This post is a free, self-guided walking tour of Madrid’s old city center.
You can complete this tour in 60-90 minutes, but you may want to take more time to explore various stops.
The construction of a fortress, Mayrit, was ordered by Emir Muhammed I in 852, providing the first record of settlements from the area we now call Madrid.
In the coming centuries, the fortress was conquered, reclaimed, and conquered again, with a city eventually growing beyond its walls.
It wasn’t until the mid-1500s when Philip II moved the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid, ushering in an age of improvements and growth within the city.
Today the population of greater Madrid stands at 6.7 million making it the second-largest city in Europe.
This tour will take you to 12 historic locations in the old city center, through pedestrian-friendly streets.
You’ll pass by bustling squares, restaurants, bars, churches, theaters, and impressive architecture.
Enjoy touring this walkable and friendly city!
The map below can be downloaded. If you would instead like a live tour guide, there are several that could be arranged here.
1. Puerta Del Sol
We begin our tour at Puerto Del Sol, Madrid’s most famous square and what some refer to as the heart of the city.
The name Puerta Del Sol (Gate of the Sun) comes from one of the old gates of the city, over which the sun would shine brightly into the square.
Stone buildings, today inhabited by expensive apartments and offices, stores, and restaurants, surround the square.
These were renovated in the 19th century, and plans are in place for further renovations in 2022.
A highlight is the Casa de Correos (the old Post Office), now the headquarters of the Madrid City council and the office of the President.
Its clock tower and chiming bells ring in the New Year, as huge crowds gather in the square to celebrate.
With each ring revelers eat a grape, consuming 12 in total at midnight.
Also towering above the square is a massive sign with a guitar-playing bottle wearing a hat.
This neon sign from the 1930s advertises Tio Pepe, “sol de Andalucia Embotelledo!” (“Andaluain Sun in a bottle!”), a brand of sherry.
The sign proved so popular that when it was removed in 2011, more than 50,000 people campaigned to have it returned.
The square itself marks kilometer zero from which distances in Madrid are measured and Spain’s 6 national roads radiate out.
You can find a plaque commemorating this on the ground outside of the clock tower.
A bronze equestrian statue of King Charles III, one of Spain’s most popular rulers, stands in the square.
He was an enlightened King, one who strengthened Spain’s military, introduced progressive reforms and public works to the city, and is remembered as “el Mayor Alcalde de Madrid” (the Best Mayor of Madrid).
Also on the square is a sculpture from the late 20th century of a bear and a strawberry tree.
People line up to rub on and take pictures of this beloved statue.
This statue is modeled on an ancient symbol of the city, one that first appeared on the city coat of arms in the 13th century.
On the western corner of the square is a white marble statue known as La Mariblanca, the last remaining remnant of a fountain that used to be located in the square.
All that is known about the statue is that she was originally sent from Italy in 1619.
Whether she depicts Diana or Venus is unknown, so her name, meaning “virgin” and “white” was given as a representation of faith and success.
Once you are ready to move on to the next stop, go to C. Mayor, the street running on the south end of Puerta del Sol.
Walk east for about a block then turn left onto C. de Esparteros. Stay on this until you see the first right, C. De Postas.
Follow that for two blocks until you come across the Alpargatus shoe store. Turn right just past this onto C. de le sal, following it into Plaza Mayor.
2. Plaza Mayor
This ochre-colored three-storied rectangle-shaped and arcaded square with 237 wrought iron balconies was the original main square of old Madrid.
Restaurants and cafes selling traditional though expensive food are close by, and shops line the porticos.
During the day the bustling square sees locals who live and work in the area, tourists, street artists, pick-pockets, and other colorful characters.
At night it has a more festive atmosphere as folks visit nearby bars.
The history of the Plaza dates back to 1577 when King Philip II commissioned its construction.
It has seen multiple architects and rebuilds due to fires, with the current neoclassical version having been designed by Juan de Vaillanueca in 1790.
The cultural importance of the plaza can not be understated.
It has seen such events as bullfights with 50,000 attendees, public executions, festivals, religious processions, tournaments, parades, concerts, and Christmas markets.
Occupying the prominence in the center of the square is a statue of Philip III, dating from 1620. Philip was of the Habsburg line and succeeded his father Philip II in 1598 at age 20.
He was generally a disappointment as a leader, but the statue, a gift from the Grand Duke of Florence, celebrates his contribution towards the construction of the square.
One building that escaped a fire that swept the square long ago, the Casa de la Panaderia (Bakery), can be found on the north side of the square.
It was originally built to house the powerful Bakers Guild.
