Dan and I flew into Madrid before exploring Spain’s southern Andalucía region and though we could only work enough time in our itinerary to spend a single day in Spain’s capital city we packed a lot in to 24 hours of sightseeing. Here’s how to make the most of a short stay in Madrid.
Enjoy a light and inexpensive breakfast of cafe con leche, orange juice, and a croissant. Many cafes offer desayuno deals for less than €3 for all of the above. For something a little more substantial, try the tortilla española, a potato omelet that’s delicious drizzled in good olive oil.
Start your sightseeing at Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (open 930am-8pm, closed Mondays) to see the beautiful domed chapel housing the tomb of the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya underneath the very proto-Impressionist frescoes he painted on the ceiling. In the summertime, you may see fruit stalls set up on the nearby streets selling cut up watermelon and honeydew. Buy some, you will not regret this sweet chilled treat!
Madrid is full of parks. Take a stroll through the winding cobblestone pathways of the leafy green Jardines del Campo de Moro on your way toward the Cathedral de la Almudena.
Crane your neck and admire the uniquely modern and colorful ceilings of the cathedral along with the 15th century painted altarpiece (open 9am-830pm, €1 donation is requested when entering). I personally have seen more than enough old European churches and cathedrals to desire setting foot in another one but I am glad I was persuaded to go in since the colorful ceilings are truly unlike anything else I have seen. If you want to check out the museum and cupola as well it will set you back €6. The Royal Palace is also right next door if you’re interested and have the time (open daily 10am-8pm, €10 admission fee). The third greatest palace in Europe, the sumptuously decorated palace has over 2,800 rooms!
Spaniards enjoy a late lunch hour so grab a late morning snack at the iron and glass structured Mercado de San Miguel originally built in 1916 (open 10am- midnight). Prepare to be overwhelmed with options and the hustle and bustle of the crowds and vendors. You could easily make a meal by stall hopping and grabbing an item or two from each if you are hungry for an early lunch. A popular inexpensive option for most locals is to grab a bocadillo, a large baguette sandwich. Try the famous high quality jamón ibérico y queso option, you won’t regret the classic ham and cheese combo. We enjoyed some of the amaaaazing burrata toasts pictured below.
Now that you’re fueled up, slowly meander your way through the spacious, medieval times main square of Plaza Mayor and the bustling pedestrian friendly historic center of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol. Lined with shops and cafes, the area is a perfect spot to pick up a souvenir or relax with a cerveza or two.
Lunch time! Between the hours of 1-4pm the restaurants and cafes swell with patrons and small shops close down as Madrileños gather together with friends and family for a big meal. Lunch is usually the biggest and heartiest meal of the day. Pop into any restaurant tucked away from the touristy streets and order one or two options from their selection of dishes called raciónes or the smaller media-raciónes to sample a wider variety. You can also choose to eat exclusively from the tapas menu. If you aren’t already tired of the ubiquitous jamón heavily present in Spanish cuisine, try the deep-fried jamón y queso croquettes. Ordering a jarra of sangria is also without question. Or try a glass of the popular tinto de verano, wine mixed with soda water or lemonade. It’s surprisingly light and refreshing! Fill up since dinner hour also runs late with most locals dining post-9pm.
Work off all that rich cuisine by heading to Madrid’s majestic grand green space, the Retiro Park, for a stroll around the peaceful gardens. Stop by the expansive glass and metal enclosure of the Palacio de Cristal for some fun photos. Fancy some time out on the water? Rent a rowboat at the El Estanque pond in front of the King Alfonso XII monument and paddle away.
Or if you are feeling a bit peaked head back to your hotel for a late afternoon siesta. No one will fault you, especially in the heart of summer when afternoon temperatures are best escaped indoors.
Madrid’s famed museums, the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, are free in the evenings from 6-8pm Monday through Saturday, 5-7pm on Sundays and 7-9pm Monday through Saturday, 3-7pm on Sundays respectively. Check out works by European masters such as Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and Ruben’s The Three Graces along with Spanish greats such as Goya and El Greco at the Prado or admire Picasso’s monumental Guernica at the Reina Sofia. These free hours are popular so be prepared for the possibility of crowds. Audio guides can be rented at both museums if desired. My tip for seeing large museums in a short amount of time? Grab a map at the entrance and circle the galleries where the pieces you most wish to see are shown so you don’t waste dwindling time on wandering around.
Getting thirsty? Grab a glass of spicy Spanish Rioja wine or sparkling cava at the 6th floor Terrace Cibeles (open 1pm-midnight, €6 cover charge per person with a €6 minimum purchase per person) at the wedding cake styled Palacio de Cibeles and linger over the skyline.
Time for dinner. Traditionally, since dinner is eaten so late and lunch is usually quite hearty a light dinner of a few tapas is the norm. Basic house wine in Spain is both delicious and inexpensive. Ask for un tinto (red wine) or un blanco (white wine) and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Much like bar hopping, be adventurous and order the selection of the day before heading on to the next place. Calle de Jesus and Calle Cava Baja are popular streets for a tapas crawl.
Madrileños like to spend their evenings strolling the streets of Madrid, especially in the summertime when the cool evening air finally draws everyone out. Join them in an evening paseo pre or post-dinner to watch dusk settle on the city.
Not yet ready to call it a night? If you have a sweet tooth head to the famous Chocolateria San Gines for their €3.80 chocolate con churros for dunking into the thick pudding like drink. Open 24 hours a day, it’s a favorite late night spot. Place your order inside, grab a table, and then hand your ticket to the server. You’ll be on your way to a sugar coma in just a few minutes!
Getting Around: The Metro is simple, fast, and cheap to use. Tickets are easy to purchase at machines located in the subway stations and can be bought in multiples. For my fellow Londoners who are familiar with the CityMapper app/website, I have good news! CityMapper also covers Madrid. Just simply type in your destination and depending upon your current location, the app will provide you with your public transit options in an easy to follow manner.
*All hours of admission and fees are current as of September 2015