How to Spend a Day in El Retiro Park, Madrid (+Photos)

As the capital city of Spain, Madrid boasts a fair share of exciting attractions. But no matter how many museums you visit, markets you eat at, or landmarks you take photos of, no day is better spent in Madrid than a day at El Retiro Park. Seriously, I had five days in the city and chose to spend two of them exploring these gorgeous parks and gardens.

Covering over 125 hectares, this park, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to over twenty thousand trees, unique landscaped gardens, fields, ponds and lakes, and palaces. While it might not be the biggest park in Madrid, it sure is one of the finest, offering visitors a green oasis in the heart of the metropolis.

Officially called the Parque del Buen Retiro, the park was first built in the first half of the 17th century around a palace for the private use of the Spanish Royal Family. It was opened to the public in 1868 and is now known as the ‘garden for all those who don’t have a garden.’

Best of all, this magnificent green space is free to visit. It’s open from 7 am each day and closes at 10 pm in winter and midnight during summer. Read on for my perfect itinerary for one day in Madrid’s famous city park.

In this post, we’ll cover:

Puerta de Alcala

Puerta de Alcala

I started the day bright and early to catch the morning shade in the gardens. I was visiting with my parents, and we were staying in the Sol neighborhood close to the Plaza Mayor. To get to El Retiro Park in the eastern part of the city, we hopped on the Line 2 Metro from Sol and took it three stops to Retiro.

The train ride took a quick four minutes and cost €1.70 per person. The train comes every four minutes and is clean and convenient. If you prefer to travel above ground, you could also take the number 1, 2, 20, or 15 bus or get your steps in and walk to the park in around half an hour.

The metro stop is about two blocks from the Puerta de Alcala monument, which marks one of the main entrances to the park. Another option is to enter through the Felipe IV entrance in front of the Buen Retiro Palace.

Breakfast at Magasand Retiro

El Retiro

Before entering the gardens, I googled a great spot for breakfast in the area. I always believe the cafes in a garden as famous as El Retiro charge an arm and a leg for below-average food, so we decided to go to Magasand Retiro, a restaurant one block behind the Puerta de Alcala.

I ordered a tasty salmon bagel for €7 and an acai smoothie for €6, ate on the terrace, and then got a cappuccino to-go for €2.

Another breakfast option is a spot called Plenti between the Prado Museum, Botanical Garden, and the park. Their shakshuka is second to none, and they have casual outdoor seating perfect for a summer morning.

The Western Side

Western Side

I started by exploring the western side of the park, which is home to some of the most exquisite landscaped gardens in the country. We strolled through the Parterre Frances, which is a formal French-style garden with neatly trimmed hedges forming unique geometric patterns.

Just west of the Great Pond, we then explored the Paseo de las Estatuas, which translates to the Promenade of Statues. It’s basically a tree-lined avenue with impressive statues of Spanish Kings, offering a scenic and educational walking route with views of the lake.

Western Side

Walking down towards the southern part of the park, we ventured towards the Estanque Ochavado, or Octagonal Pond. This stunning pond is populated with water birds and surrounded by greenery. It’s a quiet part of the park, perfect for those who like to relax surrounded by nature or read in silence.

Close to the pond, there is a shaded forest called the Bosque del Recuerdo, or the Forest of Remembrance in English. This somber space is a memorial to the victims of a 2004 terror attack in the city. It’s a reflective space that shows plaques to honor the victims of the attack.

The Crystal Palace and Velázquez Palace

Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was no doubt the highlight of my day. This magnificent glass structure was built in 1887 and served as a greenhouse for an exhibition of tropical plants. Truly, it’s one of the most exquisite buildings I’ve ever set my eyes on.

You can walk around and through the palace and admire the gardens from a unique perspective. When we visited, there was an art exhibition inside, but to be honest, the structure was so stunning it distracted me from any art.

Crystal Palace

Outside the palace, there is a small pond and fountain home to a family of turtles. If we had more time, I would absolutely recommend setting up a picnic blanket in the shade of the trees by the palace.

