How to Spend Four Days in Madrid

Madrid Spain StreetsWhen I visited Madrid in 2009, I only saw my hostel’s bed due to a bad cold I got in Barcelona. I left what was supposed to be one of the best cities in the world sad, sick, and upset I only ever saw the city on my way to the pharmacy.

Returning in May while on my Eurail trip, I vowed not to leave the city without experiencing its supposed sensory-overloading sights, sounds, and eats. Taking the time to fully explore Madrid, I found a massive city that required planning and organization to effectively see. Using what I learned in San Francisco, I took Madrid by storm and saw quite a bit (not everything, but enough to make me happy).

If you too only have a limited amount of time to see the city, here’s a suggested itinerary for you based on what I saw:

Day 1

Free walking tour – I’m a big fan of free walking tours, even if the guide is just some former traveler looking for a quick buck. Why? Because they provide a good orientation of a city, highlight its important aspects, and provide a cursory overview of a city’s history. So on your first day, start the morning with a free walking tour and get a basic overview of Madrid. The two most popular are:

New Madrid Walking Tours
Cat’s Hostel Walking Tour

Visit the Royal Palace
the royal palace in madrid, spain
Though it’s the official residence of the royal family, they don’t actually live here anymore, and the palace is only used for official state functions. You can walk through the palace (both self-guided and guided tours are available) starting at the grand stairway and wander through lavishly decorated staterooms. My favorites are the green porcelain room and the dining room. There’s also the Royal Armory, which houses a collection of medieval weapons and armor. Audio guides and pamphlets are not included in the admission price. The palace is free on Wednesdays.

The Cathedral of Madrid
The Cathedral of Madrid
Across from the palace is the main cathedral of Madrid. Finished near the end of 20th century, it’s where the Prince and Princess of Asturias, Felipe and Letizia, were married in 2004. Official state ceremonies are held here, and while not the most beautiful cathedral in Europe, its roof provides some kickass photo opportunities of the Madrid skyline.

Plaza Mayor
plaza mayor in madrid, spain
The most famous in the city and the starting point for most tours, this plaza was once host to bullfights, markets, symphonies, tournaments, and even executions. Now it’s ringed with tourist shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s a good place from which to indulge in some people-watching, offers some good (though overpriced) bars, and occasionally has concerts and events.

Day 2

Food Tour – Madrid is home to some world-class food, and if you aren’t sure where to start, take a food tour. I took part in a Madrid Food Tour run by fellow bloggers and expats Lauren and James. It was informative, fun, delicious, and filling. After six hours of eating, I was in need of unbuckling my belt! You can learn more in this video here:

For more on their tour, visit their website Madrid Food Tour. They are also the #1 rated Madrid activity on TripAdvisor.

Mercado de San Miguel
inside the mercado de san miguel
Near Plaza Mayor is this indoor market that used to be a big central market before it fell into disrepair. Bought by a foodie and turned into a hip spot with lots of restaurants and stalls, the food here is delicious and surprisingly cheap considering its downtown location. I left full for less than 10 euros. At night, it’s busy with locals seeking after-work drinks and tapas. You’ll visit this location on your food tour, but it’s worth coming back to.

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales – Built in the 16th century as a home for King Charles I, this lavish monastery of “barefoot nuns” has an extraordinary collection of art by European masters. It is an often-overlooked place to visit.

Day 3

The Naval Museum
the outside of the naval museum madrid
This interesting museum provides a detailed history of Spain’s historic naval prowess (and not so prowess). There’s a detailed section on the Spanish Armada’s defeat by the English.

The Prado Museum
outside view of the famous prado museum
The Prado is considered one of the best museums on the planet. There are works from Spanish (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya), Flemish and Dutch (Rubens, van Dyck, and Brueghel), Italian (Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, and Veronese), and German (Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Baldung Grien) artists. I love the Prado and the tree-lined boulevard that leads to it. You can get free admission from Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm to 8pm, or Sundays from 5pm to 8pm.

Royal Botanical Garden
madrid's famous botanical garden
Built between 1797 and 1839, this park is right across from the Prado and boasts lakes, labyrinths, squares, lots of plants and flowers, and fountains. There’s even a little veggie garden during the summer months. While a beautiful place, the pollen really made my allergies go wild, so for people with similar afflictions, I’d take an Allegra (and some tissues) before heading in.

