What to do in 3 days in Madrid. A massive list of the top tourist attractions and points of interest in Madrid.
Madrid is one of the most livable cities in the world. Beautiful parks, museums, shops, restaurants and a sheer endless mass of bars – Spain’s capital has it all. No matter if you love football, art or food, there are just so many things to do in Madrid.
Personally speaking, I’d say that 3 days in Madrid are enough to see it all. But if you love art or plan to do a lot of shopping, you can easily stay a week or more. I usually catch an early plane on Thursday and take the last one on Sunday (if you book early enough, it’s easy to get flights around 200€ both way from most European capitals). But let’s not dally on details. Here’s my list of what to do in Madrid for 3 days.
1. Palacio Real
Visiting the Palace in Madrid really is a no-brainer, eh? Well, I actually don’t think so. If you have traveled as much as I did, going inside palaces actually becomes quite tiresome. Versailles, Buckingham Palace, Peterhof – it’s all more or less the same. Beautiful, yes, but repetitive.
The Palacio Real is a bit different. The Spanish crown brought golden splendor to another level. I am not joking. The tapestries, ceiling ornaments, and furniture were so incredibly rich and intricate, it virtually blew my mind. A true must see in Madrid (Just in case you were wondering. The Spanish Royal Family does no longer live in this palace).
Pro tip: Don’t miss the beautiful garden below the Royal Palace. A beautiful place to read a book or enjoy a little snack without the tourist hordes
2. Prado Museum
There are a couple of museums around the world everyone has to visit at least once in a lifetime and the Museo del Prado is one of them. The focus of the famous museum is clearly on Spanish painters like Goya, El Grecco or Velasquez, but they also have the world-famous masterpieces from Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch & Raphael.
The Prado museum is vast and rightly one of the top things to do in Madrid. Plan at least 3 hours to tour the museum, but even then you should preselect the paintings and museums you want to see. You can buy tickets online.
Pro tip: The Prado Museum is free to enter after 6 pm (but open until 8 pm). It actually makes a lot of sense to split your visit on two days & see the museum for free!
3. Plaza Mayor
Madrid has a lot of beautiful squares, none of them is able to surpass Plaza Mayor. The famous square is located right in the center of the city and is walled in by buildings on all sides. In recent years showmen discovered the square and there are now virtually hundreds of them begging passersby’s for a penny or two. I’d suggest you take a little break in one of the many cafés and restaurants on the square and just watch the other tourists scrambling by.
Pro tip: Keep your bags and purses safe while walking across Plaza Mayor. I have seen thieves trying to steal valuables more than just once!
4. El Retiro Park
One of my favorite places in Madrid is the El Retiro Park. It’s a bit like Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London. There is a huge artificial lake where you can rent a boat. Personally speaking, I’d rather search for a quiet corner on the sides and have a picnic (that’s what the locals do as well).
Absolutely don’t miss the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal). It was once built as a greenhouse to exhibit flora and fauna from the Philippines. Currently, it is used for art exhibitions (which are free). It’s also one of the most instagramable places in the city.
5. Reina Sofía Museum
Who hasn’t heard of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali or Joan Miro. These painters left a huge mark on what we perceive as art now. More than that: Iconic works like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica shaped the way we think about war and our past. That being said, there is no way around visiting the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid where all these famous artworks are on display. If you are into modern and contemporary art, you really should consider visiting Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum (would be a two-day trip) where other important Spanish art collections are on display.
But even beyond the classical modern art, you will have no hard time finding beautiful contemporary artwork to inspire you. Do go! Buy your tickets on the official website in advance here.
6. La Almudena Cathedral
Sitting right next to the Royal Palace, you will find Madrid’s biggest church: La Almudena Cathedral. Contrary to what you might think, the church has only been officially finished in 1993.
While the building is quite beautiful, the artwork within is probably the worst I have ever seen. It follows no guidelines, no common style. The mixture is so bad, however, that it is almost funny (in a weird way). As it is one of the many free things to do in Madrid, I still urge you to go!
Pro tip: If you want to climb all the way up to the cupola and enjoy the view of Madrid, you will have to enter the museum.
7. Cibeles & City hall
One of the most famous squares in Madrid is certainly Cibeles. Here you will find the Cibeles Palace, which is not an actual palace but now serves as the city hall.
It’s not only beautiful from the outside, but also from the inside. It was once a post office and was then transferred to the most modern, contemporary take on how to engage with the public I ever saw. There are beautiful workspaces, exhibition spaces, and counters for everyone. Truly outstanding.
Definitely make sure to take the elevator to the top, to enjoy the beautiful view. You’ll also find a beautiful rooftop bar right at the top (usually reservation is needed). If you can’t find a seat here, then check out my article on the best rooftop bars in Madrid.
