The Top 10 Places to Visit in Madrid

Gigi Peccolo is a student at the University of Denver and an ISA Featured Blogger. Gigi is currently studying abroad with ISA in Madrid, Spain.

I really can’t believe it’s December already; this trip seems like it’s gone by so fast! With so little time remaining in Spain, I started to think back on my time here, and I realized I still have a lot more to do! That being said, I’ve also visited a lot of really cool places. Here are my recommendations for the top 10 things to see (and do) in Madrid. (These are not ranked in order; they’re all equally great!)

Patrons at Puerta del Sol in September

#1 Puerta del Sol

With three metro lines running through it, Sol, as Puerta del Sol is commonly referred, is one of the most popular and most frequented places in central Madrid. There’s a lot of history in just this square alone; you’ll find the statue of a bear and the madroño tree (the symbol of Madrid), a monument to King Charles III, and Kilómetro 0 (the point from which all distances in Spain are measured). There are also countless street performers and stores dotted all around the square. Plus, right now they have a giant lit-up Christmas tree for the holidays, “Sol” what are you waiting for? (Sorry for the bad pun.)

One of the entrances to Museo del Prado (photo courtesy of my sister Bella)

#2 The Prado

The Prado is Spain’s most visited art museum, and for good reason; it’s an incredible showcase of Spanish art. You’ll find works by native artists Francisco Goya, and Diego Velázquez, best known for their work on Los fusilamientos del tres de mayo and Las Meninas, respectively. Make sure you see the works of El Greco, too (if you want to take a look at his best work, though, you’ll have to head to Toledo). The Prado is pretty expansive, so if you’re on a time crunch, definitely make sure you check out these three artists.

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The façade of Palacio Real

#3 Palacio Real

Now regrettably I still have not been inside Palacio Real, but I still have two and half weeks to get it done! Technically, it’s the official residence of the royal family, but they haven’t lived there for over 70 years, opting to live in another palace outside central Madrid. Built on the same site as the fortress Real Alcázar (which burned down in 1734), Palacio Real spans nearly 1.5 million square feet, making it the largest palace in Europe by floor area. Take that, Buckingham Palace!

A view of the lake at Parque del Retiro

#4 Parque del Retiro

Madrid’s most popular park is Parque del Retiro. Commissioned in the 15th century after the Spanish court moved to Madrid, this place has everything — fountains, rowboats, a guy on a unicycle, a puppet show with a goat that looks like Michael Jackson…Joking aside, this 350-acre park is a great way to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, whether you’re taking a run, walking around with a friend, or reclining on the benches by the lake. In fact, it’s almost a world of its own.

Sunset at Templo de Debod

#5 Templo de Debod

It turns out you can get a taste of Egypt right here in Spain! Templo de Debod was originally built in Egypt, dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun and later, the goddess Isis. In 1960, with the impending construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam threatening historical sites, Egypt donated the temple to Spain in appreciation of their help preserving the temples of Abu Simbel. The temple was rebuilt in Parque del Oeste, which happens to be a 10-minute walk from where I live, so that’s pretty cool.

A view of El Escorial and the Sierra Guadarrama mountain range

#6 El Escorial

El Escorial is a town roughly a 45-minute drive outside of central Madrid, but it’s totally worth it! The site originally served as a Spanish royal palace and a monastery and still does today, but also now functions as a museum and a school. Construction finished in less than 21 years, which is pretty amazing for a building of this size and scope. In addition, El Escorial houses a basilica, built by Juan Bautista de Toledo, an architect who had previously worked on St. Peter’s Basilica, and a pantheon, which houses the remains of almost all Spanish kings and queens since the middle of the sixteenth century.

Enjoying one of Spain’s best pastries

#7 Chocolatería San Gines

If you’re going to get churros anywhere in Madrid, make sure you go here. Just west of Puerta del Sol, San Ginés offers delicious churros con chocolate at a nice price (3,20 €). The churros are deep-fried to perfection, and the chocolate they’re served with isn’t your typical American hot chocolate; it’s a lot thicker and way richer (I was able to finish it all, but just barely!). The café itself is pretty swanky too, decked out with marble floors and tables and green velvet seats. If you’re not a churro person, they also have coffee and cakes, but seriously, get the churros. Bet you can’t eat just one (nor should you!).

Street performers at El Rastro flea market

#8 El Rastro

Madrid’s open-air flea market is a great place to find a souvenir at a low price. Held every Sunday and public holidays, El Rastro sprawls through endless streets and alleys, each one specializing in different wares, like paintings, clothing and even trading cards. With the variety of items sold here, you’re bound to find something that you or a loved one will enjoy.

The statue of King Philip III in Plaza Mayor (photo courtesy of my sister Bella)

#9 Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor may be just a few minutes away from Sol, but it has a completely different feel. For one thing, Plaza Mayor feels like an actual square, although that could be because it’s much smaller, surrounded by three-story buildings on three sides. It’s also a little less crazy than Sol and feels a bit more fancy, with its 237 balconies, nine entrances, and countless curving archways. You’ll also find a statue of King Philip III in the center; the square itself is surrounded by small, traditional shops and cafés, while Sol is more mainstream. If you’re in the area surrounding Sol, it’s worthwhile to go and visit Plaza Mayor.

Tourists posing with the statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza

#10 Plaza de España

After living here for a while, I’ve found that a lot of places in Madrid are closer than I thought. Not only is Plaza de España a five-minute walk from my house, but it’s right in between Palacio Real and Templo de Debod. The park features a monument to Miguel de Cervantes, author of Spanish literary masterpiece Don Quijote, so it’s only fitting that he’s flanked by bronze statues of the famous characters from his novel, the eponymous Quijote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza.

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Harrison Ford at the taping of El Hormiguero

#11 El Hormiguero (BONUS!!!)

Couldn’t leave this off the list! One of the great activities ISA organized was a visit to a live taping of Spanish comedy/talk show El Hormiguero. The show has national and international celebrities on the show on a regular basis, and who should happen to be the guest the day we visited but HARRISON FORD!!! (Exclamation points totally necessary). Anyway, it was a really fun and awesome experience, so if you’re studying abroad with ISA in the future, definitely go! (ISA also organized visits to the Prado and El Escorial, so yeah, they’re kind of awesome).

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