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One Day in Madrid: Is It Even Worth a Try? (Yes! Especially If You're a Foodie)

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19 February 2018 - It's not impossible to see Madrid in a day - or at least, in my humble opinion, the part that matters, the sweeping plazas and winding streets, the centuries-old tapas bars and extraordinary food markets.

You won't see all of Madrid, of course, but you'll see the high points which - fortunately for visitors - happen to be quite close to one another.

I often travel between Europe and Latin America and use Iberia, with a layover in Madrid that can last anywhere from 6-36 hours. I aim for the longest connection times because I love Madrid: I grew up in this city and can never get enough of it!

One of the top Madrid tourist attractions: the Prado Museum
Fun things to do in Madrid - find the perfect view
Visiting the Retiro - one of the cool places in Madrid

The central core: Madrid - what to do in 24 hours

The beauty of this part of the city is its walkability. Follow along and Madrid will unfold its charm and its history. And the best thing is that it's all within reach.

But let's be realistic. This itinerary is extremely packed! You can easily eliminate parts of it and focus on others.

The Retiro, for example, can be scratched off the list in favor of time in a museum. Doing that would also allow you to bypass Cibeles and the Puerta de Alcalá and head straight to the Gran Via. Or you could take the Metro down the Gran Via to see the Templo de Debod. Or you could hang around Old Madrid all day.

The choice is yours. This itinerary IS doable in a day - but you'll need determination if you want to see it all. It's not exactly the type of travel I prefer but we're not always masters of our time. If one day is all we have, one day it is...

Before we go any further, let's talk about food for a moment, because as you'll see below, almost every street and plaza leads you to food.

The great thing about eating out in Madrid is that you can easily do it on your own so if you're traveling solo, you'll feel perfectly at ease. Hopping around from bar to bar eating tapas is something you can do without any company whatsoever - look around you and you'll see you're not on your own.

These, by the way, are my favorite tapas to eat in Madrid:

  • tortilla española, or Spanish omelette, made with potato and usually onions (although there's an entire school of thought that believes onions are sacrilegious) - just make sure the tortilla homemade
  • croquetas,  deep-fried croquettes made with ham, chicken, cod or tuna
  • ensaladilla rusa, which doesn't have much of a translation except to say it's a mayonnaise-based potato salad with a few diced vegetables and tuna (divine if it's made properly and downright awful if not)
  • boquerones, or anchovy fillets in brine or vinegar (don't wrinkle your nose and promise me that even if you hate anchovies, you'll nibble a corner of one of these - then come back and tell me you still don't like anchovies)
  • Jamón, Spanish ham of course
  • and finally, patatas bravas (potatoes again), in a spicy garlicky tomato sauce.

There are surely as many tapas as there are bars in Madrid, probably more. But these are the most typical and best-loved, the ones you'll find pretty much everywhere. Try each one and compare!

If you don't have the time or the energy to suss out the best tapas - you only have one day in Madrid, after all - I suggest  one of the fabulous Madrid evening food tours, which includes the city's history and will introduce you to tastes you might not discover on your own.

Eating tapas, like tortilla, is one of the top things to do in MadridTortilla, the quintessential Madrid tapa

And now, for the 10 best places to visit in Madrid, Spain

The following ten are the sights in Madrid you should not miss. They are also the only ones you'll have time for in a day.

Just beware - this is a Madrid walking itinerary - you'll need good shoes, an early start, and plenty of stamina. If you have none of those, just pick a spot here and there, and enjoy your visit. You can easily spend several hours in any of these places.

Also know that spending only a day in town means your museum time will be severely limited. You can nip in for an hour but don't expect to spend half a day in admiration of Murillo or Velazquez or Picasso - you'll have to add a day or come back for that.

So - let's go!

Puerta del Sol

This large square is the throbbing heart of Madrid. On New Year's Eve, crowds gather here to eat 12 grapes - one for each ringing of the bell - and celebrate. Look for Kilometer Zero, the start of every major road in Spain, and for the Bear and Strawberry Tree statue, Madrid's coat of arms. Whenever there's a march or demonstration in Madrid, this is where you can expect it to start or end.

