Essential Madrid: Travel Tips for Your First Trip

From the medieval heart of the Spanish capital to the broad boutique-lined avenues, this is how to get around the Spanish capital.

First time traveling to Madrid? This is what you need to know to get around on your first visit.

First, the heart of Madrid is tiny—a warren of narrow medieval streets winding around small squares, with a skyline of spires and cupolas. The oldest part of the city is around Plaza Mayor and Palacio Real (Royal Palace), where alleyways twist around traditional shops and bars. The enormous palace, containing masterpieces of art and opulent furnishings, sits amid a swathe of gardens, including Parque-Jardin El Campo del Moro.

Palacio Real in the old district of Madrid
Palacio Real in the old district of Madrid (©Turismo Madrid)

East of here is the neighbourhood (barrio) of Santa Ana, which was once known as a literary quarter—Barrio de las Letras—as this was where some of Spain’s greatest literati have lived and worked. These days it is best known as a hub of great nightlife and tapas bars.

Head a little further east and you’re at the shady street Paseo del Prado, which forms one part of the "art triangle," the Triangulo del Arte which makes up three of the country’s most significant cultural icons: the Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia National Museum. This circuit takes you on a history tour of the evolution of painting. 

Street Gran Via, Madrid
Bright lights, big city—the street of Gran Via (©Turismo Madrid)

In central Madrid, bow-shaped Gran Via is the main street, lined with cafes, department store and banking HQ, built in the mid 20th century. It was created mainly for cars and the city’s first skyscrapers, and it was brash and upmarket. These days it looks a little more worn but is nonetheless busy and larger-than-life. To the north of Gran Via are the traditional neighbourhoods of Chueca—focal point of the city’s gay community—and bohemian Malasana. These two areas are where you’ll find some of Madrid’s best cafes, nightlife and cool shopping.

Terrace cafe in Chueca, Madrid
Taking it easy in a terrace cafe in Chueca (©Turismo Madrid)

Running along the north west is Parque del Oeste, where the cable car (Teleferico de Madrid) runs between here and Casa del Campo. The smart, northeastern district of Salamanca is best known for its broad avenues lined with designer shopping boutiques, futuristic architecture and the fashionable bars and terraces to see and be seen alongside the well-heeled locals.