Madrid Attractions - What to do in Madrid as a foreign student?
The one word that describes Madrid is alive. It’s no wonder that the capital city of Spain is often referred to as the city that never sleeps: open-armed and cosmopolitan, yet deeply, traditionally Spanish, Madrid pulls you into its exhilarating whirlwind lifestyle and keeps you wanting more. Many foreign students who arrive in Madrid to undertake a Spanish course, end up not wanting to leave at all.
Madrid’s amazing offering
Madrid is full of museums, palaces, galleries, monuments, grand old buildings on historic streets, shops, outdoor markets, boutiques and department stores, vast green parklands, best Spanish and international cuisine, and an excellent public transport system that makes getting around very easy. Plus for those who seek it, Madrid offers a non-stop, seven nights a week nightlife, bar none.
The city’s barrios
Madrid is divided into several barrios, neighbourhoods or districts, each with its own character, sights and ambience. One of the best ways to get to know the city is to explore it one district at a time. Madrid’s public transport system works well, allowing you to easily travel to the city’s main places of interest and then simply enjoy walking around and taking in the sites.
Below you will find out all about Madrid’s main barrios and what attractions they have to offer. See also the Nightlife and Restaurant sections for more things to do in Madrid; and for the best ways to get around the city, read the article on Madrid’s Public Transport system.
Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s main meeting point, with shopping, tapas and bars
In Spain, the Puerta del Sol square in the centre of Madrid is known as kilometro zero, or “zero kilometres”. This is because the distance of every single main motorway in Spain is measured from here. The Puerta del Sol area is therefore as central as it gets in Madrid, with many cafés, bars, restaurants, fast food places, shops, department stores and a few nightclubs too.
One of the most popular places to meet someone in Madrid is beneath the emblematic Tío Pepe sign on the Puerta del Sol square. Here you will also find Madrid’s famous Bear and Tree statue, the "El Oso y el Madroño", with a bear stood up on its hind legs eating fruit from a tree. This statue is considered a symbol of Madrid.
From here, it is easy to head out in any direction and find famous Madrid sites. Walking east, you’ll find the Prado Museum. Heading south you’ll enter Madrid’s old and elegant Austrias neighbourhood. West, you’ll find the Royal Palace. Heading north from Puerta del Sol you’ll arrive on the Gran Via, a long main road that cuts through a large part of the city. On the way there, you’ll pass by many shops and cafés, and on the Gran Vía itself, you’ll find many restaurants and snack bars – although be warned, this area is touristy and can be expensive.
Huertas and the Prado Museum – the “arts district” of Madrid
The Prado is one of the world’s top art museums. It is found on the wide Paseo del Prado boulevard in a district is known as Huertas - and it is Madrid’s must-see visitor venue. The museum displays about 1500 paintings at one time, although its total collection contains about 7000 pieces. You could easily spend days or weeks in the Prado, but if you are only visiting once, the museum’s Goya and Velazquez paintings are the highlights, with works like Goya’s Black Paintings and Velazquez’s Las Meninas being some of the museum’s most famous and popular masterpieces.
In the Huertas district you’ll also find the Reina Sofia Modern Art Museum and the Thyssen Gallery, also well worth a visit. Madrid’s main Railway Station, Atocha, is located here too, as is the Plaza de Cibeles. The Cibeles square is a historically famous Madrid landmark, but in recent years it has often been seen on Spanish television after successful football matches (by either Real Madrid or Spain’s national team), when wildly celebrating masses of football fans crowd the square and jump into the fountain waiving Spanish flags, or their team’s colours.
Moncloa and Plaza España – the palace, the park and the university
West of Puerta del Sol, the Moncloa neighbourhood has three top attractions: Plaza de España, the Royal Palace and the Parque del Oeste.
Walking south from the square, you’ll get to the Palacio Real, or Spain’s Royal Palace. The guided tour of the palace is excellent, and the knowledgeable tour guides will tell you all about how Spain’s current Queen enjoys classical music concerts and why in the dining hall the King faces the door and the Queen faces the kitchen. You will also discover the many different lavishly decorated palace rooms, and the armoury museum.
After the tour of the palace, the vast green park called Parque del Oeste is an inviting place to take a relaxed stroll, grab an ice cream or enjoy street concerts given by busking musicians. The Parque del Oeste also has a peculiar feature, an Egyptian temple. The Templo de Debod is in the southern part of the park, and was moved there from Egypt in the 1970’s. From here, you can also enjoy spectacular views of the Royal Palace.
