You’ve just landed, and checked into your hotel/Airbnb/hostel/friend’s place/abandoned warehouse where rats are looking after you like Snow White. You’ve dropped your bags, the rats have taken off your coat, and you’re ready to get set for exploration.
But you’re wondering how to spend your first day in Madrid? If you don’t have a local Spanish friend to show you around, then don’t worry – we’ve interviewed some locals to collect their top recommendations.
The first step in any new city is to familiarise yourself with the main sights of town, so let’s begin there.
Day one: see the highlights of Madrid
Start the morning with royalty
Time to get your bearings, and you might as well do it in style by beginning outside of the Royal Palace. While the reign of the Spanish monarchy has stronger associations with the old world – we’re looking at you, giant armada – they’re still going strong.
Europe’s largest palace isn’t lived in by royalty anymore, but the wealth of artistic artifacts is worth a king’s ransom. It contains the world’s only Stradivarius string quintet, as well as works by Goya, Carvaggio, and Velázquez.
Whether you decide to go inside and admire frescoes and fine art, or simply snap a selfie with the exterior in the background, the palace is worth swinging by.
Now, it’s time to head east and explore new territory.
Tip: If you want a great photo of the Royal Palace – as well as seeing something unique in its own right – then head to the Temple of Debod.
Markets and madness in Plaza Mayor
Looking for Madrid’s main square? You’ve found it.
One of the Plaza Mayor’s key players is right at the centre of the square – Philip III. He and his father (Philip II) are the ones to thank for the square, with its roots going all the way back to the 16th century.
You’ll find Philip sitting astride a horse wearing a ruff (a.k.a. old-timey frilly neck decoration). Sadly it’s only the younger Philip on the horse, not both men sharing the same saddle.
Chocolateria San Gines
You’re probably going to be daydreaming about food by now. What better way to break your fast on holiday – or to break it for the second time – than to dine on sugary, deep-fried goodness?
Wondering where the best churro in Madrid is? The answer is the Chocolateria San Gines. Its doors have been open since 1894, and nowadays you’ll find them open 24 hours a day (something to bear in mind after you’ve had one too many cervezas).
Get ready to dip your churro into a mug full of Spanish-style hot chocolate, which is more dipping sauce than drink.
Meet Madrid’s Mascot, El Oso y Madroño
It’s your turn to watch someone else eat now.
Berlin isn’t the only city famous for its bear, and this statue of Madrid’s motif isn’t too far from your churro pitstop. You’ve probably already seen the city’s symbol without realising it – it’s slapped on the side of taxis, manhole covers, and even tattooed on children’s foreheads (okay, maybe not that last one).
This statuesque cub picking fruit out of the arbutus tree has been in the city since the 1960s, and the surrounding square, Puerta del Sol, boasts plenty of lunchtime offerings.
Lunch in Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol
With a stomach full of churros, we understand if you want to make lunch a quick affair. Try out a Madrileño classic – Bocadillo de calamares, or squid bread as English speakers so eloquently say. You’ll find it in plenty of the bars around Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol.
The Plaza also has plenty of terraces, but it’ll cost a pretty peseta. (Insider tip: Spain hasn’t used the peseta since the introduction of the euro in 2002, but the euro is too hard to alliterate.)
Pace the Puerta del Sol in the afternoon
For Madrid, the Puerta del Sol is what Times Square is to New York. At least in terms of New Year’s Eve. This is where the bell tolls twelve and the new year is literally rung in (along with the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes). But, you don’t have to wait until NYE for excitement in the square.
The square also served as the launching pad for the 15-M (15 May, 2011) movement, which fought for stronger democratic rights in Spain.
The city is the centre of Madrid, as well as kilometre zero for all of Spain’s roads. You’ll find a plaque in Puerta del Sol’s centre showing that off.
After walking around in the Spanish sun, you’ll be ready to enjoy Spain’s greatest contribution to society: the siesta. The bane of every child’s existence – when your parents want to engage in local culture through napping.
Start your first night right and enjoy the true taste of Spain. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to delighting your taste buds in Madrid. If you’re looking for dinner, then try out these two barrios (neighbourhoods) not far from Puerta del Sol.
Food in La Latina neighbourhood:
There are three food hot spots in this area, and they’re all within a five-minute walk of each other. So find somewhere that takes your fancy and get ready to fill yourself up.
Cava Baja’s must eats
If you want one show-stealing street, then head here. If you want one show-stealing restaurant, then head to Casa Lucio and try out the huevos rotos.
Walk a little further along and you’ll find even more restaurants lined up at Plaza de la Paja and Plaza de Carros (try and check out El Viajero or Juana la Loca, both super close by).
Food in Huertas neighbourhood:
There’s plenty of food to be found if you head to Plaza de Santa Ana and its surroundings streets.
If you’re already eager to try out tapas, then “La Casa del Abuelo” and “Viva Madrid” are local favourites.
Feeling fancy? Try out these restaurants:
- Vinoteca Moratin – expect an intimate setting and finely plated dishes
- Tandem – get a taste of the Mediterranean
- Triciclo – It doesn’t have a Michelin star yet, but with a bib gourmand, you know it’s worth a taste
- Atlantik Corner – a smaller menu, but it all deserves to be there
Want to bundle your sightseeing into one day?
