20190620_102258Plaza Mayor (June 2019)

When it comes to traveling, some of us might not have the luxury of spending many days in one place. Whether it’s due to rushed planning or limited vacation time off from work, it can be hectic trying to research and cram in as much as possible into sightseeing a city or country. In the end, it might be exhausting, and it perhaps could detract you from enjoying your adventure away from home.

Having been inspired by the many Internet articles (one of the most-famous including the New York Times’ “36 Hours in…” segment) that showcase ideal itineraries in a set destination, I’d thought that I would also start a similar series on this blog to offer some of my own suggestions of things to do, see, and eat in well-renown cities in the world.

What makes my series different from the others online would be the fact that I’m by no means a professional traveler (e.g. no sponsors, all-paid resorts, etc.), and that what I will suggest are based on my own personal experiences having visited a certain place at least twice, in order to ensure a more-comprehensive outlook on the city itself.

Many online articles in the same vein also tend to cater towards mid-to-upper class travelers who can actually afford hotels and fine-dining restaurants, which I assume many people in their 20’s, even 30’s, can’t have. That’s why I’m catering this series to the budget-friendly, backpack-traveler nomad who doesn’t mind staying in hostels, taking overnight buses, or eating at hole-in-the-wall joints while still getting a fulfilling experience in traveling. This one’s for you, folks! 

PS Check out more of my “72-Hour” posts here!

72 Hours in Madrid: Things to See and Do

Located smack-dab in the center of Spain, Madrid is the country’s capital and most-populous city at over 3.2 million people. It has the second-highest GDP in the European Union, and many young Spanish professionals flock to Madrid for job opportunities as a result. In addition, the city boasts its world-famous football team, Real Madrid (for football fans out there). Just like its capital counterparts of Paris and London, Madrid is the place to be for all things political, financial, and cultural.

I have visited Madrid three times: twice during the temperate (but windy) winters– February and December– and once in the heat of the summer, in June. Visiting both in the peak and off-peak seasons were stark contrasts to each other– for instance, the Christmas festivities and summer break were hectic, as it was incredibly-crowded and stifling at times. But off-season in February was pretty empty, which allowed more room and freedom to roam the streets as I pleased. Regardless though, Madrid remains beautiful any time of the year you choose to visit.

Funny enough, I was not charmed by Madrid during my first visit in February 2016: I spent two nights in the Spanish capital and did the usual tourist circuit (Plaza Mayor, Chocolatería San Ginés, Mercado de San Miguel), but I soon found myself quickly done and bored. I also did struggle a bit when it came to speaking with locals, as many of them did not speak English (and my Spanish non-existent)– some were even impolite to me when they knew I did not speak Spanish. Sadly, those incidents left me with a tepid view of Madrid, and I was ready to cast it off as a “one and done” visit.

…but it grew on me. I returned on a family trip in December 2016, and although I did go back to the touristy sites, I also expanded to see more sights in town. Considering that I had a limited 48 hours during my first time, I had 3-4 nights this time around to slow down and enjoy the experience of it all. We also ate at some incredible restaurants, which I ended up returning to upon my third visit in June 2019.

Madrid is a MASSIVE city. It’s very spread-out, so it does require to take the metro/public transport to get around. However, I will only focus on the sights and attractions within the Centro district, most of them concentrated in the Sol neighborhood (aka “Kilometre Zero”). That said, it’s ideal to find accommodation within Centro, as then you can walk to all of the sites that will be recommended down below. Let’s begin!

Day 1

Start off your morning with breakfast at the world-famous establishment Chocolatería San Ginés. Founded in 1894, it’s the place to go for churros con chocolate and lines are sure to be out the door for a taste of them. To avoid the crowds, I’d encourage you to go before 9h00, but I’ve come to find that, regardless of the hour, you’ll still be able to find seating as people come and go quickly. For the price of 6€ (at least, in 2019), churros con chocolate is a delicious and filling way to start your day!

20190620_104038Churros con chocolate

Just 250 metres from Chocolatería San Ginés is the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a former palace-turned-monastery from the mid-16th century that’s known for its ornate frescoes and tapestries. It helps to go right when it opens at 10h00 in order to get tickets, as it can get especially busy on weekends (and the site limits to 20 visitors at a time). It’s also mindful to know when English-speaking tours take place– otherwise, you’ll need to go with the Spanish-speaking tour.

