To even try to make a short Madrid itinerary is frustrating. It’s a big city, with many attractions, and hundreds of restaurants and bars that deserve a visit. In fact, given the history of Madrid, you could easily spend several days eating your way through the best Madrid restaurants, visiting the historical watering holes and never get bored.
But even though it’s pretty much impossible to create a comprehensive Madrid itinerary that you can cover in a few days, I’m going to pretend I (and you) are rocks that skip across the surface hitting the high points, then leave it to you to come back when you have more time and dive deeper under the surface.
First, the usual way to get to Madrid, via air from the United States, will probably land you early or mid-morning. If you’ve done the smart thing and slept on the plane, you’re ready to tackle the city right away. You can take a siesta after lunch, like a real Spaniard, so go ahead and make the most of the morning.
The Museums of Madrid
Madrid has several special museums, but in a limited visit, you should hit the big two, The Prado and The Reina Sofia. If you have time, pick another. However, my best advice is to spend an entire day in the Prado, from opening to close, and you still won’t begin to take in the whole thing.
Book your Private Combo Tour: The Prado and Reina Sofia Museum Skip-the-Line Guided Tour in advance to save time and money.
If you need convincing of The Prado’s importance, keep in mind that it’s anchor works are the collections of the kings of Spain during the period it was the richest and most powerful country in the world. King Felipe IV gave his court painter, Diego Velazquez, a blank check and sent him all over Europe to buy the best paintings he could find. The result is amazing.
Here’s what to look for in The Prado:
First is the spectacular Descent from the Cross by Roger van der Weyden, one of the very best paintings of the Renaissance. I can stand in front of it for the better part of an hour and not get tired.
Get your Prado Museum entrance ticket in advance to save time and money.
The list of the other most famous and marvelous paintings you can’t miss is headed by Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. A surrealistic fantasy that predicted Dali, it’s also a sick theology lesson for the illiterate congregation you want to frighten into following the teachings of the Church. Paradise, Earth, and Hell. It’s all there.
There are plenty of other highlights, particularly Goya’s Majas, the Albrecht Durer self portrait and Adam and Eve, and, of course Velazquez’s Las Meninas.
I’ve skipped over mentioning the Rembrandts, the Titians, the Rubens, the El Grecos, and Goya’s Black Paintings. Don’t you skip them, though. The Black Paintings room alone is worth an hour.
Here is more info on The Prado and why you want to spend time there.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Private Custom Madrid Tour with Skip the Line Prado Museum Ticket ** OUR TOP PICK**
- 2-Hour Tour of Prado Museum in Madrid
- Skip-the-line Prado Museum and Touristic Bus with Tapas
Don’t miss the Reina Sofia:
If you haven’t exhausted yourself by your day in the Prado, spend the next day in the Reina Sofia, which is nearby. Here you’ll see much of the best of Spain’s more modern art such as Miro, Dali, and especially Picasso. The main reason to visit the Reina Sofia though is one painting, Picasso’s Guernica.
Get your Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Valencia admission ticket in advance to save time and money.
Guernica, a huge painting in black, white, and gray, depicts Picasso’s impression of the bombing of the defenseless Basque village of Guernica by the German Air Force during the Spanish Civil War. The village was leveled and most of the inhabitants were killed in what amounted to an act of terrorism and practice for Hitler’s Blitzkrieg he’d later loose on the rest of Europe.
Like the Bosch, it’s also full of hellish details that can transfix you for an hour. Combined with the adjacent rooms that house most of Picasso’s studies for Guernica, you can realize a pretty good art history education in a short afternoon.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Reina Sofia Museum Guided Tour in Madrid ** OUR TOP PICK**
- The Reina Sofia Museum Skip-the-Line Small Group Guided Tour
- Private Tour: The Reina Sofia Museum Skip-the-Line Guided Tour
Of course, there’s also the Royal Palace, if opulence is your thing.
The Best Madrid Restaurants
Breakfast in Madrid
The Hotel Europa offers a very typical cafeteria on the ground floor that has perfectly adequate coffee, fresh orange juice, and terrific croissants. (Yes, Spain’s croissants are just as good as France’s). But, there are two places just a few steps away that better exemplify the real Madrid experience.
