Madrid, Spain's central capital, is a city of elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks such as the Buen Retiro. It’s renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor, and nearby is the baroque Royal Palace and Armory, displaying historic weaponry.
Best Time to Travel
The best time to visit Madrid is in the fall (September to November) or spring (March to May), when balmy temps blow through the city, making it come alive. But if you don't mind drab weather and a rather listless Madrid, visit in the winter when hotels reduce their rates. Peak tourist season is summer – despite nearly unbearable heat – but many Madrileños close up shop this time of year and take vacations themselves.
With 13 lines traveling between more than 300 stations, the metro is one of the fastest and most efficient forms of public transportation in Madrid. Each line has a corresponding color, making maps easy to read and figure out routes. Catch the metro daily from 6 a.m. until 1:30 a.m., with trains coming sometimes as frequently as every 3 or 4 minutes. Frequency depends on the line and time of day. At night, be prepared to wait up to 15 minutes between trains. Be aware that trains will be especially crowded at rush hour. The metro is generally safe, but always be alert and aware that pickpockets tend to target the trains and stations, especially in major tourist areas.
You can buy tickets for the metro in each of the stations at the machines available. Simply select your language and the instructions on the screen will prompt you through the rest. Metro trains stop at all stations, so there’s no need to press a button to signal your need to stop.
Madrid’s local bus company is known as EMT. They offer 2,000 blue buses serving more than 200 lines between the downtown area and residential neighborhoods. Normal buses run daily from 6 a.m. until 23:30, every 5 to 15 minutes depending on the line and time of day. At night, a limited service of nocturnal buses known as búhos (“owls”) runs from 23:45 until 6 a.m. the next morning, every 15-30 minutes. This is the ideal option for public transportation in Madrid if you’ll be out and about until the wee hours of the morning!
Single-journey tickets for the bus must be purchased on the bus itself. All buses are air conditioned and wheelchair-equipped, and many of the newer buses also feature seats for young children. When you need to get off, simply push the button to alert the driver as your stop is approaching.
Madrid’s commuter train system, known as cercanías, connects the entire Madrid autonomous community. Renfe, the national rail service, operates these punctual and efficient trains. Most of its stations in downtown Madrid also have metro connections. Trains run daily from 6 a.m. until 23:00, every 10 to 30 minutes. This is a great option for public transportation in Madrid if you want to explore more of the region outside the capital! Just be aware that the further away you go from Madrid proper, the more your ticket will cost (though it won’t hurt your wallet at all).
You can buy your ticket from the electronic machines in any of the cercanías stations. Like the metro ticket machines, simply follow the instructions as prompted.
Getting to and from the airport
One of the most common uses of public transportation in Madrid among visitors is to get from the city center to the airport and vice versa. Luckily, there are several options for doing so. Pick whichever works best for you, your budget and schedule.
From the Atocha train station and Plaza de Cibeles, take the yellow Airport Express bus. The bus runs every 15-20 minutes during the day and every 35 minutes at night (the nighttime bus does not go to Atocha, only Cibeles). The bus features plenty of luggage space and seating. Tickets are €5 and you can purchase it on the bus itself. It stops at each of the airport terminals as well. If you’re going from the airport into the city, this option is available as well.
Taxis in Madrid are a great option, especially when travelling at night, if you are in a hurry or if you are carrying too many bags. Nonetheless, even though the tariffs are less expensive than in other major European cities, this means of transportation is still a little expensive.
Taxis are white with a diagonal red band on both front doors and a taxi roof sign. If a taxi is free, the green light on its roof sign is lit and all you have to do is raise your hand to hail it. There are also taxi ranks throughout the city centre with a “T” signpost. With over 15,000 taxis in Madrid, it shouldn’t be difficult to get a cab. Very few taxi drivers speak English, so we recommend always writing down the address where you wish to go.
The eco-friendly public electric bikes called BiciMAD are an ideal option to get around Madrid, especially for short rides around the city center. You can rent a bike at any of the docking stations and leave it in any other.
The electric bikes are an excellent means of transport, as well as ecological, and it is an entertaining and agreeable way to discover the city, especially when it is sunny. You can take any of the 2,028 electric bikes there are in central Madrid distributed among the 165 docking stations and place it back at any station when you’ve finished touring the city.
Museo del Prado
Absolutely essential, the Prado is one of the best and most popular art museums in the world.There’s an overwhelming collection of masterpieces by renaissance and baroque masters.
Spain is represented by Velázquez and El Greco, the low countries by Rembrandt, Brueghel, van Dyck and Rubens, while Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli and Tintoretto form the Italian contingent. Of the many must-see works are Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio. The artist with most works hanging at the Prado is the Spanish Romantic Goya, whose 14 Black Paintings are a Spanish cultural reference point.
Madrid’s green heart and full of elegant gardens, the Retiro is just a few steps east from the Prado and was a royal property up to the end of the 19th century when it was opened to the public. If you’re visiting with little ones, paddling on the Grand Pond next to the monument of Alfonso XII is a fun option on a sunny afternoon.
The iron and glass pavilion built to house the Philippine Exhibition in 1887 is magnificent and growing in the pond in front of it are bald cypresses, strange swamp trees that turn a lovely golden brown in summer. The oldest tree in the city is close by: It’s a Montezuma Cypress planted in 1633 and ringed by an iron fence.
Built in the mid-1700s for King Philip V the Royal Palace is on the site of Madrid’s Moorish Alcázar fortress-palace, which burned down in 1734. It’s the largest royal palace in western Europe, and has a blend of baroque and neoclassical styles. You have to go inside for the full experience because the royal collections and frescoes are sublime.
There are works by Goya, Caravaggio and Velázquez, as well as stunning displays of watches, tapestries, porcelain and silverware. You can see the only string quartet of Stradivarius instruments in the world, and the Royal Armoury that includes the personal weapons used by Charles V in the 16th Century.
National Archaeological Museum
With invaluable pieces gathered from across Spain, this museum is a trip through Spain’s rich history. What may surprise you is the wealth of magnificent items that predate the Roman period. The best of these Iberian treasures and sculptures look almost new, despite being at least 2,500 years-old.
Puerta del Sol
This grand square next to the Casa de Correos (Post Office Building) is a popular meeting place, suffused with meaning for both city and country. Nearly every Spanish person will recognise the clock at the top of the Casa de Correos, as this marks the televised countdown on New Year’s Eve. There’s a tricky ritual involved too: With every chime you’re supposed to eat a grape for good luck (12 in total). Also in the square the is El Oso y El Madroño statue, a symbol for Madrid since the Middle Ages.
If you’d like to get a sense of the city, a walk along the Gran Vía is a superb place to start. It’s Madrid’s entertainment, shopping and cultural nerve centre, a buzzing avenue often full of life until dawn. By day it throngs with shoppers stopping by the many malls, high-street stores and luxury boutiques.
In the evenings there are couples arm-in-arm, stepping out to the cinema or a musical. And after dark the street pulses with many of Madrid’s top nightclubs. Sights to spot as you stroll include the vast Telefónica Building, built in 1928 and an early example of a skyscraper.
Mercado San Miguel
An easy walk from Plaza Mayor is this gorgeous art nouveau marketplace that dates to 1916. It’s less of a fresh produce market (although there are grocery stalls) and more of a gastronomic destination to purchase the best that Spain has to offer, like cava, pimenton (parprika) and saffron.
Flamenco is a dance that originated in Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura, and even if it’s not strictly native to Madrid the city has some of the most famous tablaos in the country. These are special halls that cropped up in the 1960s, and here you see a show over a candlelit meal with famous Spanish drinks.