Madrid 5 Day City guide

Follow in the footsteps of America-based Saul Schwartz as he learns what the capital of Spain has to offer in October. What is most important to visit in Madrid? From free walking tours to discovering the most famous museums, Saul suggests an exhaustive itinerary of Madrid’s best attractions. Whether you want to dig deeper into the historic heart of Madrid, or are game for exploring the fascinating area around it, here are some great tips on what not to miss.

Walking tour of Madrid

By Saul Schwarz

My wife and I always like to start out with a walking tour to orient us to a new city.  We chose Guru Walk for the free tour by tip with our guide Melissa.  The tour was called Old Town and more.  Melissa started the two hour tour with historical information about Madrid and Spain. 

The tour began at the centre of the Puerta Del Sol square, one of the busiest squares in Madrid.  The square is the starting point for all major radial roads in Spain.  A stone slab marks kilometre 0, from which the national roads begin.  For good luck, we put our feet on the slab (as did many others in the line for photos).

On the other side of the square sits the official symbol of the city.  This statue of a bear nuzzling a strawberry tree is another good luck photo opportunity!

The centre of the square features a large statue of King Charles III on horseback.  Melissa told us that the king was so popular in Madrid due to progressive reforms, that he became known as Madrid’s best mayor. The square is easily found by looking up for the Tio Pepe sign.  In 2014, Madrid reinstalled the iconic billboard for dry wine.  The square is also the location for the Sol Metro station. 

We then walked over to Plaza de la Villa.  This square contains buildings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.  In the centre of the plaza, a large ornamental garden surrounds the 1891 statue of Admiral de Bazan. 

We also walked by the oldest restaurant in Madrid.  Founded in 1725, Sobrino de Botin is listed by the Guinness book of records as the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world.  A plaque outside the restaurant announces the record.  Featuring traditional Spanish food, it is located at Calle Cuchilleros 17.

Just down the road at Calle Cuchilleros 15 is the oldest barbershop in Madrid.  Open since 1900, it is a traditional barber shop called Barberia Kinze. Throughout Madrid there are bronze plaques that celebrate businesses that have stayed open for at least 100 years. 

The tour ended at the Royal Palace of Madrid and the adjoining Cathedral.  Melissa explained how the architecture and style of the two buildings go together.  We then went off to eat our packed lunch in the garden area outside the palace.    

Royal Palace of Madrid

On our first afternoon in Madrid, we toured the Royal Palace.  We purchased advanced tickets through Viator.  This skip-the-line access was valuable because the ticket line was very long.  Additionally, our expert two-hour guided tour with Benito (from IBE tours) was exceptionally informative.  We met near the Royal Palace at the Opera Metro station.  The cost was about $35 per adult.

The magnificent Royal Place is one of the official residences of the King of Spain, although the royal family does not currently live there.  Construction began in 1738.  This was where Spanish monarchs lived beginning in 1764 until 1931.  It is one of Madrid’s most popular attractions.  This is one of the largest palaces in Europe with 3478 rooms.  Benito provided us with extra insight into the Spanish royal family and answered all our questions throughout the tour. 

The exterior of the palace is both Baroque neo-classical and matches its surroundings, including the Cathedral which is adjacent.  Covering about one million square feet, the palace is a white rustic stone.  At the top are numerous relief sculptures and a large clock.

We first entered a large square interior courtyard.  Benito informed us that since only one Spanish flag was flying above the courtyard, the King was not present in the place on that day.  We were only allowed to take pictures in a limited number of the rooms of the palace. 

We first entered the interior through the main staircase, with its imperial style and 72 marble steps.  A large sculpture of King Carlos III sits at the central landing.  He was the first king to live in the palace. 

We walked by the portrait of the Spanish royal family made by artist Antonio Lopez.  The portrait took two decades to complete and shows former King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, and their children, including the present King Felipe VI.  Benito told us that close to the time that the 2014 portrait was unveiled, King Juan Carlos handed power over to his son King Felipe VI after a corruption investigation. 

Highlights of the tour included the Throne Room, the Hall of Mirrors, the Banquet Hall, and the Royal Apartments.  Ironically the huge Banquet Hall was being set up for the upcoming National Day of Spain festivities on October 12.  This gala dining room is one of the largest rooms in the palace and the table is designed to seat 144 guests.  The Throne Room is used to receive visitors in official ceremonies.  It has a lovely ceiling fresco representing the greatness and power of the Spanish monarchy.  The sculptures of Apollo and Minerva watch over the throne.  The Hall of Mirrors reminded us of Versailles.  Your image is multiplied in different reflections.  One room contained the Spanish royal crown. 