First La Mallorquina, on the west end of the Puerta del Sol at Calle Mayor 2, is a classic Madrid pastry bakery. When you enter the narrow doors, you’re typically confronted with dozens of Madrileños queued up for the astonishing variety of pastries. If you’re not satisfied with a croissant, you’ll have scores of sweet and savory pastries to choose from.
Never mind trying to name them, just point, order a café con leche, stand at the counter and enjoy. Alternatively, you can go upstairs and sit at a table and be waited on. But then, you won’t be able to point at what you want, and if you’re not versed in the names for various pastries, you’re stuck with a croissant.
But my favorite Madrid breakfast is at Chocolateria San Gines, at Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5, about two short blocks from the Puerta’s west end. There, you’ll also get a real Madrid experience, thick hot chocolate in a cup and churros to dip. The Chocolateria is open 24 hours, so it’s not just for breakfast.
You’ll see lots of people stopping by after the clubs close for dessert after a long night of partying. But, you’re having breakfast, so go ahead, stand in line, and enjoy.
Lunch in the neighborhood of the Puerta del Sol
There are hundreds of choices within eight to ten blocks of the Puerta del Sol, and I do recommend getting off the Puerta itself, or you’ll find yourself paying too much for mediocre tourist fare.
Here are some of our favorites:
Bar Ñeru, at Calle Bordadores, 5, is an Asturian restaurant that specializes in Fabada Asturiana, a hearty bean stew with three types of sausage providing savory punctuation to the big flavorful beans. Start with an appetizer of grilled octopus and wash it all down with typical Asturian cider. You can stand at the bar upstairs and take this all in in tapas fashion, or head downstairs for a more leisurely sit-down lunch.
La Torre del Oro on Plaza Mayor. This place is recommended more for the atmosphere than the cuisine, although their pimientos de padron, fried green sweet peppers (with an occasional surprise spicy one thrown in) and pescaíto, fried fish, are typical and tasty. If you want to endear yourselves to the Andalusian proprietors of this place, order a fino, a dry sherry instead of a wine or beer. If bullfighting turns you off, skip this one, as the walls are hung with bullfight photos and bulls’ heads.
Bar La Ideal just off Plaza Mayor at Calle Botoneras, 4. You can have a calamares sandwich, or just a pile of lightly breaded rings on a plate. There are some other options on the limited menu, but trust me. This place has great calamares and it’s cheap. Wash them down with a small beer.
La Casa del Abuelo, Calle Victoria, 12, just off Plaza Mayor. The Gambas al Ajillo, (Shrimp in Garlic) are very spicy and shouldn’t be attempted by the faint of heart. But with a few beers and bread to sop up the oily goodness, you’ll be fine.
Dinner in Madrid
A lot of Madrileños will tell you it’s a bit touristy, but don’t let that dissuade you. El Botín, or if you want to get picky and go by its full name, El Sobrino del Botín, just down the hill from Plaza Mayor, is an experience you need to have at least once. For one thing, it’s the oldest continually open restaurant in the world, dating back to 1725. But more important, it’s the old traditional Castillian cuisine that sets this place apart.
There is a long menu, but take my word for it, there are only two main courses you should choose from: the lamb or the suckling pig. My best suggestion is go with a friend, each order one, and share. For starters, split an order of asparagus with mayonnaise, and maybe a green salad. But go easy and leave room for all the meat.
You will be licking your fingers afterward. As for wine, a Pesquera from Ribera del Duero complements the lamb and pig perfectly. You’ll need reservations, btw, and your hotel can help you with that.
Finish with an expresso and a Spanish brandy, such as Cardinal Mendoza or Carlos I. The whole night will be a splurge, but you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Madrid Wine Tasting with Iberian Ham and Tapas Tour
- Madrid Tapas and Wine Tasting Tour
- Madrid Flamenco and Wine Tour ** OUR TOP PICK**
When you’ve done El Botín, your next nights should be spent on the small plates, or tapas, tour. Here are a couple of suggestions for where to do that. There’s a street called Cava Baja that is lined with small restaurants that mostly serve little plates for €2-4 that are elaborations on the simple tapas you’ll get with your drinks in most bars.