If the idea of navigating yourself around a new city seems like too much trouble, then fear not – there’s all manner of ways to see Madrid, from audio guided go-karts to bikes, and even segways. If you want to fall back on the reliable option of every tourist, there’s also the Hop-on Hop-off bus.
Day two: must-see museums of Madrid
You’ve seen the sights and you have a rough idea of where you are. As much as you might want to spend the rest of your three days in Madrid drinking sangria, it’s time to get cultured.
The Museum Triumvirate
There are three museums in Madrid that can be seen as essential – and you can’t go wrong with whichever one you pick – but it’s worth pointing out the highlights of each, so you know which suits you best.
If you feel like taking on all three, then this card with entry to each is the perfect solution.
Go classical at the Prado
The Prado is the jewel in the crown of the city’s museum scene. Along with its roster of famous Spanish artists, it’s also home to works by famous Flemish masters like Rubens, Bruegel, Van Dyck, and Bosch, including the latter’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. You’ll be able to find 1,500 masterpieces on display during your visit, with pieces by Velázquez, Goya, and Titian making up the permanent collection.
If you don’t know where to start inside the museum, then check out our guide detailing the masterpieces and the hidden gems.
See Picasso at the Museo Reina Sofía
While most tourists are going to run to the Prado, you can play it cool and head to the Museo Reina Sofía. If you want to see paintings by two of the most eminent artists of the 20th century, this is it. You’ll find pieces by both Picasso and Dalí, including the latter’s huge anti-war mural Guernica.
The final corner of the golden triangle of art. The Thyssen-Bornemisza was originally the private collection of Heinrich, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászonills, who snapped up art from Americans during the Great Depression.
When the collection grew too large, the Baron’s son was influenced to move it to Madrid by a former Miss Spain. Did we make any of that up? Nope!
The museum fills the gaps left by the Reina Sofia and the Prado with works by the Impressionists and Expressionists, alongside works from the German and English schools.
Go for a traditional lunch nearby
After eating up all that art, it’s time for lunch with real nutritional value.
The traditional lunch in Madrid is cocido, a hearty stew made with chickpeas and meat. It’s more delicious than it sounds, and a couple of restaurants have honed it to perfection, so try out Malacatin and La Bola restaurants.
You’re in Spain, so tapas two days in a row isn’t overkill. Luckily for you, one of the city’s best tapas joints is only a five-minute walk away from these museums. Step underground and dine in intimate alcoves with tapas dishes that have more than a dash of flair.
Looking for tapas on a budget? Head to any bar, order a beer, and you’ll get some tapas thrown in for free (or so say the locals).
There’s also plenty of bars and restaurants in Plaza Juan Goytisolo and Calle Santa Isabel.
If you’re looking for something with a touch of class, a local favourite is La Musa de Espronceda.
You’ll also be close to the Huertas neighbourhood, so scroll back up to last night’s dinner options to re-familiarise yourself with one of those much-loved restaurants.
Afternoon: shopping in Madrid
The Gran Via is Madrid’s answer to Oxford Street. With a mix of old and new, you’ll be able to find everything from high-street names to old-fashioned Spanish jewelers.
If you want something to take the edge off shopping, go to the Circulo de Bellas Artes rooftop and enjoy one of the best views of the city.
The Barrio de Salamanca is also a great neighbourhood for anyone wanting to shop outside of the typical area.
Evening at a flamenco show
Purists might argue that Madrid isn’t the best place to see flamenco in all of Spain – usually it’s found in Andalusia and Murcia in the south of the country – but the talent on offer at La Pacheca Flamenco Show will make you reassess that judgement. It’s a little bit outside of the city’s central ring, but it won’t take you long to get there using the metro.
You can add dinner to your show, so if you want to take a break from the Calle Cava Baja and make your flamenco an even more Iberian experience, then choose the dining option.
Make your final day about enjoying the finer things in life: food and nature.
Spend the morning in El Retiro Park
With the capital located smack-bang in the middle of the country, the Madrileños make up for their lack of beaches with incredible public parks.
Venture east and you’ll end up at El Retiro Park, it’s located right next to the Golden Triangle of Art. The city’s botanic gardens are right beside it too, and vestiges of grand architecture are dotted throughout the lush greenery of the area. Make sure to take a walk past the Crystal Palace, which dates back to 1887.
Tree-lined boulevards and grassy hideaways make it the perfect place to soak up the sun and the atmosphere before you’re whisked away from the respite of your city break.
If you’re visiting in summer, make sure you head to the small lake at the park’s centre and hire out a rowboat. If your memories of Madrid weren’t picturesque enough already, they will be now.
There’s two neighbourhoods near Retiro Park where you can have lunch. The Barrio de Salamanca, and Ibiza – both relatively upmarket parts of town.
Ibiza and Salamanca
Check out Calle Ibiza, Calle Menorca and Calle Narvaez. There are plenty of good restaurants in this area, but some hot picks are La Catapa, Bulbiza, and Casa Martin. If you’re going to Salamanca, head toward Cafe Gijon, an old-style restaurant where artists used to meet up, or Canalla Bistro Bar if you’re looking for some modern Spanish fusion.
