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For many visitors, a trip to Madrid lingers in the background when planning a visit to Spain. It is often overshadowed by glamorous Barcelona, stylish Seville and Basque Country or marvelous Bilbao. But you will not be disappointed if you include a detour to the capital of Spain.
As we did during our Spanish vacation. We realized after our trip of 2 days in Madrid it well deserves its own spotlight of fame.
Madrid is the third largest city in Europe after Berlin and London. It has a rich and long history dating back to Roman times. The chronicles of Madrid begin with the founding of “Mayrit” on the banks of the River Manzanares by Muhammad I, the Emir of Cordoba in the late ninth century A. D.
The Muslim Age came to an end when the city and its citadel were conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Over the centuries, Madrid came to prominence under the Arabs and then under the Christians during the Reconquest of Spain.
Many treasures of these eras before the classic period can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum located in the Salamanca District.
The layer upon layer of the history of Madrid entails an abundance of unmissable landmarks. If you are on a short visit like we were, you may feel slightly intimidated by the choices. But with a bit of advanced planning, you can have a fulfilling and enjoyable trip.
How to Spend 2 Days in Madrid
We spent a busy couple of days taking in the wealth of attractions that Madrid offers, ranging from lavish palaces to verdant parks to world-class art museums. Here is how we spent our time:
Day 1 in Madrid
Puerto del Sol
We started our day at a bustling square in the middle of Madrid. This lively plaza, known as Puerta del Sol gets crowded with tourists and locals. Everyone comes here to get a look at some of Madrid’s most iconic symbols.
This is the beginning point of the six national roads of Spain. It is denoted by a Kilometer Zero stone slab which tourists flock to see. The clock on the Real Casa de Correos is another point of interest known for indicating the Spanish New Year tradition of eating 12 grapes.
Finally, the statue of the bear and the strawberry tree, a representation of Madrid city’s coat of arms, or El Oso y el Madrono at the entrance of Calle Alcala is delightful to look at and should not be missed.
Next, we headed to Plaza Mayor, one of Madrid’s prettiest, oldest and grandest squares. It’s an open, expansive space with a history spanning 400 years. A bronze statue of King Felipe III, constructed in 1616 by Juan Cristóbal González, Jean Boulogne and Pietro Tacca graces the square center. It was placed there in 1848.
The square has the unique architecture of a grand arcade and is symmetrically rectangular in shape. It was built during the illustrious Habsburg period. We stepped onto the bustling plaza surrounded by magnificent buildings with wrought iron balconies, 237 of them according to madridtouristinfo.com.
Plaza Mayor, as we know it today, is the handiwork of architect Juan de Villanueva. He did the reconstruction in 1858 after a series of big fires.
While three buildings are three floors tall, at the north end of the square, notice the Casa de la Panadería stands four floors tall. This building has frescoes adorning the facades, originally from 1590 but newly repainted by Carlos Franco in 1992.
Plaza Mayor thrums with liveliness. It is jam-packed with tourists and locals who come here to enjoy the vibrancy of the place. Most will walk into the many laneways that exit out into the labyrinthine of streets around. We walked along the porticoes of the interconnected buildings peeking into food stalls selling local meats and shops selling local crafts.
San Miguel Market
About a three-minute leisurely stroll from Plaza Mayor is San Miguel Market, a gastronomic delight. Over 100 years old, Mercado de San Miguel, which began as a wholesale marketplace, is now an epicurean paradise, with 30 food stands.
Built in 1916, the market is also an exemplary example of iron architecture with a beautiful high ceiling that floods the interior with natural light.
You can sample delicious tapas, paella, cheeses, fresh fruits, desserts and more. Try to find yourself a seat at one of the tables. Or, get a takeout like we did, and have a fabulous lunch. Some stalls offer free samples and even a complimentary glass of wine if you order something from the stand.
Royal Palace of Madrid
A must-visit attraction is the Royal Palace of Madrid, the abode of the Spanish royal family. The palace began its life as a fortress when Madrid was known by its Arabic name, Magerit. It continued to be a fort until the 14th century.