Check out a few of them. They’re all good. But Restaurante La Chata near the top of the street stands out. They also have a long wine list, which is a relative rarity for a typical Madrid bar.
The other must do is the Mercado San Miguel just near the Plaza Mayor. This market used to be the food market for the neighborhood but has now been turned into a huge carnival of Spanish cuisine. Just browse the stalls and get your choice of a plate of paella, grilled eels, smoked white fish, or, my favorite, an assortment of olives to go along with a glass of earthy vermouth.
If vermouth isn’t your deal, there are martini bars, a massive selection of wines, a bar that serves a dozen varieties of sherries. Of course, if it’s summer, there’s always a place mixing a vast assortment of gourmet gin and tonics.
Finally, the Arco de Cuchilleros street, where you ate at El Botín, also features many typical Madrid bars that serve very typical plates of cured meats and cheeses and more. Of particular note is Rincón de la Cava for a plate of olives, jamon, and other meats. Next door is the Meson de Champiñones, the House of Mushrooms. Have at least one order of grilled mushrooms with chorizo and a short beer.
If you are adventurous, end your tapas expedition at the famous Sherry bar called La Venencia, at Calle Echegaray, 7. Hemingway used to drink here, and it hasn’t changed much. It’s shabby and raucous. You can get a bottle of fino sherry for about €8, and something to soak it up with for a couple of euros more. Walk it off on your way back to your hotel.
Top Recommended Tours:
Some other small gems of Madrid
Tours by Context Travel. We’ve done lots of these and have never been disappointed. Prepare to dive deeper than you’re used to.
The Egyptian Temple of Debod in the Parque de Oriente. The Egyptian government gifted the temple to Spain in gratitude for its help relocating monuments during the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile.
The Retiro Park, when you need a break from the city. Some lovely quiet walks.
The Madrid Food Tour is simply the best introduction to Madrid cuisine, and may take you to a couple of the places named above.
The statue of Don Quixote at Plaza de España. If you can figure why the Spanish revere a literary character designed to mock them, you’ll be way ahead in your understanding of the Spanish.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Flamenco Show at Corral de la Morería in Madrid
- Madrid Hop-on Hop-off Tour
- El Escorial Monastery and the Valley of the Fallen from Madrid
- Toledo Half-Day or Full-Day Tour from Madrid
- Segovia and Avila Guided Day Tour From Madrid
Where to stay in Madrid
Although many Madrileños would scoff at this, I suggest staying in the area of the Puerta del Sol. First, it’s an easy ride on the Cercanias train from the airport. And second, it’s the heart of “Old Madrid” and so within walking distance of lots of the attractions and bars and restaurants you’ll want to try.
We often stay at the Hotel Europa, which is right on the Puerta del Sol, and is comfortable, reasonably priced for its location, and has an attached outdoor café where you can watch the constant parade of people in the Puerta del Sol.
There are also several other reasonable hotels within easy walking distance of Sol, such as Petit Palace Arenal, Petit Palace Puerta del Sol, and the Hotel Regina. We’ve stayed in them all. They’re all in the middle of the action.
One other benefit of Sol is that it is a main station on the Madrid Metro, and from there, you can get anywhere in the city quickly and cheap.
- Hotel Europa ***** Excellent Traveler Rating
- Petit Palace Arenal ***** Excellent Traveler Rating
- Petit Palace Puerta del Sol ***** Excellent Traveler Rating
- Hotel Regina ***** Excellent Traveler Rating
More on Spain:
- Spain Travel Guide
- 3 Days in Barcelona Itinerary
- Best Day Trips from Barcelona
- The Best of Costa Brava in Spain
- 10 Picturesque Locations in Spain
- 6 of the Best Hikes in Spain
- Ultimate Guide to Eurail Pass Train Travel in Europe
- Travel Insurance for Europe Vacation: Do I Need It?
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About the Author
Tom Bartel was the publisher of various newspapers and magazines based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. After retiring from publishing, he and his wife Kristin Henning, have been on the road more or less non-stop since 2010. They’ve been to over 65 countries so far, and are planning on knocking off another dozen or so this year. Kris and Tom blog about their travels at Travelpast50.com, or you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest at @travelpast50.