2 Days in Madrid: The Perfect Itinerary to Explore Spain’s Capital

2 Days in Madrid: The Perfect Itinerary to Explore Spain’s Capital

When people think of Spain, most people first think about Gaudi’s Barcelona, its stunning Mediterranean sea, or magical Andalusia. However, don’t forget Spain’s capital! This summer, I spent 2 days in Madrid and discovered how much Madrid has to offer: from beautiful architecture, world-famous art, and even an Egyptian temple.

Day 1 of the perfect 2 day Madrid itinerary

Temple of Debod

Start the first day of your 2 days in Madrid at the Egyptian Temple of Debod. A real Egyptian temple in Madrid? No, this is not a joke! And what’s more, the temple is free to visit! The temple was originally built in Egypt but was later dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid. In the 1960s there was a danger of flooding of numerous archaeological sites and monuments in this part of Egypt, UNESCO called for help. The Egyptian state then donated the temple of Debod to Spain in 1968 after their help in saving several temples.

2 days in Madrid The Temple of Debod
The Temple of Debod

Nowadays, the temple is beautifully located in a park, which has beautiful views of the Royal Palace of Madrid. Moreover, the temple is free to visit during the summer months! Only small groups are allowed to enter the temple at the same time, but it is definitely worth the wait. You can wander through the various rooms and admire the art on the wall.

Royal Palace of Madrid and Cathedral de la Almudena

After you’ve visited the temple, walk to the Royal Palace of Madrid. Likely, you’ll first encounter the lovely Sabitini Gardens that lie behind the palace. The massive Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish royal family. However, nowadays they only use it for state ceremonies. The building of this palace started in 1735. We didn’t go inside, because the exhibitions that were on didn’t interest us that much, but you can find more information about what you can see inside the palace here.

Royal Palace of Madrid
Royal Palace of Madrid, view from the cathedral

Instead, we decided to visit the cathedral that you can find on the other end of the square. The Cathedral de la Almudena is quite new compared to most important cathedrals in Europe. Pope John Paul II consecrated the cathedral in 1993. The opinions I read about the cathedral were not very positive, and I have to admit, this church is nowhere close to the churches in Rome or many other places in Spain. However, one reason why you should visit the cathedral is because of the stunning views you have over the city and the Royal Palace. That makes the admission fee definitely worth it!

Wander around Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol

The most impressive plaza in Madrid is the Plaza Mayor. The plaza dates back to the 15th century when it was called the Plaza del Arrabal and functioned as a market. Nowadays, you have a grand plaza with impressive architecture and many restaurants. When the sun is out, you can walk around the square from under the archway and enjoy the hustle and bustle that is always going on.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor

You can decide whether to have lunch on this plaza or to be adventurous and discover the streets around this plaza first. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the atmosphere was in this part of Madrid. Old streets, beautiful colourful houses, and a restaurant or bar, everything was complete. It almost gave me the same feeling as I have when I visit Rome, my favourite place in the world.

Another tip for lunch is the Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market full of tapas and other types of food.
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol

Take your time exploring the streets around the Plaza Mayor, and then slowly head to the Puerta del Sol. This another big square in Madrid. Don’t miss the Post Office, which is now the office of the President of Madrid. Another must-see is the El Oso y el Madroño, the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree. It represents the coat of arms of Madrid.

Did you know that Puerta del Sol is the centre of the radial network of Spanish roads? This plaza is point zero of Spain.

The Prado Museum

If you’re 2 days in Madrid during the summer, it’s likely starting to get very hot and it may be time to head inside and visit the Prado museum. If you’re visiting during the winter, the Prado is still a must-do, because it is one of the most beautiful art museums in Spain. I’ve visited the Prado twice now, and every time, I find Goya’s paintings the absolute masterpieces of the museum. They are dark, almost horrifying. I can’t look at them for too long, but at the same time, I am amazed how much these paintings speak to me.

Prado Museum
Prado Museum

Círculo de Bellas Artes Rooftop Bar

After you’ve scored some dinner, it’s time for one of my favourite activities in Madrid: going to a rooftop bar to watch the sunset and the stunning views of the city. We went to the Círculo de Bellas Artes Rooftop Bar. Entry is 4 euros per person, excluding drinks, but it is definitely worth it. The views are one of the best in Madrid. On one side you can see the Palacio de Cibeles. You can find the headquarters of the Madrid City Council here but also houses CentroCentro with several exhibitions.

2 days in Madrid the Círculo de Bellas Artes rooftop bar
View from the Círculo de Bellas Artes rooftop bar

On the other side of the rooftop, you can see the Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s biggest streets and the Metropolis, one of the most famous landmarks of Madrid. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the lounge chairs with my sangria, listening to music and watching the sunset over the city. Finally, the temperature became more bearable and during the sunset, I think Madrid was at its most beautiful.

Sunset over Madrid
Sunset over Madrid

Day 2 of the perfect 2 day Madrid itinerary

The plan for your second day in Madrid is structured in a similar way as the first one: start the day in a Park, spend the afternoon in a museum, and explore some of Madrid’s most special attractions in the evening.

El Retiro Park

The second day of this 2 day Madrid itinerary starts in the El Retiro Park, near the Prado museum. Admission to the park is free and is a must-visit in Madrid. It is great if you’re looking for a place to relax, to chill under the shade, or if you’re keen to discover some beautiful sights of Madrid that are all surrounded by greenery.