The building became a royal residence under King Charles I and his son, Philip II. After a fire in 1734 destroyed this palace, King Philip V rebuilt the palace that we see today.
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Our journey to enjoy the fineries of the Royal Palace commenced as we walked across the expansive royal courtyard after buying our tickets. Tickets can also be booked in advance.
We stood in the center, marveling at the glory of the architecture surrounding us in the plaza. The palace is massive with more than 3000 rooms and includes a head-turning staircase. We toured the Royal Armory, the Painting Gallery with works of Caravaggio, Goya, Velazquez and other famous Spanish artists.
The Royal Kitchen was fun to walk through, while the Throne Hall was splendid with its fancy ceiling painted by Tiepolo. If you are there on Wednesdays or Saturdays, do not miss the splendid Changing of the Guard ceremony.
In addition, outside of the months of January, August and September, you can also catch the Solemn Changing of the Guard on the first Wednesday of each month.
Catedral de Santa La Almudena
Situated next to the Royal Palace of Madrid is the Catedral de Santa Maria La Real de La Almudena. It is the grandest church in all of Madrid and the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. Though the capital of Spain shifted from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the city did not get a primary church for about 400 years. La Almudena Cathedral’s construction began in 1879 and it was consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II.
The Gothic Revival-style cathedral is certainly a sight to behold. Inside there is a Romanesque-style crypt that is home to a 16th-century image of Virgen de la Almudena. There is also a small museum that requires a fee to enter. If you have time you must ascend to the dome of the building for a superb view of Madrid.
Plaza de España
Head to Plaza de España, a picturesque square with fountains, leafy gardens and a number of monuments. We did a bit of people-watching, relaxing by the serene pond at this plaza that is highly popular amongst both tourists and locals.
For an incredible experience, a visit to the Temple of Debod is a must to wrap up your evening sightseeing. Watch the sunset from this temple that dates to the 2nd century BCE. It was a gift from Egypt to Spain in 1968 after the Spanish helped in saving the temples of Nubia.
Museo Nacional del Prado
Madrid is home to the premier Museo Nacional del Prado, a never-ending repository of Spain’s artistic treasures. Also, a collection of Italian, French and Flemish art.
While it is a challenge to cover the entire museum in one visit, a bit of prior planning and study can help you focus. There are three floors of over 7,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and sketches that are exhibited through permanent and rotating exhibitions.
Be sure not to miss the paintings by El Greco, Francisco Goya, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian. Spend time on the celebrated masterpieces “Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch.
Also unmissable is the eye-catching architecture of the museum building. It was designed by Juan de Villanueva in 1785, on the orders of Charles III, the King of Spain. And it began as a museum to house the royal collection.
Golden Triangle of Art
The Prado, Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Bornemisza museum form the “Golden Triangle of Art” in Madrid. They were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2021. So, you must find time to visit the two other museums on this “Art Walk”.
We started with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, home to modern and contemporary Spanish Art. The star attraction here amidst the works of Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Juan Gris and others is the world-renowned masterpiece, “Guernica”.
This piece was painted by Pablo Picasso in oil on canvas in his classic Cubist style in 1937 following the German bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica. The artwork has now become an icon and an anti-war symbol.
The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is situated a stone’s throw distance from the Prado. It holds a magnificent collection of European paintings from the 13th to the 20th centuries. The museum building is the impressive 18th-century Villahermosa Palace. It was restored to house well-known works by the likes of Picasso, Rembrandt, Dali, El Greco and more.
The Buen Retiro Park or El Retiro is the largest public park in Madrid and a 2021 entrant to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. It contains more than 15,000 trees and covers over 125 hectares. The park, built in the mid-17th century by King Felipe IV, is immensely popular among locals and visitors since it was opened to the public in 1868.
