How To See Madrid In A Weekend, According To Someone Who's Done It

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Although it’s the type of city you may want to spend as much time as possible in, if you only have a weekend in Madrid, you can still see a lot of the city.

On a Saturday night, I was surrounded by 101 shades of ham — from bubblegum pink, like in America, to a dark maroon tone that Madrid’s known for — jamon serrano and jamón ibérico. Men behind butcher counters sliced the meat right off the bone. It was standing room only at the Museo del Jamon (Museum of Ham), which has become an iconic chain, yet I mostly heard people speaking Spanish around me. The only tourists I saw were those in my SANDEMANs Tapas Tour — and, in case you’re a vegetarian like the guy next to me was, they serve plenty of fresh bakery bread and local cheese, too.

On the tour I tried Spanish tortilla, a local staple, almost like quiche and made from potatoes and eggs, as well as croquettes. I drank tinto de verano with it, which looks like sangria, but has different ingredients. Instead, the former is made from red wine and Fanta soda and it quelled the perpetual thirst that comes from the 100-degree temperatures that are common during Madrid summers.

We stopped hole-in-the-wall restaurant, which looked like an art studio, bright colors everywhere, and had about 10 tables. It served as our introduction to paella, which has a rice base with an assortment of seafood and chicken and, like tapas, a must-eat dish while in Spain.

If you're in Madrid or a day or two, the two-hour tapas tour is perfect for introducing you to local foods while also introducing you to a local person, your tour guide. But before you start drinking and filling up on tapas, there are other things you should do during your short stay in Spain’s capital city.

I'd been to Madrid in the winter before, but this visit was in July after Barceló Torre de Madrid offered me the opportunity to stay for the weekend. The affordable boutique luxury hotel, is just a few steps from the “Broadway” of Madrid, Gran Via, a street full of everything from theaters to your favorite shops. Aside from getting a room with an amazing view of “Broadway,” the décor, too, is so welcoming that you almost don’t even want to leave the hotel.

But of course, I did venture out into the city. Here are the things I did and that I’d recommend if you have just a couple days in Madrid.

1. Go Eat Churros

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When you start your day in Madrid, you want to have a hearty breakfast … of churros and chocolate. Locals will go to a churrería and order a plate of churros, a cup of melted chocolate, and an espresso for just a few dollars total. But, be forewarned: Authentic Spanish churros are not the sugar-coated ones you may be used to in America. When I first tried one, I thought someone had forgotten to add the sugar coating. (They hadn’t, although you can ask for it.) Same with the dipping chocolate — it wasn't too sweet.

I personally like Chocolatería Los Artesanos, which opened in 1902 and has an area where you can watch the churros being made.

Duration: 30-60 minutes

2. Go On A Free Walking Tour

As a digital nomad who switches countries every one to three months, the first thing I do in a new city is go on a free walking tour. Not only is the price right (you can tip whatever you’d like at the end), but it’s a great way to acclimate yourself to your surroundings. Madrid has several walking tour companies, from SANDEMANs to Free Walking Tours Madrid.

Duration: 2-3 hours

3. Go To A Museum

Madrid has many museums, but unless you want to speed-walk through them, you may want to choose from some of the most renowned ones — Prado (known for European art from the 12th to 20th century, including by Goya and Velazquez), Reina Sofía (which primarily has Spanish art from the 20th century, including by Picasso and Dalí), or Thyssen-Bornemisza (which has art from the 13th to 20th centuries and is known for its 19th-century American collections).

Since these three museums are in such close proximity to one another, the area is known as the “Golden Triangle of Art.” Of course, as far as which one to go to, it all comes down to the type of art you most like. I spent less than two hours at the Prado Museum and easily could have spent the entire day there. Another bonus? If you’re in Madrid during the summer, a local told me that museums are a great way to escape the heat for a while.

Duration: At least a couple of hours

4. Just Walk, Stopping At The Main Town Squares Along The Way

Madrid is so picturesque, I advise walking without a particular destination in mind and, believe me, you’ll find one. Of course, there are some sights you must see — including the main town squares, like Plaza Mayor (where bullfights used to take place back in the day) and Puerta del Sol (where one of the city’s gates used to be) — and many walking tours begin at both locations.

Any local will tell you not to eat and drink at them, though — the most authentic Spanish restaurants and bars are down random streets away from the squares. Plus, you’ll find bakeries everywhere and can get an Americano or espresso for $1-2, as well as a pastry or sandwich for a couple dollars.

You should also make sure to check out the Opera area, the Royal Palace (and visit, if time permits), and shop along Gran Vía. Then, you can continue wandering down charming streets in the Malasaña and Chueca districts, as well as explore the La Latina and Lavapiés areas.

If you're in Madrid over a weekend, save some time on Sunday for wandering through El Rastro, an open-air flea market. You can buy everything from a handmade fan — very popular among locals — to second-hand clothes.

Duration: A few hours

5. Explore Food Markets

People in Spain tend to eat lunch around 2 p.m. or so, and food markets are a great place to get little tastes of several Spanish foods under one roof. Madrid has many food markets, which not only sell fresh produce — as well as seafood and poultry — but also have seating areas and sell various Spanish delicacies and drinks, from tapas and paella to wine and beer.

Although several locals tell me that Mercado de San Miguel has become quite touristy and overpriced when compared to other Madrid food markets, I still think it’s worth visiting. For Americans, prices are reasonable: about $1 for a tapa (like a slice of Spanish cheese on bread), $1.75 for a croquette, and $6 for a tennis-sized ball of fresh mozzarella cheese.

