Madrid is home to tapas, world-class museums, and some seriously beautiful architecture. While it would be preferable to spend a longer time exploring the city, sometimes 24 hours is all you have. Here’s your ultimate guide on how to spend the perfect one day in Madrid (an itinerary you’ll want to follow for yourself while in the Spanish capital).
A note on getting around Madrid
If there’s one Madrid travel tip I wish I had known before visiting the Spanish capital, it’s that the city is pretty spread out. Unlike in Paris or Amsterdam where a number of major attractions are often within a 15-20 minute walk from one another, Madrid requires plenty of walking.
Alternatively, the Madrid metro system is fast, safe (though do be wary of pickpockets and consider wearing a crossbody bag like these ones), and efficient. If there are a number of you in the group (we were 4), then the easiest course of action can be to take a taxi between destinations.
Places to visit during one day in Madrid
Begin with a typical Spanish breakfast
If there’s one thing you should know about breakfast in Spain, it’s that it’s the lightest meal of the day. Some of the most traditional food options include tomato on toast or a coffee with a small pastry.
Those feeling a little more peckish will be happy to discover that, over the past few years, brunch has become increasingly popular in Madrid. So much so, that now dozens of brunch spots can be found all over the city. During my stay in the Spanish capital, my friends and I personally enjoyed a brunch at Pum Pum café.
If you’re looking for an extra-decadent and delectable experience, then you might want to indulge in enjoying in the typically Spanish sweet that is churros. The most iconic place in the city that serves up churros is Chocolatería San Ginés.
This Churrería has become something of an institution in the Spanish capital. The building itself was constructed in 1890 as a guesthouse, but by 1890 had been transformed into a place which produced churros. Today, you can order your sweet fried dough together with a warming chocolate bowl to dip them in.
Reina Sofia Museum or El Prado
Of course, there’s no way that you’ll be able to see everything in Madrid in one day. As such, you’ll have to choose exactly what to prioritise and see, which is why this itinerary for a day in Madrid suggests seeing only one of the big cultural institutions.
I would suggest choosing between the Reina Sofia or El Prado as both can be a lot to see in one day. It’s better to focus on just one of these sites so as to truly soak up the ambiance of the artwork and have the energy to be able to see other things during your stay in Madrid.
Whichever you choose to visit, one thing is clear: you must book your tickets ahead of your visit. This way, you’ll save precious time by not having to queue for hours to acquire a ticket. Knowing in advance which museum you’re going to visit will also help you to better plan your timings (Madrid is a pretty spread out city).
One important timing thing to note is that, if you’re looking to get a little off the beaten path during your time in Madrid, then many of the city’s hidden gems are actually only open for limited times during the day.
Whether you have selected to visit El Prado or the Sofia Reina will depend on what off the beaten path attraction you visit next. If you’ve visited the Reina Sofia, then be sure to head to the Atocha Train station, which is just a few minutes walk away.
While the train station doesn’t look like much on the outside, the inside is actually a beautiful hidden garden that’s free to visit and simply gorgeous to look at. The garden was inaugurated in 1992 and boasts around 7,000 plants (mainly tropical varieties), with some being almost as tall as the interior of the train station itself.
Those who are heading to the El Prado will be better situated to head to one of my favourite secret spots in Madrid, the church of San Antonio de los Alemanes. This chapel is so beautiful that it’s often referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Madrid’.
Discover more details on how to visit in my hidden gems of Madrid guide. If you’re thinking about seeing even more of Spain, then check out our guide to Spain off the beaten path. For even more inspiration, check out our guide to the best quotes about Spain.
Enjoy lunch in Mercado San Miguel
After a morning of exploring and soaking up some culture, it’s time for a well-deserved break. One of my absolute favourite places in the city to grab a bite to eat (as well as a refreshing drink or sweet Sangria) is at Mercado San Miguel.
The market was originally opened to the public in 1916 as a covered food market. The market building remains the best example of an iron structure building in the Spanish capital.
Today, there are no grocery sellers left and instead the entire place is filled with vendors touting everything from filled piping-hot empanadas to mouthwatering sweets. It’s the perfect spot to go with a group as everyone can choose exactly what they want to eat.
If there’s one spot you can’t miss during your time in Madrid, it’s the Plaza Mayor. As the name would suggest, this is Madrid’s main square. Plaza Mayor is situated just a few minutes’ walk away from the market and so is conveniently located for visiting just after you’ve finished lunch.
If you’re fortunate enough to be visiting Madrid in winter, then you’ll even be able to see the Christmas Market which takes place on the plaza from the end of November to the end of December on an annual basis.
El Retiro Park
Please note that this is an optional point of interest in this Madrid itinerary. I added this suggestion in for a day in Madrid hesitantly as the day is already pretty long, but I found the park too beautiful not to mention in the guide!
With this being said, the park, while pretty, is still a park and so is probably not at the top of your Madrid bucket list! Madrid’s answer to Central Park in New York is that of El Retiro.
El Retiro is a sprawling green space that changes with the seasons and so is simply delightful to visit all year ’round. Home to acres of gardens, perfectly pruned trees, and of course, the iconic Crystal Palace (which in turn is home to ever-changing art exhibitions), the Spanish park has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2021.
Royal Palace of Madrid
If there’s one cultural institution that you should make the time to visit during your Madrid stay, it’s the Royal Palace of Madrid. This is the official residence of the Royal Family of Spain and the building that you can see today was constructed during the 18th-century.
The gigantic building boasts a whopping 3,418 rooms and is the largest functioning royal palace (when measured by floor area) in Europe! Of course, you can’t visit all of the rooms during a visit, but you can still get a glimpse of this sumptuous Palace.
A visit to the palace takes anywhere between one and two hours depending on your visiting style. In order to save time, I highly recommend booking your Royal Palace of Madrid tickets in advance. Book the tickets here.
Temple de Debod
One of the most unique things to see in Madrid which is located just a short ten to fifteen-minute walk away from the Royal Palace of Madrid. En route, you’ll pass through (or alongside depending on the route you take), the Sabatini Garden.
This classical garden was built in the 1930s on the site of the former Royal stables and are now free to visit. The gardens offer a particularly unique view of the Royal Palace and are one of the best places to enjoy the sunset in Madrid.
The Egyptian Temple of Debod is an ancient monument which dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. Unlike many Egyptian monuments and artefacts in Europe (such as most of the British Museum), the temple was actually a gift to Spain from Egypt.
Head out for tapas
If there’s one thing you need to do in Madrid, it’s to head out for Tapas. If you’re wondering what Tapas is, then here’s an explanation: ‘tapa’ is a small portion of food (or ‘bite’ as it were).
Going out for tapas means ordering plenty of small plates which are intended to share with friends/ family. Typically, you’ll order a wide array of small dishes which you can then snack on while enjoying your drinks (sangria is the drink of choice in Spain).
Hands down, the best tapas my friends and I enjoyed was at Taberna La Concha (C. de la Cava Baja, 7, 28005 Madrid). This tiny little tapas bar is squeezed into a street that’s packed with other Tapas bars.
On the menu, you’ll find dishes such as freshly made hummus, cold cuts, and cheese platters. What’s more is that an olive stuffed with tomato is offered for free when you order a drink. Vermouth cocktails are the speciality of the eatery, though you can also opt to order wine by the bottle.
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Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She now splits her time between London and Paris! Follow Sophie on Instagram.