Lining the south of the square is the post office, which also houses Madrid's regional government - and once held one of the city's more notorious prisons in its cellars.

Kilometer Zero - one of the top 10 MadridThe center of Madrid - and of Spain (Kaetzar via Wikimedia Commons)
Puerta del Sol - one of the places to see in MadridBear and Strawberry Tree - Madrid's coat of arms

Once you leave the Puerta del Sol - early in the morning I hope - head for Madrid's favorite breakfast: chocolate con churros. Churros are long, ridged doughnut-ey pieces that are crunchy on the outside and lightly powdered with sugar. You'll get anywhere from 3-6 in a portion - pick one up and dip it into hot chocolate you'll find only in Spain, so thick you can stand your churro in it. Keep going.

The good news is that one of the best churrerias, or churro shops, is nearby: the legendary Chocolatería San Ginés. It used to close for a few hours early in the morning but it has seen the light and is now open 24/7. 

Step up to the cash register, place your order and pay. Your churros will magically appear at your table.

One thing you must do in Madrid - visit the Chocolateria San GinesAlways my first stop in Madrid!
What to do in Madrid? Eat churros with hot chocolate!Churros with hot chocolate - an oh so divine food group! (and you can buy some chocolate powder to take home)

Teatro Real and Palacio Real

An opera at the Teatro Real (El Real) is pretty much the only thing that could keep me away from an evening of flamenco when I'm in Madrid. But check to see what's playing when you're making your plans. Ballet, classical music, any and all cultural events center on this magnificent theater. 

Madrid wasn't always called Madrid, by the way. Its original name was Magerid, "rich in water", not surprising given its location between mountains and river. It's not a particularly old city and is first mentioned in 865 AD when the emir Muhammed I built a palace there. Not much is left of this period and transformation into the city we know today began in 1701, with the arrival of Philip V, the first Bourbon king. He was shocked by the city's insularity and darkness and set out to overhaul it, building fountains, gardens and the new Royal Palace, not to mention a series of the city's most magnificent churches. This architectural bonanza opened the way for the Madrid we know and love today (and if you happen to be a history buff, here's a great overview of the Medieval, Habsburg, bourbon and modern periods.)

The Royal Palace a few minutes away is the largest palace in Europe, built in the mid-18th century on the site of an earlier palace, damaged by fire. You can take a guided tour or make a reservation before you go (the tour is about 1.5 hours). But beware that spending time here may mean not spending it somewhere else, so weigh your decision. The Palace is used for official functions so make sure it's open on that day. 

The Palacio Real - one of the top Madrid places to visitMadrid's Royal Palace (Roberto Taddeo via Flickr CC)

By the time you finish here - if you decide you can squeeze it in - it should be moving towards noon and even though you stuffed yourself with churros for breakfast, you'll be doing what everyone else does in Madrid: eat, eat and eat some more. Having satiated yourself with culture and history, you might be in the mood for another nibble.

Mercado San Miguel

This is by far my favorite Madrid food market, although not everyone necessarily agrees. It has plenty of tapas, but you'll find better ones in the crooked streets of Old Madrid. If I come here, it's for one thing and one thing only: jamón, or Spanish ham. So if you're a vegetarian or don't eat pork, don't read the rest of this section and jump straight to the Plaza Mayor.

Near the market's entrance on your right is a row of hams - you can't miss them. Grab 100 grams of jamón ibérico, stand at the window, and get ready for culinary heaven. Don't expect anything thick or pink. This ham is deep burgundy, streaked with fat, and more chewy than its cooked counterpart. Most people familiar with Spanish ham may know the jamón serrano, delicious but not comparable to the jamón ibérico (at least not for me). Curious about the differences? This article explains it all. Your wallet will feel significantly lighter after your snack, by the way.

Another ham-munching destination (and just oozing with photogenic walls) is the Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham), which you'll see on your way to the Plaza Mayor. But by now you may be all hammed out... and in any event, you're heading for tapas and lunch (yes, more eating).

To do in Madrid - visit the San Miguel marketGetting ready to slice my ham - by hand, of course
The best of Madrid is often in its food - like Jamon ibericoThis vision lasted five seconds. Quickly destroyed.

