2 Days in Madrid: A Jam-Packed Travel Itinerary

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Only 2 days in Madrid? Alright, alright, we can work with that. A couple of days in Madrid is certainly better than no time at all! Like many capital cities, Madrid seems to have it all: world-renowned museums, five-star hotels, Michelin-star restaurants, fantastic shopping and historic landmarks. Madrid is a top-five city in the European Union for the largest population. But unlike some big metropolises, Madrid’s charm isn’t lost in the chaos. It exudes pomp, and it revels in tradition. This Madrid itinerary helps you maximize your time in the city. That way, you’ll depart the Spanish capital with an accurate feel for the history, tradition and culture. But one thing is for sure: After your 2 days in Madrid, I promise you’ll be eager to plan a return trip to dive in even deeper.

Madrid Itinerary: Day 1

Free walking tour

Whether you have one day in Madrid, two days in Madrid or an entire month, join a free walking tour on your first day. Eat breakfast at your hotel (or grab something light on the way to the meeting spot) before embarking on a mid-morning walking tour of the city center. In just three hours, Sandemans free walking tour gives a great overview of the city’s history while walking you to many of the well-known sights (such as the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and the oldest restaurant in the world). After taking their tours while traveling in Berlin and most recently in Madrid, I can certainly see why Sandemans has exploded in popularity across Europe. They really do a great job.

A tour guide talking to two tourist in Madrid.
With only two days in Madrid, a walking tour ensures you see most of the major sites. Either hire a private guide or join a free walking tour!

Depending on your group size, you may want to hire a local guide to privately show you around the city. During my most recent trip to Madrid, my family and I did just that. I’d be happy to share our guide’s contact info – simply send me a message using the “Say Hello” button! Or you can check out the site, Tours By Locals, to search for a local guide.

Travel tip: Always bring a refillable water bottle with you on walking tours. I have used my collapsible water bottle for over two years now.

The exterior of the food market in Madrid.
Pop into Madrid’s food market for a casual yet delicious lunch.

Madrid’s food market

Sample a variety of Spanish cuisine for lunch at the food market, Mercado de San Miguel. This upscale food market is like Time Out Market in the hot, new travel destination of Lisbon, Portugal. It’s more of a restaurant with meals/tapas versus produce/fish/meat, which is why it’s the perfect place for a casual lunch in Madrid.

Royal Palace

Following lunch, it’s time to retrace some steps from the walking tour. But this time, you’re seeing more than the exterior! First up is the Royal Palace of Madrid (or you may see the translation listed as Palacio Real de Madrid). The royal family of Spain no longer lives in the palace, but it is used for state dinners and governmental functions. You can book a guided tour or an audio guide. Book online in advance (or with your hotel concierge) so you can skip the line. Be sure to check out the massive gardens outside the Palace, too. The gardens are a peaceful place to hang out, and it has great Palace views.

An elegant room in the Madrid Royal Palace.
Wander through the elegant rooms of the Royal Palace.

Fun fact: Although the palace tour is very similar to other palace/castle tours around Europe – like Neuschwanstein outside of Garmisch – the Royal Palace is the largest palace in Western Europe (according to Madrid’s Tourism Board). Pretty neat!

Madrid Cathedral

Sharing a plaza with the Royal Palace is Madrid’s main cathedral, Catedral de la Almudena. Construction for Madrid’s cathedral began in 1881, and it took more than 100 years to complete it. It is my favorite church in all of Europe – passing La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Duomo in Florence. The dome and ceiling are bursting with color. So be sure to look up! Essentially, the cathedral is free to visit, but a euro donation is recommended.

The colorful interior of Madrid's main cathedral.
Always look up! The ceilings are usually the most gorgeous part. This is the dome and ceiling of Madrid’s cathedral – one of my favorites in Europe.

Dinner

Make a reservation for dinner at El Rincon de Esteban. Although the decor was a bit outdated, the food and service were phenomenal. Apparently, it’s very well-known, and many celebrities have dined here.  

