During our last trip to Europe, we visited Madrid on an impulse. We had already spent some time in Catalonia when it occurred to us that we could stretch our schedule to one more place before catching our flight back to the United States. We’ve never been interested in Madrid, so intentionally, we had excluded the Spanish capital from our travel list for a long time. What a mistake! After spending two days in Madrid, it turned out we loved the city and wished we had more time to explore.
Madrid: first impression
We arrived in Madrid around midday. As our taxi driver rolled into Gran Via, the first thing that we noticed was the intriguing mix of old and new buildings. This famous boulevard is a showcase of the latest architectural styles with polished glass engineering mingling smoothly with lavishly decorated buildings and historic structures. Madrid is like no other city we have visited in Europe.
When we landed in Madrid, we had no agenda. After checking in at our hotel, we walked through the vibrant city center, and the overall impression was of a clean, neat, and sophisticated city. Once more, my attention was drawn to the incredible architecture, especially all the beautiful spires and sculptures on the tops of buildings. Madrid is truly one-of-a-kind, and if first impressions count, Madrid was doing well.
Where to stay and how to get around
There is no bad area to stay in the Spanish capital as long as it’s in the city center. It holds most of Madrid’s attractions within walking distance from one another.
We were still in Barcelona when I booked a two-night stay at Gran Via Capital. Its prime location on popular Gran Via made it a perfect starting point for easily reaching most sights on foot. The city’s renowned Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol were a short walk away. Further attractions we reached using a Segway tour or a taxi ride.
Although you will get a deeper understanding of the city if you simply walk around, Madrid offers an excellent public transportation network. You can conveniently get to any point in the city quickly via the metro. Buses are another good option.
Note: Check out this list of hotels in Madrid for more options.
Two days in Madrid: how we explored the city
I am a planner. Months prior to each of our trips, I have a list of sites we want to see, activities we want to do, and so on. Surprisingly, it didn’t happen that way when we visited Madrid. Initially anxious, it ended up working out fine. Despite seeing a few sites on our own, we booked two (last minute) activities whose local guides opened a window into the city’s history, art, and culture.
A couple of times, we paid the price for the lack of planning. Sobrino de Botín, listed as one of the oldest restaurants in the world in continuous operation, was packed. Some folks we met (on the tours listed below) guaranteed the food was outstanding. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a table for any of the nights we were in town.
It was our first time doing a Segway tour, and we loved it. Although we traveled through busy streets, the guide was cautious every time we had to cross a thoroughfare. He was especially attentive to the kids in the group.
The 90-minute tour covered a lot of the city in a short time. We saw Parque del Retiro, Plaza Maior, and a number of buildings and monuments that would take us much longer to discover on our own. The guide was knowledgeable, accommodating, and fun. Our 12-year-old loved it.
We also booked a three-hour Secret Food Tour. As we walked in a maze of medieval streets surrounding Plaza Mayor and admired century-old architecture, the lifelong Madrid resident guide fed us with both historical facts and a wonderful selection of food that left us full for most of the day. We enjoyed coffee, ham, deep-fried calamari sandwiches, cheese, authentic Spanish Vermouth, Spanish omelets, and other tapas throughout the day.
During the food tour, our guide advised us to keep an eye out for the gold plaques set into the sidewalk outside certain Madrid businesses. In 2006, the local government granted a badge to honor all businesses that have been around for more than 100 years! The list included restaurants, a barbershop, a hat store, a pharmacy, and more. We visited a few of them. Pretty cool!
Two days in Madrid: what to see
The Spanish capital is rich in history, art, and architecture. Every direction deserves to be explored, but if you have only two days in Madrid, here are 10 attractions that will make the most of your trip.
1. Puerta del Sol (The Sun Gate)
Puerta del Sol is a lively square located in the center of Madrid where several of the city’s busiest streets converge. This semi-circular plaza is also the origin of several routes that traverse the country. In fact, a stone slab on the pavement in front of the main entrance to the Casa de Correos marks Spain’s Kilometre 0, the starting point for all those roads.
This square is one of the city’s most active places in Madrid. Tour groups, concerts, street performers, and tourists all come together in the area whether to enjoy the music, people-watch, see the official symbol of the city, El Oso y El Madroño (aka The Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue), or simply pass through.
During our stay, we often crossed Puerta del Sol. Once, it was to meet the Secret Food Tour guide by The Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue. According to him, a rub on the bear’s feet would bring us luck. True or not, we took our chances.
2. Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is an absolute must-see in Madrid. Located in the city center, the Plaza was not only where both of our tours stopped, but we also crossed it a couple of times on our own when strolling through the city.
The historic Plaza Mayor, completed in 1619 during the reign of Philip III (his bronze statue stands in the center), was the stage for bullfights and executions during the Spanish Inquisition. It has also hosted soccer games.
Nowadays, it is a bustling spot where tourists gather, and street performers entertain. Although lined with shops and restaurants, the square attracts most of its visitors due to the stunning façades of three-story residential buildings that face the Plaza. The slately spires, ochre-hued walls, and 17th-century frescoes highlight the architecture.
3. Mercado de San Miguel
Located next to the Plaza Mayor, the Mercado San Miguel is probably Madrid’s busiest market, and well worth a visit. It operates as a traditional market with stalls of fruit, meat, fish, and vegetables, and an excellent stop to get a bite. Different stalls offer a vast array of wonderful food, including the acclaimed jamón iberico (ham), fresh seafood, olives, pastries, gelato, coffee, beer, and a wide selection of cheeses. We visited it twice.