Just a 5-minute walk away is the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid and “Kilometre Zero” for the radial network of Spanish roads. You can find the kilómetro cero plaque near the Real Casa de Correos (post office-turned-office of the President of the Community of Madrid. You’ll also see the King Charles III statue, as well as El Oso y el Madroño (Bear and Strawberry Tree), the latter erected in 1967 and is to represent Madrid’s coat of arms. Puerta del Sol is a bustling square, and a quick look-and-go is enough to take in the essence of it all.

El Oso y el Madroño

For the afternoon, you can check out the Gran Via, aka “Spanish Broadway.” Enjoy strolling the grand avenue with its plethora of high-end shopping centers and historic buildings of varied architectural styles (Viennese, Art Deco, etc.). You could also grab a quick bite to eat; I’d recommend either a bocadillo de jamón (ham sandwich) or bocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich), which are Madrid staples. It’s then a matter of returning to your accommodation for a siesta (as the Spanish do), especially if it gets too hot in the afternoon.

20190620_144544Bocadillo de calamares

Upon waking up refreshed, head over to the Mercado de San Miguel for dinner. You have dozens of options inside the historic, 100-year-old indoor market: from fresh oysters to croquetas to even paella (although it’s not recommended to have paella in Madrid!), the market has just about every tapa imagined for the foodie. It’s easy just to go from stall-to-stall for small bites here and there (along with a beer or sherry)!

Enjoy the setting sun at Plaza Mayor before heading over to the bars just off of Puerta del Sol. Feel free to have a few glasses at any of the dozens of bars in the area, before making friends and heading to the club afterwards. Be mindful that nightlife doesn’t start until at least 2h00, so pace yourself before really letting loose around 3h00-4h00!

Day 2

Especially if you’re exhausted and hungover from last night’s partying, it’s forgivable to wake up past noon for a coffee and late breakfast near Parque Retiro. You could easily spend the entire afternoon just aimlessly strolling the massive park (at 125 hectares!) or even picnicking on the grass. Some sites of interest include the Palacio de Cristal, a conservatory decked out in all glass, and the Monumento a Alfonso XII, where you can rent rowboats for a leisurely row on the water. Just outside of the park are the Puerta de Alcalá and Palacio de Cibeles, also worth a quick glance at while in the area.

Monumento a Alfonso XII

If museums interest you, you have the option of checking out either the Museo Nacional del Prado or the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in the late afternoon/early evening. The former is Spain’s national art museum, with thousands of artworks from the Spanish greats throughout history, whereas the latter is dedicated to contemporary, 20th-century art. Both are massive museums, so you’d need at least a couple of hours for a visit– even then, you won’t be able to see them all!

Nearby is the Madrid Atocha station, which serves trains headed to the south of the country (e.g. Barcelona, Granada, Valencia). However, you’re not going anywhere, as you’re there to check out the indoor botanical garden– it’s a surprising oasis inside an industrial complex, which offers a bit of respite from the hustle and bustle of sightseeing and travel. Plus, there are adorable turtles!

Little turtles!

Dinner will be at another mercado, this time at the Mercado de San Fernando. It’s less-touristy than San Miguel, but it offers just as many delicious affairs– tapas, drinks, desserts– as its counterpart. San Fernando is more-local, and all the more to socialize before you choose either to head out for nightlife again, or to retire early to your accommodation to sleep off the excitement from the night before.

Day 3

After a quick coffee and a napolitana de chocolate (Spanish chocolate croissant– SO good!), head over to the Palacio Real de Madrid prior to opening (at 10h00)– either you already purchased your tickets online, or you wait in the queue for same-day tickets to get in. Regardless, a visit to this 18th-century royal palace is a real treat, to see the state rooms and all of the elegance that the Spanish Empire boasted back in the day.

Across from the Palacio Real is the Almudena Cathedral, recently-built and completed in 1993. The interior is large, spacious, and a tad stark, but it’s the dazzling, ornate Altar to the Virgin which really brings this cathedral to life. Personally, I always visit the Almudena Cathedral on each trip to Madrid.

20190620_120721Almudena Cathedral

Feel free to grab a bocadillo nearby and have a picnic lunch at the Jardines de Sabatini, gardens which belong to the Palacio Real. Enjoy the tall, beautifully-scaped hedges, along with the fountains and Roman sculptures in perfect symmetry, for a brief respite in the afternoon heat.

20190620_124120Jardines de Sabatini

If time permits, head over to the Museo Cerralbo, founded by the Marquis of Cerralbo in the late-19th century. It’s the Marquis’s personal gallery of art and archaeological artifacts he collected over the years (including historic banknotes/currencies!), all housed inside a lavish, Italian-inspired home. Visiting hours are limited, until 15h00, so it’s worth a pop inside before closing!

