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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a pretty cathedral, San Jerónimo el Real, right outside the Prado. It’s free to visit so take a quick peek in!
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.
Churros dipped in warm chocolate is a Spanish staple! Pop into any vendor on your way home.
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.
What to pack for Spain and Madrid?
- Outlet adapter. Since 2016, I have used this international travel adapter on all of my trips.
- Phone power bank
- Compact duel-voltage hairdryer (if you aren’t staying in a hotel)
- Moleskin notebook (to journal about your trip)
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.
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.
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.
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 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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