However, if you’re looking for a more local experience — where you’ll probably only hear people speaking Spanish — I’d definitely check out at least one less-touristy food market, too. Mercado Antón Martín, Mercado de San Ildefonso, and Mercado de San Antón (which has a cool rooftop area, as well) will all give you a glimpse into how and where the locals socialize.

Duration: At least 1 hour

6. Hang Out At Cafeterias

I know, you may be having flashbacks to high school, but cafeterias in Madrid are restaurants/coffee bars/bars where locals go to drink, eat, laugh, talk, and play cards. Often, I’d wander into one randomly and make it my “desk of the day” for my remote jobs and I loved it. The conversations didn't distract me since everyone was speaking Spanish, the Spanish music was beautiful, and the food was, of course, amazing.

Duration: Depends on what you do there

7. Go Buy Cookies From Nuns

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In Madrid, there’s a church, Monasterio del Corpus Christi, where you can ring a doorbell and go inside to purchase cookies made by cloistered nuns — in other words, nuns who don’t have contact with the external world. In addition to praying several times a day, the nuns make cookies — and, during certain times of day, you can go buy some of their sweet treats. The hours are posted outside the door — sadly, I wasn't there when they were open.

However, I hear the experience is definitely a unique one. Once you’re buzzed in, you go down a hallway to a turntable where you put cash and tell a nun — who’s hidden from plain sight — what cookies you’d like to buy (my tour guide said the lemon ones are popular). The table turns and then your cookies (and any change) magically appear.

Duration: A few minutes

8. Ride The Madrid Cable Car

Madrid has a cable car, Madrid Teleférico, which you can take to see some great views of the city. It only opened in January 2018 and is located in Casa de Campo, a large city park. And, apparently, the gondolas transport up to 1,200 people per hour. Each one fits six people and a one-way ride takes 11 minutes — which makes it a fun, yet not too time-consuming, activity to add to your Madrid to-do list. It’s also an affordable activity: The cost is about $5 one way and a bit more than $6 for a round-trip ticket.

Duration: 1 hour

9. Watch The Sunset

My first night in Madrid, I was walking around the Royal Palace (from #4) and saw the most beautiful sunset completely by accident. It became my favorite viewing place to see it, although many locals told me to watch it from Temple of Debod, too, which is actually an Egyptian temple that was shipped to Madrid. I did and, the night I went, at least 100 people were also there to see it, most of them locals, which was very moving. If you want more of a restaurant/bar atmosphere, however, you can go to the seventh floor of Círculo de Bellas Artes and see amazing views of the city while you see the sunset. There is an entrance fee (about $5), and since you can eat and drink there, you can hang out before or after the sun sets, too.

Duration: 1 hour

10. Go To Retiro Park

You can’t leave Madrid without seeing Retiro Park (either during the day or at night). You could actually be in Madrid for weeks and never see it in its entirety, as it’s about 350 acres. But, whether you walk around the lake (a popular place to either rent a row boat or sit and picnic, especially after the sun sets), visit the Palacio de Cristal, which is made of glass, or literally stop and smell the roses at La Rosaleda, you can’t make a wrong turn once you’re there. And if you didn’t pack your own picnic, you’ll find vendors and cafés to choose from, too.

Duration: At least an hour

11. Eat Dinner At Places Locals Go To

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In Madrid, it’s normal to eat dinner around 10 p.m. (If you want to avoid crowds, you can head to dinner sooner, although it’s fun to eat among the locals.) Plus, many restaurants offer a “Menu of the Day” where you can get a multiple-course meal — such as an appetizer, a main dish, dessert, and drink — for around $10, give or take.

Aside from suggesting to wander down off-the-beaten-path streets and choose a place where you mostly hear people speaking Spanish, locals also recommended Casa Zoilo and Tribuetxe.

I fell in love with one spot in particular more than most: Rosi La Loca. Not only does it have delicious, inexpensive tapas (try the pork and/or patatas bravas), but it’s the cutest restaurant I’ve ever been to, with a colorful décor full of gigantic flowers.

Duration: At least an hour

12. Go To A Flamenco Show, Then Bar-Hop

After dinner, you can head to a flamenco show, as some don’t start until 11 p.m. Even if you don’t know Spanish, you’ll still get swept up in the emotion of the performance.

Afterwards, you can wander down charming streets and pop into various bars — some of which can only hold a few dozen people but ooze with character — to sip vermouth (which is sometimes even on tap) or have a beer (usually on tap). Whether you go to a spot full of locals, like La Caníbal in the Lavapiés neighborhood, an area full of both old and new bars alike, or to a bar like Salmon Guru in Barrio de Las Letras (the Literary Quarter), with a fun neon décor and specialty cocktails, there’s an endless number of options. When the bars close — around 2 a.m. (depending) — you can find dance clubs that stay open until dawn. Then, some locals go eat churros on their way home before going to bed.

Duration: About 1 hour for the show, then TBD

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A note about safety: Madrid is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I felt super safe walking around, but one important thing to keep in mind is pickpockets. Nearly everywhere I went in Madrid, locals would tell me to be careful — wear my backpack so it’s in front of me, not on my back, and not to place my phone down anywhere even for a moment. I also met a tour guide who said she’s had nine phones stolen in six years — sometimes, right out of her hand as she’s texting or talking. As is the case when you're in any new city, it's important to stay alert.

If a weekend is all you have in Madrid, you can still get a flavor for the city. But just know, if you're able to come back for longer, there will be plenty more to see when you return.

Sources:

Barceló Torre de Madrid had been an iconic building in the city since it was the tallest building in Spain until 1982.

Skyscanner found that Madrid recently had the biggest travel increase internationally, 255 percent, when comparing July 2019 data to July 2018 data.