Like between Rio and São Paulo, there is a “rivalry” between Barcelona and Madrid. My heart was already beating for Barcelona as I had been there twice, before we went to the Spanish capital. But after I got to know Madrid, I prefer not to take any sides. The truth is that the two cities are very different and both very interesting.
Madrid is a city with beautiful architecture and a pulsating cultural life. Here is where the main theatrical spectacles, concerts and musicals take place. In the capital are also the main museums of Spain, such as the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum, which show art Spanish legends such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró.
Madrid also has beautiful buildings, parks and squares, highlighting Parque Del Retiro and Plaza Mayor, which are some of the most visited tourist spots in the city. But the best way to get to know Madrid and their habitants is by tasting the delicious tapas (Spanish snacks), in one of its numerous bars and restaurants. For those who like it, Madrid is also famous for its lively nightlife. The most famous clubs are in Chuenca, the GLS district.
To save money for tapas, wines and clubs, I prepared a 2-day itinerary in Madrid with just free tourists attractions (some are paid, but there are free visiting hours provided). To save up even more, if you are staying in a good location, you can walk everywhere and don’t need to pay for public transportation.
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol is one of Madrid’s main squares, a meeting place of its habitants, as well as for demonstrations and protests. In its origin it was one of the accesses of the wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century. The name of the gate originates from a sun that decorated the entrance, placed there by the fact that the gate was oriented to the east. Since 1950, here is the zero kilometer of the Spanish roads located. There is also the statue of Oso y el Madroño (The bear and the tree) which is the symbol of the city.
The oldest building at Puerta del Sol is Real Casa de Coreos. The highlight of this building is the clock tower, built and donated in the 19th century by José Rodriguez de Losada. Traditionally, this is the clock that counts the seconds until New Year.
A few meters from Puerta del Sol is Plaza Mayor, also one of Madrid’s main postcards. The rectangular square is surrounded from all sides of three-story high buildings, and to enter it it is just possible through one of the nine porticos. It is 129 meters long and 94 meters wide.
All along the square are 237 balconies. Its most famous portico is Arco de Cuchilleros, which is located on the southwest corner. Around the square are Casa de la Panadería and Casa de la Carnicería. Under the arches, in its arcades, are several shops and restaurants.
Plaza Mayor dates back to the 17th century when the court of Philip II moved to Madrid. In 1617, the architect Juan Gómez de Mora was contracted to create a greater uniformity between the buildings here which was the old Plaza of the Arrabal before.
For centuries Plaza Mayor got more popularity because of bullfights, beatifications and coronations.
San Miguel Market
You can find San Miguel Market in the heart of Madrid’s old quarter, just a short walk from Plaza Mayor. It is a culinary center of the city, where typical Spanish and Madrid products are sold, such as Jámon (delicious Spanish ham, looks more like salami), wines or tortillas.
Originally installed outdoors in 1835, its final version was built in 1911, covered by a metal structure.
The market opens from 10 am and stays open until midnight on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday and 2 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The visit to the market is free. But you can enjoy the saved money because of this itinerary and enjoy “tapas”.
Royal Palace of Madrid
The Royal Palace of Madrid or Palace of the Orient is the official residence of the Spanish King. It is considered as the largest royal palace in Europe, with an area of 135,000 m² and 4318 rooms.
Despite being the official residence, the King of Spain uses the palace only for gala occasions, lunch, official receptions, awards and audiences, as the Royal Family chose to live in the Zarzuela Palace, more modest than the Palace of the Orient .
The construction of the Royal Palace of Madrid begun April 6, 1738, at the site of another palace, the Real Alcázar of Madrid which got destroyed by a fire that lasted three days in 1734.
The palace was decorated by artists such as Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Rubens, Tiepolo, Mengs and Caravaggio. Several royal collections, including the world’s largest collection of Stradivarius, collections of tapestries, porcelain, furniture and other art works of great historical importance, are kept in the palace.
