Okay, I get it. 24 hours is not a lot of time to get to know a city. For many, it takes a full day just to begin to see the outline of the tip of the iceberg, let alone explore the darn thing. That being said, just because time is not on your hands does not mean you should avoid going somewhere. Anything but. This was a lesson I learned in September 2017, when I had a whistlestop tour of southern Spain with my cousin. Our main objective was to spend time in Seville, but a bit of crafty planning (and a cheaper flight route) meant that we were able to fit in a quick day in Madrid first.
I’ll admit, we didn’t go in with much of an agenda. While I’d heard that Madrid was a lovely city to explore, with great food and a nice vibe, it’s not as though it had ‘stand-out’ attractions that I was dying to see. It doesn’t have an Eifel Tower. It doesn’t have an ancient temple to explore. It doesn’t have a world-famous theatre or concert hall…After a day of exploring, however, I quickly realised that there is more to this city than meets the eye. The more we walked, the more I found to do, and the more I found myself scribbling in my notepad for the next time I come back. We were able to pack a lot into a day, and though our feet were red hot, I was glad that we took the time to get to know Madrid, even if we were only scratching the surface. It really is a beautiful place.
Here’s my suggestions for how to make the best out of a day in the city:
Madrid is awash with gorgeous road-side cafes. Find yourself a comfy spot with a view out onto the street so you can watch the city come to life and treat yourself to a traditional Spanish breakfast. I’d recommend going for tosta con tomate (that’s bruschetta with crushed tomato and olive oil) and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice to set you up for the day. After all, you’re going to need some vitamins with all the walking that’s to come!
Visit the Museo Nacional del Prado
The Prado Museum is Spain’s national art museum and the city’s pride and joy. It’s pretty spectacular, with works dating back to the 12th Century, and collections from artists such as Goya, Titian and El Greco to behold. The museum is best explored in the morning when things are quiet, and is centrally located to begin your tour of the city.
Explore Parque de El Retiro
Retiro park is one of Madrid’s largest parks, and was privately owned by the Monarchy until the late 19th Century. It’s a beautiful place to explore, particularly during the Spring and Autumn when the colours are at their best. Be sure to check out the second-hand booksellers by the southern entrance, before meandering your way into the heart of the park where you’ll find the stunning Palacio del Cristal. Little warm from the walking? Fear not, there are plenty of little cafes where you can grab an Estrella to cool down, or you might even want to have a little paddle on one of the boat lakes!
Walk the Gran Via
Known as the ‘Street that Never Sleeps’, Gran Via is like an upscale version of New York’s Broadway. It’s lined with designer clothes shops, theatres and ornate architecture and well worth a stroll, though be warned, you may find yourself with a stiff neck from craning to see the beautiful buildings!
By this point you’ll be in need of some serious nourishment, and I can’t think of anywhere better to refuel than the San Miguel Market. This indoor food market is seriously, seriously impressive. I’d recommend spending a good half hour or so just wandering (I say that like it’s a leisurely experience – be ready to have those elbows at bay), down the aisles, exploring the countless stalls and sizing up the culinary creations on offer. Once you’ve armed yourself with, well, one of everything, find yourself a place at the bar to stand and soak up the atmosphere as you tuck into the flavours of Spain.
Head over to Plaza Mayor & Puerto del Sol
From the market it’s only a short walk to Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol, two of the cities largest and most beautiful squares. Both squares are encased by stunning townhouses, and are a great place to get some all-important architecture shots and indulge in a spot of people-watching. Better still, they’re both in close proximity to the Chocolateria San Gines, one of the city’s best loved bakeries. Head there for some post-lunch churros. Dessert is not just for dinner, y’all!
Wander the grounds of Palacio Real de Madrid
The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence for the Spanish Royal Family, and though it’s only used for state ceremonies, the grounds are open to the public for exploration. Walk in the footsteps of the monarchy through the perfectly manicured gardens and try not to get lost in the maze…Finish off your regal tour by visiting nearby Plaza de Espana, another of the city’s grand squares.
Soak up the vibes in Malasaña
Now that we’ve seen some of the older sights of the city, it’s time to head somewhere a little more happening. Malasaña is one of the city’s younger and trendier neighbourhoods. I’m trying to avoid using the word ‘hipster’ but it’s pretty hard to come up with a more appropriate adjective for Malasaña. The neighbourhood is rife with second-hand thrift and clothing stores, bars which double as barber shops and colourful street art. It’s very urban, youthful and much more gritty than the rest of Madrid, but that’s no bad thing. Explore the local craft shops, pick yourself up a quirky souvenir and then treat yourself to a cocktail at the rooftop bar in Plaza Sta. Ana.
Take an evening tour of the Reina Sofia
Once you’ve rested those feet a little, it’s time to head back towards the city centre. Head over to the Reina Sofia museum, home to some of the best works in contemporary European Art and a stunning range of Picassos. Entry is free between 7 and 9pm – though be warned, there can be quite a queue at the start!
Go back to your accommodation and change
Things don’t kick off until the late hours in Madrid, so you might as well take this chance to head back to your accommodation and get yourself spruced up for the evening ahead. Madrid is not an especially dressy city, but you’ll probably want a change of clothes after all that walking.
Indulge yourself in a tapas crawl
When it comes to dining out in Spain, there really is only one option; tapas, and tapas done right. For the ultimate tapas bar crawl, head to La Latina, an area busting at the seams with great little hole-in-the-wall joints. Don’t expect a formal sit-down meal here. Simply go in, order one or two dishes to share, and stand at the bar. It can get a little squishy at times and the ordering/paying process can be a little confusing, but the informal nature of eating out here is all part of the experience. There’s something really refreshing about hopping about between bars, sampling different things as you go. It’s a great way to meet locals too, as you have no choice but to get up close and personal!
Really this should be the stage when I recommend going home and getting a good night’s sleep before your onward travel plans…That would certainly be the sensible option. Of course you could always forego the sensible and find yourself a nice little watering hole which serves sangria by the pitcher. You are in Madrid after all.
I’ll leave that decision in your hands. I shan’t be a bad influence….
…but if you’re looking for cocktails, Del Diago is the place to go.
“As I said, one day alone is not nearly enough to get to know a city. It was certainly enough to have me falling for Madrid’s charm however, and I hope that I’ve given you enough insight into what can be achieved in a 24-hour period. Have you been to Madrid before? What are your ‘can’t miss’ things to do? ”
Photo credits: Bombman, El Taberno, Javier Lastras, Allpop, Ivo Janisch, Kathryn Yu, Laurenonlocation