Plaza Mayor

Madrid's ancient center is so compact you'll barely finish seeing one thing before you've reached the next. But rather than head into the Plaza Mayor through the most frequented entrance on the Calle Mayor, detour down the Calle Cava de San Miguel and enter the massive square through the Arco de Cuchilleros: go up the steps and through the archway, for no other reason than it's pleasant and makes for a lovely photograph. Warning though: if you're not able to walk up the steps, just use the usual entrance on the Calle Mayor - it's relatively flat.

Old Madrid should be on your Madrid itineraryThe iconic steps of the Arco de Cuchilleros (AMAT ORTA via Wikimedia Commons)
City sightseeing Madrid - the first stop is usually the Plaza MayorPossibly my favorite square in the world (Joe Flood via Flickr CC)

There's always something happening on the Plaza Mayor. I remember spending Sunday mornings here with my father, browsing through the stamp and coin and cigar ring collections laid out under the arcades. There were jumbles of old postcards for sale, coats of arms and all sorts of collectors' items. The center of the square is always filled with activity - a soapbox, concert, clowns, acrobats, live flamenco, mimes, at times right next to one another. Along the perimeter people are busy with meals and drinks, lazing in one of the many (expensive) cafés or downing tapas with beer or wine chasers. You could spend the day in Plaza Mayor without going anywhere else and see it all - tourists, students, lovers, strollers, sellers... it's a microcosm of Madrid.

The Plaza was built in the early 17th century and has a tumultuous history. It was used to denounce heretics during the Inquisition (it looked nothing like this, of course), hosted bullfights and was a venue for public executions - in other words, Madrid's daily life throughout the times. It was destroyed by fire three times before ending up in its present incarnation.

Look for the frescoes on the Casa de la Panadería, a bit fresher than the originals but fun to look at nonetheless.

In case your stomach is grumbling again, the Plaza Mayor is stuffed with eateries, but they can sometimes cater more to the tourist than to the local palate. If you leave the Plaza the way you came in, roam around some of Madrid's warren of ancient streets and find more food, whether tapas or a more sit-down fare. For some authentic tapas, head for the Taberna del Chato on the Calle de la Cruz or the Casa Labra near Puerta del Sol.

El Prado, Reina Sofia or Thyssen museums

By now you're full (again) and ready for some early afternoon art.

Known as the Golden Triangle of Art, there are three amazing art museums within walking distance of one another but in a day, you won't make to all three. Even visiting just one will be hard work, but it can be done - at least for an hour or two. (Check the opening hours and days, and holiday closures).

Any one of these will be a thrilling experience:

  • The Prado is Spain's national art museum and has the world's best collection of Spanish art (and one of the best European art collections as well) so if you're a fan of Goya, Velazquez (Las Meninas is here) or El Greco, this is the museum for you. (You can also download itineraries for 1-, 2- or 3-hour visits.)
  • If you're a lover of contemporary art and the likes of Picasso and Dalí, rush to the Reina Sofía.
  • The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses the world's second-largest private art collection and covers ground the other two don't - English and Dutch artists, for example, the pre-modern Impressionists and Expressionists, and great European and American 20th century artists. 

El Retiro

Exhausted by the museum or searching for a bit of shade from the hot city sun? Madrid's spectacular El Retiro park (it's real name is El Buen Retiro but no one calls it that), is in the neighborhood.

The park's modest beginnings date back to the early 1500s and over the centuries, bits and pieces were added, including a large pond (more of a lake, actually) French-style gardens and historical monuments. Exhibitions have been held here and there are summer concerts, street performers and puppet shows. Like most large public areas in Spain, exciting things happen. Rent a rowboat and get yourself out on the water for half an hour to calm those frayed city nerves.

Wondering what to visit in Madrid on a hot day? The lake at Retiro ParkThe King Alfonso XII monument on the edge of Retiro pond by Romain via Flickr CC

Puerta de Alcalá and Plaza Cibeles

The Puerta de Alcalá is a massive triumphal arch, the kind that looks so good in photographs you can't resist snapping away. It sits on the northwestern corner of the Retiro park so you can exit the park right here if you've dropped in for a visit. The Puerta (or gate) used to be part of Madrid's original city walls and has quite a history - it's been hit by a cannonball, a Spanish prime minister was assassinated here, and it has been used as a migration path for sheep! It's also a popular site to broadcast world-class live concerts.