Baroque in design, it is colored with frescos of mythological characters. Inside is the Salon Real, decorated in frescos and tapestry, a place to hold weddings and receptions.
There is also an event space and an air-conditioned tourism office within.
The building can be entered for free between the hours of 11:00 to 14:00, and again from 17:00 to 19:00.
Moving on, on the northwest side of the square you’ll find our next stop.
3. La Toree Del Oro Bar Andalu
This is one of the iconic bars on the square.
It’s touristy, expensive, and packed full of memorabilia celebrating the ancient and controversial activity of bullfighting.
Inside you’ll find videos of some of Spain’s greatest bullfighters in action, photos of famous bullfight attendees like John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Che Guevara, a matador costume, and mounted bull heads.
Beer, wine, sangria, and racións (individual-sized portions) of food are on offer, though keep an eye on the prices!
Hours are 11:00 (am) to 1:00 (am).
For our next stop, on the northwest side of the square find Calle de Cdad. Rodrigo, a street radiating west that you will follow for one block.
It runs into C. Mayor, where you’ll turn left and walk a block.
There on your right, you’ll find Mercado de San Miguel.
4. Mercado de San Miguel
This over 100-year-old ornate cast iron and glass market, just a short walk from Plaza Mayor, sees over 10 million visitors a year.
What was once a local food market was recently renovated and is now home to up-market food vendors hawking regional delicacies.
In this vibrant market, you will find gourmet cheeses, fruits and vegetables, tapas, paella, gazpacho, empanadas, olives, seafood, shaved ham, coffee, Spanish wines, bakery goods, and many other culinary treasures.
It’s best to take cash although keep an eye out for pickpockets!
Seating can be hard to find at times but food can be taken to go.
The hours are Sunday- Thursday, 10:00 AM to midnight, and Fridays-Saturdays (and holiday eves), 10:00 AM to 13:00 PM.
Our next stop is also close by. On the southwest corner of the Market is the street called C. Del Conde de Miranda.
Follow that south for one block until you come to Pl. Del Conde de Miranda.
Walk one block and turn left onto C. de Puñonrostro.
At the end of the block on your left is the Basilica of St. Michael.
5. Basílica Pontificia de San Miguel (Basilica of St. Michael)
This small but stunning Roman Catholic church was commissioned by The Archbishop of Toledo and opened in 1745.
Its design is significant due to the convex shape of its facade, Spanish Baroque design, and Italian influence.
The not particularly interesting exterior displays Saints Justo and Pastor, aged 7 and 9, who were martyred in 304, along with four
allegorical statues representing faith, hope, charity, and fortitude.
The Rococo interior is most impressive though, with colorful stained glass windows, stucco imitating marble and gold, a Latin cross floor plan, frescoes, sculptures, and a bell tower.
The temple hours are:
September 29 - June 30 - Monday-Saturday 9:45-13:15 and 19:30-21:15, Sunday and Public Holidays 9:45-14:15 and 18:00-21:15
July 1 - September 28 - Monday-Saturday 9:45-13:00 and 18:00-21:15, Sunday and Public Holidays 9:45-13:30 and 18:30-21:15
Admission is free.
On to our next stop. Walk back up C. de Puñonrostro heading north.
A few doors past the Iglesia Corpus Christi on the left, and just as the road name changes to C. del Codo, you’ll find something quite special.
6. Sweets at Monasterio Del Corpus Christi
To partake of a divine delicacy, and what some call the “hidden nun cookies”, stop at the chocolate brown door marked “No. 3” on Calle del Codo, just past the Monastery of Corpus Christi.
The cloistered nuns of the 17th-century monastery sell traditional cookies using recipes dating back to Roman times.
There is a sign saying “Horario: Venta de Dulces” on the door. Press the button above that says “Monjas” (meaning “nuns”).
Ask “dulce?” to find out if they are selling sweets that day. If they are, a door buzz gains you entrance to an interior hallway.
Follow the “Torno” signs until you reach a window in a wall with a lazy-susan inside. This is where you will place your order.
Press the buzzer and wait until you hear footsteps. As the nuns have taken a vow of silence, the conversation will be limited.
You won’t see the person who greets you but you need only read your order off of the menu tacked on the wall next to the door.
Orange-flavored cookies, shortbread biscuits, almond biscuits, and more are on offer.
When the lazy susan turns it will have your order. Place your cash (credit cards are not accepted) next to the bag and it will turn again.
It will turn a third time returning the cookies and any change you are owed.
It’s best to go early in the day so you have a larger selection. Late in the day, your options may be limited.
