The Ultimate Travel Guide to Madrid

Madrid is a beautiful city that is a great place to visit on your first trip to Spain. I’ve lived in Madrid for two years, and in that time I fell in love with all the neighborhoods and culture of the city.

Guide to Traveling to Madrid 

The best time of year to visit is during the spring and autumn months. Peak summer of July and August can be unbearably hot. Madrid is a safe city – you can walk around at night and explore most areas without any problems. Be wary of crowded areas and metro stations – this is where you’re most likely to be pickpocketed.

Where to Stay
The top neighborhoods I’d recommend for visitors to stay in Madrid are Malasaña, Chueca, La Latina or around Puerta del Sol. You’ll be right in the middle of all the action, giving you the freedom to walk or take the metro.
Some Madrid Accommodation Options
Hostal Salamanca
This hostel is perfect for groups traveling with people who would not be considered “youth” in Europe (over the age of 26). Our room when we stayed there with my mom, aunt and my friend had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a living area with a fridge, all for about 50 euro a night. Definitely not a bad deal.


Students Hostel Luis Velez

My friend Laura and I stayed at this hostel for the two nights we ended up staying in Madrid on a separate trip, and it is a really nice hostel for location as Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor are only a short walk away but be warned, it is a bit of a hike (uphill) from the train station.  This hostel is very accommodating and has a nice staff with clean rooms and bedrooms, it’s a great place to check out if you’re under 26!

The Top Things to Do in Madrid
Reina Sofia Museum
Modern art is definitely not my favorite thing in the world, in fact, I think it is quite strange and difficult to appreciate, but the Reina Sofia is a fun place to spend a few hours.
It’s free for college students, so be sure to bring your ID. Not having to pay admission gets rid of the guilt of leaving after not seeing all the eclectic exhibits, as this is definitely not the museum for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.  
There are many famous modern artworks here, in particular, the famous Picasso piece “Guernica,” a large mural depicting Picasso’s interpretation of the Spanish Civil war.  Interesting sculptures and rooms playing various artsy videos and sometimes documentaries, as well as a variety of photography and paintings.

Museo del Prado

The Prado is an internationally renowned art museum, and a must-see if you are staying in Madrid. It hosts one of the most impressive art collections in all of Europe and is definitely a place to spend several hours or even a whole day exploring the various exhibits.  There is a strong influence of works by Spanish artists but works from all over Europe debut in this impressive museum.


Palacio Cibeles
A major Madrid landmark and a great place to get a view of the entire city is the Palacio Cibeles.  It is in the city center, and for a small fee of about 2 euros, one can go to the very top observation deck for 30 minutes to take pictures and see the sights from above.  Palacio Cibeles is a must-see as it provides a great panoramic of the city and is an inexpensive activity.  I’d recommend going at sunset for beautiful views bathed in the orange, dusky glow.
Retiro Park and Botanical Gardens
If you go to Spain in the spring or summer months, Retiro Park and the Botanical gardens are a must see.  An absolutely beautiful spread of intricate landscaping and beautiful sculptures, in particular, the monument to Alfonso XII which sits at the head of the lake in the middle of the park, on which you can rent paddle boats to enjoy a sunny afternoon.

Puerta del Sol

Located in the heart of Madrid, Puerta del Sol is a great place to explore during the day or night, to check out the restaurants and shopping in the area and take pictures of the various monuments and buildings surrounding it. It’s always a bustling part of the city, be aware of pickpockets in this area.  As long as you stay alert and keep your belongings close, no need to worry. It’s a highlight of Madrid and is within a close walking distance of many other attractions of the city.


Plaza Mayor

Being the central Plaza of the city of Madrid, Plaza Mayor serves not only as a space for municipal and other government affairs but also hosts a variety of tourist shops and restaurants.  A large statue of King Philip III stands in the middle, and various street performers mill the streets looking to make a quick buck in this area. Definitely a central highlight worthy of walking around, and a great location to get tacky souvenirs for friends and family back home.


