Spend a weekend in Madrid, like a local
Explore the glorious capital of Spain with our insider tips for two days in Madrid. See how many top things to do in Madrid you can fit in a weekend!
Madrid is the unforgettable getaway for revellers of cultural-rich history and heart-pumping nightlife. While Spain’s southern beaches and Barcelona’s fame distract the crowds, it is the Spanish capital that discreetly offers it all: Madrid is the cultural heart of Spain with world-renown museums, a gourmet hub offering all the country’s regional dishes, and its vibrant, dynamic metropolis creates a lively city-scene with upmarket restaurants and shopping.
Being located in the exact geographic centre of Spain, Madrid is the country’s multicultural core, with a diverse population and some of the finest restaurants stemming from all ethnicities. Here you’ll find more than 10 Michelin-starred restaurants, and restaurants from some of Spain’s top chefs.
Yet the city reserves a small-town charm with several distinct neighbourhoods hidden among the city’s main areas. Madrid has the great advantage of many of its main sites being located within walking distance of the central area, and leisurely absorbing the city’s street scene is at the core of Madrid’s charm.
Arriving in Madrid
Visitors will arrive at the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (aena.es), recently renamed to honour the country's first post-Franco prime minister. Located 15km from the city centre, it is also one of Europe’s busiest and well-connected airports, with many daily flights. The cheapest way to get into the city is via Madrid’s modern and efficient metro system, and tickets start at around EUR 5; you will find the station on the lower floor of the airport and you will need change lines at least once. For the same price, the 24-hour express bus takes passengers every 15 minutes from outside the airport and stops at Cibeles and Atocha stations. Visitors can also take a taxi; since January 2014, drivers must charge a fixed rate of EUR 30 to get to the city centre. It takes on average 20 to 40 minutes to get to the centre, depending on your transport and traffic. EMT Madrid provides more detail (emtmadrid.es).
Where to stay in Madrid
Tourism is well developed in Spain’s capital, and a good range of quality accommodation matches any budget. For a weekend trip, it is best to stay close to the action, although cheaper accommodation can be found in well-connected outlying areas. Many hotels are clustered around the city centre, which starts north of Madrid’s central station, Atocha, and stretches up to the infamous central plazas of Sol and Plaza Mayor, and along Madrid’s main commercial street, Gran Via. Inside this area, Plaza Santa Ana (also referred to as Huertas or Cortes) is a hotspot area for visitors as it is within walking distance of Madrid’s main sites. The vibrant areas of La Latina, Lavapiés and Malasaña offer more affordable options, while Chamartin, Retiro, and Salamanca are upmarket neighbourhoods.
A guide to 48-hours in Madrid
Day one: Wander the historical centre
Orientate yourself by starting at the central Plaza de Sol, where you’ll find the country’s Kilometre 0 in front of the grand Casa de Correos, which houses Madrid’s government. From Sol, arteries of shopping streets packed with restaurants and terrace cafes are a great spot to grab breakfast or try the traditional chocolate con churros (thick hot chocolate and donut sticks). The famous Chocolatería de San Ginés has served this treat since 1885. If shopping is on your to-do list, many smaller shops close on Sunday, so it’s best to get your shopping done early.
From Sol, you find the pedestrianised Calle Arenal, which leads you to the Teatro Real (Madrid Opera House), and behind, the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and Madrid’s great cathedral. Spend a couple of hours admiring the grandeur opulence of Spain’s past Royal families.
From Sol, you’ll stumble across the infamous Plaza Mayor, which has a range of restaurants for tourists who want to absorb the red portico plaza. To eat like a local, San Miguel Mercado serves the in-crowd with market-style eating that showcases the best of Spanish tapas, such as the cured ham jamon, smoked fishes, ox hamburgers, and an array of seafood.
Spain’s cultural treasure troves
With a full stomach, it is time to discover Spain’s masters at the ‘Golden Triangle of Art’, which comprises some of the most impressive art museums and collections in Europe. Here the national Prado museum features pre-20th-century art and huge canvases of Velázquez and Goya, the modern art museum of Reina Sofía Museum hosts Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, and the private Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum showcases historical through to contemporary art exhibitions.
Liven up as the sun goes down
Madrid’s night scene heats up as the Spanish day cools down. Up from the museum quarter, the hip area of Huertas hosts many fashionable restaurants and bars, and is considered as Madrid’s literary neighbourhood, also know as the ‘Barrio de las letras’ (Neighbourhood of letters). Here, embedded phrases in the streets read from famous authors such as Miguel de Cervantes and Calderon de la Barca, and the house where Cervantes died in 1616 can be found here. The lively gay neighbourhood of Chueca offers a similar lively scene, as does the bohemian neighbourhoods of La Latina (the ‘Latina quarter’) and Lavapiés.
Day two: Flea markets and a long Spanish lunch
Locals spend their Sunday mornings browsing the huge open market of El Rastro, where hundreds of stalls form on the streets near La Latina and Puerta de Toledo metro stations from 9am to 3pm. Here you can breakfast on the typical tostada de tomate (toast drizzled in olive oil topped with grated tomato), or snack on grilled sardines and plump Spanish olives. Pick your way through second-hand goods, collectors’ items and antique stores plus rows of stalls selling new clothes, jewellery, handbags and decorative figures. Street musicians add to the market’s buzz.
The Latin Quarter
Afterwards a relaxed Sunday crowd heads to La Latina, where friends meet for long Spanish lunches, which typically start around 2–3pm. Sunny terraces start the festivities, where you can grab a cervaza (beer) or ‘gin tonic’, as the locals do, and take advantage of the free tapas that accompany every drink. Your hardest decision will be choosing one of many good quality restaurants that line the streets. In this neighbourhood stands the famous Sobrino de Botín restaurant (since 1725), which the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the world’s oldest restaurant. Absorb the historic atmosphere where Francisco de Goya once worked as a waiter, or follow in Ernest Hemmingway’s footsteps by eating the restaurant’s signature dish cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig), which he glorified in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.
An afternoon of architecture and art
Walk off your lunch in the lush Retiro Park, and exiting near the Plaza de la Independencia (‘Independence Square’), you’ll cross the large Neo-classical Alcalá Gate. A short walk brings you to the iconic symbol of Madrid, the Plaza de Cibeles with its neo-classical marble sculptures and fountain. Bordering the square sits the imposing Bank of Spain, the Palacio de Buenavista, the Palacio de Linares and the Cybele Palace (the old post office of Madrid, now city hall). Nearby, the Círculo de Bellas Artes has served as a cultural centre since it was formed by a group of artists in 1888, and houses more than a 1,000 artworks. Reflective of the time Picasso spent studying here, an exhibition room is named after him. The rooftop café is the perfect place to mingle with Madrid’s cultural crowd, and sample more tapas and evening drinks as the sun sets over Madrid’s bustling commercial street Gran Via.
KLM / Expatica
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