If you are planning a visit to Spain, we recommend you spend at least 3 days in Madrid. Even in this short time, you will have plenty of opportunities to experience the history, culture, cuisine and way of life of a typical Madrileño. We are sure you will find that Europe’s third-largest city doesn’t disappoint.
Whether you’re interested in museums and art galleries, palaces and parks or maybe just the delicious food scene, there is something for everyone in Madrid. Immerse yourself in everything on offer by strolling through the grand plazas by day and enjoying a glass of Spanish Rioja wine with a side of tapas by night. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.
Below we have two options for your holiday planning. Either make your own itinerary by choosing from the mix and match list of our favourite things to do in Madrid or use the easy to follow day by day guide at the end of this page.
Mix and match your own 3 days in Madrid
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Try to local delights at Mercado de San Miguel
This magnificent ironclad structure with enormous glass walls is one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid. Opening in 1916, and the last ironclad market in Madrid, it was restored in 2009. I was too busy admiring its architectural beauty to noticed the food for the first 5 minutes.
Walking the aisles of the San Miguel Market, it’s easy to see that this is not a place to do your weekly shop. Most people, locals included, come here to eat, drink vermouth with friends, or grab a quick snack.
A may seem a little touristy sure, but Madrileño’s will tell you that the food here really is excellent and the prices, while a little higher than other markets, are reasonable for the quality. This is the perfect place to become acquainted with the gastronomy scene in Madrid. If you’re not visiting other parts of the country you will be happy to know food from across Spain makes its way to this central market.
We also found ourselves at Mercado de Anton Martín, which was a short walk from our apartment in Cervantes and had a lovely meal at El Tarantín de Lucía. It felt more relaxed, so if you are overwhelmed by the crowds at San Miguel have a quick look but stop off at Mercado de Anton Martín for a meal.
Where: Plaza de San Miguel
When: Open daily from 10 am until midnight
View the modern masters at Reina Sofía
Reina Sofía is Madrid’s national museum of 20th-century art and is well known for the strength of its cubist and surrealist collections. Among the 20,000 pieces of art held in the collection, works by Salvador Dalí, Picasso and Joan Miró, are the show stealers here.
The most famous painting on show is Picasso’s Guernica. Charles is a big Picasso fan, so this museum was one of the first items on our itinerary.
Allow yourself plenty of time to wander; the layout of the gallery is a little confusing. The collection is divided by years, not artists, with works from 1900-1945 on the first floor, 1945-68 on the second and 1962-82 on the top floor. If you are not in a rush, you can just roam through all the rooms, but we found fatigue set in early, and we got a bit frustrated trying to find pieces we were keen to see.
Ask at the information desk for some of the guided handouts or better still take a tour. The museum was lacking in signage, so tours are highly recommended for those who don’t have a broad knowledge of contemporary art.
Buying your tickets online will result in less of a queue when you arrive and they are also a little cheaper than buying them at the box office. We bought ours a couple of hours before we came. Visit first thing in the morning for the lowest crowds.
Where: Calle de Santa Isabel, 53
When: Open at 10am-9pm (2:30pm Sunday) closed Tuesdays. Entry is from 7pm till closing.
Discover the Egyptian Temple of Debod
Possibly one of the least expected sites in Madrid is located a short walk from the Spanish Palace. A 2nd-century temple, originally built in Egypt, the Templo de Debod was gifted to the city of Madrid by the Egyptian government and opened to the public in 1972.
The temple is a symbol of gratitude for helping to save the temples of Abu Simbel. It was transported and rebuilt stone by stone in its current location.
The inside of the monument is currently closed to visitors; however, a walk around the outside is still rewarding. For the ultimate experience, visit in the late afternoon for some pretty memorable views as the sun sets behind the temple.
Where: Plaza de San Miguel
When: Open daily from 10 am until midnight,
Stroll Plaza Mayor
If you can start one of your days at Plaza Mayor, the gorgeous baroque architecture is impressive and an early morning stroll through the spacious plaza will reward you with some lovely light for photographing the balconies, a key feature of the space.
This square was the centre of old Madrid, and to me, it felt a bit like St Marks Square, with cafes lining the sides of the Plaza and a large open area in the middle. While you are here snap a pic of Felipe III and horse bronze statue, a symbol of the city.
