Greetings, Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Madrid! There is so much one can do with 24 hours in Madrid. You can challenge yourself to eat as many churros as possible in one day and dub yourself the Churro Challenge Champion. You can also head to nearby Toledo so you can find a beautiful sword with which to track down the six-fingered man who slaughtered your father. But I think I have something even better in mind.
Come with me and we will spend a day looking at goth paintings, pretending to be Spanish royalty, and, of course, doing lots of eating and drinking. Spoiler Alert: We will drink at a bar where Hemingway drank. (PS. All of the bars in Spain when Hemingway was alive are bars where Hemingway drank.)
24 Hours in Madrid
Where to Stay?
I hope you’re looking for a convenient location for a hotel for your 24 hours in Madrid, Internet Stranger. Unless you’re one of those strange people who hates convenience. I was happy with my stay at Hostal Alonso, located right in the heart of Madrid. There were always people around, which made it easy for me to enjoy Madrid’s thriving nightlife. Plus it was super affordable. If you can go for something pricier, te salut! But I still suggest staying in the center of town to maximize your 24 hours in Madrid.
24 Hours in Madrid
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today around Madrid. It’s very frequently hot here, though not always, so it’s smart to wear sandals. I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! The sun can get scorching! My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. You don’t want to sling a heavy bag all around Madrid. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so you’ll never run out of juice!
24 Hours in Madrid
Morning: The Prado
Some cities, like London, are famous for more than one museum. But some cities have become synonymous with one major art museum, no matter how excellent the other options may be. When I say “Paris Museums”, you say “The Louvre”. When I say “NYC Museums”, you say “The Met”. And when I say “Stockholm Museums,” you say, “Stop quizzing me, you weird blogger! Get a real job!”
But when I say “Madrid Museums”, the only Pavlovian response can be “The Prado”. The Prado used to the Royal Museum, it still looks like a palace, and it houses the finest collection of classical Spanish art you are likely to see in even more than 24 hours in Madrid. The Spanish royal family has followed in the time honored tradition of Very Rich and Classy People throughout history by funding many artists, most notably Goya and Velasquez. Lucky for us common folk, the Spanish royals are now nice enough to let us come and look at their shiny collection of masterpieces.
Sadly the Prado does not let you take even one picture inside the museum. Fortunately all the works I would want to show you are in the Public Domain and old PD doesn’t mind me borrowing a few of his pictures to share with y’all. So here are my:
APPROXIMATELY TOP FIVE: THE PRADO edition
1) El Tres de Mayo
Well, this work is extremely depressing and difficult to look at, and it’s in the Prado, so it must be by Goya. More specifically, it is El Tres de Mayo, by the renowned 19th century Spanish painter Goya. This work depicts the execution of Spanish patriots by the invading Napoleonic French soldiers in 1808. You can tell that the Spaniard in yellow pants is the good guy because he is bathed in golden light like an angel. The French are the bad guys because they are hidden in the shadows and you can’t see their faces. It’s as if they are some sort of Gallic dementors.
2) Saturn Devouring his son by Goya
This is one of Goya’s famous Black Paintings, which makes me imagine that he spent a lot of this time in his life listening to Trent Reznor and wearing too much eyeliner. In fact, Goya painted this and his other Black Paintings directly on the walls of his house, which is one of the most terrifying things I can think of.
Can you imagine what it would be like to look at that painting of an evil god eating a baby all day? I could barely be in the room at the Prado that contains the Black Paintings without feeling like I was losing my mind a bit. Goya must have been made of sterner or crazier stuff than I am.
3) Las Meninas by Velasquez
This is perhaps the most famous Spanish painting that has ever Spanished. It is the first painting people usually see when they study classical Spanish painting. Also, it was famously deconstructed by Picasso for his own Cubist Las Meninas.