Plaza Cibeles is a busy square (it's actually round), anchored by an imposing fountain representing the goddess Cybele. I like the harmony of the buildings that flank it, and if you want a brilliant view of downtown Madrid, go up to the sixth-floor restaurant in the Palacio Cibeles or even better, to the eighth floor where the mirador is located. Be prepared to be stunned. Just stay away if the Real Madrid football club happens to win a game - you might be engulfed by all the fans who celebrate here.

Puerta de Alcala in downtown MadridThe Puerta de Alcalá, in all its glory
One of the best sights in Madrid - Plaza CibelesThe spectacular fountain of Cybele

La Gran Vía

The Gran Via isn't a particularly long street and a non-stop walk should take about 20 minutes. Except that's not how to walk this street, not at all. This is a street from which to look UP - it's an architectural marvel covering pretty much every historical period of the city. This part of Madrid is guaranteed to be crowded pretty much any time of the day or night, except perhaps Sunday mornings. It's where people walk and shop and eat. It's the thing the people of Madrid do...

Start walking from the striking Metropolis building, the one with an angel sitting on top of a dome.

Halfway down the Gran Via, get ready for another view, from the 9th floor of the Corte Inglés department store on the Plaza de Callao. If you're peckish, it's a good place for a coffee and a nibble. And quick bit of air conditioned shopping on a hot day. Keep walking until you reach the Plaza de España at the bottom.

The best time to visit Madrid is at sunset, or during the blue hourView of the Gran Via towards Plaza de España - taken from the Plaza de Callao. The marquee on the bottom right used to lead to the JJ, Madrid's preeminent disco in the 60s and 70s

Plaza de España

I love a city that considers these to be tall skyscrapers (there are taller ones but not in this part of town). This silhouette of downtown Madrid hasn't changed since I first lived here more than 50 years ago... Daylight is probably waning by now so you should quickly drop by the statue of Cervantes (who wrote Don Quixote) and hurry on to the Temple of Debod.

Plaza de Espana, Madrid at sunsetThis is a corner of the Plaza España, which has special significance for me. The building on the right was called the Edificio España and when we first moved to Madrid many decades ago, that's where I lived... and it hasn't changed a bit. Photo by Astuto Roedor via Flickr CC

Temple of Debod

Sunset is the perfect time to catch this beauty. The Temple is an intriguing monument, donated by Egypt and transported stone by stone to thank Spain for helping relocate ancient historical monuments threatened by the building of the Aswan Dam. The structure dates back to the second century BC and is one of the few original Egyptian architectural remnants that can be seen outside Egypt (the others are in New York, Leiden and Turin). It's free to visit but only a few people are allowed in at a time so you might have to wait - especially during the popular sunset hours. Walk around and admire the gardens while you're there. 

Temple of DebodTemple of Debod, after the sun has set - the blue hour (Ramón Durán via Flickr CC)

And this, my friends, is the end of the itinerary, but not of your fun in Madrid, not by a long shot. At this point you could pop into a bar for some more tapas, go back to your hotel for a rest, or get ready for your evening food tour.

Things to do in Madrid at night

By now you've been eating so many tapas all day you could almost be Spanish. And strolling around Madrid is also a favorite way Madrileños spend the hours between the end of the work day and the beginning of the evening. Remember that in this part of the world, dinner might not start until 10pm or later so your evenings can be quite long. Since time immemorial, "see and be seen" has been a Spanish motto and throughout the country, people walk around in the cool evening air, whether around one of the plazas, or down the Gran Vía or along one of the many newer pedestrianized areas. 

But if you've only got one night in Madrid, the one thing you must do is see a live tablao flamenco, a performance whose soul is as old as the spirits that seem to inhabit this music. It's not to everyone's taste - Portuguese fado suffers the same fate, as does much Arabic music, but if you forget for a moment whether you like it or not and simply allow yourself to be transported by its twangs of pain, you will have lived an experience you'll long remember. (Jason Webster's book Duende: A Journey Into the Heart of Flamenco will help you understand and appreciate the genre so much more.) 

