While somewhat overshadowed by Barcelona’s immense popularity, Madrid, the central capital of Spain, can certainly hold its own in terms of beauty, architecture, historical significance, and exciting, inspiring activities available to visitors throughout the year. In addition to elegant boulevards and calm, well-maintained parks, several places in Madrid hold rich repositories of art by old European masters, as well as numerous antiquities such as historic weaponry and suits of armor formerly owned by kings and other members of the nobility. Madrid’s enviable weather with 250 sunny days a year makes it the sunniest city in Europe, with balmy temperatures and plenty of sunshine even during the winter months, especially compared to other parts of the continent. With gorgeous palaces and majestic plazas telling stories of Spain’s former colonial glory, you will never run out of places to visit and things to do in Madrid.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MADRID?
As there are cool things to see in Madrid all year long, it doesn’t matter that much when you visit – at least not as much as with some other popular destinations in Spain. Winter is actually a good time to visit since the reduced hotel rates make staying in Madrid considerably more affordable. As per usual, the summer period offers plenty of advantages, including extremely long days for exploring the city, with crowds and unbearable temperatures being a major setback. The sweet spots come in late spring and early fall, with May and October competing for the best time to visit Madrid.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT MADRID
Madrid is a city of several titles and superlatives when compared to other European capitals. In addition to being the sunniest city in Europe, Madrid is also the highest capital on the continent at 646 m above sea level. Madrid has been the capital of Spain since 1561, and is currently the third largest city in the EU. Real Madrid C.F. is one of Madrid’s biggest claims to fame. The storied club was founded in 1902 and has since become the most accomplished football club of the last century.
Even if you are not a fan of football (soccer), there are numerous other things to do in Madrid to keep you entertained, such as visiting the Disneyland-like Warner Brothers Movie World or experiencing Madrid’s legendary nightlife. The locals and people born in Madrid are called Madrilènes or “Gatos”, meaning cats, owning to a popular legend about a skillful soldier who could climb the city’s outer walls like a cat. Famous “Gatos” include Penelope Cruz, Enrique Iglesias, and Placido Domingo, among numerous others.
ONE DAY IN MADRID ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Madrid.
Start Your Trip by Visiting the Prado Museum
Very few museums in the world have such an extensive collection of world-class European art as the Museo Nacional del Prado. The main national art museum in all of Spain accepts nearly 3 million visitors each year, making it one of the most well-known and most-visited museums in the world. In Spain, only Reina Sofia, also in Madrid, sees more visitors. Featuring masterpieces by masters such as Goya, El Greco, and Velazquez, the museum opened its doors in November of 1819 for the first time, which means that it has operated continually for 200 years.
The museum’s collection of 4,800+ paintings is the largest and most significant collection of Spanish painting anywhere in the world, covering 7 centuries of Spanish art, from the Romanesque period all the way to the 19th-century. Depending on your affinities and appreciation of art, it takes approximately two to three hours to see everything, but it is more than worth it, seeing as visiting the Prado Museum is one of the top things to do in Madrid.
Explore the Area Around the Museum
The area surrounding the Prado Museum is a treasure trove of timeless attractions. When you leave the museum, don’t forget to check out San Jerónimo el Real, a magnificent traditional church and former monastery from the 1500s where the Spanish royals have been crowned for centuries. Outside the museum’s main entrance, you will encounter a statue of Goya, with a Velazquez statue on site as well.
The nearby Neptune Fountain is another recognizable landmark, as well as Museo Naval (detailing Spanish naval history), Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas (museum of furniture and home decorations, the Lope de Vega Museum, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, with works by 20th-century artists such as Picasso, Dali, Gris, Miro, and others. In case you prefer contemporary art, consider visiting Reina Sofía instead of the Prado Museum.
Relax in One of the Neighboring Parks and Gardens
Just south of the Prado Museum, you will find the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid or Real Jardín Botánico. The park west of the Prado is El Retiro Park, a 19th-century retreat with a magical boating lake, a neatly manicured rose garden, and numerous statues and fountains. Both are worth a visit, and deciding where you want to spend more time is up to you. The Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid is home to 2000-year old plant species, with thousands of ancient and rare trees, flowers, and shrubs. The entrance fee is only 6 EUR.
El Retiro Park was once reserved exclusively for members of the royal family before becoming a public park in the late 19th century. The centerpiece of the park is the Palacio de Cristal, a stunning glasshouse next to a lake, modelled after the Crystal Palace in London. The Reina Sofía Museum hosts regular contemporary art exhibitions at the palace.
Take a Walk Across the City Center Towards the Royal Palace of Madrid
Calle Mayor, lit. “Main Street”, is the city’s main thoroughfare, with numerous giftshops, restaurants, bars, bookshops, and outstanding wine stores, such as La Caja de Vinos. To get there, start from the neoclassical Neptune Fountain and walk northwest past the Government Office until you reach Puerta del Sol, a public square with a towering statue of King Carlos III mounted on a horse. After spending a few minutes at the square to take in the sights, just head west towards the Royal Palace of Madrid. The distance between the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace equals almost exactly 2 kilometers, which should be easy to traverse in approx. 30 minutes at a leisurely pace.