We enjoyed our leisurely walk through the park admiring the greenery, the many monuments and statues and the central lake. Also, we marveled at the Puerta de Alcala, a neoclassical gate of five triumphal arches, the first one built in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Of particular interest at El Retiro is the Palacio de Cristal or the Crystal Palace built in 1887 to be used as a greenhouse to exhibit animals and plants from the Philippines, which was then a Spanish Colony.
Now it showcases temporary exhibitions for the Reina Sofia Museum. The Glass Palace is a magnificent example of cast-iron architecture and is modeled on a crystal palace that was erected in Hyde Park in London in 1851.
Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
If your group includes soccer enthusiasts, you could venture to the home of the Real Madrid football team, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, located not far from the city center. Built in 1947 and with a seating capacity of around 81,000 spectators, it is the second-largest football stadium in Spain.
Visitors can take a tour of the trophy rooms, the visiting players’ dressing rooms and the VIP viewing boxes. Plus, you can take a bite at Gate 57, the restaurant with a sublime view of the playing field.
The Gran Via
The Gran Via is the primary thoroughfare in Madrid and certainly its most famous. Calle Gran Via was constructed between 1910 and 1929 and was an important urban construction that was possible by demolishing more than 300 buildings and many streets.
This has resulted in a central boulevard that is lined with remarkable architecture, shopping destinations and dining options, earning it the nickname of Spanish Broadway.
An excellent way to conclude your Madrid visit would be to enjoy a concert, opera or a flamenco performance at Teatro Real, the majestic Madrid Opera House built originally in 1850. The theater is also open for guided or self-guided tours.
Getting to Madrid by Train
We reached Madrid from Barcelona Sants train station after a mere three-hour train journey. A distance of about 400 miles was covered easily by the AVE high-speed train and we disembarked in Atocha Station, Madrid’s first train station that was inaugurated in 1851.
Today the station is a busy hub where a primary attraction is a lush tropical garden that is surrounded by retail, food and leisure outlets. Close to 7,000 plants and a variety of fish in a pond occupy a cavernous space topped by an iron and glass roof with a skylight creating a jungle-like atmosphere.
The garden occupies the original 19th-century station as a new station was built in 1992 to accommodate the modern high-speed train links. We spent many minutes walking around the garden.
Here we enjoyed the lushness of the greenhouse, noticing tall palm and coconut trees, rubber and banana trees, among many other plants and flowers. In addition, we were enamored by the goldfish populating the pond.
Where to Stay in Madrid
Madrid has plenty of hotels to suit different budgets. But it is important to find a comfortable one, preferably close to the city’s main attractions, especially if you are in a time crunch. The best hotels are mostly located in and around the vibrant city center.
VP Plaza España Design, a superb luxury hotel and our place of stay, is located in the Plaza de España and is close to Gran Via, the Temple of Debod, the Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace.
Hotel Mayorazgo is another great choice located in the Gran Via, and close to Plaza de España.
Where to Eat in Madrid
There are countless tapas bars in Madrid and if you have a bit of free time, a tapas crawl can be an excellent way to bring your evening to a close.
Fill up with small portions of seafood, meats, salads, veggies and tasty deep-fried bites like jamon croquetas (ham croquettes). Most tapas plates are cheap unless you order seafood.
Cerveceria Plaza Mayor 2: Opposite the Casa de la Panaderia, and there since 1976, with extended seating on the terrace of Plaza Mayor, this place offers splendid views and delectable tapas.
Museo del Jamõn: There are many outposts of these “ham museums” where you will see rows of hams on display from the ceiling, on the walls and in display cases. Needless to say, their specialty is ham which is sourced from all over Spain but you will have a unique experience.
Churreria Chocolateria 1902: More than 100 years old and a wonderful place to go to for breakfast, tea, lunch or dinner. And a must-visit for its chocolates and churros, the deliciously deep-fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, from Spanish or Mexican cuisine.
For more information on all the above visit: https://www.esmadrid.com/en
Author Bio: Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. She writes frequently for Go World Travel and other online travel magazines such as GoNomad, Matador Network, Travel thru History, In the Know Traveler and others.