Attention: Foreigners pay € 11 for the tour (pay just € 1 more to take the guided tour). Monday to Thursday from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm (October to March) and from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm (April to September), free admission for citizens of the European Union, residents and European work permit holders, and Latin American citizens, with prior nationality accreditation (national identity document, passport or driver’s license) or residence or work permit. The offer is only for a free visit. During this time, guided tour groups are not allowed.
Even if you don’t have time for a visit, it is worth going to the Palace to observe the facade and the gardens.
Almudena Cathedral is the main church of the Archdiocese of Madrid, consecrated to Santa Maria de la Almudena, the saint patron of the city. It is the first Spanish cathedral consecrated by a Pope and the first consecrated by John Paul II outside of Rome. The consecration took place on June 15, 1993, during the fourth visit of John Paul II to Spain.
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, from 10 am to 9 pm.
Entrance to the Cathedral is free, but a donation of 1 euro is been asked.
If you are interested in visiting the museum, the Sacristy, the Chapter Hall and the Cathedral Dome, you pay 6 euros. The Museum is not so interesting, but from the Cathedral’s dome you have a beautiful panoramic city view.
More information: http://www.catedraldelaalmudena.es/
Campo del Moro and Sabatini Gardens
Next to the Royal Palace of Madrid are Campo del Moro and the Sabatini Gardens. Campo del Moro is a garden area of about twenty hectares. It was designed in 1844 by the architects Narciso Pascual and Colomer.
Campo del Moro has many fountains, statues and beautiful gardens. Within the area of the park are more than 70 species of trees, some over 150 years old and also animals such as peacocks and pheasants.
The Sabatini Gardens are also part of the Royal Palace and were opened to the public by King Juan Carlos I in 1978. The name of the gardens is a tribute to Francesco Sabatini (1722-1797), an 18th century Italian architect who designed, among others things in the palace, the royal stables.
The gardens have a formal neoclassical style, consisting of well-cut hedges, symmetrical geometric patterns. In addition, there is a pool, statues and fountains, with trees also arranged in a symmetrical geometric form. The statues showing the Spanish kings.
Opening hours: Campo del Moro can be visited every day, from 10 am to 6 pm (October to March) and from 10 am to 8 pm (April to September). The Sabatini Gardens can be visited every day from 9 am to 9 pm (from October to April) and from 9 am to 10 pm (from May to September). Admission to both is free.
Plaza de Oriente (Square of the Orient)
On one side of the Royal Palace is Plaza de Oriente, the project from 1844 of the architect Narciso Pascual and Colomer. Another important building that is located at this square is the Teatro Real. The square is very beautiful and houses a collection of sculptures, especially that of Philip IV, a 17th century piece by Pietro Tacca, which is right in the center of the square.
Madrid keeps a small piece of Egypt. The Temple of Debod is one of the few complete Nubian-Egyptian architectural testimonies that can be seen outside of Egypt. Built in the 4th century BC by King Cuche Adijalamani to honor the God Amun. Until just a few decades ago it was situated 15 km South of Aswan in Egypt, very close to the first Nile waterfall and the great religious center of the goddess Isis.
According to Wikipedia, originally the walls of the temple were decorated with illustrations showing King Adijalamani as an Egyptian pharaoh donating offerings to the gods. These paintings lost much of their natural glow when the temple was submerged in the river of Aswan.
In 1968, the temple was donated to Spain by the Egyptian state to thank them for the aid to rescue the temples of Abu Simbel. In Spain, the temple underwent a complicated reconstruction and restoration work. The temple was inaugurated on July 20, 1972.
This was one of the attractions that didn’t visit in Madrid due to lack of time and research. But I would very much like to go there next time.
From 1 April to 30 September (except August):
Tuesday to Friday, from 10 am to 2 pm and from 6 to 8 pm.
Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm.
From 1st October to 31st March:
Tuesday to Friday, from 10 am to 2 pm and from 4 pm to 6 pm.
Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 09h30 am to 8:00 pm.
Closed on Mondays and on 1st and 6th of January, 1st of May, 24th, 25th and 31st of December.
Admission is free. The last entry is 15 minutes prior closing.