Pick a Nice Spot for Lunch
Before you reach the Royal Palace, you may want to have lunch at one of the restaurants along the way. There are two great places on Calle de los Coloreros, a small pedestrian-only street just off Calle Mayor. From Puerta del Sol, it is the second street to the right. Trattoria Malatesta is a great choice for Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, with numerous vegan options. The location is outstanding, the food delicious, and the staff friendly and helpful. If you want to eat pasta, you can’t go wrong with the authentic Trattoria Malatesta and its great ambience. A bit further down the same road is the famous Chocolatería San Ginés, with delicious churros and dark, creamy chocolate for dipping. Keep in mind that this place may be better suited for breakfast, so go there if you’re just looking for a snack or dessert.
Continue West on Calle Mayor
After lunch, just follow the Calle Mayor towards the palace and take the time to enjoy the sights. To the left, you will come across Plaza de la Villa, a historic square and a remarkable landmark surrounded by several notable buildings. In medieval times, this plaza was the center of the city. Further down, in front of the Cathedral Church of the Armed Forces, there is a monument to the attack on King Alfonso and Queen Victoria Eugenia, which happened on their wedding day.
The Catedral de la Almudena, an outstanding example of Catholic Baroque architecture, is at the very end of the main street. The cathedral’s Neo-Romanesque Crypt is well worth a visit, as well as the cathedral’s colorful chapels. Make sure to also stop to appreciate the Muralla Árabe, the vestigial remnants of the Muslim Walls of Madrid, built in the 9th century, a relevant Artistic-Historic Monument since 1954.
Visit the Royal Palace of Madrid
Although it still serves as the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, the 18th-century Palacio Real de Madrid is now mostly used for state ceremonies, with multiple tours allowing visitors to explore some of the palace’s 3,418 rooms filled with priceless art and antiquities. The palace also provides Madrid with another superlative – as it is the largest royal palace in Europe with 1,450,000 sq. ft (135,000 sq. meters) of floor space.
The palace complex contains some of the most impressive attractions and places to visit in Madrid, including the Royal Armory of Madrid, the Plaza de la Armería, the Sabatini Gardens, and the Museum of Almudena Cathedral, all of them serving as a monument to the power and glory of Spain and its rulers.
Experience Ancient Egypt at the Temple of Debod
Slightly to the north of the palace lies one of the most unusual and unexpected places to visit in Madrid: The Temple of Debod. The shrine, initially dedicated to the god Amun, was erected in the early 2nd century near Aswan in Upper Egypt, with later additions by kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty and Roman emperors. When the Aswan High Dam was being constructed in 1968, Egypt donated the temple to Spain as a sign of gratitude for the help Spain provided when the Abu Simbel temples were being relocated. The reconstructed Egyptian temple is quite the sight in the middle of a large park, surrounded by a pond and providing great views of the sunset and the city in the background.
Go for an Evening Stroll on Gran Via
Your one day in Madrid would be incomplete without seeing Gran Via, sometimes called “Spanish Broadway”, a popular street that stretches away from the Plaza de España towards the southwest and west. Gran Via is one of the most important shopping areas in Madrid, with numerous malls, stores, and movie theatres. The street is also interesting due to its unique mix of early 20th-century architectural styles, including Art Deco, Neo-Mudéjar, Vienna Secession style, etc.
Treat Yourself to a Nice Dinner
There’s no shortage of amazing restaurants, dining rooms, and eateries in Madrid, whose culinary scene includes both world-renowned chefs running award-winning dives and modest, laid-back taverns overflowing with local charm. When it comes to the former, there’s no place like the Restaurante DiverXO, a fine dining gastronomical spectacle that includes not only dinner with nearly two dozen dishes, but also a tour of the kitchen, with little details that make you truly appreciate and admire the culinary arts and the amazing tastes and flavors you are invited to experience. The restaurant is not for everyone, as it is quite pricey and the reservations have to be made months in advance.
Although equally famous, the taberna La Bola is a traditional madrilian restaurant, quintessentially Spanish and serving typical Spanish dishes. Their local specialties such as the “cocido” are excellent, and the restaurant’s atmosphere and charm will make you feel like a local.
Pick One of Several Cool Places in Madrid to Go Out
If you are wondering what to do in Madrid at night, consider visiting Teteria Casablanca, a cozy and charming teahouse/hookah lounge on Calle de Atocha. Even if you are not really interested in smoking shisha, Teteria Casablanca’s meditative, relaxing atmosphere works even if you are there only to drink something or watch a game. They have a pretty good selection of beer and cocktails, in addition to the mellow teas that are the big initial draw. The staff is super friendly and attentive, and the prices are more than reasonable, considering the central location of the teahouse. When it comes to other things to do in Madrid at night, you can move on to the nearby Discoteca Azúcar, a popular night club, or La Imperdible, which is also not far away.
WHERE TO STAY IN MADRID?
Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid
With stylishly decorated rooms, each with custom-designed furniture and arresting views of the city, the Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid is the epitome of subdued luxury, located in an impressive historic building which successfully balances the appeal of classic architectural styles with the functionality offered by modernity. The staff is very accommodating and will help you take advantage of the hotel’s numerous amenities, which include a 24-hour gym, free Wi-Fi, and an excellent buffet breakfast, served daily. Two of Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid’s most distinguishing features, however, are its music studio called Ondas, and an amazing rooftop bar with breathtaking panoramic views, open during the summer months. The hotel is located in the middle of Calle Gran Via, the aforementioned “Spanish Broadway”.
Another great property set in a historic building, Vincci Centrum is a charming, colorful boutique hotel with a clean, modern feel and a markedly stylish reception area. The hotel’s welcoming, sophisticated décor extends into the comfortable, air-conditioned rooms. Some of the rooms come with a beautiful terrace overlooking the streets below. The hotel’s prime location near Puerta del Sol and Gran Via is very convenient for guests interesting in sightseeing and reaching numerous points of interest on foot. The hotel’s Bellini Food&Bar has some great tapas complimented by an enviable selection of fine wines and refreshing cocktails. The real highlight, however, is the outstanding service, both in the on-site restaurant and the hotel itself.
Petit Palace Puerta del Sol
Located just off Puerta del Sol, next to the Children’s Museum, Petit Palace Puerta del Sol is an excellent little hotel set in a wonderful, sun-bathed building on a bustling pedestrian street with numerous shops, cafes, and points of interest. The hotel’s soundproofed, air-conditioned rooms are very spacious, and some of them come with a balcony. The on-site restaurant serves a buffet breakfast, and the 24-hour reception is there to provide guests with all the necessary information on all of the exciting places to see in Madrid. Additionally, guests at the hotel can rent bicycles free of charge, which is certainly very handy.
The Hat Madrid
Located near Plaza Mayor, only 300 m south of Calle Mayor, The Hat Madrid is about as well-situated, stylish, and exciting as a hostel can get. Its major selling points include a one-of-a-kind rooftop bar where gusts can enjoy panoramic city views, bright rooms with both private and shared bathrooms, a small balcony in several of the rooms, and the vicinity of major landmarks such as the medieval La Latina District, Puerta del Sol, the Royal Palace, and others. All in all, the hostel is top class, its minimalism and simplicity belying its amazing value, enhanced by the friendly staff and the hostel’s smart design.
DAY TRIPS FROM MADRID
Should you decide to spend more than a day in this beautiful city, you would do well to arrange one of the spectacular day trips from Madrid. But which one? Here are the most popular suggestions.
Toledo, known as the City of Three Cultures is a truly fascinating place. This former capital shows influences of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures, so it’s really not a big surprise that the whole city is under UNESCO’s protection (since 1986). Culture, history and great photo opportunities will relentlessly keep coming and you will be washed over by this city’s charm. A visit to the cathedral is a must, and the Jewish Quarter holds many pleasant surprises. The local cuisine is also quite exquisite, plus you have the magnificent fortress of Alcazar to explore. Enjoy!
El Escorial is the place where the King of Spain used to reside. This can immediately tell you that you’re in for a treat if you go here, and it’s really not that far from Madrid (a bit more than half an hour). Two incredible complexes form the royal site – the monastery and the royal hunting lodge. Yes, this is a royal palace AND a monastery at the same time. Of course, because of its uniqueness, it too is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, plus you have quite a lot to do here. There is an art gallery, a museum, beautiful gardens, a basilica and many other fascinating places to explore.
Segovia is a charming town of Celtic origin, but soon the Romans took over and left it a fascinating aqueduct that still stands today in the city centre and is one of three major attractions. The other two are Segovia Cathedral and the Alcazar of Segovia (i.e. the Castle of Segovia) which really looks like it has come out of a fairy tale. As a matter of fact, Cinderella Castle in Disneyland was modeled after it. Of course, UNESCO regards this as a World Heritage Site, too. With plenty of other museums and monasteries, you’ll have a whole lot to explore.
Avila is a beautiful little town you don’t want to miss and another place in Spain under UNESCO’s protection. Its big plus is that it can be easily combined with other places like Segovia or Salamanca, and just the intact medieval city walls will make your visit worth it. But there is much more to see, especially if you’re into some great architecture because the cathedral, the palace of Don Diego de Aguila, numerous museums and so many other sights will vividly show you what life was like in this part of the world in the 16th century.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING MADRID
If you are an avid reader and a literature buff, consider visiting Barrio de las Letras, a historic neighborhood where Hemingway and his buddies used to hang out.
If shopping is on top of your list of things to do in Madrid, then you absolutely must visit Salamanca. It’s where all the best designers are.
While Madrid is quite hilly, it is nevertheless a great place for biking. There are several bike-sharing apps and programs for you to check out, such as BiciMad, with hundreds of locations across Madrid.
Like many other European capitals, Madrid has also seen its share of pickpocketing over the years. Keep an eye on your valuables, get an anti-theft purse, or dress casually and try to blend in with the locals by mimicking their dress code.
PIN FOR LATER!
If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Madrid Itinerary, feel free to share them in the comments below!149