Hispanic countries they touched (or pillaged), because of, you know, colonial guilt.

Bodegas Melibea wall art in Madrid
Wall mural at Melibea

Also in the area, you’ll find Bodegas Melibea. This is a typical hole-in-the-wall bar. The decor alone is captivating. So, stop in and order up some wine and tapas. The place is very LGBTQ+-friendly and especially cozy for lesbians. As soon as you walk in, you’re transported to the 16th century. There’s a quirky mosaic tile artwork on all the walls. Along the north wall (turn left from the entrance), you’ll be greeted by an intimate tile design that I never get tired of looking at. 

Keep walking and you’ll come to a circle plaza. There’s a little bar, Taberna la Tía Cebolla, that serves up some scrumptiously authentic Spanish stews. Pre-veganism, I delighted in some amazing meals; if you’re a meat eater, have at it.

When you’re done with Tía Cebolla, check out the funky city square, Plaza de Santa Ana—my personal favorite. The draw here is the people watching. The terrazas (outdoor seating) are also perfect for a snack, something to drink, and people watching. The modern ME Madrid Reina Victoria is on that square and the rooftop terrace, Radio ME Madrid Rooftop Bar, boasts some fantastic panoramic views of the city with fantastic chill tunes. Go there for an after dinner drink; you won’t regret it.

The area south of Sol is lovely as well to visit, and if you’re a runner staying in this area, let me recommend this running route you’re sure to enjoy. Getting lost in Madrid is my top recommendation, however. And this area, known as El Barrio de las Letras (letters neighborhood), is also poetic. On the paved walkway are snippets of poems, writings, and sayings of famous Spanish writers embossed in gold. It’s inspiring, especially if you’re the creative sort. When we discovered this area, I spent hours reading the excerpts and was fascinated by their choices.

Chueca, Madrid’s LGBTQ+ Neighborhood

Just north of Gran Vía is Madrid’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood. Visit this hip area; it’s amazing. It’s the home to some of Madrid’s more exciting drag queen cabarets and gay night clubs. All celebrate every color of the rainbow. From November to January, the main plaza, Plaza Pedro Zerolo, hosts pop-up restaurants and puts on a festive light show. If you get lost, don’t fret. I recommend you remember Room Mate Oscar Hotel because you’ll find your way back to that plaza easily. The neighborhood is worth strolling through if you’re there during the day. Calle de Fuencarral is a pedestrian-only boulevard that’s lined with eclectic shops, tapas bars, and cafés.

Plaza Mayor and surroundings

With 10 separate entrances into this main square, it’s easy to get lost. You’ll never enter through the same arch twice. Plaza Mayor is two blocks away of Sol. Nestled inside a maze of pedestrian-only streets, it’s easy to find once you see its typical arched entrance. Or, you can use Google Maps.

Once inside, you immediately feel Spanish. It’s home to a number of touristy restaurants that offer traditional Spanish tapas, wine, cañas, and people watching. Artists can often be seen with their easels, painting Spanish landscapes and peddling their other finished art. Some less fortunate inhabitants often don creatively elaborate costumes and stand still like statues somewhere in the plaza. Once a tourist drops coins in a hat or bucket, they come to life and put on a little show. The same can also be seen in Puerta del Sol. In my years visiting Spain, I’ve seen many such stagings, and some are well thought out costumes and performances.

Just outside Plaza Mayor, down the Arco de Cuchilleros entrance steps, and a few paces forward, you’ll find El Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world. Calle de Cuchilleros is also home to other great eateries like CafeeKe, a lovely Belgian café offering delicious Belgian beer and cuisine. Try the moules et frites. 

Nearby, you’ll see the Mercado de San Miguel. While it’s very popular with tourists, it also serves up delicious treats. This market is open from 10 a.m. to midnight and is perfect for that late night craving or breakfast when you fly in from the States.

Madrid’s Plaza España and surrounding areas

From Plaza Mayor, make your way north through one of the alleyways or narrow streets, until you come across Calle del Arenal, another pedestrian-only promenade. Head west, and you’ll see the Teatro Real building; head east and you’ll end up back at Puerta del Sol. This is another fantastic area with bars, restaurants, shops, and other fun sightseeing opportunities. Teatro Real is home to the opera, ballet, and a number of other performing arts. This is Plaza de Isabel II, named after the queen who ascended to the Spanish throne in 1833 when she was just three years old. This plaza leads you to the Palacio Real de Madrid (the Spanish royal palace).

Particularly fantastic, especially if you just want to relax with a cocktail while taking in the city views, is the Skybar at Hotel RIU Plaza España. There might be a wait list, but who cares? Once you get up there, you’ll see exactly why Madrid is so wonderful.

Palacio Real de Madrid & Catedral de la Almudena

Continue west, out of the Plaza de Isabel II, and you’ll come to an extraordinarily artistic piece of landscape architecture that is a masterful introduction to the Royal Palace and its cathedral across the street. It is the Plaza de Oriente. With its beautifully manicured hedges and abundant blooms, the rectangular plaza is lined with stone statues of Spain’s monarchs dating back to the Visigoths.

