Madrid is a big, bustling city that can seem overwhemling, especially initially. It is a city of distinct neighborhoods and doesn’t have a small, obvious, central core with all the sights clustered together, or a central beach, like Barcelona. It can be louder, a bit gritty, and less concerned about what you think about it, all of which makes it an amazingly layered city that is absolutely full of life.
There is so much to see in Spain that where you go depends on your priorities, timing, and preferences — which is why we offer highly customized Spain trip planning — but, if possible, I absolutely recommend spending several days in Madrid. It is an amazing city, with world-class art, limitless, excellent food options, and a great place to really get a feel for Spanish life.
The Plaza Mayor, or main square, is a beautiful plaza in the historic Las Austrias area of the city. The plaza is filled with restaurants and cafes that have outdoor terraces and is always lively and bustling with people. In the center of the plaza is a statue of Philip III.
You can see the classic, Madrid architecture both in the balconies of the apartments that make up the plaza itself and as you enter and leave through the nine entries that are arched doorways. The plaza is surrounded by narrow, winding streets that are typical of this part of Madrid, one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods.
The lovely refurbished Mercado San Miguel is just around the corner from the Plaza Mayor and is a great place to enjoy a drink or a tapa, and people watch.
Note: I would not recommend eating or drinking at any of the places in the Plaza or in the immeidate surrounding streets, as they are almost all tourist traps.
Cibeles and Neptuno
Cibeles and Neptuno are two plazas that serve as traffic circles along the busy and beautiful Paseo del Prado that cuts straight through the center of the city. You can’t go up to either, unless the traffic is cut off, because they’re smack in the middle of very busy intersections, but it’s worth walking up the Paseo del Prado and admiring both from afar.
The Plaza de Cibeles is at the confluence of the Paseo del Prado with Calle Alcalá. From Cibeles, you can look up and down the Paseo del Prado, and also up the Calle Alcalá to another main Madrid site, the Puerta de Alcalá. You’ll also find the beautiful restored City Hall building on Calle Alcalá, just behind Cibeles.
From Neptuno, you can see two of Madrid’s best and most beautiful hotels, the Palace and the Ritz. If they’re not in your budget for a place to stay, pop in for a drink at the bar!
A fun note on their signficance for Madrid soccer fans — when Real Madrid wins, fans congregate and celebrate in Cibeles. When Atletico de Madrid wins, their fans do the same but in Neptuno. Each plaza has its appropriate Madrid soccer afiliation.
Parque del Buen Retiro
The Parque del Buen Retiro, known simply as the Retiro, is the lungs of Madrid. It is smack in the center of the city, to the East of the Prado, and is a lovely park to take a walk in, watch Madrileños going about their business, or to have a drink at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes.
On the weekends during nice weather, it’s packed with picnicking families, kids biking and rollerskating, couples lying on blankets, and just about anyone else you can imagine. Like most public places in Spain, you’ll see a complete cross-section of Spanish society, from young to old and every group imaginable in the Retiro.
The park is quite big and has several different areas within it, including the famous Crystal Palace, the lake where you can rent a row boat, a garden dedicated to the memory of those who died in the bombing attacks at the Atocha train station in 2004, children’s playground areas, and tennis courts among other things.
Calle Alcalá and the Puerta de Alcalá
Calle Alcala is one of the most emblematic streets in Madrid. It starts at the Puerta del Sol and runs through Plaza de Cibeles and up to the Puerta de Alcalá, or the Gate of Alcala, located at the southwestern end of the Retiro park, and then continues straight well out of the city center.
It is a beautiful street to walk up because you pass by some of the most majestic buildings in Madrid. You see very aristocratic buildings like the one below. You’ll cross the Paseo del Prado and see the Cibeles fountain and the beautiful city hall building mentioned above, and have a great view both North-South and East-West from a central vantage point in the city.
I highly recommend walking up Calle Alcalá from Sol to the Puerta de Alcalá. Once you’re there, you can pop into the Retiro park to have a drink on an outdoor terrace, people watch from a bench in the shade, or just enjoy the lovely park views. You could also head over to the Barrio de Salamanca for high-ending shopping and excellent restaurant and cafe options.
Puerta del Sol
You might well hear mixed reviews of the Puerta del Sol and for good reason. I have my own mixed feelings about this central plaza in the city, but despite that, I recommend taking a stroll through to see what all the fuss is about.
The Puerta del Sol is considered to be the beating heart at the center of Madrid. It’s kilometer zero of Spain, meaning that certain distances are measured in terms of how far they are from the Puerta del Sol. It’s the center of New Years Eve celebrations, where the ball drops and thousands gather to ring in the new year and eat twelve graps.
It’s surrounded on all sides by older, aristocratic looking buildings and is always full of people. It’s at the confluyence of several major streets, like the Calle de Alcalá and Calle Arenal. It’s situated between just below the Gran Via and between the Royal Palace and all the sites of the Paseo del Prado, and is smack in the center of a major shopping district. To give you an idea, Madrid’s Apple store is on the this plaza. It’s also home to the iconic Tio Pepe sign, which has become an emblem of Madrid’s city center.
I think it’s worth walking through the Puerta del Sol to see and feel the pulsing energy that radiates outward. While there are always many tourists around, it is also always filled with locals who are passing through on their way to another part of the city, running errands at the many stores, or meeting friends.
I would not spend a long time in Puerta del Sol because it is always so busy and hetic. There are many other better shopping areas in the city, if you’re interesting in seeing stores. It’s to spend a few minutes strolling around, take in the environment, the energy, and people watch. From Sol, you can head to great neighborhoods like La Latina and Malasaña for a drink and tapas.