Unlike other European cities, Madrid’s identity can’t be distilled into a single colossal monument. Instead, the spirit of Madrid is dispersed in the splendor of the smaller things: a Medieval alley here, a neoclassical palace there, all mishmashed into the city’s more modern lilt. As the third-largest city in the European Union, you can easily spend 48 hours here and find plenty to do—from architecture to nightlife to art, it delivers. And then there’s the food. Tapas may be a worldwide phenomenon at this point, but there’s no better place to tapear (literally “to go eat tapas”). Once the sun sets and the temperature drops to a reasonable level, the streets flood with bar-hoppers and party-goers, everyone scouting out that next glass of sangria. If you find yourself with two days to explore Madrid, this itinerary can help you get the most out of your stay.
Get your history on and soak up some fresh air surrounded by thousands of flowers and plants.
Morning: Immerse yourself in Madrid’s history at Museo de Historia de Madrid
Housed in a 17th-century Baroque hospice, this museum’s collection chronicles Madrid’s entire history as the capital of Spain. Tours take you back to 1561, when Felipe II named Madrid the capital of a vast empire that stretched from Italy to the Netherlands. Moving into the 18th century, the next floor covers the Bourbon Dynasty, an emerging “enlightened” elite, and the beautification of the city by Charles III. A final section presents Madrid’s industrialization and emergence as a modern world capital. Throughout the collection are enormous wall maps illustrating the city’s growth, as well as a number of paintings you’ll recognize from your own jaunts through Madrid. At the end of the visit is an impressive 1:814 scale model of the city as it looked at the end of King Ferdinand VIII’s reign. A quality history lesson, to be sure, but the best part is that admission is always free.
Lunchtime: Grab a bite and a beer in Malasaña
Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood is filled with trendy spots serving up favorites like warm tortillas and cold local beers. Head to historic Plaza del 2 de Mayo—this historic square has plenty of lively bars, coffee shops, and bakeries, making it the perfect spot to grab a bite.
Afternoon: Enjoy the scenery at Real Jardín Botánico
Madrid’s Royal Botanical Gardens include 90,000 plants and over 1,500 trees—more than enough chlorophyll for all your herbivorous needs. Founded in 1755, the gardens found their current home near the Museo del Prado in 1781 under the direction of Charles III. Madrid’s architectural all-stars Sabatini and Villanueva are behind the gardens’ design, roughly dividing the gentle hillside into four sections: the Terrace of Plots, of Botanical Schools, the romantic Flower Plan, and a Laurel Terrace. A self-guided tour meanders past rhododendron collections, Californian sequoias, Japanese ornamentals, and more. There’s a small museum-bookstore-café at the top of the hill, adorned with Mexican palms, a reflective pond, and a statue of Linnaeus, the esteemed Swedish naturalist.
Evening: Take a tapas and wine tour
Madrid is well known for it tapas, and a tapas tour (paired with wine, of course) is the best way to explore the city’s foodie scene from a local’s point of view. A local guide will take you to all of the city’s best kept secrets serving up tasty dishes like chickpea stew and eggplant with honey. Pair each tapa with a beautiful local wine, and you’ll experience a true Spanish night that you won’t soon forget.
Explore the world-famous Prado museum, indulge in some chocolate, and stretch your legs in Madrid’s most popular park.
Morning: Start your day at Museo del Prado
A Madrid visit sans Prado is basically a felony—it’s the Louvre of Spain. Its collection of Spanish art is without a doubt the best in the world, and its colossal collection of 7,500 paintings, 4,800 prints, and 1,000 sculptures from the 12th to the 20th century (of which some 1,300 works are on display) makes it one of the greatest museums in the world. Enter from the imposing Plaza de Murillo into a grand foyer and traverse through centuries of European masterpieces, with a particular emphasis on Spanish painters like El Greco, Murillo, Velázaquez, and—perhaps the museum’s best-represented artist—Goya. Spread throughout the Palacio de Villanueva’s three grand stories, visitors can also admire works by Bosch, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, and a deluge of other big-name painters and sculptors. Even the least art-savvy will appreciate Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, a famous self-portrait by Dürer, and Bosch’s spellbinding Garden of Earthly Delights. Take your time but be realistic; a whole week wouldn’t be enough to cover everything—plan to spend a minimum of two hours roving through this spectacular collection.
Lunchtime: Grab a meal in Salamanca
Salamanca is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Madrid, but you don’t have to be rich to enjoy a delicious meal here. This bustling ward is home to some of the city’s most popular “little bars” and restaurants. Try a gooey tortilla, or if you’re hankering for a full meal, find a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fixed-price lunch menu—it’s prepared by the same chef, but for way less than if you were eating there for dinner.
Afternoon: Chocolate in Parque del Buen Retiro? Yes, please.
First things first— stop by Chocolatería San Ginés for their famous churros-and-chocolate combo. And by chocolate, we mean of hot cocoa variety—only the drink they serve at San Ginés is nothing like your run-of-the-mill Swiss Miss packet. Thick, dark, and highly potent, it’s like a melted chocolate bar in a cup (perfect for churro dipping). Once you have the coveted treat in hand, head to the aptly named “Park of the Pleasant Retreat,” Madrid’s most popular green space. Boasting more than 300 acres and over 15,000 trees, Parque del Retiro was designed in the 1630s by the likes of Cosimo Lotti (the man behind Florence’s famous Boboli Gardens) to be a royalty-only stomping ground and performance center. There was even a palace on the premises until the Peninsular War of 1807-1814. Today, El Retiro is completely free and open to the public—after a few expansions and a bit of touching up, the park has become a symbol of Madrid, complete with an expansive rose garden, a “Forest of Remembrance,” and endless walkways between its many monuments, fountains, and sculptures. For a cool and unique experience, take a guided segway tour of the park.
Evening: Bar-hop through Chueca
For your last night in the city, head to Chueca— it’s the LGBT epicenter of Madrid. People are here to have fun, which is obvious after dark, when hordes of locals and tourists converge here to go bar-hopping well into the early morning. From hip restaurants and cocktail bars to dives filled with students, you’ll find something to suit your every mood.