Once a popular market place these days it still gathers a crowd, although it seemed mainly to be visitors. Plaza Mayor is also the meeting place for many of the “free” tours. We took one titled “Spanish history from the Spanish Empire to the dictatorship of Franco”, and it was a great way to get a basic understanding of Spanish history in a couple of hours.
For a bit of fun head to the mannequins you will see in the square. Pose behind one for a silly photo dressed as a chulapo for a price.
Where: Plaza de San Miguel
When: Open daily from 10 am until midnight,
Visit Palacio Real de Madrid
The Royal Palace in Madrid is the largest in Europe. The level of opulence is up there with The Palace of Versailles, and while the royal family no longer live here, the Palace is still used for official functions and concerts.
The palace took 26 years to build and with more than 2000 rooms, you won’t get to see it all but be sure to visit the Dining room, Porcelain Room, Gasparini Room and Throne Room. Foodlovers might want to include a visit to the Palace kitchens.
The Palace is one of the most visited sites in Madrid. It also has timed visits, so this is one place you should get your tickets in advance. You can leave it until the day before usually but if you are keen, buy them but further in advance.
If you are thinking of a guided tour we recommend this one lasts 2 hours and allows you to enter at 9am, an hour before the palace opens to the public.
After you leave the Royal Palace visit the Almudena Cathedral and climb to the top for some really impressive views over the city.
Where: Plaza de Oriente. Madrid
When: Daily: 10am – 6pm (8pm in summer). Free entry weeknights 2 hours before closing.
Escape to the beautify of El Retiro Park
Parque del Retiro is the most renowned park in Madrid. A perfect place to read a book, go for a jog, listen to music, take a Segway tour, rent a rowboat or enjoy a drink at one of the many cafes.
Located in the heart of Madrid, the park was initially built for Spanish royalty to relax and enjoy performances, like the opera. There are often exhibitions held in the parks two main buildings, the Palacio de Velázquez and the Palacio de Cristal. The Palacio de Cristal or Crystal Palace was my favourite spot in Madrid. It may have helped that it was autumn and the trees were so gorgeous.
Where: Between the streets of Alfonso XII and Menéndez Pelayo.
When: Open daily from 6 am until 10 pm
Awe at the masterpieces in Museo Prado
To witness the greatest collection of European art in the world, you can’t miss a trip to the National Museum of Prado. Art lovers could easily spend a day here with a collection comprising over 8,000 drawings, 7,600 paintings, 4,800 prints, and 1,000 sculptures.
The rest of us will likely hit up the highlights in a couple of hours. Rubens The Three Graces, El Greco’s Adoration of the Shepherds and Francisco Goya’s Naked Maja, which was at its time considered risque, are highlights.
This museum is easily the most popular in Madrid, so if you are visiting in peak times like April, May, September and October, it’s best to buy your tickets online to avoid lengthy queues.
If you are on a budget, you might want to avoid the €15 entry fee and take advantage of the Prado’s free viewing times.
The museum is free for the last two hours of each day, that is Mon-Sat 6-8pm and Sun 5-7pm. You will find the queue start to form about an hour beforehand, but they move pretty quickly. For all but diehard art lovers, this 2-hour window is probably enough time to see the highlights.
While the free hours are tempting, I would not recommend them in high season unless you just want a quick look and not much of an art aficionado. The museum is generally quietest first thing in the morning or the late afternoon. Entry is free to those under 18 years at all times.
Where: Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, 28014 Madrid
When: Opens 10am daily – closes 7-8pm.
If you plan on visiting the three main art museums in Madrid, download the free Essential Art Walk app.
Take in the view from the Circulo de Bellas Artes
Founded in 1880 by a group of likeminded artists, the Circulo de Bellas Artes was formed to exhibit the most innovative artistic trends in the city; including visual and performing arts, literature, science, and philosophy. Hosting over 1,200 pieces of art, this is an excellent stop if you’re interested in fine arts.
What the Circulo de Bellas Artes is most famous for is their unbeatable rooftop views. Simply take the elevator up to the top floor and step out to reveal phenomenal 360 Degree views of the city. The trendy rooftop bar is open for drinks throughout the year, except during winter.
