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This post guest authored by Kat Campesi of International Kitty
Madrid is a pretty well kept secret as far as European travel destinations go. Often overshadowed by the more glamorous Spanish city of Barcelona, Madrid has lots to offer its visitors. The capital city is rich in history, brimming with different cultures, and has a lively nightlife. So lively in fact, that the native Madrileños are known as gatos (cats) since they tend to stay out so late into the night.
The city center, known as the Centro contains multiple neighborhoods, all with their own unique atmosphere, architecture, and overall vibe. Some describe the central community as more of a modern day village than a city. It’s a perfect mashup of independent shops and trendy fashion chains, culinary hot spots and family run restaurants, old man bars and cocktail experiences. All of this happens against the backdrop of centuries-old buildings, monuments, and indescribable sunsets.
While you could easily fill weeks, if not months, with all that Madrid has to offer-the essence of the city can be experienced in three days. Madrid is a walkable city and there is so much to see crossing from one part of the city it another, so pack comfortable shoes. Plan to grab a morning coffee and head out each day before 10am in order to fit everything in as we guide you through how to spend an amazing 3 days in Madrid.
It’s the first day of your amazing 3 days in Madrid, and you’ll want to be up early to make the most of your time.
Atocha Station is worth visiting even if you’re not traveling via train. It’s most beautiful in the morning with the light pouring in through the enormous skylights and windows. Enter from the north side to take in the beautiful facade as you approach the building. Once inside, you will find a multi-level train station that feels more like a tropical garden. Lush plants and palm trees overshadow any signs of a busy commuter hub. Benches line perimeter of the green space, the perfect place to grab a seat and take in all of the action. Beyond the greenhouse area, there are shops and restaurants that cater mainly to commuters and travelers. Art enthusiasts will appreciate the unexpected surprise that sits outside the opposite end of the station-two giant sculptures of baby heads by artist Antonio López García. Officially titled “Day and Night”, they were inspired by the artist’s granddaughter when she was 6 months old.
Monument to the Victims of M-11
During the morning rush on March 11, 2004 ten coordinated explosions occurred on the tracks of the Atocha train station killing nearly 200 people. There is now a memorial to the victims that is located next to the station. It is over ten meters tall and is made of glass, with messages of condolence and hope inscribed on the inside in several different languages, left by citizens in the aftermath of the attacks.
Just a twelve minute walk from Atocha is Retiro Park. Think of this as the Central Park of Madrid-locals come here for exercise, picnics, and some even use it as a cut through on their daily commutes. The park consists of 350 acres of green space and within it there are lakes, monuments, museums, running paths. Towards the center of the park lies one of the most well known attractions-the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal). This glass and iron castle is open to visitors and often houses rotating exhibits throughout the year.
There is a small lake full of ducks, geese, and turtles just outside the palace, but the real draw is the lake a bit further north-Estanque Grande. The monument to King Alfonso XII is a magnificent sight to behold from across the water. Those who want to get a closer look can access an observation deck. The steps below the monument are a wonderful perch to sit and watch all of the action on the lake. Between ducks and rowboats, the water is always full of action.
The shore of the lake also sees its fair share of activity. There is no shortage of street performers playing music, seniors exercising, or manteros selling their wares. And of course, the ever-present Instagram photo shoots are a sight not to be missed! Grab a snack and a caña from one of the nearby stands and sit in the shade watching it all unfold in front of you.
Puerta de Alcalá/Gran Via Walk
Puerta de Alcalá is a monument located at the northwest corner of Retiro. The structure itself was a gate of the great walls that surrounded the city 400 years ago. Since then, migrating sheep have passed through it, it’s been sprayed by shrapnel from a cannon, and has been the backdrop for such events as MTV performances and World Pride ceremonies. Today, it proudly sits in the center of a well manicured traffic circle, cars and motorbikes perpetually zipping around it. Something feels so quintessentially European about it all, making it the perfect opportunity for a photo.
Heading west, Calle Alcalá turns into Gran Via, which is the major shopping boulevard that cuts through the center of the city. Heading west on Calle Alcalá, this walk mixes centuries-old architecture and modern day shopping hotspots like H&M and Nike. The Palacio de Cibeles will be first breathtaking building. This stunning structure houses Madrid’s town hall. Designed in the eclecticism style of architecture, its details are beautiful close up, but the best vantage point is from the corner opposite of it, on the other side of the fountain.
The iconic and often photographed Metropolis building is next and splits Gran Via and Alcalá. Gran Via continues on to the right of the building, with tons of high street stores as well as some well known brands. The only stores worth stopping into are the ones you may not have access to at home (Bershka or Primark, for example). The last stop on Gran Via is the Capitol Building-widely recognized by its Schweppes sign on the exterior.
