When I visited Madrid in 2009, I saw only 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:
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:
Visit the Royal Palace
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
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.
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, cafés, 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.
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
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.
The Naval Museum
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
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
Built between 1797 and 1839, this park is right across from the Prado and boasts lakes, labyrinths, squares, fountains, and lots of flowers. 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 3pm to 7pm.
El Retiro Park
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 la Historia de Madrid — The municipal museum of Madrid, this is dedicated to the history of Madrid from 1561 to the 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-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. Condé 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
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.