Like other markets we’ve visited, we walked to different counters and ordered food and drinks that suited our individual preferences. Sitting was a little bit challenging, but with luck and patience, we got a standing table. The food was good, but obviously, it varied from stall to stall. We especially enjoyed the calamari sandwich, slices of ham, and fresh oysters. The sangria I had was the yummiest I had in the country. It was a great way to sample all the local delicacies!
4. Plaza de la Villa
We were pleased that we stumbled into Plaza de la Villa. Located in the historic center, this pedestrian square is close to the Royal Palace, Puerta del Sol, and Plaza Mayor. Enclosed by wonderfully preserved buildings built in different centuries and styles, some of which are considered the most important in the history of Madrid.
The highlights of the plaza are the sculpture of a 16th-century Spanish soldier who first used marines to carry out amphibious operations, and Casa y Torre de los Lujanes, the oldest building in the square. Last but not least, Casa de la Villa was the permanent seat of Madrid’s city government from the Middle Ages. In 2007, Madrid’s city council relocated to the grand Palacio de Cibeles.
5. Caixa Forum
Caixa Forum is, in reality, a museum, but its structure seems to be as interesting as the exhibitions found inside. Topped by a rusted iron body that covers the entire length of the brick building, it also displays a unique wall covered by a vertical garden with 15,000 plants from 250 species.
We only saw the building from outside during our Segway tour.
6. Royal Palace
Have I already said there was no planning preceding this trip to Madrid? Although we had a fabulous time in the city, we wished our visit to the Royal Palace was different. Not only was the queue to purchase entry tickets huge, but it was also too late into the day when we realized how big this place is. Disappointed, we saw it from outside.
Featuring over 3,000 rooms, it is one of the largest royal palaces in the world. Standing for nearly three centuries, the Royal Palace housed the kings of Spain from the mid-1700s to the 1900s. Though still the official residence of the Spanish royalty, only state ceremonies take place in this enormous mansion. Visitors can wander through some of the rooms and banquet halls, but they represent only a small percent of the 3,000 rooms.
7. Temple of Debod
Temple of Debod made our list after quick research had shown that it is one of Madrid‘s most treasured monuments. Although the place was quiet and perfectly located to see a fantastic sunset, our visit did not match our expectations. The day and night-time pictures I saw online, showing the buildings reflected in the water, were spectacular. When we got there, the temple was closed to visitors, and there was no water to be seen.
This temple dates to the 2nd century when it was built miles south of Aswan in Egypt. In the 6th century, following the Christian expansion, it was closed and abandoned. In the 20th century, the Egyptian government donated the temple to the city of Madrid as a sign of gratitude for saving the Abu Simbel Temples from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. Transported and rebuilt stone by stone, it sits in the West Park in Madrid, near the Royal Palace and Plaza España Square.
8. Parque del Retiro
We visited Parque del Retiro during our Segway tour, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to see this wonderful site. We maximized our time in such a fun way!
Originally built in the 17th Century by Felipe IV as a royal retreat, it opened to the public in the late 1700s. Today it’s one of the city’s most visited attractions. After cruising through the bustling streets of Madrid, Parque del Retiro was like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Spread across 350 acres of lush greenery that holds monuments, fountains, lakes, galleries, sculptures, and playgrounds. It sits in the center of Spain’s largest metropolis.
Although the park has several appeals, the Palacio de Cristal and the lake were our favorites. The Crystal Palace, built in 1887, was initially used as a greenhouse. Made almost entirely of glass, it sits by a small artificial lake where tortoises, frogs, and ducks all live together. We didn’t have a chance to go inside, but according to our guide, it holds art exhibitions that change seasonally.
Meanwhile, the main lake doesn’t stand far behind in beauty. Adorned by massive columns and statues of the Alfonso XII, this man-made lagoon reflects a peaceful atmosphere. Families and lovebirds paddled rental boats around the lake while enjoying the lovely surroundings.
9. Plaza de España
Another sight that we saw during the Segway tour was conveniently located in the city center. This large plaza deserved a visit. Cervantes Monument, the foremost feature of the square, is a remarkable tribute to the greatest writer in the Spanish language. Inaugurated in 1929, the monument shows Cervantes overlooking two characters he created in the early 17th century: Don Quixote on his left, and next to him is his partner in fantasy, Sancho Panza.
The square has a fountain with a pond, a grass area, and wooded areas. Outside the plaza, there are two notable buildings comprising one of the most interesting architectural areas of the capital: the Madrid Tower and the Edificio España.
10. Plaza de Cibeles
We first glanced at Plaza de Cibeles during the taxi ride from the airport to our hotel. I couldn’t stop looking at the Cibeles Palace’s stunning architecture until my eyes could no longer reach its superb white facades.
As expected, we came back to see it closer. The grand Plaza de la Cibeles is a roundabout with a fountain for the Roman goddess Cibeles, who represents fertility. Surrounded by striking buildings, the most memorable of which is the Cibeles Palace, which was the former headquarters of the Spanish postal service. The palace now houses Madrid’s City Hall.
From the ground, we spotted people standing on what looked like an observation deck of the Cibeles Palace. Curious and looking for a break after a long day of sightseeing, we took the elevator up. The operator told us that the observation deck was closed, and what we had seen was the rooftop bar Terraza Cibeles located on the sixth floor. We still went in but didn’t stay for very long. The environment was great, but not when visiting with a child. We had a drink, took a look at Plaza de Cibeles from above, and then left.