The hours are 9:30 to 13:00 and 16:00-18:30.
Your next stop is just around the corner.
Continue north onto C. del Coto. It runs directly into the plaza in front of Casa de la Villa.
7. Casa de la Villa
The Hapsburg-style baroque Casa de la Villa stands on Plaza de la Villa, one of the oldest squares in Madrid.
King Philip IV granted a license for the construction of this granite, brick, and wrought-iron building. Work started in 1645 and wasn’t completed until 1693.
For hundreds of years, it served as the city’s old town hall and prison.
This can be noted in its two front doors, one originally for community business and the other for the prison, each topped with the Madrid coat of arms.
Balconies were added in 1789. This colonnaded gallery served as a viewing spot for kings to watch religious processions.
Although the city moved the town hall elsewhere in 2007, the building is still at times used for official business.
The impressive interior includes paintings by such artists as Goya, 17th-century tapestries, marble statues, and an incredible stained glass roof.
There are free guided tours in Spanish and English on Mondays at 17:00.
After you are done with Casa de La Villa, head towards C. Mayor and turn left onto that road.
You’ll see our next stop a few blocks away, just across C. de Bailén.
8. Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena (Almudena Cathedral)
This massive-domed gray cathedral is the most important religious building in Madrid.
It is named for the patron saint of the city, the Virgin of Almudena, a statue of which can be found in an impressive altarpiece in the interior.
King Felipe II, who had moved the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid back in 1561, had been the first to desire a cathedral at this location.
Delays meant that over time the purpose of the church changed.
It wasn’t until 1883 that the first stone was eventually laid.
During that time and through construction the building’s design and aesthetic were overseen by at least six architects who blended varying styles of architecture (Neo-Classical, Gothic revival, neo-Romanesque).
Due to the deaths of key players, general economic issues, and the Spanish Civil War, it took over 100 years to finally complete.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Pope John Paul II consecrated the church.
Inside one finds an unexpectedly modern interior of white walls, modern artwork, and a colorful ceiling.
There is a permanent exhibit of religious art in the museum, including paintings, vestments, and ancient documents.
You can also climb up to the cupola in the dome of the cathedral and find stunning views of city rooftops, the Royal Palace, old city walls, and the hedges of Plaza de Oriente.
In the extensive crypt, found opposite the Arab Walls at the rear of the building, lie some of Spain’s noble and notable families.
With tall ceilings, a sea of 400 columns, 20 decorated chapels, hanging lamps, and stained glass, the crypt is particularly picturesque.
One of its most special pieces is a painting of Our Lady of the Fluer-de-lis that some believe dates back to the 11th century.
A small donation of €1 is requested for entry and access to the cupola is an additional €6.
From September-June the hours are 10:00 to 20:00 every day
From July-August, the hours are 10:00 to 21:00 every day
Visitors are not allowed during religious services.
Our next stop is just next door, also on C. de Bailén.
Walk north and on your left you’ll find the Palace.
9. Palacio Real (Royal Palace of Madrid)
The Royal Palace is mainly used for state functions, with ceremonies, receptions, banquets, and other official business taking place within.
This massive and stunning palace is the official residence of the Spanish royal family, although they live at the Palace of Zarzuela in Madrid.
Originally on this site was a Moorish fortress built in the 9th century by Emir Mohamed I
It included a walled area of over 40,000 square meters, a mosque, a castle, observation towers, and residences.
Over the centuries modifications were made and the fortress became home to various Castillion Kings.
The old castle was used as the base of a new building, the Royal Alcázar, with the size growing 20 percent larger.
This wood structure would eventually burn to the ground on Christmas Eve 1734.
It was then that King Felipe V commissioned an architect to design a new palace befitting a now-wealthy Spain.
Influences in its design were found in drawings of the Louvre, in the French Baroque architecture of Versailles, and in the works of Italian architect Bernini.
Construction started in 1738 and continued for 17 years.
Today this palace is one of the grandest in Europe, with over 3,400 rooms covering 1 million square feet.
It was designed with a large interior courtyard with wings and was built of materials such as gray and white stone, Spanish marble, golden stucco, and mahogany.
Paintings and frescoes were added by leading foreign artists of the time.
Rococo rugs, velvet hangings, mirrors, bronze decor, sculptures, and golden thrones add to the opulence with elegant gilding and rich decorations filling every space.
Inside one can visit a Royal armory, a gallery of paintings, the impressive 70-stepped main staircase, a royal chapel, a porcelain room, the throne room, staterooms, royal bed chambers, and gardens. There is also a changing of the guard.