Nearby are the Templo de Debod, a replica of the now-lost shrine in Ancient Egypt, and Plaza de España, a square dedicated to the renown Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. They can be a quick pass-through before heading straight down south to the Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande, a Roman Catholic church from the 18th century with the most-stunning interior and paintings by Goya. Along with the Almudena Cathedral, the Real Basílica is my personal favorite religious site to visit, as its inside is sure to make any non-believer believe.

20190620_112859Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande

After a siesta back at the accommodation, it’s time to head over for your last meal in Madrid. Whereas the past two nights were quick tapas, tonight will be a more-substantial feast at La Mi Venta, my favorite restaurant in all of town; I always make the pilgrimage over whenever I visit Madrid. It’s a tavern-style restaurant and, due to its popularity, it’s encouraged to make reservations in advance. La Mi Venta is known for its Spanish ham, but I’d also recommend ordering its chorizotortilla española (egg-potato omelet), and callos a la madrileña (tripe stew). And when in Spain, always have a sangria!

20190620_203644Callos a la madrileña– my favorite!

…and that’s a wrap on 72 hours in Madrid! Of course, there is so much more to see and do, but for your first time, I believe this itinerary is a solid introduction to the Spanish capital. Again, just focusing on the sites in Centro offers a convenient and walkable opportunity to see everything within a few hundred metres of each other. From its refined royal history to elevated gastronomy to vibrant nightlife, Madrid is the place to visit to experience them all.

Have you been to Madrid before? Let me know!

— Rebecca

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62 thoughts on “72 Hours in Madrid: Things to See and Do

  1. A great selection of spots for a breezy Madrid visit. Retiro is a glorious park, such a privilege to have that huge wonderful green space in the middle of the city. I liked Madrid and that outdoor living style. Sorry to hear that you had some less than pleasant experiences. That’s a stain on any destination.

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    1. Despite the lackluster first visit, Madrid did redeem itself! I enjoyed my subsequent visits, and I’d choose to return (especially for the food)! Definitely a beautiful city (and with a beautiful park as Retiro itself). 😊

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  2. I had two lengthy visits to Madrid in the 1960s, and I certainly remember those “Churros con chocolate”.
    At that time I was learning Spanish, with a book called “L’espagnol sans Professeur”, so I tried to speak Spanish a lot (mainly with people I met at the hostel) and went movies I already knew, such as “Romanoff and Juliet” with Peter Ustinov, but dubbed into Spanish. The movies were all double bills, which I saw one-and-a-half times, so I had lots of listening practice.
    After fifty-two years in Germany I have unfortunately forgotten most of my Spanish, but I can still speak it at parties with people who don’t mind if I get the grammar all wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very impressive you learned Spanish by yourself, especially through dubbed movies! Sounds like you’re quite the polyglot, haha. I’d also like to try that out, as knowing one of the Romance languages (French) might help me in stringing a few phrases in Spanish together!

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      1. That’s why I got a book in French, to speed things up by comparing the two languages. I remember there was one chapter where I learned about fifty Spanish adjectives in one go, because they were the same as in French but with different endings.
        But I’m not that much of a polyglot. When I retired here in Germany seventeen years ago I realized I was down to two languages, English and German. I decided to revive one of my dormant languages, and quickly realized it could only be French, because of France being so close by and Paris less than four hours by train from Frankfurt.

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  3. Great 72 hour itinerary of Madrid, Rebecca! I think you picked excellent destinations downtown. The row boats bring back memories as do the Prado and modern museums. I liked window shopping at Corte Inglés. The restaurants you mentioned sound delicious – must try next time.

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  4. I can’t think of anything better: crispy, fried-to-perfection churros lightly dusted with sugar and dipped in piping hot, sinfully delicious thick hot chocolate. Sounds amazing, right? If there’s one sweet treat you can’t leave Madrid without trying, it’s churros con chocolate. This is such a great post about Madrid, Rebecca. As it’s where Valters best friend lives, we’ve been to the city more times than I can count and always had the privilege of exploring places only locals go to. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. “Sinfully delicious” is the perfect way to describe Spanish hot chocolate! You’re lucky to have the opportunity to visit Madrid so many times, and I’m sure you have even more recommendations to offer than just the touristy circuit! Thanks for stopping by, Aiva. 😊

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  5. Seems like a pretty solid tour to me, and one I can use to build my itinerary someday when I visit Madrid. Though I must say, I don’t see myself staying up until 4:00am… I’m not much of one for nightlife and that’s well past my bedtime!