Reina Sofía – This museum houses Madrid’s best collection of modern art. It includes many of Pablo Picasso’s big works as well as art by Miró, Kandinsky, Dalí, and Bacon. You can get free admission from Monday to Saturday from 7pm to 9pm (except Tuesdays) and Sunday from 3 pm to 7 pm.

Day 4

El Retiro Park
crystal palace and fountain in retiro park, madrid
Madrid’s main park, this is the perfect place to wander and relax on a beautiful day. There’s a large lake for those interested in hiring a boat and a lot of walking paths and lawns to lie out on. You can also visit a monument to the victims of the Madrid 3/11 terrorist bombings as well as the famous Crystal Palace (it’s made completely out of glass) that features a rotating collection of art exhibits.

Museo de Historia de Madrid – The municipal museum of Madrid, this is dedicated to the history of Madrid from 1561 to present. The museum highlights daily life in the city, and while many exhibits from the old city museum were moved here after its closure, sadly most are still in the warehouse.

Drink gin and tonics
gin and tonics
Gin-and-tonic bars are the new trend in Madrid, with many bars dedicating themselves to concocting new versions of this classic drink. As a lover of gin and tonics, I was very excited. After a long day of sightseeing, go relax with a drink. Conde Nast Traveler has a good list of the best bars.

Things to do on any day

Wander the streets – Don’t forget to just wander around Madrid and let chance happen. You never know where the day may take you when you walk out the door and get lost.

Learn Flamenco – Flamenco dancing is famous in Madrid, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities in the city to see or learn this dancing style.

Eat lots of ham
lots of ham in madrid
Spain is famous for its ham, and you’ll find tons of places to enjoy it in Madrid. Just look for signs that say “Museum of Ham.” There’s no museum involved, just a lot of ham. Or visit the markets. Or the supermarket. Really, ham is everywhere. I’m pretty sure I ate a whole pig while in the city. God, I miss Spanish ham.

See a soccer match – Real Madrid is one of the most famous soccer teams in the world. If they’re playing in season, be sure to watch a game, root for the home team, and see what locals get really passionate about.

It was good to finally experience Madrid after my failed attempt years ago. Madrid was a pretty awesome city—I enjoyed the tapas, friendly locals, history, art, architecture, and crazy nightlife. While the itinerary above packs in a lot of stuff, it represents a good starting point for planning your trip and managing your time. You’ll find plenty to do no matter what time of day it is.

    • marcus shirley

      Traveling to Madrid, Seville , Gibraltar and then to Morocco in October 2014. I’ll be in Madrid for 4 days and then Seville for 3 days. Any good pointers, tips, people on the ground that can help out etc.

      How was your trip?

  1. Barrett

    I love spanish ham. When I was in Barcelona I ate more ham, cheese, and bread than I did the whole rest of the year. Even the airports have quality ham!

  2. Bob

    Museums, 2 gardens a church and a palace.. oh and drinking a gin and tonic. Wow you are pushing the boat out here. When was the last time you actually set foot in Madrid?

  3. I’ve visited Madrid before, but I was surprised by how much on your list I hadn’t experienced yet! The Madrid Food Tour in particular sounds awesome.

  4. please note that Flamenco is not from Madrid, if from Andalucia region, the south of Sapin. Madrid is in the center. surely there are a lot of flamenco schools in Madrid, but the real flamenco must be experienced in Sevilla. That’s the real one!

    • Dani-madrid

      Best place for flamenco experience is Madrid without any doubt. In Madrid you can see best singers and guitar players and dancers. Corral de la Moreria, Café de Chinitas, Casa Patas, Torres Bermejas…

  5. Nice post – I flew into Madrid last month, but jumped on the train to Seville the following morning so only spent one night there in the hostel. I’d love to actually go back and see it next time! The ham looks divine.

  6. Great post, I loved Madrid and the food tour must have been amazing. Spanish food is so tasty. I had a ham sandwich in the Ham museum as well when I’ve been there and it was so cheap (1€) and sooo good, so guys you should absolutely go there when your in Madrid.

  7. Lisa

    Please note: The free-of-charge times at the Reina Sofia are as follows (from their website)

    Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.
    Sundays 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.

  8. We are planning to go to Europe this year, and for me as a costarican is easier to flight to Madrid, the main reason is the United States, Costaricans need to get a consular visa in order to have a layover in the states, without paying the $160 for a “interview” where some guy behing a bullet proof window tells you if you can or not even have a layover in the US. (not in agreement but I respect people and countries laws)

    So I hope to go and visit all the beautiful places from Europe !!!!

    travel — travel — travel :) :) :)

  9. Saved away for later. Thanks! I will surely work this in someday. Embarrassingly, even though I spent a good portion of my childhood traveling to Italy, I never made it to Madrid. The nerve!!!!

