Foto Madrid Torres Pixabay
All roads lead to Madrid
Is it possible to see Madrid in three hours? Of course, the only correct answer is: no, that’s not possible. We are talking, after all, about a city with more than 3 million inhabitants, steeped in more than a thousand years of history.
Madrid is the capital of Spain, but it is also the spider in the Spanish transport network. Many motorways and railroads meet in the capital, in the country’s centre. If you are a frequent traveller, it is likely that at some point you will have a stopover at Madrid Barajas airport, as it is one of the most important aviation centres of Europe. If you travel by high-speed train, you will sooner or later have to change trains in Madrid.
Things to do in Madrid
In short, there is a fair chance that you will end up in Madrid with a few hours to spare, waiting for your onward flight or high-speed train connection. Of course, you can stay at the train station or airport, but you can also use this time to go shopping or have a quick look at the essential sights because it would be a shame not to get a glimpse of what the city has to offer. After all, Madrid is the “New York of Spain”.
Madrid things to do and to see
The main sights in the city centre are within walking distance of the Atocha train station. This is the station where you arrive when you travel by high-speed train, the AVE. Atocha is also connected by a short-distance train to the airport.
So without further ado, let me list the most essential highlights below:
Plaza Mayor is an iconic square in the centre. In the middle of the square stands the statue of King Philip III on horseback (1616). Around the court, under the galleries, you will find cafés and shops.
The plaza is a stone’s throw from the other famous square, the Puerta del Sol.
Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol (sun gate) is even more important than Plaza Mayor. On the square, you will see the famous clock, whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes before midnight. It is also the point where people flock to demonstrate against (perceived) injustices, and it is the ‘point zero’, the reference point for all Spanish motorways.
Despite its importance, it is an ugly square – hence no photo – but yes, it is a must-see. Anyway, you can hardly avoid it when you walk through the centre of Madrid.
Madrid food market, Mercado de San Miguel
The covered San Miguel market is a few hundred meters from the Plaza Mayor. However, the building dates back to 1916. The market closed for a lengthy renovation and reopened in 2009. Every year more than 10 million people visit the gourmet market to taste Spanish products, such as Asturian cheese, Iberian ham, fish from Galicia and Mediterranean rice.
Yes, it is super touristy, and yes, it is also quite expensive. As my Spanish friend Marta says: “one olive costs one euro here”. No matter if your budget does not allow for olives. It is OK to look at the products and move on to the fine arts centre’s next highlight.
Circulo de Belles Artes Azotea
The ‘Círculo de Bellas Artes’ (CBA) is a multidisciplinary non-profit cultural centre with activities ranging from the visual arts to music, literature, film and cultural performances.
From the roof on the seventh floor of the building, you have a spectacular 360º view of Madrid. In the distance, you will see the Salamanca district, the Prado museum, the Atocha station and the Retiro Park. To access the roof, take the lift with glass doors to the top floor, directly accessing this space from the lobby.
Tickets can be purchased at the reception of the building. A ticket costs four euros, or five euros if you combine it with a visit to the exhibition.
The centre is 650 meters northwest of the Puerta del Sol on Calle Alcalá 42.
Royal Palace Madrid
The Royal Palace, or Palacio Real, is the working palace of the Spanish king. It is a beautiful building from the outside. I have not been inside, so I can’t share my experience here. It is open to the public. If you would like to visit, make sure to go early in the morning (from 10.00 am), because it tends to get quite busy later in the day or buy your entrance ticket in advance, online.
Opposite the Royal Palace is the neoclassical cathedral of Madrid, Santa María la Real de La Almudena. In my view, it is a church like many others. However, let that not stop you to visit the cathedral as I am biased, being raised by an Italian (thus Catholic) mother, therefore, overdosed on churches at a tender age.
El Retiro is a lively city park near the Atocha train station in central Madrid. If you rather see some green in between your travels, then this is the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The eye-catcher of the park is the pond with an arcade in the shape of a crescent moon and the middle a statue of King Alfonso XII.
The most important museums in Madrid
The three most important museums in Madrid are the Museo del Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
It is probably easy to spend one or more days on each collection if you are an art buff, as they are truly extraordinary. But, if you are anything like me, too much of a good thing can get tiring. After a couple of hours, I am ready for something else. Therefore, I recommend you concentrate on the highlights. Of course, tastes differ, but the ones listed below are mine.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses more than 1000 paintings from the 13th to the 20th century: including Rubens, Van Eyck and Van Gogh (you can probably tell from this I am Dutch). Other big names are Caravaggio, Monet, Gauguin, Mondrian, Klee and Hopper. The works of Rubens alone make a visit to this museum worthwhile.
Museo Reina Sofia
The Reina Sofia is even more impressive than the Thyssen museum, with 21,000 photographs, sculptures and paintings. If you have to choose one thing, make sure it is the iconic ‘Guernica’ of Pablo Picasso. This painting, 3.49 m by 7.76 m wide, shows the Basque city of Guernica (1937) bombardment during the Spanish Civil War by the Germans and Italians.
The Prado collection includes paintings, sculptures, coins and 8,600 paintings. The largest room in the museum is dedicated to Velázquez. Here you will also find his most important work, “Las Meninas”. Other Spanish painters are also represented, such as El Greco and Goya.
Admission is free from Monday to Saturday from 6 pm to 8 pm and on Sundays and public holidays from 5 pm to 7 pm.
When planning your visit, consider that most museums are closed on Mondays.
The city centre is easily walkable, but you can also travel by metro if you are in a rush. Line 1 goes from Atocha to Puerta del Sol in three stops. The journey takes about five minutes, whereas walking the same distance will take twenty minutes.
Tickets can be bought from a vending machine. You must first purchase a plastic card and charge it with sufficient balance for the journey.
The AVE, a high-speed train, frequently travels between Madrid and other cities.
- Train Barcelona – Madrid: The journey will take approximately 3 hours and cost around 50 euros, depending on time, comfort and time of booking. When booked well in advance, you might score some real bargains. Check the Spanish railways’ website Renfe for the schedule.
- Train Valencia – Madrid: This will take about 2 hours, depending on the timing of the journey. Tickets cost from 25 euros up.
- Train Seville – Madrid: This will be about 2,5 – 3 hours. The ticket price depends on when you buy it and for what time. Plan to ensure you get a reasonable price.
- Train airport to city: see below.
If you travel by AVE, the high-speed train, you are entitled to a free ticket to the airport with the Cercania (stop train). The train stops at the same station, Atocha, where the AVE arrives.
Read here a step-by-step guide on taking public transport to the Barajas Airport.
Hotels in Madrid
During my last trip to Madrid, I stayed at Hotel Mediodía, which is super central, opposite Atocha station. Fifty meters from the hotel is a metro stop, and within ten minutes walk, you arrive at El Retiro, the park.
The rooms are pretty small but clean and comfortable. The breakfast is okay, and the staff is friendly.
Health & Safety Madrid
- Madrid is a big city with big-city problems. My mobile phone got stolen. Although I have experienced several attempts, never before have I been successfully pickpocketed. I have no idea how they did it. So be careful.
- As an EU citizen, you will be covered for medical insurance with your EHIC card; make sure to bring it.
Travel insurance can be vital if you need to cancel your trip, medical emergencies, and theft. Click here to obtain a quote.
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