Where: Plaza de San Miguel
When: Open daily from 10 am until midnight,
Attend a game at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium
Football fans will want to add the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium as an essential activity to their Madrid itinerary. This stadium is one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world and is home to the Real Madrid Football Club.
If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with the season. If it does buy your tickets nice and early – we got ours as soon as they went on sale. Popular games sell out quickly.
If you can’t make a game I suggest visiting the museum, serious football fans will probably want to do both! The entry includes a self-guided tour and allows you to unlimited access to the entire stadium and museum including trophy room, locker rooms, the benches, the presidential box, the coach’s viewpoint and of course, and the pitch.
You can take a 90-minute guided tour with expert commentary.
Where: Av. Concha Espina 1, 28036, Madrid
When: Tours Mon-Sat 9.30am-7pm, Sun 10am to 6.30pm. Limited hours on game days.
Discover the best urban art at La Tabacalera
Over the past few years, the popularity of Madrid’s street and urban art has increased significantly. The area of La Tabacalera was once an old tobacco factory and is now home to a collective cultural space with its exterior walls covered in street art.
The space offers workshops in photography, yoga and other creative outlets. Once a year, 25 different artists transform the walls with a new urban theme. The Muros Tabacalera is dedicated to creating awareness of current social issues.
Where: Calle de Embajadores, 51, 28012 Madrid
When: Open daily from 10 am until midnight,
Your guidebook will likely mention Chocolatería San Ginés; they have been selling hot chocolate and churros in Madrid for over 125 years! This place often has a long queue, but it does move quickly so don’t let that put you off.
Was it the best we had in Spain?
We didn’t think it was any better than other cafes we tried, but the history showcased on the walls was interesting, and it is open 24 hours a day so should you find yourself unable to sleep at some ungodly hour it’s a good bet.
If the quality of the hot chocolate is more important than eating churros, you should head to El Riojano. I preferred their ladies finger style pastry than fried churros, but I am not a doughnut person so that could be it.
El Riojano have also been opened for over 120 years so they must be doing something right too! It’s only a couple of minutes walk from Chocolatería San Ginés so why not decide for yourself and try both!
Find the best areas for local tapas and drinks.
While Madrid is famous for its Michelin star restaurants, there is a lot to be said about the variety of low-key (and delicious) tapas available with drink purchase.
There are hundreds of places to go to sample tapas, but knowing where to go for an authentic and cheap meal can be tricky. For the tastiest and most affordable tapas, try Taberna El Sur, based in Lavapiés. This relaxed restaurant serves up some excellent traditional tapas such as croquettes and tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) all for below €10.
Another option that is sure to win your heart (and stomach) is El Tigre, based just outside of Chueca barrio. This budget-friendly bar will stack your plate high with food with every drink served.
Taking a tapas tour is a really way to start your first day; it will give you lots of ideas about what to eat over the rest of your visit.
Our favourite tapas tours in Madrid
Follow our itinerary for a fabulous 3 days in Madrid
For more details on any of the stops on our 3-day itinerary, be sure to read the listings above. If you are not an art lover, you might want to skip one of the museums on our list and do some neighbourhood wandering or some shopping along Gran Via.
Day 1 – Hitting the big sites
Key sites today: Plaza Mayor – Royal Palace – Temple of Debod – Puerta del Sol – San Miguel Market – Renia Sofia –
Stop 1 – Start the day by making your way to Plaza Mayor. This area is the historic centre of Madrid. If you have not eaten yet grab a coffee and a pastry in the streets surrounding the square before you head off to the Palace.
If you are feeling a bit jetlagged on your first day, consider joining one of the free tours offered in the city. Let someone else walk you around the city and save you getting lost.
These tours are not really free so make sure you tip your guide. We feel a tip of at least €10 is fair but by all means, pay what you can afford.
Stop 2 – Next up, The Royal Palace, just 5 minutes walk from Plaza Mayor will have you at the Royal Palace for your tour.
Stop 3 – Once you are finished pop next door to the Catedral de la Almudena to view the museum and the dome.
Stop 4 – Sabatini Gardens are adjacent to the Royal Palace. Skip this if you are not much of a garden person but the three terraces, fountains and statues are quite impressive.