I love the painting because, like all of my favorite things, it looks pretty and charming at first, but it is creepy and weird when you look at it more carefully. What is up with the dwarf? Who is the man lurking in the background? Why do we only see the Infanta’s parents through the mirror? If you have the answers to these questions, please email them to [email protected]
4) Saint Andrew and Saint Francis
We come to the last of my favorite Spanish painters, El Greco. Of course, he was from Greece and not Spain, but he worked in Spain and his name is in Spanish, so I say he counts. This is his religious painting of Saint Andrew and Saint Francis. I love the abstract, angular quality of El Greco’s work. It feels so modern that it’s hard to believe he was painting in the 1500s.
5) Pish posh, Hieronymus Bosch
It’s not all Spanish works at the Prado! Feast your eyes on the Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s work is so detailed. You can spend hours just trying to catch the little demons, sinners, and torture devices scattered all through his paintings. Come to think of it, it’s a shame Bosch and Goya never got to be friends. I bet they would have had a lot of truly horrifying nightmares to talk about.
6) ???? by rembrandt
We’ve got one last Dutchie left with this work, Not Artemisia By Rembrandt. Okay, so it’s actual title is Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, but I call it Not Artemisia because it was originally identified as a painting of a classical heroine named Artemisia who was mostly famous for…drinking the ashes of her husband. That doesn’t sound right. I’ve never been married, but if I were married and my husband told me he planned to drink my ashes after he died, I would probably have strong words to say about that.
Anyway, I want to know how they figured out that this was a painting of nice Jewish girl Judith and not Artemisia the Husband Drinker. Did Rembrandt’s ghost start haunting the Prado until the mystery was solved? That’s what I would do if I were a great artist and people were going around falsely accusing me of painting creepy Classical queens.
24 hour tip
I have two. The first is that you should buy your tickets online here because the line to get into the Prado without advance tickets is the worst. The second is that you should eat a big breakfast because the food inside the Prado is nothing to write home about, so we’re going to want to get a much better lunch elsewhere. We might not get to eat lunch until 1:30ish, so as Scar would say, be prepared!
24 Hours in Madrid
Afternoon: Explore Madrid
We’ve spent the whole morning cooped up in a (fascinating) museum, so now it’s time to continue our 24 hours in Madrid in the scorching hot Madrileno heat! We’re going to find the best sandwiches and palaces this city has to offer! As usual, here are…
Approximately top 5: 24 hours in madrid
1) Lunch at Bayres Beef
Of course in Spain, you are going to want to eat Spanish food, and there are so many different kinds of Spanish treats to try that it is easy to not sample other types of cuisine. But why not at least branch out to the Spanish colonies? Unless you are vegetarian, you won’t regret the decision to check out Bayres Beef, an Argentinian meatery.
I opted for the sirloin steak sandwich, which was served lean and toothsome on a warm baguette. The steak was as good as what you get in Argentina, and the staff is extremely friendly. This lunch will definitely tide you over for the rest of your 24 hours in Madrid.
2) Palacio Real de Madrid
Quick as a wink: name all the European countries that are still, at least technically speaking, monarchies! Here’s a hint: there are twelve of them. What do you think? I’ll give you ten seconds.
Time’s up! The answer is: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, the Netherlands, the Vatican (where the Pope is king), Luxembourg, the UK of course, and Spain. And of course, since Spain has a monarchy, they need to have a palace in which to keep the monarchs. If you enjoy history, kings and queens, lots of gold leaf, portraits of royalty, and marble staircases, this palace is for you!
24 hour tip
Actually, the Palacio Real in Madrid is not actually where the Spanish royal family spends most of their time, but it is where the monarchs still sometimes host special occasions, so be sure to check in advance online to see if the palace will be closed for A Major Award. Otherwise you can squeeze it into a different 24 hours in Madrid.
24 hour treasure
Photography is not allowed inside the palace, except on the staircase. So you won’t be allowed to have mementos of your visit, unless you take a picture of this lion. He is a symbol of the House of Bourbon, which is the family of the current Spanish royal family. I like how he looks like he’s about to eat that poor tourist who is standing unsuspectingly right in front of his mouth.