A photo of Paella in Madrid
You can’t go wrong with the paella in Madrid – ya just can’t!

For a casual and youthful dinner, check out El Sur. Prepare yourself for a true tapas experience with delicious wine and cocktails. Skip this restaurant if you have special mobility needs or a need for back support. We sat on stools! The stools go with the ambiance and vibe, but it is certainly not feasible for everyone.

After-dinner drinks

If you can muster up the energy after a long day of sightseeing, head to the Westin Palace for a drink in their lounge, 1912 Museo Bar. Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali (among others) enjoyed cocktails in this historic bar. Order a glass (or bottle) of the local Cava! And be sure to pop your head into the adjoining restaurant (which you can see from the lounge). It has the most beautiful stained-glass dome. It is worth stopping by to see it!

A vibrant colored dome in the Westin Palace hotel in Madrid.
The Westin Palace is one of the most luxurious places to stay in Madrid. Whether you stay there or not, stop by to check out the stunning breakfast room ceiling. And if you have time in your itinerary, consider making a reservation for brunch here. I highly recommend it if you are interested in an elegant breakfast experience!

Madrid Itinerary: Day 2

Enjoy a big breakfast at your hotel before heading out for day two in Madrid. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes – you’re getting your steps in today!

Walk toward the Retiro neighborhood

If you are staying in the city center, head toward El Retiro Park on foot (versus using the metro or a cab). Walk down the bustling street, Calle de Alcalá (which turns into Calle de O’Donnell). That way, you pass a few iconic and historic landmarks:

A gothic building in Madrid, which is now City Hall.
Walking is the best way to explore a city. You stumble upon gems – like this one!

City Hall

A stunning gothic building built in the early twentieth century is now home to City Hall. Part of the building has various exhibitions that are open to the public. If you take a pit stop to go inside, head to the top for panoramic views of the city. Just look for “CentroCentro” on Google maps.

Puerta de Alcalá

This grand archway – constructed in the 18th century – sits in the middle of the street. It’s surrounded by vibrant flowers, and it makes for a gorgeous photo!

Stop by Puerta de Alcalá (located in the middle of a bustling street) while on your way to El Retiro Park. This archway makes the perfect backdrop for a photo. There are also plenty of cafes and shops nearby!

El Retiro Park

Now, it’s time to take a leisurely stroll through El Retiro Park. Stop by the beautiful fountain – Fuente de la Alcachofa – in the middle of the park. It’s located beside the park’s popular lake (more like a pond). Here, you can rent paddleboats. And there are a few cafes and vendors surrounding the lake, too. Spend a few minutes relaxing over an espresso (or even a beer – no judgment here!). The park may remind you of New York City’s Central Park. If it’s too crowded for you, just take a few steps off the main walk paths. Because there are plenty of quiet areas here to be discovered.

Travel tip: Pack a light-weight beach towel (that can easily roll up into your bag) to use in the park.

Paddle boats on a lake in Madrid's park, El Retiro.
Even if you only have 2 days in Madrid, you must find time to explore El Retiro Park. Step off the main path and find a quiet place to relax, or watch the paddleboats and crowds from one of the cafes!

Art Museum

I don’t know what artists dream of, but I must believe that a week in Madrid is one of them! You could spend days visiting the trifecta of Madrid’s art museums – the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza. With so many things to do in Madrid in two days, I recommend picking only one museum to visit. And if you aren’t sure which to visit, choose the most famous of the three – the Prado Art Museum. It houses dozens of famous paintings – like Goya’s Third of May. Purchase your Prado tickets in advance so you can skip the line. Traveling to Madrid on a low-budget? Free admission to the Prado is Monday through Saturday after 6 p.m. and Sunday after 5 p.m. However, it can be very crowded during this time.