Stop 5 – Next up is Temple of Debod about an 8-minute walk away.
Stop 6 – Spend a few minutes taking in Plaza España
Stop 7 – It’s probably time for lunch now so you will be pleased to know that it’s just a 10-minute walk to San Miguel Market. After you have walked around the market and still can’t decide what to eat, we suggest you grab a cone of fried seafood at the El Señor Martín stall.
Stop 8 – Take a look at the 8th-century plaza, Puerta del Sol which means Gate of the Sun is the heart of the city. See if you can find the famous Bear and the Madroño Tree statue as you make your way to Renia Sofia.
Stop 9 – From here, you have a 20-minute walk to Renia Sofia. Take a guided tour or pick up an info sheet at the desk and explore what interests you.
We were ready for a rest by now and headed back to our apartment for a siesta.
Stop 10 – At tapas hour, make your way to Calle de las Huertas where you will find a bunch of bars. Your dinner choice is up to you. We usually ate so much tapas and were so exhausted from all the walking we ended up sound asleep by 9pm. Well before Madrid eats dinner!
Fancy a change of pace tomorrow? Head to Toledo for the day.
Day 2 – Art, views and food
Key sites today: El Retiro Park – Prado – Tandem – Circulo de Bellas Artes – Gran Via – Chocolatería San Ginés – Sobrino de Botín
Stop 1 & 2 – Start the day with a wake-up walk through Retiro Park. Be sure to see the Crystal Palace and the Estanque (the lake) with its monument to King Alfonso XII. We spent about 90 minutes in the park enjoying the autumn colours. There is a coffee shop right by the lake.
Stop 3 – Next up one of Madrid’s masterpieces, the Prado Museum. which is just a couple of minutes walk away. Allow 1-2 hours here, depending on your interests. If your day started late, then consider buying your ticket in advance to save queuing.
Stop 4 – Cibeles Palace – Anther short walk to an imposing building that is home to Mirador Madrid. The Mirador is an observation terrace that allows a 360-degree panoramic view of the city of Madrid for just €3. The building also houses art exhibitions and two restaurants.
Stop 5 – Circulo de Bellas Artes – also has a rooftop view with entry at €5. You really only need to choose one of these. We went with Cibeles but friends have mentioned Circulo so we thought we would give you the choice.
Stop 6 & 7– Walk Gran Via, Madrid’s most famous street. It’s where you will find theatres, department stores and of course one of the most photographed buildings in the city the beautiful Beaux-Arts style, Metropolis Building. You will find it at the corner of the Calle de Alcalá and Gran Vía.
Stop 8 – We suggest you make your way to Chocolatería San Ginés for some hot chocolate and churros to give you some energy to continue!
Stop 9 – Time to find a bar for your pre-dinner drinks. If you have not found one near your hotel try La Musa Latina
Stop 10 – For dinner tonight we suggest Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world. We celebrated my last BIG birthday here, and it was delicious. Be sure to book in advance.
Day 3 – Sport and urban art
Key sites today: Santiago Bernabéu Stadium – Mercado Antón Martin – La Tabacalera – Lavapiés
Stop 1 – Start the day by making your way to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium for a tour of the Real Madrid Museum and stadium. Take the metro from your accommodation to Santiago Bernabéu, the stadium is across the road.
Stop 2 – Next stop is a trip to Mercado Antón Martin. Take the number 14 bus for a direct journey or head back to the metro (you will need to take two services) to Antón Martín.
Stop 3 – La Tabacalera, the centre of Madrid’s Urban art scene is our next stop and about a 10 minute walk away. If urban art is not your thing, then check out the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum or the Anthropology Museum.
Stop 4 – Lavapiés is a great place to end the day with a fantastic and affordable bar and tapas scene. If you decide you want to see a flamenco show after a few drinks consider heading to Flamenco Candela which is nearby.
Have another day? Choose one of these popular day trips from Madrid
- Toledo day trip. There is plenty to see in Toledo that a full day here is a good choice. This is the tour we did.
- Toledo and Segovia day trip. Two of the most popular nearby cities in one long day out.
- Cuenca Guided Tour with Optional Lunch. Visit one of the most famous UNESCO sites in Spain.