Although our tour only included a limited number of rooms of the palace, it was very worthwhile.  The visit was enhanced significantly by the details provided by Benito in each of the rooms that we visited.  The rooms were full of beautiful chandeliers, tapestries from Belgium, statutes, sculptures, and paintings.  After the tour we were allowed to further explore the courtyard on our own before we left the palace grounds.

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Its collections are impressive; containing 

Art Museums of Madrid – The Golden Triangle of Art

Prado Museum

We spent most of our second day in Madrid at the iconic Prado Museum.  We purchased advanced tickets through Viator.  This did not provide us with skip-the-line access.  Nevertheless, the two-hour guided tour with Laura (from De Paseo tours) was a great experience due to her choice of paintings to view and deep knowledge of the collection’s highlights.  The only downside to this tour was that since the tour was bilingual (in English and Spanish), we spent substantial time at each painting while her description was translated into both languages.  We met at the Goya statue outside of the museum.  The cost was about $41 per adult, however, you can visit it for free in certain timeslots. Read more in our story about Free Museums of Madrid.

This large museum can be overwhelming for new visitors.  By touring with our guide, we were introduced to some of the top highlights of the collection, along with some fascinating backstories.  The focus of the Prado is on European art.  As we waited for entry to the museum, Laura explained how the Prado was commissioned by King Charles III in the late eighteenth century.  A second building was added to showcase the growing collection of art.  Photography is not allowed in most areas of the museum. 

The museum opened to the public in 1785.  It is the largest of the three great art museums in Madrid, with about 7000 works (of which 2000 are on view).  Laura took us to view some of the Prado’s greatest works, including Bosch’s extraordinary three-panelled The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Hanging here are Goya’s controversial pair of paintings the Clothed Maja and the Naked Maja.  We spent some time admiring Las Meninas by Valazquez, the symbolic painting of the family of Philip IV.  Goya’s The Executions is a sad reflection on the dramatic events of May 3, 1808, portraying the shooting of Spanish patriots and showing how war can be cruel and unfair.  The collection is strong with the Spanish painter El Greco and other Spanish artists.

We were allowed to stay in the museum on our own after the tour.  Because the museum cafeterias had no vegan options, we left the museum for lunch and then returned for further exploration.  Fern and I wanted to view the temporary exhibit that opened on October 10, 2023, called The Lost Mirror, Jews, and Conversos in Medieval Spain.  Using a broad selection of works, this exhibit focused on how Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity were portrayed by Spanish artists in the time from 1285 to 1492.  These works reflect the growing anti-Jewish attitudes.  This interesting exhibit continues through mid-January 2024. 

Thyssen – Bornemisza

We visited the second of Madrid’s art museums on a day that admission was free (that is, the National Day of Spain, but also these other days).  As a result, the museum was very crowded.  Although the audio guide was worth purchasing, the guide provided information on only a few paintings in each of the rooms in the permanent collection and the Carmen Thyssen collection.  The museum is located near the Prado on Paseo del Prado in an 18th century neo-classical building.  The museum is named after the collection’s founder.  A small colourful garden adjoins the museum entrance. 

This museum is strong in areas where the Prado is not focused, such as impressionism, European paintings, and American works.  On two floors, rooms are numbered in chronological order.  We particularly enjoyed seeing Edward Hopper’s 1931 painting Hotel Room, focusing on the loneliness in a big city.  In addition, we spent most of our time viewing the impressionist and post-impressionist rooms, which included Van Gogh’s lovely Les Vessenots in Auvers, painted in 1890 several months before his tragic death.  This wonderful painting is of a rural scene of a small village. 

The temporary exhibit Picasso, the sacred and the profane, began on October 4, 2023, and extends through January 14, 2024.  This is one of a series of special Picasso exhibits that began in 2023; it contains 22 works. 

Although this museum is not as large as the Prado, art lovers should include this museum in their itinerary, as there is little overlap between the collections.

Reina Sofia Museum

We spent several hours at the third of the great art museums in Madrid on the last full day of our trip.  The museum is located at Calle de Sta Isabel. 

We again purchased advanced tickets through Viator.  This provided us with skip-the-line access.  The one-hour guided tour with a professional art historian (from Amigo tours) was a good experience due to our guide’s choice of paintings to view and knowledge of the collection’s highlights.  Again, a downside to this tour was that since the tour was bilingual (in English and Spanish), we spent substantial time at each painting while her description was translated into both languages.  We met at the large vertical statue outside of the museum’s main entrance.  The statute is a reproduction of a work for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris world’s fair.  It is a metaphor for Spain reaching for the stars.  The cost of our tour was about $33 per adult. You can also visit the museum for free during certain timeslots every day except Tuesday.