Pro tip: The trendy and vibrant gay quarter (Chueca) is just around the corner. Here you will find amazing bars, restaurants, and shops! Also, consider walking down the Paseo del Prado.
8. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
Do you love for museums? I certainly do! Spain is a fantastic country to visit for Art lovers. The third museum you shouldn’t miss in Madrid is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. They got famous artworks from all epochs. Rubens, Titian, Lucas Cranach, but also Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gaugin, and a lot of paintings from the German Expressionism.
Pro tip: They usually got beyond than outstanding special exhibitions, so make sure to check it out before your visit!
9. Enjoy sunset at the Temple of Debod
The temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple right in the heart of Madrid. It dates back to the 2nd century BC and was relocated in 1968 in the light of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It’s one of the best places to enjoy a beautiful sunset in Madrid (usually a huge crowd will gather close before dusk). You can actually go inside.
10. Mercado de san Miguel
After all these museums and parks, you are probably craving for some food and drink. One of the best places to satisfy your bodily needs is the Mercado de San Miguel. It is a small grocery mall only a few meters away from the old city hall. There are tons of food stalls offering you tapas, pastries, ham, seafood and all the other famous Spanish delicacies.
Mind you, the place is not exactly cheap. Actually, it’s downright expensive and you might actually call it a tourist trap. But the building and the flair IS beautiful so you should go anyway, even if it is just for a small snack. Believe me, it’s one of the top places to see in Madrid.
11. Day trip to Toledo
Madrid hasn’t been the capital of Spain for all that long (given the long history of the country). The court was only moved to Madrid in 1561. During the early medieval times, Toledo was the heart of the country. Only about a 40 minute’s drive away, the ancient city is probably the best day trip from Madrid.
Ancient buildings, a beyond than stunning cathedral and a vast tapestry of history can be explored here. The city is also quite famous for its marzipan. You don’t want to miss that!
How to get there? There are regular tourist buses but also a train. Both cost about the same, though the tourist bus will get you right into the historic center)
12. Watch a bullfight
One of the most authentic things to do in Madrid is probably watching a bullfight. Now, I can already hear all the vegans out there complaining. And perhaps rightly so. Personally speaking, I don’t feel I am in any position to judge. It’s part of the Spanish history and part of the Spanish culture.
Be aware that bullfights are only staged around a couple of festivals and are not held on every day in the year. Bullfight seasons is mostly from March to October. Tickets usually sell out very fast!
13. Day trip to Segovia
Segovia is another beautiful and ancient place to visit very close to Madrid. The city is famous for its huge Roman aqueduct and was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1985. There is a lot to see in Segovia and if you got enough time (meaning more than just 3 days in Madrid), then absolutely consider a day trip.
14. Puerta del Sol
The most central square in Madrid is called Puerta del Sol – the Gate of the sun. It’s a very busy place sitting right in between your way from the Prado to the Royal Palace (mind you, a long walk!). If you want to go shopping, this is probably the best place to start. There’s a famous statue of Madrid’s heraldic symbol (the Bear and the Madroño Tree) you don’t want to miss.
Pro tip: You can find Madrid’s best bakery in Sol. It’s called La Mallorquina and was founded in 1894. Try their Neapolitans!
15. Explore Madrid’s secret gardens
Madrid has a lot of beautiful parks and gardens. Even if your itinerary is already quite tight, you should visit at least one of them. I totally love the Greenhouse at Atocha station. But the Principe de Anglona Garden near La Latina is worth a stop as well.
16. Go to a Flamenco club
Some call flamenco merely a dance but is more an art-form. While its origins can be traced to the most Southern regions, you will have no problem finding a flamenco show in Madrid.
17. Stroll down Calle De Alcalcá & Grand Vía
Madrid has two very grand avenues you really can’t miss on your stroll around the city. In fact, I urge you to skip the metro and walk all the way. The Grand Vía is a beautiful place to go shopping and admire the Artdeco buildings lining the truly grand street.
The Calle De Alcalcá is another very famous avenue and architectural highlight (though here you will find hotels and the like). Actually, you won’t find more imposing buildings in that particular style anywhere else in the world. Seemingly built in rivalry, each house has a huge dome or gigantic statue abutting the high towers.
18. Watch a soccer match
Just two words are enough to convince you to watch a soccer match while you are in Madrid: El Clasico. While you will have a very hard time catching tickets for the more than epic matches between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, I am sure you will enjoy a normal Primera División (premier league) match at the famous Santiago Bernabéu Stadium all the same. It’s probably one of the most non-touristy things to do in Madrid – even if you are not an avid football fan.