Note: Backpacks are not permitted in the exhibits and must be checked in a controlled storage area. Thankfully, it’s free! And there are no photos allowed in most areas of the Prado.

The exterior of the Prado museum in Madrid.
An art lover’s dream may just be to spend a week in Madrid …. or a week in the Prado.

Travel tip: If you’re looking for a good day pack, check out my new lightweight, durable backpack. It’s the perfect backpack for a minimalist traveler because it rolls up, and it comes in fun colors!

Prado Tour

Depending on your interest, you can spend 90 minutes in the Prado or six hours. The museum offers an audio guide, or you can download a self-guided app to your phone in advance. Another option is to hire a private guide to give you a museum tour. A personalized tour ensures you see the best of the Prado while also having the opportunity to ask questions about the specific works.  

Prado Café

Surely, you will need lunch (or at least a snack break) by this point, so pop into the Prado Café for a short break. When you’re ready to leave the museum for good, check out the statue of Goya outside.

Cathedral

There is a pretty cathedral, San Jerónimo el Real, right outside the Prado. It’s free to visit so take a quick peek in!

The exterior of a restaurant on a brick building in Madrid.
Any good Madrid itinerary includes an evening filled with tapas and Spanish wine! You can find both at La Malontina near the Prado Museum.

Dinner

Indulge in an authentic tapas experience at La Malontina. It is a very small restaurant, so make a reservation. The food and wine are outstanding! Looking for a cocktail? Vermouth is a popular choice in Madrid. The decor is nice, too, and the restaurant is just a short walk from the Prado.

Dessert

Churros dipped in warm chocolate is a Spanish staple! Pop into any vendor on your way home.

A women dancing at a Flamenco show in madrid
Catch at late-night Flamenco show in Madrid.

Flamenco Show

Now this recommendation comes with a “if this/then this” formula. If you plan to visit the Andalusia region of Spain, then DO NOT see a Flamenco show in Madrid. This style of dancing originated in that region (think Granada, Malaga, Seville, etc.) so you should see it there. However, if you are not visiting that region and you do not know when you will have the chance to return to Spain again, I recommend seeing a Flamenco show in Madrid. Flamenco is an expressive art – a blend of dance and music. Like fado in Lisbon, the music can be emotional. But within a second, the music turns upbeat and lively. Very difficult to describe in words – it must be seen and felt.

Rather than book a ticket that includes dinner and the show, I recommend simply booking a show-only ticket. You can find a more authentic, delicious dinner beforehand and then see a late (say 10 p.m.) show. Because there are plenty of venues to choose from, I recommend picking a place that is a convenient walk home to your hotel/accommodations.

Staying in a central location allows you to walk to all the main sights – like Madrid’s main cathedral – without using cabs or taking the metro.

Common Questions

What to pack for Spain and Madrid?

Where to stay in Madrid?

With the many things to do in Madrid in so little time, it’s important to stay in a central location. Look for hotels and accommodations in the center of the city (Centro on the map).

Best place to stay in Madrid?

First, what is most important to you for your accommodations in Madrid? Are you looking for five-star service? A relatively affordable hotel? Or just a decent hostel bed to crash in for the night? Filter by your preferences using Booking.com.

With a central location, the Westin Palace is just one of many luxurious hotels worth checking out in Madrid!

Luxury Hotels in Madrid

If you are looking for a high-end luxury hotel, check out the gorgeous decor, over-the-top service, elegant dining and spacious guest rooms that are offered by the Westin Palace. Class. Class. Class. King Alfonso XIII commissioned the construction of the hotel in 1912. Check out the hotel’s history over a cocktail in the bar-lounge. And for breakfast, it’s hard to beat the dining experience under the colorful Rotanta. Even more of a bonus is that the Westin Palace is in a fantastic central location.

The NH Collection Hotels are also worth checking out – such as the one on Paseo del Prado.

