As a resident of Madrid, a lot of people ask me for recommendations for a layover, or weekend in Madrid. For some reason, it’s not a city that attracts people for week long stays. It’s not a lack of things to do- Madrid has enough world class museums, restaurants and sites to keep people busy for weeks. And that’s not even mentioning the day trips to El Escorial, Segovia, Toledo, and other amazing places.
I think it’s because the city, like much of Spain, just doesn’t know how to sell itself. Most Spaniards I know are pretty humble people, and it shows when they talk about their country. It’s a pity because Spain in general, and Madrid in particular, has so much to offer. Here are my favorite picks for a two day stay in Madrid. Once you see what the city has to offer, you might consider extending your stay!
Day One- Morning
Madrid has an amazing volume of high quality art- it would be a shame not to visit at least one museum. The Prado is the big one, and if you like classic art you absolutely have to go. I recommend buying tickets in advance, especially if you are visiting in the summer because the lines can be crazy. Here’s a link: Prado Tickets Advance Sales
If you want a 30,000 foot view, I recommend you visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. It’s across the street from the Prado, in the historic Villahermosa Palace. The collection contains over 800 paintings spanning from the 13th to the late 20th Centuries. It’s less of a time commitment than the Prado, and has a lovely courtyard with free wifi if you want to sit and relax, or have a coffee in the elegant outdoor cafe.
If you like modern art, I recommend the Reina Sofia Museum. It’s a short walk down the Paseo de Prado towards Atocha- this is where you find Picasso’s Guernica. While you’re strolling in that direction, make sure you don’t miss the vertical garden of the Caixa Forum Madrid, located at Paseo de Prado, 36. The building itself is a brilliant example of contemporary architecture. You can also go inside- they always have very interesting exhibits at reasonable price points.
From the Paseo de Prado, stroll up the Calle de las Huertas and find a place to eat in the Barrio de las Letras. This is my favorite of Madrid’s old neighborhoods. The narrow streets have quotes from Spain’s literary giants set amongst the cobblestones, and they’re lined with old fashioned gas lights. There are a number of wonderful, casual restaurants intermixed with clothing boutiques in this neighborhood- don’t forget that most small businesses in Madrid still close for lunch. I really like Restaurante Ana La Santa, located on the ground floor of the Hotel ME Reina Victoria in the lovely historic Plaza Santa Ana. If you want something more traditional, stop at any of the cafes lining Plaza Santa Ana.
Afternoon: After lunch, if you haven’t been to Madrid before, you should walk up to Plaza Mayor and Puerta de Sol. They’re usually thronged with tourists so I don’t recommend staying too long, but a quick look is relatively painless. From here, you can walk to the Palacio Real, which I recommend vising. It’s open until 20.00 h in the summer, so there’s no need to hurry. Keep in mind, of Madrid’s four former palaces: El Palacio Real, El Escorial, Aranjuez and La Granja, it’s the newest and, in my mind, the least beautiful inside. But still impressive. If you really want a treat, stay an extra day and visit La Granja. It will take the whole day but it’s worth it. Nestled in the cool mountains north of Madrid, it’s Spain’s answer to Versailles- the fountains were designed by the same architect, and didn’t have the engineering problems experienced at Versailles.
Spaniards don’t eat dinner until late- I recommend waiting until 22.30 h. It really isn’t hard to keep these dinner hours because the sun sets so late. It’s not a freak of nature, it is because Spain is so far west compared to the rest of Europe. It really should be on GMT, but they moved it ahead to be consistent with the rest of Europe (ex Portugal). Back to your more immediate problem- where to eat dinner. I like the Mercado San Anton in Cheuca. It has a number of small restaurants where you can have tapas, or you can eat at the restaurant on the terrace. If you like you can buy a fish in the market below, and the restaurant will cook it to your taste.
Day Two- Morning
More museums! If you only went to one yesterday, I would recommend checking out another. After that, go for a stroll in the Buen Retiro. Or you can skip the museum all together and spend the entire morning in the park. The grounds belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th Century, when it became a public park. It is simply beautiful- filled with quiet old trees, sparkling fountains and the Crystal Palace (this is owned by the Reina Sofia so you can always pop inside and see a small exhibit if you skipped the art this morning). Most people like the boating lake and rose garden, but my favorite thing to do is visit the old trees in the Parterre Frances, and get lost among the chestnut trees in the middle of the park.
From the Retiro, walk up to Salamanca. Calle Serrano is Madrid’s answer to Fifth Avenue, but the neighboring side streets have smaller boutiques and restaurants. My favorites are Calle de Hermosilla an Calle de Castello. When I travel I like to wander around and look for new places- I invite you to do the same. You won’t go hungry!
After lunch, I recommend strolling around Salamanca for a bit. If you’re really hot, you can stop for a pastry at the Pasteleria Mallorca, located inside the (air conditioned) El Jardin de Serrano, at Calle de Goya, 6. Or you can quickly visit one of my favorite museums, the Museo Arqueologico (MAN), located at Calle Serrano, 13.
When you finish wandering about, walk towards Plaza Cibeles to see the lovely fountain of Cibele, the Roman goddess of nature. Equally impressive is the large, wedding cake like structure in the Plaza. It used to be the Palacio de Comunicaciones, and it was certainly the loveliest, most beautiful post office the world has ever known. Now it’s owned by the City of Madrid and has a name I can never recall. You can go on the terrace for a beautiful view of the Grand Via. I recommend this because there are some gorgeous old buildings along the Grand Via, but it’s so crowded that I find it highly unpleasant to walk on. And in the summer it’s extremely hot.
After Plaza Cibeles, I recommend spending a few euros and having a coffee or glass of Cava in the garden of the Ritz Hotel. It’s peaceful, relaxing and there’s a beautiful white marble fountain in the middle. Plus you probably really need to use the servicio by this time, and the Ritz has the best restrooms in Madrid. Much better than Starbuck’s. Trust me on this.
If you’ve followed by above suggestions, you’re probably really tired. I recommend a sit down dinner. My friends love El Imparcial, located at Calle Duque de Alba, 4 by the Tirso de Molina Metro stop. It is new- just opened in May, 2015, but it already has a following so I’d recommend making a reservation.
I certainly hope you enjoy your trip. If you have any questions, feel free to send me a direct tweet at _flyingcarpet. Checkout our Madrid Wanderful Travel Terrazo events- the Madrid chapter would love to meet you when you’re traveling through. Here’s a link to our Meetup Group: Wanderful Madrid