Madrid City Guide

A cultural powerhouse unlike any other. 

Madrid is a spectacular European capital with a rich artistic, political and culinary legacy. 

Whether you’re here for the mouth-watering tapas, the dazzling art or the enduring passion of flamenco – the Spanish capital promises to leave you spellbound.

Showcasing some of Spain’s best-loved customs and traditions, Madrid is an inspiring destination for an immersive city break in Iberia. If you’re thinking of adding a visit to the city to your upcoming Douro river cruise, let our comprehensive Madrid city guide make your decision a whole lot easier.

Architectural Highlights

Madrid’s unique history is evident in its evocative and beautiful architecture. Here, we explore a handful of the city’s finest buildings. 

Plaza Mayor

plaza mayor
The public square of Plaza Mayor is among the most striking pockets of architecture in the Spanish capital, home to historic porticos and palatial boulevards which showcase the elegance of Madrid’s Habsburg-era heritage. The square sits on the site of the former Plaza del Arrabel, which was the town’s principal market square until the 15th century. In 1617, Spanish architect Juan Gómez de Mora was charged with unifying the plan of the square, bringing together a series of ramshackle buildings which had for centuries played host to bullfights, entertainment and frequent auto-de-fé. The statue of Philip III is one of the square’s most treasured sites, beloved by local Madrileños.

Royal Palace

Madrid city guide

Serving as the official residence of the royal family for hundreds of years, Madrid’s Royal Palace is the epicentre of Spanish history and identity. Established by Emir Mohamed I as an Islamic fortress, the building became the official royal palace when Charles I came to power in the early 16th century. Much of the original palace was destroyed by a fire in 1734, but was later rebuilt according to the designs of acclaimed architect Juan Bautista Sachetti. The present design of the palace was reputedly inspired by the Louvre in Paris, with the main building surrounding a large palace and parade ground, which still hosts a regular Changing of the Guard. While it no longer serves as the permanent home of Spain’s royal family, it is still classed as their official residence.

Puerto del Sol

madrid city guide

Located slap-bang in the centre of Madrid, Puerto del Sol is the geographic and cultural heart of the Spanish capital, with ‘Kilometre 0’ marked by a historic stone slab in the centre of the square. All of Madrid’s main trunk roads lead away from this historic plaza, including the Calle Alcalá, one of the city’s longest and oldest thoroughfares. The square itself is an impressive architectural spectacle, with the famous clock face of the Casa de Correos building being one of the main focal points of the city, and an icon of Madrid’s NYE celebrations. This is also where you’ll find the Teatro Real opera house, which recently reopened after being closed for 41 years.

Cultural features

From foot-tapping flamenco to colourful tapaeo, Madrid captures all that is great about Spanish culture.

Flamenco

madrid city guide
Passionate, intense and joyful; flamenco is the heartbeat of Spain, and Madrid is its de facto capital. Emerging from the streets of Madrid, flamenco has been passed through the centuries, and is now regarded as the national soundtrack of Spain. Anyone who wants to make it as a flamenco performer comes to Madrid, with the city playing host to more tablaos, or flamenco clubs, than any other. Traditional flamenco comprises the dance of cante jondo performers, the strumming of the Spanish guitar, and the quejío, a melancholy song capturing the memories and pain of the past. Take a look at the official Madrid tourism website for a list of the best places to enjoy flamenco in the city.

Madrid's Changing of the Guard

madrid city guide
Taking place on the historic flagstones of the Plaza de la Armería behind the stately walls of the Royal Palace, the Changing of the Guard is one of Madrid’s great cultural institutions, and a real must-see if you get the opportunity. The event is performed on the first Wednesday of the month at 12 noon, and sees the Royal Guard carrying out the historic Solemn Changing of the Royal Guard in full procession and in their traditional blue, white and red regalia. Soldiers march to the beat of a fife, with the songs of El Almirante, Doña Francisquita and España Cañi performed as has become customary. Complemented by a concert from the Unidad de Música, this is a wonderful way to experience another side to Madrid’s cultural traditions.