Visit the official website for the palace for hours. They vary according to season, day, place within the castle, and cost of tickets.
Tickets range from free under some conditions to 12 €.
Audio guides are available.
Just across from the palace and C. de Bailén is our next stop.
10. Plaza de Oriente (Orient Square)
This tranquil and ornamental garden sits across from the Royal Palace, atop the remains of an eleventh-century Arab watchtower.
It was designed by Juan Bautista Sachetti, the architect of the palace, although not built until Napoleon Bonapart’s brother, King Joseph I, came to rule.
He was often called King Plazuelas (little plazas) because of his fondness for razing buildings so he could build plazas like those found in Paris.
56 structures were demolished to make room for this park.
Over the years, successive monarchs and architects would make changes and additions to the layout and design of the garden.
Limestone statues that had been originally planned for the top of the palace were eventually moved to the park when found to be too heavy for the roofline.
There are 44 of these statues lining the walkways, made up of both Visigoth and Spanish Kings.
At the center of the park is a statue of King Philip IV designed by Pietro Tacca, an Italian sculptor.
It was a marvel of its time in that it was the first equestrian statue to stand on two legs.
Mathematical equations needed to be done due to its weight, so Tacca consulted his friend Galileo.
They were together able to decide how metal was needed and how it would be weighted to stand properly on its back legs.
The park is the perfect location to sit and relax under the magnolia and cypress trees, and amongst roses, hedges, and fountains.
Entry is free.
At the east end of the park, you’ll find the Royal Theatre, our next stop.
11. Teatro Real (Royal Theatre)
Sitting between the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Opera is the sarcophagus-shaped and majestic Teatro Real.
It took over 30 years for the theater to be constructed due to a lack of resources, the death of more than one architect, and various political events.
Queen Isabel II, an opera lover, finally demanded that construction be completed in 1850.
The building has served as home to operas, concerts, ballets, and dancehall, and today holds a significant international reputation.
It sits atop an aquifer that while causing structural issues in the past has helped in what is considered world-class sound.
Inside is an Italian-style main auditorium with space for massive scene changes, administrative offices, meeting rooms, dressing rooms, rehearsal studios, a restaurant, and a smaller second theater.
At various points in its history, the theatre has had to close such as during the Spanish Civil war when it was used to house an arsenal.
The building has also seen extensive restorations and refurbishments over time, the most recently completed in 1997.
Today it exists as a major opera house with close to 1750 seats in its main concert hall alone.
Tickets for the opera can be purchased online or at the box office.
Those wanting to tour the building can visit the terrace and its well-reviewed restaurant situated in the old ballroom. If you’re lucky you’ll be there while the orchestra and singers are practicing
Tours can be had in English, French, and Spanish and cost between €8 and €10.
- Spanish: Monday to Sunday at 10:00 am and 12:00 pm / Wednesday: 2:00 pm.
- English: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10:00 am.
- French: Tuesday at 10:00 am
When ready to move on to our next stop, walk around the backside of the theater to the Plaza de Opera.
On the south side of the plaza find C. Del Arenal and take that east, heading away from the direction of the Palace.
This pedestrian street has shops, hotels, restaurants, churches, clubs, a well-known bridal shop, and more.
Follow this just a few blocks until you see the red brick church on the right called Parroquia de San Grinés.
Immediately past the church, turn right onto Pasadizo de San Ginés and walk to the end of the first block to #5
12. Chocolatería de San Ginés
One of Madrid’s most authentic and popular cafes can be found in the building where they first began serving their treats in 1894.
At one point called “La Escondida” (The Hidden One) by locals, this establishment is so beloved it has made appearances in Spain's literary offerings, and the walls are lined with pictures of the famous faces who have visited.
The look of place is an authentic 19th-century cafe with white marble countertops and green walls with mirrors.
The cafe's most well-known offering is hot chocolate and churros or porras, traditionally eaten for breakfast but served all day.
This thick pudding-like chocolate is served in a coffee cup which the churros or porras are dipped into.
Addictive is a word often used and an average day sees thousands of portions served to tourists and locals alike.
Also offered are additional gourmet chocolate products, ice cream, and refreshments such as coffee and beer.
Tables can be found inside across two floors and outdoors on the sidewalk. Food can also be taken to go.
Before the pandemic it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, making it a pull for early-morning revelers closing a long evening, and late-night workers.
It is currently open from 9:00 to 23:30, and can be delivered through Uber eats up until 23:00.
To complete your tour, return to C. del Arenal, turn right, and walk just a few short blocks.
You’ll find yourself back in Puerta del Sol where we began our tour.