Across the street stands the Berniniesque Royal Palace, designed by Filippo Juvarra and Giovanni Battista Sacchetti and completed in 1755. If you’re a history buff, a self guided tour of the palace is available. It’s the largest palace of its kind in Europe, and while it’s the official residence of the current monarch, he doesn’t actually live there. 

If you’re an outdoorsy sort, you should definitely check out the palace’s garden, Jardínes de Sabatini, and the adjacent park Campo del Moro, which is fantastic for runners and opens every day at 10 a.m.

Templo de Debod

Just north of the palace in the Parque del Oeste stands an Egyptian shrine originally dedicated to the goddess Isis. In 1968 the Egyptian government donated the temple to Spain in gratitude for their help in saving the Abu Simbel temples from rising waters in Aswan. The best time of day to visit the temple is just before sunset. Bring some snacks and wine to relax and watch the setting sun while you hash out your plan to move to Madrid. 

In this same park, you can pick up some tickets for Madrid’s teleférico (cable car) that gives you a short history of Madrid while it takes you to the Casa del Campo park and back.

Madrid’s District of Retiro

If you’ve already been to Madrid and are keen to experience something different, head toward Parque del Buen Retiro. Not only is this a spectacular area for sightseeing, but it’s also great for families, experiencing culture, and just taking it easy on your next stay.

Located on the east side of the city center, the Retiro district encompasses the park itself, its adjacent botanical garden, the famous Prado Museum, the paseo del Prado promenade, the hip Ibiza neighborhood and a few national monuments and government buildings. All are well worth your time.

Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s Central Park

Visit Madrid’s Retiro Park (retirement) has something for everyone. With both paved and gravel walkways, running is a breeze in this 350-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site. Completing a 5k in here is challenging but possible. The park has multiple levels that will leave your thighs throbbing.

Retiro became a public park in the late 19th century and has since hosted various international exhibitions. Several buildings erected for these events have remained in the park, including architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco’s Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), a glass pavilion inspired by The Crystal Palace in London, built in 1887 for the Philippine Islands Exhibitions. Festooned with an array of royal statues, the area at the Paseo de la Argentina is affectionately known by locals as Paseo de las Estatuas (walk of the statues).

El Paseo del Prado in Madrid

Stretching from Fuente de Cibeles in the north down to the Real Jardín Botánico in the south, this narrow green park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021. This is where the Fuente de Neptuno is located, in the Plaza de la Lealtad traffic circle across from the Palace Hotel. 

Also along the paseo is the Monumento a los Caídos por España, honoring those who were killed during the rebellion against the French in 1808. And in the northernmost point of el paseo is the Fuente de Cibeles monument, a fountain built in the 18th century, depicting the goddess Cybele on a chariot pulled by two lions. Fun fact: there’s one in Mexico City as well.

Palacio de Cibeles, formerly the Palacio de Comunicaciones, was once Madrid’s main post office and is now Madrid’s City Hall. It’s a gorgeous Modernismo architecture building with a Neoplateresque façade, and is very photogenic. If time permits, go inside and tour the lobby. It’s an artistic and architectural triumph. 


The Ibiza neighborhood is home to more upscale bars and restaurants. Locals and tourists alike flock to this part of the city for its diversity of cuisine and its charming atmosphere. This picturesque neighborhood is a ‘take it easy’ zone. Here, visitors stroll down the streets to view the beautiful architecture, not to rush to the next point of interest. And with hundreds of restaurants to choose from, tapeando is what we love to do the most here.


For a more residential, upscale neighborhood vibe head north of the city center and you’ll be greeted with majestic edifices, haute cuisine and couture, and European city living. You’re not going to find typical tapas bars and pubs here. With an abundance of diverse menus in this area, you’re likely to try something new every night. If you’re not a local, this area is really for the graduate-level Madrid traveler. 

Here, building facades are more modern, and the area mostly residential. There are plenty of accommodations here, though, and they blend in with the rest of the building facades. This is the area you’ll want to stay in if you really want to feel like a local. To be sure, Spanish cuisine is king here, but there are plenty of fusion restaurants with much more to offer on the menu than typical Spanish cured meats, paella, and tapas. It’s more than worth your time and money, especially if you’re the kind of traveler who wants to be considered a visitor and not a tourist.

One very happening street in Salamanca is Calle de Jorge Juan. There are a number of restaurants serving delicious food with excellent service. El Paraguas, in particular, comes to mind and is well worth calling ahead for a reservation. If you have a Saturday to spend in Salamanca, I highly recommend you walk over to Platea. This food hall has everything for everyone, including Flamenco entertainment.

The shops in this neighborhood are less souvenir stores and more specialty shops to buy ink cartridges for your fountain pen. Boutiques here are also upscale, selling Spanish-made brands and couture offerings. With more residents than visitors in this neck of the woods, this is the area to stay in if you want to vibe like the locals. Salamanca is also within walking distance to El Centro and Retiro, so if you need your fill of the nitty gritty, you can definitely walk there along Gran Vía, or hit the back streets and cut through Chueca. I have a great running route in this area as well.

Wherever you stay and whatever you experience in Madrid, it will be nothing short of spectacular. I do hope your next trip to Europe is a safe one.

Visit my travel page for more of my favorite places.

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