If you walk northwest of Plaza de España, you will come to Madrid’s biggest university district, including the Madrid University grounds and facilities. The area and its surroundings are a thriving university district, with numerous music bars, restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas, cafés and shops that are highly popular (and often cheaper) student venues.
Las Austrias and Plaza Mayor – the old Madrid
To discover what old Madrid was like, take a walk from Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor in the Austrias district. Plaza Mayor is one of Madrid’s first market squares, and you’ll often find something going on here by way of festivals, exhibitions or specialist fairs like the Medieval Market at the beginning of each month, or the seasonal Christmas market in November and December.
Madrid’s main Tourist Information Office is also located here, and there are many quaint cafés, chocolatiers, bakeries and specialist shops in the small streets surrounding the Plaza.
Chamartin – Skyscrapers, business and football
Chamartín is known as Madrid’s administrative district, with numerous business buildings and four of the biggest skyscrapers in Spain. Importantly, Chamartín also houses the Santiago Bernabeu football stadium, home of the Real Madrid football club.
If you are a football (soccer) fan, a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium can be highly recommended. The guided tour includes a walk through the stadium’s best vantage points, an explanation of the history of the stadium and current gossip about the team, the trophy exhibition, and of course, the dressing rooms and the dressing room tunnel out onto the pitch. Finish your day off in the real Madrid shop around the corner, and take home an official shirt or a scarf to remind you of Madrid.
If you are in Madrid during the summer don't miss out the chance to participate in the Real Madrid Camp where you can be trained by official Real Madrid soccer coaches at the Valdebebas training ground where the famous players of Real Madrid's first team are also training. This program is though only available for kids from 8-17 years old and during the summer months from the end of June to mid-September. The program is also available as a combined soccer camp and language learning camp where you can learn Spanish or English combined with soccer training.
Lavapiés and El Rastro – bohemian vibes and the flea market
The El Rastro flea market is an unforgettable experience. The El Rastro area is in fact named after the vast, sprawling flee market that takes over the streets near the La Latina metro station each Sunday of the year. Here you can buy anything from antique furniture and art, to 60’s bellbottoms and second hand jewellery.
This neighbourhood is one of Madrid’s more bohemian areas, with a diverse population mix from many different backgrounds and cultures, and the area is known for its trendy art galleries and cafés.
Chueca – Madrid’s ultra-fashionable gay neighbourhood
In Chueca, Madrid's gay neighbourhood, you will find the most fashionable boutiques, and trendy restaurants and bars. Every June the district turns into a huge party zone, as the colourful, joyous and extravagant Gay Pride Parade brings dancing, celebrating masses to Madrid and specifically, to the Chueca neighbourhood.
Plaza de Chueca is the barrio’s heart, and walking out onto the smaller streets from here you’ll find many small tapas bars and clothes shops, as well as a buzzing nightlife scene offering the latest in music, every night from about 11pm onwards.
Recoletos and Salamanca - Buen Retiro Park and the Fallen Angel
Although the Recoletos and Salamnca districts are referred to as Nueva Madrid, or “New Madrid”, the area was actually built in the 1700’s by King Charles III of Spain, who wanted to grow the city outwards.
The area is known for its wealthy inhabitants and many grand old, beautiful buildings, and for Madrid’s biggest and best-known park, Parque del Buen Retiro. The park covers a vast 1.4 km2 area and is extremely popular; on Sundays the park is packed with families, joggers and tourists. It is also home to the Fallen Angel. This statue is somewhat polemic due to its subject matter, the devil, but it is nevertheless considered an important work of art and one of Madrid’s prominent monuments, making it a busy place for snapping photos!
Malasaña – rock music, nightlife and café culture
If rock music is your thing, then when the evening comes, head to the Malasaña barrio’s Plaza Dos de Mayo square, where you’ll find numerous music bars, cafes and restaurants.
This is one of Madrid’s most popular nightlife areas, but if the late Spanish bar opening times don’t suit you, the district also has many outside café terraces where you can sit by day, sip café con leche and enjoy the sun as you watch people passing by.
The tourist office website
For maps and more information on Madrid attractions, visit the city’s Tourist Information website www.turismomadrid.es.
See the other sections on public transport, nightlife and restaurants, as well as the best places to practice speaking Spanish in Madrid.