Chueca and Malasaña are arguably some of the coolest neighborhoods in Madrid. Chueca is full of restaurants that are perfect for a merienda (afternoon snack). Plazas are filled with tables for dining al fresco and there are more than enough bars that offer complimentary olives or crisps with a drink order if you’re trying to save money. For a rooftop perch, look for hotel and hostels in the area. Most are accessible to the public. Chueca also offers quite a wide variety of graffiti and street art. The many quiet streets off the main artery of Hortaleza seem to have the most colorful and interesting murals. Since Chueca is considered the LGBT neighborhood, lots of the art is focused on love, equality, and other positive messages.
Just beyond Fuencarral, another major shopping street, is Malasaña. This district is packed with cafes, bars, and independent shops that each ooze an air of coolness mere mortals can only aspire to. There are Instagrammable neon signs and quirky wallpaper, beautifully curated clothes, and perfectly crafted cocktails. Strolling these streets for unique finds is a perfect afternoon activity-just be aware of possible afternoon closures between 2pm and 5pm.
Puerta del Sol
Another busy commuter station and plaza, Sol is always alive with energy. The sprawling plaza holds many points of interest. Kilometre 0, the geographical center of Spain is marked by a stone slab. It’s relatively easy to spot, as groups of tourists often wait their turn to photograph their feet next to it. Perhaps even more popular is the famous Oso y Madroño, the sculpture of a bear and a strawberry tree, which is the official symbol of the city of Madrid. Overhead, is the clock that all Madrileños turn their eyes to on New Year’s Eve, as well as the often-photographed Tío Pepe neon sign. Before leaving the Plaza, consider grabbing some warm churros from any of the nearby cafes for a mid-morning treat!
Plaza Mayor sits about 5 minutes west along Calle Mayor. The entirety of the square is lined with three story residential buildings. Worth taking a moment to admire, the Casa de la Panadería is oldest and most decorated of the buildings. The facade is covered in murals of
mythological figures that are connected to Madrid’s history. A sculpture of Felipe III sits in the center of the square and is arguably one of Madrid’s most valuable works of art.
Plaza Mayor is is rich with history, dating back to the 16th century. It’s served as a marketplace, an arena for bullfights, and the site of public executions, just to name a few. As tempting as it could be to sit down and grab a drink at one of the tables lining the square, there are many more local (and more affordable) restaurants, cafes, and bars surrounding Plaza Mayor. Simply choose one of the ten exits and walk until you find an open table at a nearby establishment. Sitting amongst Madrileños and listening to their lively conversation adds a bit more authenticity to the experience. For this same reason, pass on going inside Mercado de San Miguel in favor of less crowded local markets around the city like Mercado de la Paz or Mercado San Antón.
Monasterio del Corpus Christi
A visit to this monastery doesn’t lead to a religious experience, but it’s close-fresh baked cookies! One of the best kept secrets and most fun experiences in Madrid is buying a box of cookies from the cloistered nuns of Corpus Christi.
Behind Plaza Mayor and down a quiet alley (Calle Puñonrostro), there is a relatively unmarked door. Look for a small sign that reads “venta de dulces”. Once inside, meander to the left and keep going until you spot a small window blocked off by a turntable. A sweet voice on the other side will greet you to take your order. While there is a list of flavors posted, unless you are fluent in Spanish, you will most likely just get what they give you. Place your payment in one of the empty slots and spin the turntable. When it comes back around, a box of cookies appears. Once you have collected your change and your sweets, retrace your steps back to the doorway to exit.
The Royal Palace is the largest functioning royal palace in Europe. Considered the official residence of the King of Spain, it’s still used for state ceremonies. However, the Palace is still available for tours. There are a variety of tour options for the public including free hours Monday through Thursday for EU and Latin American citizens (the hours change seasonally). Tours of the Royal Armory and Royal Kitchen are also available in conjunction with Palace tours.
If time or money is tight, the Palace can also be enjoyed from the outside. The sheer size is amazing and the details in the architecture are mesmerizing, from the arches in the interior plaza to the columns lining the front exterior. The Campo del Moro garden sits in front of the palace and is wonderfully landscaped, with winding paths and plenty of spots to sit and enjoy the beauty all around. To the right of the Palace, are the Sabatini Gardens which are also open to the public (and free!). Fountains, pools, and statues are dotted throughout the symmetrically designed hedges, the perfect setting for an afternoon stroll.
