Four Perfect Days in Madrid on a Spain Vacation

Europe & UK

View of the Metropolis Building and Gran Via from Circulo de Bellas Artes rooftop at sunset, Madrid, Spain

If you’re dreaming of the eccentric architecture of Barcelona, or the warm, romantic images of Andalusia, you’re not alone. But too many globetrotters embark on Spain tours not knowing what to do in Madrid. That’s a shame considering this is one of Europe’s most colourful and exciting capital cities. If you want to understand Spain’s past, present, and to some extent, its future, you need to spend at least a couple of days here. So we’ve mapped our four exceptional one day itineraries to help you plan your free time in Madrid.

Plaza, Palace, Prado – Madrid’s Essential Trio

On your Spain vacation in Madrid, begin your morning with coffee and pan con tomate in Plaza Mayor. Yes, this is a major tourist spot and you’ll be overpaying, but Plaza Mayor has also been the centre of countless turning points in Madrid’s history. Read a little about the square (and its murals) ahead of time to understand your surrounds. Spend the balance of your morning exploring the splendour of the Real Alcazar, Madrid’s Royal Palace, taking your time to admire the architecture along the way.

Double back for a grazing lunch at Mercado de San Miguel, then wander through the stylish Cortes district to Paseo del Prado. Trying to see all three big names of Madrid’s museum row in one go is a one-way ticket to serious art fatigue, so pick one for this afternoon. The Prado Museum deserves its reputation as Spain’s most famous art museum, and backs nicely on to El Retiro Park for when you need some fresh air. In the cooler months, you might flip these two around, enjoying the outdoor warmth of early afternoon before closing your day at the Prado. Budget travellers take note, the Prado is free from 6pm til 8pm, perfect if you just want a quick visit, though you may need to queue.

Statue of Philip III at Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Statue of Philip III in Plaza Mayor

Art, Architecture, Almodovar – Madrid at Play

Start your culture vulture’s day in Madrid at either the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia for 20th-century Spanish artistic genius (most notably Picasso’s Guernica), or the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum for European decorative art, spanning the 13th to 20th centuries. Visit both if time allows and you’re not feeling the aforementioned ‘art fatigue.’ The Royal Botanic Gardens offers a nice open air break from museum hopping if you need it, or wander Madrid’s CaixaForum for a more contemporary creative vision.

Spend the afternoon exploring El Retiro Park in detail. You might visit the Crystal Palace, duck in to admire the latest exhibition at Velazquez Palace, or rent a boat on the Estanque grande del Retiro. See if you can find the world’s only public monument to the devil, the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, before you leaving the park via the impressive Puerta de Alcala. Then admire the architecture of Cybele Palace, Madrid’s grand former communications office. Time for cocktails? Zip to the roof of Circulo de Bellas Artes for top notch Madrid views. Fans of Pedro Almodovar will recognize the theatres at street level from the opening scene of his classic film, All About My Mother. From here, you’re a mere stroll from the director’s favourite restaurant, Viridiana, or Museo Chicote bar, featured in Broken Embraces and famous for past patrons including Sophia Loren and Ernest Hemmingway.

Crystal Palace in Retiro Park,Madrid, Spain
Crystal Palace in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Ancient Treasures and Modern Madrid Style

Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum is one of its surprise highlights, with treasures ranging from cave art to recent finds. After sating your thirst for ancient history, on your trip to Spain, wander over to Plaza de Chueca for coffee or lunch, depending on timing. Either way, it’s a chance to marvel at the transformation of this once seedy area into the centre of one of the world’s biggest and busiest LGBTQ neighbourhoods. Take some time to simply wander. You’re never far from an interesting retail or culinary find.

Stroll on down to Gran Via to gawk in the windows of Madrid’s most famous street, but make sure you duck into some of the streets surrounding it to avoid the ‘same old’ chain stores. Don’t worry if you’re not a shopper. The people watching alone makes this exploration worth it. Continue that theme on Plaza de Espana, then finish off your morning archaeology lesson by wandering up to Templo de Debod. This original Egyptian temple was rescued during the construction of the Aswan Dam and gifted to Spain for their assistance with the project. Cap off the day with a splendid view from the Lookout Mountain Principe Pio.

Templo de Debod in Madrid, Spain
Templo de Debod

Royal Monasteries and Niche Sights of Madrid

Start your day with a trip out to San Lorenzo de El Escorial and its magnificent royal monastery. Book a tour, or take a bus, which runs every 15 minutes from Moncloa metro station. Constructed in the 16th century by Felipe II, this UNESCO listed marvel will eat up half a day and perhaps more, and is a far more impressive look at the spiritual leanings of Spanish royalty than the stripped down Santa Maria cathedral that looms over the royal palace. If you are going it alone, do some reading ahead of time to fully understand this Spanish treasure.

The return trip drops you near Parque de la Bombilla, a nice place to wander and unwind as you make your way to the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. Once inside, take all the time you wish to bask in the Goya frescoes that cover the walls of this chapel-turned-museum. Alternatively, check out some of Madrid’s more specialized art museums such as the Museo Sorolla, explore the downtown and graze your way through an extended tapas lunch, or head to the Plaza de Toros bullfight arena and take a tour to gain a better understanding of Spain’s most controversial spectator sport.

Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain ,
Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid

Should I Stay Overnight in Toledo?

There’s one notable omission from this four-day plan, the historic Spanish city of Toledo. That’s not because it isn’t worth visiting, but rather because it can’t be rushed into one of your Madrid days. Invest a full day here, exploring the San Juan de los Reyes monastery, the Puerta del Sol and Puerta de Bisagra, the Moorish Mosque of Christ of the Light (understanding this blend of religious identities is crucial to understanding Spain), and more incredible historic sights. You can probably whip through the highlights of this living Spanish history museum in one full day, but an overnight trip will save you the rush and let you in on what Toledo’s locals already know – that this is a lovely city to explore in any century, while on a Spain vacation.

Aerial view of the old town, Toledo, Spain
Aerial view of Toledo’s old town