Just three minutes north of the Crystal Palace is the Velázquez Palace, an 1881 building that was built to house art exhibitions from Spain’s international territories. Today, it hosts exhibitions of current international and local artists and is free to enter.

The museum is open from 10 am until 10 pm during summer months and closes early at 6 pm in winter.

The Eastern Side

Eastern Side

Then, it was time to head east. We started with the Rose Garden, which is located at the southern end of El Retiro. Strolling through the symmetrical garden, the scent of roses and the sound of buzzing bees will engulf your senses.

Best visited in early July when most roses are in full bloom, there are over four thousand rose bushes of almost one hundred varieties to see here.

From Rosaleda, we walked through the Cecilio Rodríguez Gardens near the Puerta de la Herrero Palacios entrance to the park. This magnificent garden is a classical manicured garden with symmetrical ponds with dancing fountains, statues, pergolas, and even a few tame resident peacocks.

Eastern Side
El Retiro

Next up, it was the Jardines de Herrero de Palacios, another area of the park dedicated to perfectly maintained flower beds, blossoming flowers, and nearly trimmed hedges. Set along the edge of the park, this is a popular area for locals who visit to cycle and run through the park. At this point, we decided our feet had gotten us far enough, and we unlocked three Lime Scooters to explore the rest of the park on two wheels.

To ride with Lime, you have to set up an account on the application and add a payment method. Once you’re in, it costs €1 to unlock and about 30 euro cents per minute to ride.

We took the opportunity and used the bike to zoot along the periphery of El Retiro towards the Real Jardin Botanico (Royal Botanical Gardens) on the southwestern part of the gardens. It took us about ten minutes, and it was every bit enjoyable and worth the €7 it cost.

Lunch at the Botanical Garden Restaurant

Botanical Garden

After all that walking, lunch could not come sooner. We ate at the small cafe inside the botanical gardens in front of the Villanueva Pavilion museum. We sat on a terrace shaded by umbrellas and enjoyed a delicious sandwich and cold drink, which cost around €20 per person in total.

After lunch, we popped into the Villanueva Pavilion museum, which was just a few steps from the table. The Pavilion was hosting an incredible exhibition on contemporary art, with interactive exhibitions and moving installations.

Exploring the Botanical Gardens

Botanical Gardens

While the botanical gardens are connected to El Retiro Park, the gardens are a separate entity and charge a small (yet worthwhile) fee to enter. General admission into the garden is only €4 or you can pay €6 for admission into the Pabellon Villanueva.

The gardens are spread across eight hectares of space next to the iconic Prado Museum and are easily the most impressive floral garden in the city. The garden has a diverse collection of local and international species and includes themed gardens, greenhouses, and educational exhibits.

Botanical Gardens
Botanical Gardens

We walked through as many themed gardens as we could find, each one representing a different plant species or geographic region. For example, The Alpine Garden, The Garden of Medicinal Plants, and a Peony Garden, which was a novelty for someone from the Southern Hemisphere, where these flowers don’t grow.

There is also a Winter Garden and a Tropical Greenhouse that have controlled environments for plants from vastly different climates.

I also enjoyed visiting the seed bank and herbarium, which contribute to ongoing research and conservation efforts for the region’s floral biodiversity.

A Sunset Row Across the Estanque Grande del Retiro

Estanque Grande del Retiro

To close off an incredible day surrounded by nature, head out of the Botanical Garden and back into El Retiro Park for a sunset activity like no other. The walk is a heavy half-hour trek, which can be a bit of effort after a day on your feet. If you’re exhausted by this point, consider visiting the lake while you’re in the park.

Known as the Estanque Grande del Retiro, this man-made lake is basically a big pond where you can rent rowing boats for a fun and scenic activity. It’s located at the base of The Monument to Alfonso XII, a 1922 landmark that is impossible to miss from the pond and an epic spot to catch the sunset.

Boats can be rented from 10 am until 8:30 pm in summer and until 5:30 pm in winter. It costs €6 per boat during the week and €8 during the weekend. We rented a boat and reenacted an adorable photo my parents had taken from when they first visited Madrid in 1998 – the perfect end to a perfect day.

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