Estanque grande del Retiro
Estanque grande del Retiro

El Retiro Park covers more than 125 hectares. There is an even an artificial lake (Estanque grande del Retiro) where you can hire a boat and paddle around for a while, taking the best pictures of a monument to Alfonso XII. In the park, you can also visit the Palacio de Velázquez, which often houses free exhibitions that are part of the Reina Sofia museum (more on that one later). The palace was built between 1881 and 1883 for the National Exhibition of Mining which was being held in Madrid.

2 days in Madrid: Palacio de Cristal
Palacio de Cristal

Last but not least, a highlight of the park is, in my opinion, the Palacio de Cristal, overlooking another small lake where you can see swans, ducks and more animals. It is made of metal and glass and was built in 1887 for the Philippines Exhibition that was being held in Madrid in that year. A warning, however: it can be very hot inside the Palacio de Cristal, which is also free to enter. We stayed the whole morning in the park and I recommend staying here for a while to take everything in and catch a breath so that you’re ready and re-energised to explore the rest of Madrid.

Reina Sofia

After El Retiro Park, we had lunch. Since it started getting very warm, we went straight to the Reina Sofia museum, Madrid’s modern art museum. The museum itself already looks very interesting. The elegant palazzo has some big modern elevators on the outside, from which you see over the square in front of the museum. The museum opened in 1990 and boasts over 22,400 works! The collection includes works from Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Juan Gris and more.

In the elevator of the Reina Sofia Museum
In the elevator of the Reina Sofia Museum

Archaeological Museum

As a capital city, it is no surprise that Madrid offers many outstanding museums. Take advance of the art that you can admire in this city and visit some museums! The golden triangle of Madrid consists of the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, where you can find the art that is later than the art in the Prado and earlier than the 20th-century art of the Reina Sofia. However, we decided that we wanted to visit something else than paintings and went to Madrid’s Archaeological Museum. As a classicist, I always have a soft spot for archaeological museums. Moreover, this is one of the interesting off the beaten path museums you can find in Madrid.

Archaeological Museum of Madrid
Archaeological Museum of Madrid

The Archaeological Museum of Madrid is housed in a neoclassical palace where you can also find the National Library. The collection is not as good as, for example, the one in the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London, but it is very educational and teaches a lot about classical civilisation in Spain.

Many museums in Madrid are free during a specific time slot during the week. The Archaeological Museum is free on Saturdays from 2 pm.

End your 2 days in Madrid with churros at San Gines

When you’re 2 days in Madrid, you simply have to eat churros. Churros is a sourdough snack originating from Spain and Portugal. The most common (and most delicious) option is to dip them in hot chocolate. I do love some regional food and when there’s chocolate involved, how can one say no? One of the most popular places is San Gines. It may not be off the beaten path, but it is simply one of the best, so give it a go!

Churros at San Gines
Churros at San Gines

Chocolatería San Ginés started serving chocolate con churros in 1894 (!). If possible, pick a table outside. The streets are lovely and you can do a lot of people-watching while enjoying this delicious snack.

Where to stay when you’re 2 days in Madrid

I found accommodation in Madrid relatively inexpensive, compared to many other cities in Europe and also compared to Barcelona. Therefore, I would recommend staying in the city centre of Madrid. Madrid is a very walkable city, and we only used public transport to get from the airport to our accommodation. We stayed in a double room in Hostal Santo Domingo, one street from the Gran Via and close to the Puerta del Sol. The hostal does not offer breakfast, but the bed was great and the bathroom facilities were also good.

Tips for visiting Madrid in the summer

To be fair, we didn’t really think too much about the time of the year we would be visiting Madrid. Our plan was to go to a family apartment on the coast in August, and we decided to fly to Madrid instead of Barcelona for a change. To be completely honest: I found Madrid in the summer very very hot. A few years ago I visited Madrid during November, which was a better time of year to be fair. Nevertheless, a holiday in the summer often works best, and don’t let me scare you too much. Madrid is still an amazing city to visit during the summer, as long as you’re prepared. Here are a few tips:

  • Drink enough water. Make sure to take a reusable water bottle with you (and be kind to the environment). There are some fountains in the city centre as well where you can refill your bottle. I recommend the Dopper water bottle, available in many colours and very durable.
  • Make sure to start early and take enough breaks when the day is at its hottest. Our aim was to be outside our hotel room at 9 or 9.30. At this time of day, the temperature is still ok.
  • Go to a museum when the day is at its hottest. We didn’t want to take a full siesta in the afternoon, but we also didn’t want to stroll through the streets where we couldn’t always escape the heat. Therefore, I made our plan so that we would visit one or two museums in the afternoon, and do the outdoor stuff in the morning and evening.
  • Make sure you pack the right clothing, shorts and summer dresses are a must! This packing list for Europe can give you more tips.

Day trips from Madrid

2 days in Madrid (or perhaps 2.5) was perfect to explore this amazing city. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t extend your trip to Madrid. There are some amazing opportunities for day trips, easily accessible by train or with a guided tour.

  • Segovia is famous for its stunning Roman aqueduct. The Romans built the aqueduct in the 1st century, during the rule of Emperor Domitian. Segovia also has its own Alcázar and cathedral.
Aquaduct of Segovia
Aquaduct of Segovia
  • Toledo is a city steeped in history. In this city, you can find influences from many prominent cultures in Europe. You can visit Jewish, Christian and Arabic monuments, making a visit to this city an amazing experience. Make sure to visit the El Greco Museum as well. The famous painter El Greco is one of Toledo’s most famous residents.
  • Visit the medieval walls of Avila. Avila’s impressive medieval walls date to the 11th century.

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2 day Madrid itinerary covering all important attractions, including the Prado museum, Plaza Mayor and, of course, churros!
2 day Madrid itinerary covering all important attractions, including the Prado museum, Plaza Mayor and, of course, churros!

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