Whether you’re a true Madrid native, you know the Gran Vía like the back of your hand, or you know the paintings in the Prado Museum by heart (or perhaps you haven’t set foot inside since your last school trip), sometimes we all need help to know what’s typically “Madrid”.
You may have done some of these more than once—who can resist a calamari sandwich?—and others may not sound like your kind of thing. Maybe you even have them on your bucket list but haven’t gotten round to them yet. Well, it’s time. Here are 50 things you need to do in Madrid at least once in your life:
1. Visit the Puerta de Alcalá
Because, beyond the songs that have been dedicated to it, it has been an icon almost since the day it was built in 1778. It has since gone from being one of the five original gates that gave access to the city, to now being in the very center of it.
2. Stroll through the Retiro
All large cities have a central park, but few can boast about having two palaces (Velázquez and Cristal) or being as old as the Retiro, which dates back to the 17th century.
3. Eat grapes to welcome in the new year at Puerta del Sol
“Entre gritos y pitos, los españolitos, enormes, bajitos, hacemos por una vez algo a la vez”.
These are lyrics from the best-selling Spanish pop band Mecano, which suggest that this shared activity is the best way to start the year.
4. Get on the Madrid cable car
Fly over the Parque del Oeste and the Casa de Campo. It’s a true spectacle in the spring, but any time of the year is a good time to enjoy Madrid from the air.
5. Watch the sunset from the Temple of Debod
A piece of art worthy of a spot in the best museums, in Madrid we can enjoy the sunset for free and without having to queue. Also, the views of the Manzanares from the gardens are the best.
6. Eat huevos estrellados at Casa Lucio
Enjoy these Madrid-style eggs and scrape the remains of the yolk off the plate while you try to spot celebrities from all over the world. Valentino and Bill Clinton, for example, who have previously posed for photos with Lucio himself.
7. Buy antiques at El Rastro
There is a long and varied list of markets in Madrid, and El Rastro is the largest and most popular of them all.
8. Eat a calamari sandwich in the Plaza Mayor.
Madrid may not be by the sea, but there’s certainly no shortage of wonderful fish and shellfish. There is nothing more typical, simple or cheap than a “bocata de calamares”. No sandwich beats it.
9. Try to remember the night at Eslava Theatre
Trust us, it’s easy to forget how or when you came out of this historic nightclub. In this city, partying until dawn is a popular tradition, and it’s passed down from generation to generation.
10. Discover the Cristal Palace
From time to time, you will be surprised by one of the avant-garde exhibitions that the Reina Sofía shows in this emblematic space. However, it is not the only crystal palace in Madrid. There is also the one in la Arganzuela; an unknown jewel.
11. Have dinner at a Chinese restaurant within Madrid’s small Chinatown behind Plaza España
Travelling, culinary speaking, is as easy as going up Calle Leganitos or heading to the back of the España building, where you will discover the most amazing non-Westernised Asian spots, such as Wang Wang or Xiongzai.
12. Have a picnic by the lake at Casa de Campo
The perfect plan for when the weather’s good and the days are long. You might also catch the canoeists playing kayak polo if you’re lucky.
13. Head to Cibeles or Neptuno to celebrate a football victory.
Whether you like football or not, it would be a shame to miss the spontaneous party that breaks out around these fountains after a win.
WAH is a show that culminates the musical and artistic strength of some of the best Broadway shows. It starts off in a food hall with live cooking demonstrations, in a culinary journey to all five continents… when suddenly, actors donning masks and armed with weapons invade the scene. Officials have interrupted your dinner with the intention to ban music forever. From here on out, everything is will blow your mind.
15. Stroll through the Campo del Moro
Campo del Moro is one of the most romantic gardens in the city, especially in autumn. The 19th century pavilions and the Chalet de la Reina are shrouded in mystery, and you may also come across one of the peacocks that live there.
16. Visit Cortylandia
Even if you don’t like crowds of people, waiting for Cortylandia to start and seeing the excited faces of the children—or, for Madrileños, remembering when you were taken there as a child yourself—is never a wasted moment.
17. Buy a book at Cuesta de Moyano
These blue booths are worth a visit from time to time! With almost a century of life (they were established here in 1925), these small bookstores are already considered part of Madrid’s traditional landscape.
18. Step on Km 0
This humble stone slab marks the geographical centre of Spain. You may step on it one day without realising it—either because the tourists are confused or because it’s raining—but since we’ve already recommended heading to Puerta del Sol…
19. Buy sweets at La Mallorquina
Any sweets? Yes, just choose the ones you like the most. Although their chocolate Neapolitans are especially famous (and worth queueing for)! If it has been a success since the 19th century, it’s probably for a reason.
20. Grab a portion of bravas at Las Bravas.
This tapas dish is typical of Madrid. Of course you can eat it anywhere in Spain, but the original ones are from here.
21. Have a drink at one of the exclusive terraces on Gran Vía.
You could say that this street has two lives: the one on the pavements and the one on the rooftops, and you should get to know both. Especially when Gran Vía is crowded with people, discovering the Madrid skyline from its terraces will make you feel special.
22. Give yourself nightmares by visiting the Museo de Cera.
It’s the original meme! We all tend to love and hate this museum in equal measure. It’s a fun game to choose which celebrity sculpture looks the least like its original.
