All roads lead to Madrid
Is it possible to see Madrid in three hours? The only correct answer is, of course: 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.
Not only is Madrid the capital of Spain, it is also the spider in the Spanish transport network. Many motorways and railroads meet in the capital, which lies in the centre of the country. 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.
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 simply stay at the train station or airport, but you can also use this time to go shopping or have a quick look at the most important 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 short-distance train to the airport.
So without further ado let me list the most import 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 square, 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, in my humble opinion, 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. Although the building dates back to 1916, the market close for a long 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 fine just to look at the products and move on to the next highlight, which is the centre of fine arts.
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, which offers direct access to this space from the lobby.
Tickets can be purchased at the reception of the building. A ticket costs four euros, or if you combine it with a visit to the exhibition five euros.
The centre is 650 meters north west of the Puerta del Sol on Calle Alcalá 42.
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 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 in central Madrid, near the Atocha train station. If you rather see some green in between your travels than this the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The eye-catcher of the park is the pond with a colonnade in the shape of a crescent moon and in 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.
If you are an art buff it is probably easy to spend one or more days on each collection, as they are truly extraordinary. But, if you anything like me, too much of a good thing can get really 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 list 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 works consisting of 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 bombardment of the Basque city of Guernica (1937) 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.
Foto Madrid Torres Pixabay
Take into account when planning your visit that most museums are closed on Mondays.
The city centre is easily walkable, but if you are in a rush you can also travel by underground. Line 1 goes from Atocha to Puerta del Sol in three stops. The journey takes about fives 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 then recharge it with sufficient balance for the journey.
The AVE, high speed train, travels frequently between Madrid and major 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 timing of journey. Tickets cost from 25 euros up.
- Train Seville – Madrid: This will be about 2,5 – 3 hours. Ticket price depends on when you buy and for what time. Plan ahead to ensure you get a good price.
- Train airport to city: see below.
If you travel by AVE, the high-speed train, you are entitled to a free ticket with the Cercania (stop train) to the airport. The train stops at the same station, Atocha, as where the AVE arrives.
Read here a step-by-step guide on how to take public transport to the Barajas Airport.
During my last trip to Madrid I stayed at Hotel Mediodía, the hotel 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 quite small but clean and comfortable. The breakfast is okay and 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 pick pocketed. I have no idea how they did it. So be careful.
- As an EU citizen, you will be covered for medical insurances with your EHIC card, make sure to bring it.
Travel insurance can be important, in case you need to cancel your trip, medical emergencies and theft. Click here to obtain a quote.