48 Hours in Madrid
I’ll admit I wasn’t excited to visit Madrid. I don’t love most big cities and nothing I had ever heard about Madrid put it high on my list. On top of that, Madrid doesn’t have the history that most Spanish towns/cities have*.
* I seem to have touched a nerve with readers with this comment. Yes, Madrid was a military outpost in the 9th century under the Emirate of Cordoba. But unlike many places in Spain, there’s not many vestiges of history in Madrid. In fact, prior to the moving of the court to Madrid in the 1500’s, it was an agricultural town and minor in comparison to neighbouring Segovia and Toledo. Construction on the Royal Palace started in 1735. They only broke ground on the Cathedral in the late 1800’s. So I’ll stick to what I say.
Don’t get upset, I only say good things about Madrid in this post…
We planned 2 days in Madrid, a cursory stop between Toledo and Ávila/Segovia.
And I have to admit that I was completely wrong about Madrid….
What did we like about Madrid?
The city has grand architecture: a mix of styles in including Art Deco, Neo-Plateresque, and “Eclecticism”. Madrid is a city of wide boulevards, high buildings and large squares. It’s all very impressive. Off the boulevards are neighbourhoods with quaint bars and restaurants filled with locals. It’s a busy, vibrant and cosmopolitan city.
But it was more than that. Madrid is walkable, in fact surprisingly so. We spent 2 days in Madrid and walked everywhere, seeing all of the major highlights.
The map below summarizes our walking over 2 days (click on it to enlarge)
Starting at Atocha train station (we were coming from Toledo), we walked to the Airbnb apartment we had booked in the center. The walk (indicated in red), took about 25 minutes.
After having checked in, we decided to explore (continuing on the map in red)
- 5 minutes away is Puerta del Sol, a square referred to as the “Heart of the City”. It was here that the old city gates stood.
- Continuing on, Plaza Mayor (1790) is the main historic square in the city, a place where ceremonial events as well as tournaments took place.
- The Mercado de San Miguel is located about a 2 minute walk away. It’s considered the gastronomic center of Madrid and is a very popular spot among tourists.
- Just a few minutes further, Casa de la Villa (on Plaza de la Villa) is located. A historic building, it was Madrid’s town hall from the 17th to 21st century.
- Continuing along Calle Mayor, you pass Iglesia Catedral de las Fuerzas Armadas and arrive at Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena (Madrid’s main Cathedral). This is located right next to Madrid’s Royal Palace. The monarchs of Spain still live here. You can visit the palace however, it is one of Madrid’s highlights.
- Across from the Palace is the pretty Plaza de Oriente and Teatro Real, one of the most famous opera houses in Europe.
- From there we continued to the Cervantes Monument (the most famous writer in the Spanish-speaking world) through Plaza de Espana. It’s a beautiful plaza surrounded by towering highrises.
- Crossing the park takes you to the Gran Via. This main thoroughfare through central Madrid is full of incredible architecture and is one of the city’s main shopping streets. You’ll also see some theatres, in a way it reminded me of New York’s Broadway. The Gran Via is very, very impressive.
- We went as far as the Metropolis Building, an iconic building in Madrid.
We were close to the apartment at this point and decided to call it quits on 1st day of sightseeing. We had spent almost 4 hours walking and wandering that day.
Day 2 (indicated in blue on the map), we picked up where we had left off.
- We continued down the Fuente de Cibelles. Built in 1782, it is another of Madrid’s emblematic monuments. Across the street stands the Palacio de Cibeles which which hosts art exhibitions, conferences, and concerts (on the 8th floor is a very popular observation deck).
- We could have continued straight to Puerta de Alcalá and Retiro Park, but instead we decided to cut north along the beautiful Paseo de Recoletos (a pedestrian walkway full of monuments and statues) and pass the National Archaeological Museum and Plaza de Colón, a plaza and fountain commemorating Christopher Colombus.
- Doubling back, we arrived at Puerta de Alcalá. Built in the late 1700’s, it was commissioned to celebrate the arrival of the monarchs to the city.
- Steps from the gate is Retiro Park. Madrid’s most famous park, it was owned by the Royal family until the 19th century. Since then it has been a public park. It has a lot of things to see, highlights being the pool at the center of the park and the Palacio de Cristal (the Crystal Palace).
- Coming out of the park is an area containing 3 of Spain’s most famous art museums: The Prado Museum has a collection of more than 8,000 paintings and 700 sculptures and rivals the Louvre in Paris. The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum is right next to the Prado and is one of the best private art collections in the world. The Reina Sofia Museum contains some of the best contemporary art including pieces from Picasso, Dali and Miró.
A Video showing a bit of everything covered above
So I’ll admit I was wrong about Madrid.
We’ll return. Although 48 hours was more than enough to walk around the city and see the highlights from the outside, it didn’t give us the time to explore them in depth. The Royal Palace deserves a few hours while the Big 3 art museums warrant probably two days if you want to give them justice. There’s more: the Museum de Sorolla, MAN (Museum Archaeological National), The Museum of the Americas. You could spend an entire week just visiting museums in Madrid.
We stayed in this Airbnb apartment right in the center of Madrid. Very nice with an excellent location. We walked to all the highlights. Right close by is the Ibis Styles Madrid Prado which would have been our choice had we chosen a hotel (after hotels in both Cordoba and Toledo we wanted an apartment in Madrid where we could do our own cooking).