This museum focuses on contemporary art and has a strong collection of works by Miro, Dali and Picasso and Spanish artists.  We spent some time learned about Miro’s Man with Pipe, a key surrealist work and we tried to figure out the puzzling figure.  Then we went over to Dali’s The Great Masturbator and discussed some of the elements in this surrealistic work, including death, eroticism, and the clash between the feminine and the masculine.  The tour ended with a long discussion of Picasso’s famous work from 1937, “Guernica.”  The guide provided us with background about how that famous painting came to be in this museum and she helped us interpret this great work, focusing on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.  The painting’s size is overwhelming; it is a landscape of black and grey. 

The museum is housed in a former hospital on four floors, with a central courtyard that has several sculptures.  The exterior is not particularly impressive.  We ended our visit with a stop at the adjoining cafeteria to have a drink. 

Again, this museum has a collection that does not overlap with the other two art museums in Madrid.  The true art lover should visit all three.


El Retiro Park

Dedicated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2021, this park is a large green oasis in the heart of Madrid with more than 15,000 trees.  To learn more about the park’s features, we toured the park with a local professional guide Ishmael, through an advanced purchase on the Viator website.  The one and one-half hour tour costs only $10.  We added a tip because our guide was so thorough.  Ishmael did not hesitate to answer our questions.  The park is often called Madrid’s version of Central Park in New York. 

We met our tour guide at one of the park’s entrances on Independence Plaza.  Getting to the meeting point was a particular challenge on Spain’s National Day when many streets were blocked off due to the large military parade.  We really appreciated that our guide waited for us even though we were about fifteen minutes late to the meeting point. 

Our guide first explained that the park was opened to the public in 1868, after being used as private grounds for the Spanish monarchy.  We then walked over to the avenue of statutes of ancient Spanish kings (called the Argentine promenade).  The statues were originally commissioned to be part of the Royal Palace decorations.  The statues sit in a large rectangular avenue alongside bushes and trees. 

We then stopped at the large artificial lake (called the great pond), where many locals and tourists were renting boats.  The lake was constructed in the eighteenth century.  Behind the lake, the monument to Alfonso XII from 1912 watches over the lake, as he sits on a horse.  This is a very scenic spot to see. 

We stopped to see a beautiful fountain built in the nineteenth century to honour the birth of Isabell II, the daughter of King Fernando VII.  Called the Galapago Tortoises fountain, the fountain features turtles, dolphins ridden by children and three fairies.  This may be the most attractive fountain in the park. 

We then saw the interesting statue of the Fallen Angel, a sculpture dedicated to Lucifer, the devil, which sits 666 meters above sea level.  It is said to be one of the few sculptures anywhere dedicated to the devil!

Other highlights included the Glass Crystal Palace (currently used for temporary art exhibits).  This lovely glass pavilion was built in 1887 to house exotic plants from the Philippines.  It is a fine example of cast-iron architecture.  We thought this was the most beautiful monument in the park. 

During the tour we were able to view some of the National Day of Spain demonstrations of military aircraft flying overhead.  At the end of the tour, we saw the 400-year-old Mexican conifer, believed to be Madrid’s oldest tree.  The park is a great break from the bustling concrete of Madrid’s central city. 

Flamenco Show at Torres Bermejas

On our last evening, we attended a one-hour flamenco live music show.  We purchased our tickets in advance through Viator.  The price was about $28 per adult for the option that did not include food.  The venue was a restaurant located at Mesonero Romanos in the centre of the city.  The legendary venue is where some of the greatest names in flamenco have performed and it is one of the oldest venues for these performances.  The 7 p.m. show was very crowded, but we had great seats to view the song and dance.

Accompanied by guitar music and the clapping of the crowd, the three dancers performed with emotion and flair.  All the performers wore colourful costumes.    Fern and I wanted to see a live performance because flamenco is such a part of Spanish culture.  Many of the attendees ate dinner during the show.  It was a rousing performance, and the quality of the performance was very high.

Stumbling Stones

Over 75,000 stumbling stones have been installed throughout Europe.  The stumbling stones mark where victims of Nazi war camps lived by choice before the Nazis took them to war camps.  Each golden stone bears the name of the individual, their date of birth, the date of their camp deportation and where their lives ended or if they survived World War 2. 

There are now hundreds of stumbling stones in the Madrid area.  We found two on the streets in sidewalks in front of houses.  The stone honouring Rafael Acosta Moreno indicates that he was liberated after being deported in 1944.  The stone for Vincente Parra Bordetas shows that he also was liberated after being deported in 1944.  We looked down throughout our trip but did not see other stones.

Royal Basilica of our Lady of Atocha

On our way to the Atocha train station, we had some extra time, so we stopped in this historic church just minutes away.  The Basilica has been the location for several royal marriages.  There is no admission fee to informally tour the church, which is located at Calle de Julian Gayarre 1.