  10. I’m pretty sure I could make a solid day of Mercado de San Miguel! I’m not sure if my belt would love me afterward, but I’m pretty sure my stomach would.

  11. Matt, It was so great to read about your experience in Madrid. It really brought me back to my time that I was there in 2009 strolling the square of Plaza Mayor, being dazzled by the giant post office near Gran Via and doing that excellent walking tour you mentioned. I’ll never forget all the ham hanging in the window fronts and the Sangria was to die for!


  12. Hey Matt, I think all of your advice is awesome and when I go to Madrid in a couple months I will definitely check it out. However, one thing that I think you got wrong is telling people to go watch Real Madrid! They’re an amazing team, but their fans aren’t nearly as passionate as the fans of other teams. My cousin studied abroad in Madrid last year and went to a Real match, as well as to an Athletico Madrid match, and he said the Athletico fans were much more into the game and were more vocal. Not to mention, the tickets were a little cheaper.

  13. Great list of ways to spend 4 days in Madrid for sure. It’s a wonderful city but my favorite has to be the Museum of Ham (yum) and the Gin and Tonic bars! I know, food and drink can make me smile! So glad you were able to return to Madrid and experience so much the city has to offer. Eating a whole pig may be a bit much though… lol

  14. Wow thanks for this! I visited Madrid last year to ski at La Pinilla (about an hour away) and we had a couple of days to appreciate Madrid – but we didn’t manage to do any of the bigger things you have mentioned!! (Cathedral, palace etc). It makes me want to go back, and I will!

  15. Seems like a pretty efficient way to cover as many bases as possible. Walking tour, food tour, parks, palaces, and other places…that just about covers it! Got 10 days in Madrid on our RTW trip…still not enough time to see it all, but its a start!

  16. Brittany

    Surprised not to see bullfighting. While living/studying in Salamanca I made a point to see a bullfight in Madrid & was glad I did!

  17. sarah

    great list Matt! I’ve been lucky enough to visit Madrid on two separate occasions and you hit most of the big points! One thing I would add, especially to you art museum lovers, is the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza – from the 13th century to the 20th century — full of masterpieces! Degas, Derain, El Greco, Chagall, Gaugain, Bacon — major hits throughout the ages :) highly recommend! And it’s free on Mondays from 12-4 – enjoy! :)
    and if you’re hungry and want some cheap eats in large portions, head to El Tigre – huge plates of tapas when you order drinks – and the beers are huge too!!
    and lastly — don’t forget your churros :)

  18. I was sick too when I was in Madrid. I remember seeing Guernica with the flu, and skipping a trip to Avila (or was it Segovia???) because I was feeling too bad to do something. Luckily, a magic soup in a vegetarian restaurant down the road from my hostel healed me, LOL! I loved the ham by the way!!!

  19. Lester Herrera

    Hey Matt,

    Enjoyed your book signing in Green Books in San Francisco and loved reading your book! I was the one who asked about your favorite city in Spain and when you signed my book, you wrote, “You’ll make it to Spain!”. Guess what? I’m moving to Madrid on September 16 as a participant for Auxiliares de Conversación prgram! I’m super excited and will be doing a lot of packing and cleaning!

    But before I start my Spanish adventure, I’ll be in New York in two weeks and do some relaxing and sightseeing before I start my new chapter in traveling! Thanks again for the inspiration!

  20. Russell Benavides

    Great post! We went to the Prado during the free admission time and had plenty of time to see everything.

    I would recommend passing up a tour of the palace unless you can enter for free on Wednesday. I left feeling unimpressed. Maybe I am just spoiled after visiting Versailles and the Schonbrunn Palace.

  21. surbhi

    loved the post and shall add my two cents here. i had an extremely good experience flying with Lufthansa last year and i shall wholeheartedly recommend that anyone flying to Europe should choose them. Their in-air services amazed us.

  22. Hey Matt, thanks so much for putting this together. I’m going to stay in Madrid for a week in November and this resource has definitely helped fill a few gaps in my diary! In fact I might just drink G&T’s and eat ham for 7 days 😀

  23. Hanna

    I love Madrid so much! Especially the food :) We went there last year, joined a free walking tour (a very good one I must say) by a company called Madride the first day to get to know a little bit about Madrid history…and pretty much just wandered around and hanged out in bars the rest of our week there. I’d love to come there again!

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