The most famous tablao is of course the Corral de la Morreria, which was in full swing when I was a child and which continues strong. It can be a bit touristy but if this is your first time seeing and hearing flamenco, it's the perfect introduction. You can graduate to the more intensive and painful wailing on your next trip. Remember that flamenco is from the south and finding authentic flamenco in the capital is a challenge. Often there are live performances in specialized theaters, like the Sala Garcia Lorca.

I hesitate to suggest you watch a video to prepare yourself because what you'll see live is so much more poignant and exhilarating than anything you could possibly see in a video. That said, if you MUST, this will give you an idea of what a live flamenco dance is like. The first video is a sevillana, the most upbeat type of flamenco and something you'll undoubtedly see as part of a performance. The second is a bit slower and more plaintive, just to give you an idea of the variety.

Where to stay in Madrid

Since we're talking about a single night, I can only recommend two neighborhoods: the downtown core or the airport. If you're flying out in early morning, by all means stay near the airport, and any hotel near the airport will do (here's a selection). But if not, treat yourself: downtown is the best place to stay in Madrid with great options for all budgets.

In the luxury range, I can recommend three Madrid hotels, the Hotel Urban Madrid for pure style (Papuan Art Deco, anyone?) and the Hotel Wellington, for sheer history and elegance. There's also the Ritz, a longtime Madrid landmark that has been there as long as I can remember.

In the good value mid-range you could try the Hostal Oriente, near the Opera metro station or the Carlton Hotel, not far from Madrid's magnificent museums.

Finally, in the rock-bottom hostel range, The Hat is near the Plaza Mayor and Old Madrid, a bit more upmarket than your regular dorm, or if you'd rather be in the heart of Chueca, Madrid's gay neighborhood (and stuffed with tapas bars) the 007 Chueca will put you in the heart of the action.

Madrid: solo travel for women traveling alone

Traveling to Spain alone is perfectly feasible - you'll face no greater danger than traveling in most other European countries, with one exception - Madrid, like Paris, has seen several terrorist attacks. Both the UK and the US government suggest you be extra cautious and be watchful while you're there. In other words, be attentive in crowded places and don't hesitate to walk away if something feels wrong. But as far as I'm concerned, Spain is one of the best places to travel alone female.

That said, your eyes should always be open, precisely because there are many tourists. Crowds mean pickpockets and plenty of petty thieves - the kind who will grab your bag from a chair and run, or who will zip by on a scooter to tear it off your shoulder. These things happen, and solo travel in Spain means being watchful.

Spain has always had a bit of a "macho" vibe although things have toned down significantly in recent years. If someone says something to you on the street, ignore it and walk off. There's virtually no chance someone will actually be talking to you so it's safe to assume it's a come-on. Walk away. Violence is extremely rare so your risks of upsetting someone are minimal.

A word about nighttime in Madrid: some areas will probably be crowded, even at 2am. But do yourself a favor and unless your hotel happens to be in the very heart of the action and you're a few feet away, take a taxi. They're plentiful, inexpensive and safer than walking down a side street on your own (and they don't mind going short distances).

A day certainly isn't enough to do this city justice, but you can absolutely see a lot of Madrid in a day!

Do you have any great suggestions on how to spend a day in Madrid? If so please share them below!

Madrid city resources

  • The city of Madrid's official site provides an amazing range of guides, maps and itineraries that can help you plan your trip - this one, or future ones (because you'll be back!)
  • If you're not in the mood for spending the day on your feet, consider getting a one-day tourist ticket for access to buses and subways (known here as the Metro)
  • Here are a few ideas of what to drink with tapas
  • Madrid's official tourist office
  • To get from the airport to your hotel, you can take the airport bus or subway (but you'll have to lug your suitcase to your hotel), or travel door-to-door in a taxi or a shuttle (both are more or less the same price)
  • Don't know what to buy? Here are some great ideas of what to take home

And please - don't forget your travel insurance before you go! I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

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