Sunset at Parque de la Montaña/Templo de Debod
Parque de la Montaña is about 15 minutes walking from Palacio Real. When timed correctly, this is a magical spot to catch the sunset. The vantage points from the western side of the park look out over the city, providing breathtaking views as the sky turns from blue to a glowing pink.
The most notable part of the park, however, is the Egyptian temple at the top of the hill. Templo de Debod is over 2,000 years old and was a gift from Egypt to Spain. It was originally erected as a temple to the goddess Isis in the early 2nd century and was relocated to Madrid in 1968. The temple is simply majestic during twilight hours and is equally breathtaking once the monument’s lights turn on at dark.
Madrid Río Park, located on the most western edge of Madrid Centro, sits on-you guessed it-the river. The park offers many different activities from renting bikes and cruising to shopping and drinks on a terrace. The one attraction that can’t be missed is the Arganzuela footbridge. Its design is particularly stunning-it is a tubular structure made of spiraling metal and mesh panels, allowing sunlight to cascade in across the bridge. The bridge itself links two neighborhoods and provides spectacular views of the park below. As incredible as it is from the outside, inside the tunnel provides a spectacular backdrop for some really cool photographs.
La Latina and Lavapiés
Back towards the center of the city, a little south of Sol are two lively barrios (neighborhoods)-La Latina and Lavapiés. La Latina is the place to go for tapas, beer, and hanging out on terraces. It’s packed with restaurants and bars and is the perfect destination for foodies. Mercado de la Cebada is worth stopping by to experience the more authentic market style offerings. Now, if a flea market sounds more appealing than a food market, visit La Latina on a Sunday to experience El Rastro. Vendors line multiple streets selling art, furniture, accessories, and some even still sell birds!
Lavapiés is adjacent to La Latina in both location and “cool” factor. In 2018, it was named coolest neighborhood in the world by Time Out magazine-and with good reason. The bohemian neighborhood is full of artists, independent shops, and a variety of restaurants offering authentic cuisine. This with an appetite for the nightlife can enjoy bars and clubs, as well as attend a Flamenco show.
Lavapiés definitely has Chueca beat on amount of graffiti and street art-it is seemingly on every corner, and often bears a message to passersby. The most common theme being anti-gentrification. There have been a flurry of closures of many beloved restaurants, bars, and shops in the past few years. For an authentic Lavapiés experience that will also help sustain a neighborhood business, look for an “old man bar” to enjoy an afternoon drink and a snack.
Las Letras/Art Triangle
The Las Letras neighborhood was named in honor of the great Spanish writers of the16th and 17th centuries. Today, there are many modern restaurants and trendy cafes as well as three major museums. The Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza make up what is known as the Golden Triangle of Art. From works of the European masters to contemporary art, each museum’s collection complements the others’ seemingly perfectly. The Prado and Reina Sofia take a minimum of two hours to visit, while the Thyssen takes closer to one hour. While all three museums have wonderful collections, which is the “must-see” is all up to personal preference.
Real Jardín Botanico
This garden was built out of the intention to create an area in Madrid for natural sciences, which is why it sits near the Prado in an area that was known as the Colina de las Ciencias (Hill of Science). Continuing in this spirit of education, the garden hosts guided tours and informative exhibitions as well as conferences throughout the year. It is also open to self guided tours and admission is free to the public on Tuesdays after 5pm. It’s worth noting that teachers, minors (under 18), and those with disabilities (and their caretakers) are provided free admission, in addition to other specialized groups. Inside the gates, there are three large terrace sections, along with an herbarium and two greenhouses. In total, it is estimated that there are 30,000 plants and flowers on the garden’s grounds. Paths crisscross in a grid pattern, allowing visitors to meander throughout the open spaces as they please, taking in the aromas of various species of herbs planted throughout.
Cuesta de Moyano
Stalls upon stalls (thirty, to be exact) selling books line a pedestrian path called Cuesta de Moyano. This wide passageway runs down a hill along the southern side of the Real Jardín. Open daily, this permanent book fair dates back almost 100 years and vendors carry anything from old classics to modern children’s books.
Bellas Artes Rooftop
The perfect way to wrap up a visit to Madrid is dinner or drinks at the Circulo de Bellas Artes. The rooftop offers one of the most spectacular views (almost 360 degrees) of Madrid and turns into one giant photo shoot come sunset. Get in line early to purchase a ticket and be escorted up to the roof. Once there, grab a seat, order a drink, and enjoy the show!
The best tip to avoid the line? Make a reservation at the rooftop restaurant, Azotea de Bellas Artes. Reservations open up only 2 weeks in advance and fill up quickly.
We hope you enjoyed your 3 days in Madrid! Have you been? Let us know in the comments!
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