19. Enjoy Tapas
Spanish food is amazing. It really is! Now please don’t be confused: Tapas is actually not a specific category of food, but rather a way to eat food. Tapas roughly translates to “cover” and turned into a name for small servings of food you were able to put as a coaster on top of your glass of wine or beer.
Putting etymology aside, it gives you the perfect opportunity to sample a lot of traditional food, as most restaurants offer you the opportunity to order Raciones (full portions) or Tapas.
As an alternative to Tapas, you might want to test out Pinchos (small sandwiches topped with about everything in between Avocados, foie or ham) and you certainly don’t want to miss the sweet churros topped with some chocolate either and sampling some Iberian ham or paella might be a good idea as well.
20. Enjoy the view of Madrid from a rooftop bar
I already mentioned Madrid’s huge avenues. Now, look up again. If you squint your eyes, you might see a rooftop terrace or two. Madrid has a lot of them, and most of them are quite epic. A very famous one is at the top of the Circulo de Bellas Artes – a cultural center very close to Banco de España. Some of them belong to hotels others can be found within the city hall. No matter which you pick, it’s a very lovely place to watch the sunset.
Other Madrid landmarks
Now I wanted to keep this guide as brief as humanly possible, while still giving you a wide selection of things to do in Madrid. Know then, I was not able to mention all the monuments and sights. But here is the thing: No matter if you are backpacking through Spain or going on a road trip, there are so many other beautiful places in the country, and you should really reserve some time for that as well.
That being said, I didn’t mention the beautiful Plaza de España with its famous statue of Don Quichotte or any of minor churches (like San Jeronimo el Real). I also didn’t mention each and every museum in this city or all the wonderful little markets. If you got time, you might also consider going to the Opera (Teatro Real) or one of the many musicals lining Grand Vía.
The Madrid zoo is also quite popular among locals and travelers with kids. Just know that there are so many other landmarks worth visiting in Madrid. And don’t forget to consider a day trip. Appart from Toledo and Segovia, El Escorial is certainly also a splendid option!
Madrid at night is also something I did not mention in this travel guide. But certainly, you really shouldn’t skip the nightlife and the many nightclubs. Also, many of Madrid’s tourist attractions are illuminated, which means a stroll through the grand avenues and plazas is always a good idea after dusk.
Where to stay in Madrid
Contrary to what you might think, Madrid doesn’t have a lot of good hotels. Actually, apart from the Hotel Ritz, big international luxury hotel chains totally eschew Spain’s capital. A very bad decision, if you ask me.
That being said, I found one hotel that is both not very expensive and probably the best place to stay in Madrid. I am talking about the Dear Hotel at Plaza de España. The hotel has the most amazing rooftop terrace, with an equally amazing rooftop pool. But it is also located very close to the Royal Palace (you can actually see it from the pool), the Temple of Debod. Prado and Plaza Major are only two or three metro stations away, and there is a metro station right at the entrance of the hotel.
I also looooved the breakfast at the rooftop bar. So yes, despite just having 4 stars, I am a big fan of the hotel. But obviously, you are free to pick a cheaper (or more expensive) alternative. If you pick anything roughly in the neighborhoods between Royal Palace and Prado, you will be fine. This is, by common acceptance, the best area to stay in Madrid. There are beautiful bars and shops everywhere. Trust me?
Note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
When to visit Madrid
Don’t ask me why, but I always seem to end up visiting Madrid in April. But to be quite fair this is also the best time to visit Madrid. Madrid’s climate is quite moderate in winter, and chokingly hot in summer. Which means the transition months are your best option. March to June and September and October are both very good reasons to visit Spain’s capital. As not all of the top tourist attractions are indoors, it really pays off to plan ahead. Walking along the Grand Vía at 40° Celsius in July really is not one of the top things to do in Madrid. That being said, Spain is always worth a visit. If you plan to stay longer, here’s a beautiful one-week Spain itinerary, you might want to check out!
How to get around Madrid
Madrid has an excellent public transport system. You can easily take the Metro from Madrid airport into the city, and buses will help you cover those distances in between.
I actually enjoy walking through Madrid a lot. The inner city is quite large but manageable on an extended walking tour. So, for example from the Museo del Prado to Plaza de España you will probably need 30 minutes on foot. Which sounds a lot, but there are so many beautiful sights in between and the streets of Madrid are themselves quite a highlight.
Not really sure, if you need to get the Madrid card. I feel it’s a waste of money, except you plan to do a lot of sightseeing and all the activities it supports. Then again, I was never a big fan of hop on hop off bus tours, Segway tours or running behind a tourist guide. Decide for yourself ;-)
So that was my “little” list of things to do in Madrid, Spain. Hope you found it helpful. Got any questions? Ask them in the comments below. Oh, and don’t forget to pin this article.