Afternoon – time for park number two
After a leisurely morning, the idea of another park might sound far-fetched, but Casa de Campo has a lot more to offer than just rowboats and monuments.
Inside Casa de Campo, you’ll find plenty of major attractions, including one of Madrid’s theme parks – Parque de Atracciones de Madrid.
If you’re there with kids, or simply looking for something to do, then the Zoo Aquarium de Madrid is also located in the same area.
Spend an evening in the markets
Spain is one of Europe’s major produce powerhouses, so it would be a shame not to enjoy it while it’s freshest. You can take a tour of Madrid’s two main markets: The San Miguel Market and Cebada Market. The tour starts at 17:00 and lasts long into the evening, so you won’t feel hungry as you walk from stall to stall.
If you want a self-guided galavant around the markets, then these are your essentials:
- Try out oysters in Mercados de San Miguel
- Visit the food stands at San Ildefonso
- Sample some jamon serrano in the Museo del Jamón (that’s a bar, not a museum, and there’s a few in Madrid)
Day trips from Madrid
That’s the basics covered if you simply want to spend a few days in Madrid. But if you head outside of the big city, you’ll find even greater beauty, and more excitement and adventure than you can shake a squid sandwich at.
See the grounds of Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
The home of legends. Beckham, Raúl, Ronaldo, Zidane, et al. Even if Madrid torments your team in the Champions League, you’ll be able to appreciate the grounds and the magic that’s happened here. Walk where heroes of the field have stood, spend a few minutes in contemplation in the manager’s technical area (longer than most Madrid managers get) and visit the changing rooms where Benzema, Ramos, and Kroos ready themselves for action.
Cool down in Madrid’s waterparks
Spain gets hot. Now that the obvious has been pointed out, here’s a remedy for the heat: water.
Sometimes a cold shower doesn’t cut it, especially if you want to hurtle down a slide at top speed with your friends. There are two water parks to choose from: Aquopolis, and Parque Warner Beach Madrid. Both are on the outskirts of the city, and both offer adrenaline in bucketloads.
The question is whether you want to make an entire day of it, and combine water parks with theme park rides. Which leads us to…
Turns out the Spanish don’t say Warner with an accent. Don’t make a fool of yourself and try to make it sound exotic. Strap yourself into rides inspired by superheroes, meet characters from your childhood and catch live shows every day.
If you got to the Royal Palace in Madrid and thought ‘eh’, then maybe this historic royal residence will do more for you. It certainly did more than just serve as a home for kings and queens. Since the 16th century, El Escorial has served as a cornerstone for Catholicism in Spain, a library, a university, a school, and even a hospital. That’s versatility.
Take a guided tour of the grounds, wander the gardens, and discover how the monastery grew and changed purpose over time. Along with frescoed ceilings and eleven royal tombs, you’ll also see artwork by Titian, Rubens, van Dyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Velasquez, and El Greco.
Insider tips for 3 days in Madrid
How to travel in Madrid
You can make your way around Madrid on foot without any trouble, but if you’re planning on venturing into the city’s outskirts for flamenco, then public transport is your best friend. The Madrid metro is the second-longest in Europe, behind London’s, so if you’re looking for a connection there shouldn’t be an issue. Make sure to keep your wallet close, pickpockets and capital cities go hand-in-hand, or hand-in-wallet.
You can grab a Madrid Multi card at a station’s ticket machine, or from tobacconists and authorised sellers, and load it with the trips you need – there’s even a 3 day tourist ticket option for Zone A (the city centre) for €18.40.
If going underground isn’t for you, then check out the Hop-on, Hop-off bus, which runs a central route and one that goes out to the Bernabeu as well.
When does Madrid siesta?
Siesta is between 2-6pm, so some locally owned shops will be closed, but plenty of stores on the Gran Via will be open if you need your fix of fast food or fashion.
What beer should I drink in Madrid?
Estrella Damm and San Miguel are the typical Spanish beers you’ll find outside of the country, but they are what Budweiser and Heineken are to the USA and the Netherlands. Estrella Galicia is a safe bet, and the city’s classic Mahou should be available in most bars. If you’re a real connoisseur of hops and barley, then have a taste of La Virgen (they even have a brewery tour).
Nightlife in Madrid
When it comes to a night out, there are entire neighbourhoods that will suit your desires.
Club in Chueca
Looking to party hardy? Chueca is the gay quarter of Madrid, so if you want to dance until the wee hours of the morning (you can go until 05:30) you know which direction to head towards. Have a look at Fulanita de Tal!
Mosh in Malasaña
If you’re a lover of rock or hip-hop, then this is up your alley. Although, it’s more than an alley. There’s a whole neighbourhood to explore with plenty of musical treats. If you’re looking for a heavy night out, try the Ocean Rock Bar.
Explore Alonso Martinez
Want a trendy bar? You should find it in this part of the city, along with plenty of Madrid’s hipsters. If you’re looking for a laid-back cocktail lounge, then check out Veinti 7.