Gran Vía is one of the main avenues of the city. It is known as the Spanish Broadway, because here you can find all the theaters which present the main shows in Spain. In addition to the theaters, the avenue also has many cinemas, restaurants and bars. Gran Vía is a street that never sleeps. During the day, it is mostly for luxury shopping. But it is also possible to find some cheaper stores.
One tip from us: stay in one of the numerous perpendicular streets of Gran Vía, where there are many “hostels”, with good prices. The location can’t be better.
Plaza and Cibeles Palace
Cibeles square (Plaza de Cibeles) is linking the districts Centro, Retiro and Salamanca. The square got its name from the fountain that is locate in its center, carved in the year 1782, after a drawing from Ventura Rodríguez. In each of the four corners are important buildings of Madrid, constructed between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century: the Palace of Buenavista or Headquarters of the Army, from 1777; the Palace of Linares or House of America; the Palace of Communications (Palacio de Cibeles), the Madrid Town Hall; and the Bank of Spain.
The Palace of Cibeles (Centro-Centro) is an architectural gem, built in 1904. Inside the building is an open space for cultural events such as creative management of public spaces, sustainability, citizenship among others, are discussed.
The exhibition space is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 8 pm. Admission is free.
Puerta de Alcalá
Puerta de Alcalá is one of the main symbols of Madrid. The monument is located at Independence Square and consists of two rectangular gates and three arches. The construction dates back into 1778 and was made at the request of King Charles III to serve as the main gate to the city. The designer was Francisco Sabatini and the sculptures are made by Roberto Michel and Francisco Gutiérrez.
One of the most beautiful places in Madrid is undoubtedly the Parque del Retiro, also called the “lung of the city”. Created between 1630 and 1640, the park is spread on an area of 118 hectares, where it gathers a multitude of statues, fountains and commemorative monuments, which turned it into a museum of outdoor sculpture. Within the Parque del Retiro are the Palacio de Valázquez and the Crystal Palace. The latter is very beautiful.
The park is always full of artists, singers, musicians and painters. Within the park area you can also find restaurants and snack bars.
If you had to visit only a single museum throughout Spain, it probably would be the Prado Museum. It is the number 1 attraction of the Spanish capital. And among the most important works are Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, Tintoretto’s “The Washing of the Feet”, Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross”, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” or “The Three Graces” of Rubens; along with art works by important Spanish painters such as “Las Meninas” by Velázquez, “Jacob’s Dream” by Ribera and “The Third of May 1808” by Goya.
The building in which the Prado Museum is located, was designed by the architect Juan de Villanueva in 1785, as a Cabinet of Natural Sciences. Just from 1819 on the building got used as a museum, initially as a Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures. Since the founding of the Museum, more than 2300 paintings and many sculptures, prints, drawings and decorative art pieces have been collected, mainly as donations and acquisitions.
The Prado Museum is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 8 pm and on Sundays and holidays, from 10 am to 7 pm. Closed January 1st, May 1st and December 25th. Closing earlier on January 6th, December 24th and 31st, from 10 am to 2 pm.
Admission costs 15 euros.
Free admission, from Monday to Saturday, from 6 pm to 8 pm. And on Sundays and holidays, from 5 pm to 7 pm. During the last two opening hours, you can also get a 50% discount on the admission to temporary exhibitions.
More information: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/visit-the-museum
Exploring the city for two days and spending not even one penny, it is possible to get to know many of the main attractions of Madrid. However, the Spanish capital offers enough sightseeing for at least two more travel days. Among the paid attractions, I would like to highlight the Reina Sofia Museum, which shows art works from geniuses such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Juan Miró and Andy Warhol. The ticket costs 10 euros. But it’s absolutely worth it.
More information: http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/visit
Other paid tours that you can do are shown here: tour through the stadium of Real Madrid (buy your ticket in advance and skip the queue), a Madrid cable car ride (buy your ticket in advance and skip the queue), watch a Flamenco show (buy your ticket in advance and skip the queue).
Post updated on July 31, 2017
Translation to English by Juliane Boll