The interior of the Basilica contains five colourful stained glass neo-Romanesque windows.  The current building dates to 1951.  The exterior is in the neo-Classical style.  During our visit, it was very peaceful with a few congregants in attendance.

Eating in Madrid

My wife Fern and I found many healthy options for tasting our way through Madrid:

La Hummuseria – We had a nice dinner at La Hummuseria, located at Calle Hernan Cortes 8.  This restaurant has a limited menu, but Fern and I really enjoyed the hummus and pita.  We also ordered an eggplant side dish.  The menu features vegan and vegetarian “slow food,” that includes a lot of spice and fresh vegetables.  The small restaurant was opened in 2015 by an Israeli couple.  Friends of ours had recommended this restaurant based on a past visit.

San Miguel Market – This covered food market is located near Plaza San Miguel.  The gourmet market features upscale food and drink.  The wrought iron and glass façade includes stalls for meat, fish, fruit, cheese, cakes, and vegetables.  The market first opened in 1916.  It was fun to look around even though we did not eat within the market.  There is seating so you can buy food and eat there. Read more about the market and its seafood options in this article: Morris – A must for ‘Sea-Foodies’

Faborit – We ate several meals at this informal restaurant.  The salad options were fabulous, and the prices were very reasonable.  Both indoor and outdoor seating options were available.  There are fifteen different locations of this restaurant within Madrid, focused on healthy eating.

VIPS – There are several locations of this restaurant in Madrid.  Our salads were large but cost more than expected.  Although the wait staff was friendly, their command of English was limited.  We ate inside the restaurant, but we noticed that there was a large take-out area available. 

Kyoshi – The breakfast buffet was extensive and fabulous.  This restaurant is located inside the Doubletree Madrid Prado.  Servers were attentive and friendly. 

Starbucks – There are many Starbucks locations in Madrid, some with outside seats in squares.  The menu is slightly different from the U.S. Starbucks.  The sizing is different as well, with the venti (largest size) iced tea much smaller than its U.S. equivalent.  The venti iced tea cost just under 5 Euros. 

Markets – There are numerous markets throughout central Madrid where we were able to buy additional food items to take with us during the day.

Lodging in Madrid

We stayed six nights at the Doubletree Madrid – Prado.  Fern and I liked the fact that this downtown hotel was within a short walk (less than twenty minutes) from Madrid’s major attractions.  As a result, based on the excellent location of the hotel, we never used the Madrid metro system.  Each day we headed out from the hotel on foot to our destinations. 

The superior features of this hotel included an extensive breakfast buffet, a better than average fitness centre, large apartment-like rooms, and a very friendly and helpful staff.  The location is at Calle San Agustin 3 in Madrid.  The free cookies were superb.

Getting to Madrid from the airport

Madrid’s large airport is located 12 km from the city centre. The airport has 4 passenger terminals and there is a bus that can take you from one terminal to another. 

Going from the airport to our hotel, we chose to take the airport express bus line 203 to the Atocha train station.  Although the cost was inexpensive at 5 Euros per adult, the wait for the bus was very long, the bus became very crowded and there were several stops between the airport and the train station.  As a result, when we left the hotel to go back to the airport, we took a taxi (at a cost of 30 Euros plus tip), which was quicker and more pleasant. 

Tips and Recommendations

  • The main attractions within Madrid are all located within a central core.  We were able to walk to everything.  Comfortable shoes are a must!
  • Public bathrooms are rare within central Madrid.  Fern and I were able to go into cafes or restaurants and use restrooms without any fee.
  • Dinner time is late in Madrid.  Most restaurants do not open for dinner until 7 p.m. or later.  More informal restaurants have more flexible hours.
  • With a population of over 3 million, Madrid streets and sidewalks can be very crowded.  Reservations (in advance) at attractions are a must. 
  • On the National Holiday of Spain (October 12), many streets are closed to allow for the parade.  Getting around on that day is a challenge due to the huge crowds. 
  • The Visit a city app is helpful for planning purposes.  We also watched several episodes of Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain shows to get a feel for Madrid. 
  • In October, the weather was very warm and dry.  Sun hats are very helpful.
  • Although most locals spoke English, we were a little surprised that at some venues the staff did not speak English.  Speaking a little bit of Spanish seemed to be appreciated by the locals.

Fern and I felt that five days in Madrid and one in Toledo was sufficient to visit the major attractions.  In thinking back on our earlier trip to Barcelona in Spain, we concluded that Madrid and Toledo provided us with a very different and enjoyable experience. Stay tuned for the next article about a Daytrip to Toledo!

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About Saul Schwartz

Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country. 

Saul has previously shared his travel insights with us. Check out his Lisbon 4 Day City guide or check out his trip to Modern Athens – Beyond the Acropolis or his fascination with The Vatican: Rome of the Popes.

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