Apartment Rentals

Another option is to stay in an apartment in Madrid. Home Art Apartments, Carretas Apartments, Madrid Centrics – MadFlat Collection and Amor de Dois Boutique Hotel have exceptional reviews and ratings on Booking.com.

Hostels in Madrid

The “OK Hostel” should really consider a name change. Because it’s more than OK! The rooms are spacious and clean. The staff are friendly. And the hostel even puts hosts a dinner each night for travelers to mingle and get to know one another.

The photo of the train station in Madrid with plants and trees in the background.
Madrid’s main train station is a tropical oasis. If you’re taking the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona, you depart from here – the Atocha train station.

What are the train stations in Madrid?

The main train station is “Madrid Atocha.” It is in the city. The Madrid to Barcelona high-speed train leaves from here.

Outside of the main city center is the Madrid Chamartin train station. If you’re taking a day trip to Segovia from Madrid, the high-speed train leaves from here.

Read more: Planning a trip to Barcelona? Check out these Barcelona travel tips before you go.

What is the airport in Madrid?

The main airport is the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport.

What language do they speak in Madrid?

Spanish is the official language. You will find that English is understood and well-spoken in many places since Madrid is a very popular vacation spot. I recommend downloading Google Translate (or a similar translate app) to your phone so that you can say basic phrases. “Where is the restroom, “Hello,” “Have a nice day,” and “May we pay,” are just a few common phrases to learn.

Madrid’s busiest square – Plaza Mayor – is the meeting spot for most walking tours in Madrid.

Madrid or Barcelona?

I find that both cities are so different. Yet they, too, are very similar. Both are home to rich history, iconic landmarks, delicious restaurants and plenty to do. And with a quick 2.5-hour high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid (and visa-versa), the perfect Spain itinerary includes them both.

And that’s a wrap for your 2 days in Madrid! There is a lot packed in this guide, yet you may notice I didn’t recommend a few things – such as shopping on the well-known Gran Via. With limited time, I recommend sticking to the unique things to do in Madrid. But of course, there is no right way to travel. Do some research (like reading this guide) but then do what YOU enjoy! Oh, and one last thing – if you’re lucky enough to spend three days in Madrid (or longer), I highly recommend a day trip to Segovia!

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. jasonlikestotravel says:

    This is a great guide. Madrid really surprised me when I first visited, I didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did. It’s probably my favourite European city (after London). Think you covered most of the worthwhile things to see in 48 hours 🙂

    1. I agree with you! I didn’t have high expectations for it, yet I ended up loving it (both times I visited). What do you like most about London?

      1. jasonlikestotravel says:

        I love everything haha. I was born / grew up there though so I’m a little biased. I think Madrid would probably rival it otherwise.

  2. palmleavesandpinetrees5d40cfc730 says:

    Wow, what an action-packed itinerary! Two days in Madrid sounds like a fantastic getaway. Your photos are beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much! I think you could spend a month in Madrid and not get bored. So many fantastic things to do!

  3. Well this has made me want to visit Madrid! I LOVE your photo of the ceiling in the cathedral! Amazing. The city hall looks really beautiful too. I wasn’t actually a huge fan of Barcelona so I wonder if I’d prefer Madrid.

    1. Yes, isn’t the ceiling gorgeous?! My favorite cathedral ever. How long were you in Barcelona? I didn’t love it the first time I went, but I was just there a couple of weeks ago (and stayed for two weeks). I loved it the second time around.

      1. Ahh interesting! I sometimes wonder if I should give Barcelona another chance. I was only there for a couple of days so not long enough to get under its skin.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Wow! Awesome photos!

  4. Can’t tell you how perfect the timing is on this post! I’m literally planning our trip to Spain for the holidays and realized last night that we won’t have as much time in Madrid as I had thought! Love the restaurant recommendation as well – I’m looking for somewhere close to our hotel for NYE and that could work perfectly!! Hope your travels are going well!! xx

    1. The restaurants listed here are amazing! And they would be really nice for NYE. Where else in Spain are you going?

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