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    1. Haha, I think I’m past those days of partying until 4AM as well! Madrid (and all of Spain) is a great place to visit, and I’m glad my suggested itinerary helped! Hope you can head over there someday. 😊

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    1. Do you think it was due to not knowing Spanish (assuming you don’t speak it)? I think that was my issue when I attempted to interact with locals, which led to a tepid response, sometimes outright ignoring me. Regardless, I still enjoyed myself, and I’m glad you have pleasant memories from your trip there as well.

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      1. I do speak a little Spanish, but I think it might be more due to tourist fatigue. I know it’s a problem in Barcelona; so maybe in Madrid too. We’ll be in Barcelona next month, and I’m curious to find out if it’s still an issue.

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  6. I agree with the idea that stays in big cities usually only last a few days and that you have to make a selection of sites to visit. The experience of others is often useful in forming an opinion. As the centre of Madrid is not very large, walking is the best way to discover other unexpected places around. The metro, however, saves time on repetitive routes. I noticed on my last visit that many of the paid places are free on certain days or at certain times, like Prado, Reina Sofia, Botanico.

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    1. Couldn’t agree more! For those short on time, exploring Centro is the most-convenient way to fulfill the main touristy sites of town. I’ve only taken the metro to and from the airport and to train stations, but it definitely would be useful for visiting sites a bit far out from the city center. Madrid does have solid public transport, that’s for sure!

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    1. Glad to hear I’m not the only one! Madrid definitely deserves another chance; even if you don’t really interact with the locals, just exploring the city on your own can be a fulfilling experience! Hope you give Madrid another try!

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    1. Yes, Madrid is such a large city that it can take months (even years) just to cover it all. Glad you had a longer stay in town, and I’m sure you found some lovely gems during your time there!

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    1. I’ve been informed (from various sources including guidebooks, YouTube videos, and colleagues) that paella in Madrid is not good at all. Probably due to being far from the sea, but even the red meat-based paellas aren’t supposed to be great, either! Maybe I’ll have to take the chance and try it out there to see if it’s true!

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    1. I’ve already written a handful of “72 Hours In…” posts, so feel free to check them out. I only publish maybe one or two a year, just because they take more research/effort. Glad you enjoyed the post, and you make a good point about how these trips are perfect for those with limited PTO or weekend breaks!

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  7. Seems like a great itinerary! I have only been to Madrid once and the only thing I remember is seeing Guernica at the museum, eating at a very fancy restaurant and being sick in my hotel room for the whole following day… I have to go back and change those memories a bit ahah! I also love the idea of this series and can’t wait to read more about other cities!

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    1. That’s unfortunate you got sick in Madrid; falling ill during a trip can certainly sour the experience of the destination…I hope you can return to give Madrid another chance! I’ve already written a handful of “72 Hours In…” posts, so feel free to check them out!

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  8. I loved the Prado and Reina Sofia art museums, glad you mentioned them. Last time I was there (each time for just a day or two), there was a great Marc Chagall exhibit at the Thyssen. I have stayed with a younger friend that I met through an English immersion seminar, in a neighborhood that was not touristy, and they took me to local restaurants. She lived with her mother who spoke no English, so it was a bit of a challenge!

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  9. crikey what a hectic 72 hours! Wowsers! I was just looking into Madrid as a possible (if unlikely at this stage) stop for next year, so must remember to come back and check this post! The cathedral there looks very different! and night life starts at 2AM?????????? ok i feel incredibly old now.

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    1. I’m maybe half your age, and even I feel like I can’t keep up with nightlife anymore! 10PM is my bedtime, thank you very much! XD 72 hours is plenty of time to see Madrid, at least the highlights, so I think you’ll enjoy it!

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  10. I’ve noticed you always have good food and drink while you travel. Have you ever worried about the calories? I don’t know why I have this in my mind that I need to watch out the calories. I’m thinking if one day I have a chance to travel to France, I really want to try their pastries. But then in my mind, I have the fear of gaining weight. LOL!

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    1. Not really! Haha, I get into vacation mode and don’t count the calories. But I always try to compensate by walking a lot all over the city I’m in. Not exactly the same as working out at home, but it does the trick!

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  11. Madrid isn’t at the top of my list of places to visit in Spain, but I’m glad to know there are plenty of interesting things to do (and eat!) there. Those churros and chocolate seem like the perfect breakfast on a cold winter morning.

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    1. Madrid didn’t intereste at first, but it slowly grew on me after consecutive visits. Little did I know it was a foodie heaven! I’d recommend going in the off-season (Jan-Feb) where there are less tourists, but temperate weather– perfect for churros con chocolate!

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