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Palacio Real
The Royal Palace of Madrid, no longer in use for “royalty” except for state ceremonies, is the 2nd largest palace in Europe, and definitely one worth checking out while in Madrid. I would recommend getting the headset, as it is very informative and there’s a lot to learn about Spanish history within the palace walls.

Mercado San Miguel

Located in Plaza de San Miguel, Mercado de San Miguel is a popular tourist destination to check out the local food fare and walk through the wide variety of vendors.  It is in close proximity to Plaza mayor and a nice place to walk through and purchase fresh produce if you so desire. Definitely try some tapas and a sangria or cerveza while touring around Mercado San Miguel.

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Madrid Zoo

I wouldn’t say this is a “must do” in Madrid, but if you have time to kill and want to see some animals, you can check out the zoo.

The Madrid Zoo & Aquarium is located in Casa de Campo, a giant nature reserve on the west side of the city. The area surrounding the zoo is absolutely beautiful; a much-needed break from the sprawling concrete jungle of the city. The entrance to the zoo is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Casa de Campo metro stop.

The admission price for adults to the Madrid Zoo varies daily, and of course we selected the most expensive day to visit, Saturday. The ticket was 22,95 euro for an adult, and they do not offer a student discount.


The zoo was easy to navigate, with different spots to buy food all throughout. We didn’t attend any of the shows, per my personal feelings toward them, but they do offer dolphin and exotic bird shows as well as other exhibitions.


Malayan Sun Bears





Free Activity: Parque Europa

This is also not a must-see in Madrid, but if you have plenty of time and want to explore beyond the city, it’s an entertaining way to spend a day.

Located in Torrejón de Ardoz, it takes about an hour to get to using the Cercanias train and a bus. Take the C7 from Principe Pío and Atocha, and the stop for the park is Alcalá de Henares. From there, a quick walk to the plaza to take Bus A just by the entrance to the park. The park is completely free to enter, but we each paid a few euros to rent a quadricycle bike to get around.


I would highly recommend bringing some snacks and drinks to the park if you plan on walking around all day. There are kiosks, but their products are overpriced and the selection is limited to things like chips and ice cream bars.




For brunch, check out my ultimate guide to brunch in Madrid.

On a Budget: Montaditos
Montaditos literally means “little sandwiches” and to try a variety of Spanish style sandwiches, Montaditos is definitely the place to go.  It is a chain restaurant with locations all around the city. With prices as cheap as €1, you can try a variety of little tapa sandwiches.
My personal favorites are lacón (American-style ham) with cream cheese, Iberian ham with brie, and the Iberian ham with tomatoes.  All are tasty and inexpensive.

Carmencita Bar

Located at Calle San Vicente Ferrer in the hip Malasaña neighborhood, Carmencita Bar is a charming restaurant to stop in for gourmet tapas and wine.  Definitely a bit more upscale, but well worth the stop.  It is owned by a lovely woman from Arizona (a nice change to talk with someone who speaks perfect English if your Spanish is less than fluent).  She made us an awesome variety of tapas, my personal favorite was a toast with brie and a raspberry spread. Absolutely delicious, more than worth a stop.


Chocolateria San Gines

A typical Spanish dessert is “churros and chocolate,” fried, doughy-pastry sticks and thick, gooey chocolate for dipping.  Chocolateria San Gines, located at Pasadizo de San Ginés is THE place to stop for them. It’s open 24/7 and perfect for a late-night snack.


Mesón del Champiñon

Mesón del Champiñon, or the mushroom bar, is a famous tapas bar in Madrid.  Located at Calle Cava de San Miguel, this is a great place to stop, have a pitcher of sangria and try their awesome mushroom based or other tapas. I would recommend ordering a variety of the mushroom and other dishes to share with a group, but for sure try the sausage (chorizo) stuffed mushrooms, which are sauteed in garlic to order. YUM!

Hope you enjoyed this post and found some useful information for a future trip you may be planning to visit Madrid!

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