Getting around Madrid
Transfers and public transport are very easy to use. Madrid–Barajas international airport is 12 km from the city.
Transferring to the City from Madrid-Barajas Airport
If you prefer to save your holiday savings to spend on tapas there are two affordable transport options. The Airport Express Bus which operates 24/7 and costs just 5€. The Metro takes 15 minutes to reach Nuevos Ministerios station and also costs 5€.
If you know you always get off long flights a little dazed and confused, then a taxi from the airport. A trip to the centre of Madrid is a flat rate trip (currently 30€). The journey takes 20 minutes in reasonable traffic. Uber is also available.
Getting around Madrid using Public Transport
Public transport in Madrid is both affordable and efficient. While the city is very walkable if you have big days and want to save your feet or want to see some of the outer areas do not be afraid to check it out.
Single trips are generally under €2 You can purchase a 10-trip ticket for €12.20 that can be used on buses and metro services. You can also buy tourist transport passes if you like the idea of not having to think about distances and costs.
Which area in Madrid should you stay?
Madrid is a city of 21 districts each divided into numerous neighbourhoods. The areas we recommend below are in the Centro District. Other areas you might like to consider on a longer visit include Salamanca and Retiro.
On our visit we stayed in Barrio de las Letras, we loved the central location and the fact we could walk almost everywhere. We could equally have felt as comfortable in La Latina, on a longer visit, but with only 5 days, we decided that a central location was best for us.
Barrio de las Letras / Huertas
Also known as el Barrio de las Letras, this neighbourhood is most famous as being the home of some of the countries greatest writers. We stayed on Calle de Cervantes, the home of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, Spains best-known novel.
The area is also popular for its bustling nightlife scene. Home to plenty of great bars, restaurants, and historic buildings, it’s a great spot to people watch and a favourite for visitors and locals alike.
Conveniently located near the city centre, staying in Huertas allows you to explore many sites by foot. You are just a short walk to Madrid’s art triangle, the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza.
The streets come alive at night so if you prefer to get an early night or are bothered by noise, choose your location carefully, look at a map for nearby bars. We had no issue with noise but were not in the thick of the main thoroughfare.
A quintessentially Spanish barrio (neighbourhood), La Latina (the Latin quarter) is not just a great area to stay but also to explore too. Made up of winding, narrow calles (streets) that are lined with some of the oldest tavernas in the city, La Latina is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods in Madrid.
What’s particularly interesting is a stroll along the streets while admiring the 18th Century buildings – there’s not much you won’t enjoy about this district. This is one of the most traditional parts of the city.
If you visit La Latina, you will likely find yourself in Plaza de La Cebada, one of the most popular places to head for a drink at the end of the day but wander over to Plaza de la Paja for a more relaxing vibe.
Along with the great local vibe, La Latina is home to the city’s famous open-air flea market on Sundays. El Rastro is an experience for the senses with plenty of antiques, clothing, furniture, food and live music.
Lavapiés barrio is a diverse and eclectic place to base yourself if you are looking for affordably priced accommodation in Madrid. This trendy neighbourhood is home to 90 different nationalities and has been influenced by the many African and Middle Eastern immigrants that live here.
Lavapies fully embraces its blended culture and diverse cuisine, so if you’ve had enough tapas and are looking for some variety, here you can get some of the best Indian food in the city.
Loaded with plenty of hipster bars and cafes, this area might not be great for you if you’re looking for a traditional Spanish experience. This is also where you will find La Tabacalera de Lavapiés (see below for more).
Are you planning to travel around Spain?
We have spent a few months in Spain, and it quickly became one of our favourite countries. Charlie went back recently and spent another two months walking the Camino de Santiago so watch out for even more articles on Spain soon.
Check out our other Spanish guides if you are exploring more of the country.
- Granada – a 3-day itinerary
- Seville – a three-day itinerary
- Barcelona – visiting for the first time
- What to see in Cordoba
We usually recommend you purchase your tours and attraction tickets from Get Your Guide because they often have a 24 hour no reason cancellation policy. On most occasions, it is much easier to get your money back from them than via direct booking.
Save our 3 day in Madrid for your holiday planning.