23. Collect sweets in the Three Kings parade
Your age is not important: the hard sweets that hit you on the head while you endure the cold and the crowds are a treasure and you must appreciate them.
24. Bathe in the Casa de Campo pool or escape to a natural beach
We Madrileños love swimming pools! And because we have such excellent places to swim, we hardly miss the beach. Hardly.
25. Go see the Guernica at Reina Sofía.
This painting has quite the opposite effect that the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris has. With the Guernica, you will be surprised by how immense it really is (and that there is not a huge crowd of people trying to see it).
26. Go for beers in La Latina
Alternating between tapas and beer is also popular culture. For Madrileños, bars are held in high regard, and even more so in such a genuine neighbourhood.
27. Visit the Sorolla Museum
In addition to enjoying the marvellous collection of art in the painter’s house in Madrid, stroll through the gardens that Sorolla himself took seven years to finish. It’s a haven of peace in the city.
28. Go to Vistillas de San Isidro
You’ll eat, drink and dance as if you were at a small town summer festival (there’s nothing quite like these local festivities in Spain!), but at the end of the day you might smell like gallinejas; a local dish that sounds much worse than it actually is.
29. Visit the Palacio Real like all the other tourists
If you have time, it is a good opportunity to see the temporary exhibitions that often feature great artists.
30. End the night with “chocolate con churros” from San Ginés
We don’t know if it prevents a hangover, but it’s proven to be the perfect drunken snack before bed by generations of Madrid residents.
31. Go to Madrid’s Amusement Park and relive your childhood
It doesn’t have the biggest rides and rollercoasters, but it’s all about nostalgia here. The views of Casa de Campo, and even of the city, are very good from the top of some of them.
32. Watch the sunrise (or sunset) from the “Siete Tetas de Vallecas” (or at any of these viewpoints)
Yes, the seven tits of Vallecas. The town of Vallecas is an extension of Madrid, and represents the pure essence of the city. If you visit for any reason, this viewpoint is a very good one. But Vallecas has its own historic centre, stadium, soccer team… it really does have it all.
33. Eat a portion of grilled pig’s ear
It gets far less criticism than gallinejas, maybe because they smell less. But you have to try everything here, including callos (another local dish: pork guts).
34. Eat a San Isidro doughnut or Las Rosquillas de San Isidro
Rosquillas Listas and Tontas are Madrid’s most famous traditional pastries, and neither is better than the other. The people of Madrid are proud of everything from here.
35. Meet at the ‘El Oso y el Madroño’ (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree)
Although it changes its location slightly every so often, it is always in Sol, so you’ll never miss it. (And yes, there are strawberry trees in Madrid. Bears, not so much.)
36. Drink some “yayos” at Casa Camacho
It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle in Malasaña, but you won’t get better than the original. Even if it seems crowded, it’s worth trying to nab a spot – if only for their speciality “yayos”, which mix soda water, vermouth and gin.
37. Search for ghosts in the Palace of Linares
…but find none. That said, if you ask a grandmother from Madrid, she will convince you that they are there.
38. Buy ‘barquillos’ from a Chulapo in El Rastro
Barquillos are basically waffles, but it’s how they are served to you that is spectacular. The whole experience is made into a game of roulette, where you can win more waffles or lose everything. You can find these barquillos in dessert shops around Madrid, but for the most authentic experience, head to El Rastro market.
39. Spend the day in El Escorial
The city is great, but it’s important to take a break from it every now and then. If you hop on the Renfe, it’s easy to getaway.
40. Skate (or at least try) in El Retiro
Playing sports in El Retiro Park is generally a challenge, but that’s what challenges are for: to overcome them.
41. Go up to the roof of the Town Hall
The viewpoint out towards Cibeles and the corner of Calle Alcalá and Gran Vía is one of the best. You can also take the opportunity to have a drink on the terrace while enjoying the views.
42. Take your date to Parque del Capricho
Although its fame has not stopped increasing in recent years, it is still one of the least known parks and you will be very safe here.
43. Eat a traditional cocido madrileño (a chickpea-based stew)
There are many restaurants where you can eat a stew, but if you’re lucky and an authentic castizo invites you to his house, take advantage of the opportunity.
44. Buy Nativity figurines at the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor
Every year you should buy one or two characters. It is a tradition that forces you to return to complete the scene. Ideally all in the same size.
45. Take a picture with the Schweppes sign in the background
It’s primarily for tourists, but it can really look great from one of the zebra crossings (just be careful, obviously).
46. Go to a party at Kapital
Stopping to watch people dance from the upper floors is an experience that every Madrid resident (or visitor!) must have.
47. Go for a jog through Madrid Río
It’s also worth doing this in El Retiro, but taking in the river and the blooming flowers at Madrid Río is a real joy.
48. Stroll through the botanical garden inside the Atocha station
One to do just before you leave Madrid! Who hasn’t taken a photo here as a prelude to a train trip from this beautiful station?
49. Enter the Palace Hotel and gawp at its dome
Have breakfast, a snack or a coffee at any time. Whatever you get, it’s worth the price for the location alone.
50. Dress as a chulapa or chulapo
And do it properly! We Madrileños aren’t very particular about many of our traditions, but our grandmothers’ Manila shawls are a precious possession, and it’s important to honour that.