How to Spend One Day in Madrid, Spain
What started out as a 2-day visit to Madrid before heading south to the Andalusia region of Spain was abruptly condensed to just a single day due to a rather unfortunate and fierce storm named Callum. It disrupted flights into and out of Dublin, which was our transition city on our way to Madrid.
But, as is always the case with traveling, you need to accept adversity and adapt, and so our time in Madrid was now limited to but a single day. So, if your plans call for just one day in Madrid, and you’re up for a bit of walking, you may find our tour useful in planning your own day exploring Madrid.
Madrid seems to get very little respect when it comes to the grand capital cities of Europe. Even within Spain, I suspect that Barcelona, Seville, and the Andalusia region probably are more sought-out destinations than Spain’s bustling capital. And while my disappointment at losing a coveted day exploring someplace new was clearly evident, we made the most of our time and scoured the city on foot.
The result, I must say, was excellent. Madrid is a beautiful, vibrant, and culturally rich city that has more to offer than most visitors think.
I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain.— George Orwell
With just a day to explore, we knew it would be impossible to spend hours touring the world-renowned Prado Museum, taking a guided tour of the massive Royal Palace or strolling leisurely through the green oasis of El Retiro Park.
So instead we walked the city from end to end, discovering its numerous plazas, marveling at its fascinating architecture, and enjoying its crowded and bustling markets. There is no denying that Madrid is alive and well.
Puerta del Sol
With limited time, we headed straight from our hotel to the Puerta del Sol, arguably the center of Madrid and its most famous square. Plazas in Madrid are lively and always full of activity no matter the hour. Visitors congregate in masses to converse, eat, and simply enjoy the festive atmosphere.
Other than marking the unofficial center of historic Madrid, Puerta del Sol is famous for its clock tower building, known as the “Real Casa de Correos”. This is the clock that people come to see count down on New Year’s Eve in Madrid, and certainly, the plaza is the place to be as reveler's ring in the new year.
Puerta del Sol is Spanish for “Gate of the Sun”. Originally a gate to Madrid, as the city expanded, the plaza became the center of the historic section and today is one of Madrid’s busiest squares.
From the Puerta del Sol, it’s a short walk to the Plaza Mayor, another of Madrid’s beautiful and classic squares. Surrounded by mostly residential buildings, there are over 230 balconies facing the plaza, which makes for an interesting architectural design. You can find a number of cafes and shops on the ground level of the buildings, and this draws tourists by the droves. It all makes for another vibrant and energized gathering spot that visitors have to experience.
Mercado San Miguel
From the Plaza Mayor, you are not far from the Cathedral de la Almudena, but you must first stop at the Mercado San Miguel, if not to eat, then simply to experience Madrid’s most famous market. Located just a few steps from Plaza Mayor, the San Miguel Market is “tapas central” in Madrid.
With over 30 vendors creating a wide variety of tapas, you will be hard pressed to not find something appetizing. Throw in a little wine or beer, some cheese, and of course some baked goods, and you may have trouble leaving the market. You may also have trouble finding a seat, as San Miguel is a magnet for foodies visiting Madrid.
Cathedral de la Amudena
After fueling up it’s a good time to head to Madrid’s grandest cathedral, the Cathedral de la Amudena. The cathedral and the Royal Palace are situated on opposite ends of Plaza de la Armeria. This is a beautiful part of Madrid and if you have just one day here it’s a good decision to spend at least a few hours in this part of the city. The cathedral is free to explore and you might be surprised by its somewhat modern architecture.
The site was originally a mosque and construction of the cathedral was not started until 1879, very recent by European standards. Surprisingly, it was not consecrated until 1993 by Pope John Paul II. The attached cathedral museum has a 6-euro entry fee, which includes access to the sacristy and the dome. The crypt, which lies beneath the cathedral is fascinating and is the final resting place of some of Spain’s most notable royalty.
Plaza de la Armeria
After enjoying the cathedral wander over to the Plaza de la Armeria. This vast plaza that sits between the cathedral and the Royal Palace is a great place to sit and soak in the majesty of your surroundings. There is always something going on here, be it local performers or just the frolicking of children entertaining themselves without any care to the history and grandeur that surrounds them.
As you try to digest the magnitude of the size of the Royal Palace that sits before you—it has over 3,400 rooms—you certainly begin to wonder who on earth could possibly need that much space. The palace was at one time the royal family’s home, but today it is designated the official residence of the royal family. I guess that means they don’t live their anymore?
Anyway, built in 1735 and measuring over 1.4 million square feet, it is the largest still-functioning Royal Palace in Europe. Although we did not have time to tour the palace, we did notice the exceptionally long line waiting to enter. I would definitely try to purchase advance tickets online if you plan on visiting.
From the palace, a nice walking route is to continue heading north on the Calle de Bailen. With the palace on your left, notice the Opera House across the street sandwiched between the Gardens de Lepanto and the Gardens del Cabo Noval. Just in front of the Opera House is the Monument of Felipe IV, King of Spain from 1621 to 1665.
As you get to the end of the palace, to your left will be the Sabatini Gardens. These are the official gardens of the Royal Palace and offer a tranquil place from which to view the palace and relax in a shady spot.
Plaza de España
From the Sabatini Gardens, you are just a short walk away from the Plaza de Espana. This plaza features a monument to one of Spain’s most notable authors, Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes is famous for writing Don Quixote, and a bronze statue of the wandering knight and his squire, Sancho Panza, sits in front of the monument.
The large reflecting pool and fountain make Plaza España a great place to sit and relax, and there is sufficient shade to help cool you from the rigors of touring Madrid.
From the Plaza España, you can head down the Gran Via, which is best described as Madrid’s version of “Broadway”. The road extends for about a mile and is the hub of shopping, hotels, and entertainment in Madrid.
The architecture of the buildings along the Gran Via is quite interesting and represents a mix of Art Deco, Moorish Revival, and Vienna Secession style. At the far end of the Gran Via is one of the more eye-catching architectural structures, the Metropolis Building, which dates to the early 20th century.
Plaza de Cibeles
If you made it to the Metropolis Building, you are at the end of the Gran Via. Congratulations, you have survived Madrid’s busiest and most entertaining stretch. From here, a left onto Calle de Alcala will take you to the Fountain of Cibeles and the stunning Palace of Cibeles.
This iconic building is home to the Madrid City Hall, a number of restaurants, and CentroCentro, a Cultural Center that is packed with cultural exhibits and activities that revolve around Madrid. Head up to the observation deck located on the eighth floor for a stunning view of Madrid.
From the Palace of Cibeles, head down the Paseo del Prado for a relaxing walk through beautiful gardens, by interesting monuments and fountains, the swanky Ritz Hotel, and by some of Madrid’s most fascinating museums, including the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and of course the world-famous Prado Museum.
General admission tickets to the Prado are 15 euro, 7.50 for those over age 65, and free for those 18 and under. Advance tickets are available online and are recommended, especially during peak seasons. Adjacent to the Prado is the Royal Botanical Garden and the massive El Retiro Park, where one could spend an entire day exploring.
By now it’s been a long day, but you have covered the historic center of Madrid from end to end. Certainly, you can adjust this to include any other sites of particular interest to you. The city is very walkable and most of the main tourist sites are located in the historic central district.
If you are spending the night in Madrid and you happen to wander across one of Madrid’s plazas after the sun goes down, you will find a festive, high-spirited scene with people thoroughly enjoying themselves. Madrid is alive and well and waiting for you to explore.
Walking Route Through Historic Madrid
© 2019 Bill De Giulio