Don’t get me wrong. There are days – if not weeks – worth of sights to see, tapas to eat, art to admire, and drinks to consume in Madrid.
But all that variety only ensures that your short trip will be action-packed. And that makes Madrid the perfect candidate for a short stop on your way through Europe.
Here’s what to do to make the most out of your brief time in Madrid.
How to Get into Town
The Madrid (MAD) airport sits a ways away from the center of this bustling capital city. Luckily, there are some easy and affordable options to get there.
Our favorite way to get into any town is to use the subway or trains. It’s a fraction of the price of a cab, Uber, or private transport, and it’s a great way to start to familiarize yourself with getting around a new place. And that’s definitely the case with Madrid’s expansive and excellent Metro system. You’ll need it to cover as much ground as you can during your short time in Madrid.
Make your way to the airport metro station after landing and buy a Madrid Multi-Pass with 10 journeys for 12.20 euro – under $14. You’ll also need to tack on an “airport supplement,” at 3 euro each (about $3.40). And you can share these multi-use cards with your companion, so no need to buy several cards – just however many airport supplements you need.
Hop on the subway and you’ll find you can get almost anywhere in the center of the city with just one stop. Plus you’ll have plenty of trips left on your metro pass to spend the rest of your time skipping across the city.
Otherwise, check out smartphone apps like Uber or Cabify to get into Madrid. Odds are, they’ll charge you less than the 30 euro flat fee that cabs charge to get from the airport into town.
Mercados Mercados Mercados
You’re in Spain’s capital city. You want to eat. And the broad array of markets – mercados – are where you want to go.
For starters, there’s the ever-popular Mercado de San Miguel. And while it’s a tourist favorite, it’s popular for a reason. San Miguel’s glass-and-iron design is beautiful inside and out. Better yet, the vendors inside are slinging everything from fresh fish to empanadas, cheese and olives, crispy croquettes, and delicious vermut cocktails. Oh, and plenty of jamón, of course.
Thrifty Tip: Head to Mercado de San Miguel earlier in the day, before the mass of tourists can make it tough to get around or get a bite.
If you want a market with less crowds and more class, Platea Madrid fits the bill perfectly. Enter through the meat, cheese, and produce vendors from the avenue, and you’ll find Platea is more upscale food hall than chaotic market. Not sold on how ritzy this place is just from its elegant decor? The different spots serving top-notch, gourmet tapas at Platea combine for a total of six Michelin stars.
And while there are plenty of other mercados throughout Madrid, you can’t skip Mercado de San Ildefonso. It’s trendy, bright, and buzzing food market – a perfect stop for dinner. Frequented by locals, it’s got more than a dozen food stalls offering the best creations from Spain and across the world. Oh, and there’s plenty of beer and as many pitchers of sangria as you can handle.
Calle Cava Baja
You haven’t had enough to eat yet.
Whether you’re in Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla or beyond, the sheer amount of options to grab a small (or large) bite can cause paralysis. How do you pick?
In Madrid, head straight for Calle Cava Baja, a curving street not far from the massive Plaza Mayor renowned for its restaurants and tapas. Whether you slide into Txakolina for pintxos – the small snacks on a stick – grab tapas from Taberna Tempranillo or sit down at Casa Lucas or Casa Lucio, you cannot go wrong on Calle Cava Baja.
Parque el Retiro
Madrid sees New York City’s Central Park and does it one better.
Though roughly half the size of NYC’s famous urban oasis, Madrid’s Parque el Retiro is less an escape from the chaos than it is a celebration of Spanish life, nature, and architecture. It’s a favorite among locals and tourists alike – a testament to a great park.
When the botanical gardens and the Rose Garden is in bloom, when the peacocks are strutting around … it’s pure romance. There’s a massive lake filled with paddling families, a walk full of statues and flowerbeds, and Palacio de Cristal – the Crystal Palace. Stop into any building, and you’re likely to find art installations that tie the whole space together.
Killer Cocktail Bars
We don’t blame you for needing a nightcap (or two) after a long day exploring Madrid. And the city delivers with some top-notch bars.
Madrid is home to one of the world’s highest-ranked bars, Salmon Guru. Founded and run by a world-famous coctelero Diego Cabrera, everything about this cocktail bar screams fun. Look at their menu and you’ll find a collection of … well, calling them cocktails might be selling it short. If you want your drink smoked, accompanied by a flaming marshmallow, or served in a mug shaped like an ugly fish’s head, this is your place.
Unfortunately, Salmon Guru was closed during our short stay in Madrid. So we capped off our trip at Holy Mary, no less impressive for it’s biblically themed (but no-nonsense) cocktails and swanky vibe.
Spending just one day in Madrid feels like selling it short. But if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got to do it right.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.