Zarzuela


Defined as Spanish opera, zarzuela is a music genre that’s associated with Spain’s traditional working classes, and is particularly prevalent in Madrid. This type of performance emerged in the 18th century, and quickly developed into a kind of theatrical play brimming with musical acts. Actors take on roles which represent the working classes, including chulos (working men), nannies, ratas (thieves) and policemen. Zarzuela performances all but disappeared in the 19th century, but have since been re-established for their cultural value and honest representation of working-class life in Madrid. Be sure to visit the city’s official tourism website to find out where you can experience Zarzuela.

Culinary delights

Come for the tapas, stay for the cocido. Madrid offers some of the finest homegrown cuisine of any European capital, and food is very much a part of the local way of life here.

Tapas

madrid city guide

More than just a style of food, tapas, or tapeo, has become a way of life for the people of Madrid. The word tapeo means going to bars where you can enjoy bite-sized tapas food with a glass of beer or wine, and it’s become one of the best-known of Spain’s eating habits. Typically, tapas are enjoyed with a caña, or glass of beer, with Madrileños customarily standing at the bar to enjoy their food. Famous tapeo delicacies include patatas bravas (spicy potatoes flavoured with paprika), bocata de calamares (small fried squid sandwiches) and chopitos (tiny fried cuttlefish). Madrid is home to hundreds of tapas bars, with some of the best found in the districts of Sol, Plaza Mayor and Plaza de Santa Ana.

Churros

Churros in ice cream

Madrid is awash with traditional pastry shops serving up everything from barquillos (Spanish wafers) to bartolillos (cream-filled puff pastries). But, if you only try one sweet treat on your visit to the city, it should be churros. Made with water, flour, olive oil and salt and generously sprinkled with sugar, these slender strips of deep-fried pastry make a delicious snack anytime of the day. Madrileños eat these wonderful treats for breakfast, lunch or after a night out, often with a warming hot chocolate (dunking is encouraged).

Where to find it

If you only have time to eat in one of Madrid’s tapas bars, make it La Ardosa. Founded in 1892, it’s one of the oldest and best-loved wine bars in Madrid, and is beloved for its colourful choice of fresh tapas dishes.

La Ardosa

Castile and La Mancha Cuisine

Beans with cabbage
While Madrid’s culinary palate has been influenced by several cultures over the centuries, some of the city’s best-loved dishes originate from the surrounding Castile and La Mancha region. Traditional, homegrown food is hugely important to the people of Madrid, with dishes like cocido madrileño (chickpea stew) and gallinejas y entresijos (lamb offal) providing affordable and hearty sustenance for generations. Many restaurants in the city continue to serve up this honest and traditional peasant fare, while food festivals are also a popular place to sample these historic Spanish dishes.

Where to find it

Founded in 1894, San Ginés is a traditional chocolatier that’s famous throughout Spain. Here, you can enjoy the very finest churros washed down with a delicious and creamy hot chocolate, served in an elegant café bedecked in white marble. Bliss.

San Ginés

Where to find it: Founded in 1896, the historic tavern of Malacatín is an institution of Madrid’s culinary scene, and it’s revered for its menu of traditional local food. According to the official Madrid tourism website, the eatery has become a pilgrimage for devotees of Madrid cuisine, with cocido being the most popular dish on the menu

Food, history, culture – Madrid has it all, making it one of the must-see destinations of the Iberian Peninsula.

If you’re keen to explore the historic byways of the Spanish capital, why not consider booking a luxury two-night stay in Madrid as part of a Douro river cruise? Our Secrets of the Douro river cruise gives you the option to extend your stay with an additional trip to Madrid, where you’ll enjoy a luxury stay in the heart of the city.


Breakfast and one dinner are included in the price of this add-on city break, as are all transfers to and from the airport. You’ll also enjoy a guided tour of the city with a local expert, which will help you to get your bearings before you go off and explore at your own pace.

For more information on our Madrid city stays and luxury Portuguese river cruises, download our latest 2020 river cruise brochure or call our team today on 0808 149 2303.