The current King of Spain is Felipe VI, the son of Juan Carlos I, who was made King of Spain after the death of General Franco. Juan Carlos was popular with many Spanish people because he helped turn Spain back into a democracy after its years of Fascism under Franco.
Juan Carlos is actually still alive, he just abdicated in favor of his son in 2014. So if you’re in Spain, you can still say “Hola” to Juan Carlos. I mean, you can’t because ex-kings don’t just go around saying “Hola” to random people from the Internet, but you could in theory and that’s what really matters.
3) Almudena Cathedral
Madrid, like every other major traditionally Catholic city, has a giant and remarkable cathedral that should not be missed. Even though Madrid’s cathedral does not have the striking interiors of some other bishop seats, it is still worth paying a visit to for its images of saints, stained glass windows, and exquisite hidden gems. It also could not be more convenient to visit right after the Palacio because the Cathedral is literally just across the street from the palace.
At first glance, the interior of the cathedral can seem rather plain. But that should just give you motivation to explore the church and find its hidden treasures. I especially like this image of this metallic Virgin Mary.
Between the metalwork, woodcarving, and painting, it’s mind boggling to imagine the technical skill that must have gone into creating her. But there are other marvels in the Cathedral, from stained glass to flowers made entirely out of silver. You just have to be on the lookout for them!
24 hour treasure
As lovely as the Virgin Mary is, my favorite thing in the Cathedral was this semi-hidden ceiling painting. I love how it almost gives the illusion that you are looking from the cathedral straight up into the heavens and at the stars. After all, being in a cathedral should be an uplifting experience, shouldn’t it?
4) the sabatini gardens
When you’re done with the Cathedral, you’ll have some time to kill before dinner. Rest your tired tootsies in the lovely neoclassical Sabatini Gardens right next door to the Palace. I’m not an expert on what constitutes a neoclassical garden, but I gather that it involves neatly-trimmed hedges, tasteful fountains, and lots of marble statues of dead people like this guy.
OK, I don’t know who this guy is exactly, but they made a big marble statue of him, so I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s kicking it six feet under somewhere. People who are still alive and around to annoy their fellow citizens usually don’t get a monument like this.
24 Hours in Madrid
Evening: Madrid Tapas Adventure
After the earlier market tour, I decided to take another food tour with Cecilia, the nicest tour guide in Madrid. This time we were feasting on Spain’s most famous contribution to the culinary arts: the tapa. Tapas eating is really more of a social activity, so I was glad to be going on this tour with a charming older couple from Australia. Making friends with new people whose names I don’t remember and whom I will never see again is one of my favorite things about travel.
There were so many amazing things we ate (and drank) on this tour, it’s a wonder I fit them all in my stomach. But I’m just going to whet your appetite with:
Approximately top 5: madrid tapas edition
1) Mercado de San Miguel
Tapas are traditionally served with drinks, so we had an alcoholic beverage at pretty much every stop. There is nothing wrong with this practice as long as you are sure to eat a lot! All that food soaks up the booze. That’s just science! Our first drink was the Spanish herbal aperitif vermouth, served over ice. This sweet and refreshing drink was just the thing after a long, hot day exploring Madrid.
To complement the vermouth, we snacked on olives stuffed with lomo, chorizo, anchovies & red pepper, and manchego cheese & dried tomato. They looked and tasted like little works of art. If there was some way to keep them from spoiling, I would vote for putting these guys in the Prado!
2) wine, ham, and Cheese tasting
We stayed in the market for the classic tapas made with cheese and ham. Spain doesn’t have the same international cheese reputation that France has, but I think this is a shame. Spain should certainly hold its head up high while serving its national cheeses such as the salty-sweet Mahon Cheese, the pungent Picon blue cheese, the creamy Tetilla cheese, and the rare Payoya goat cheese. Perhaps the yellow on the Spanish flag really represents the mighty Spanish cheese.
Tetilla means small breast in Spanish and the name comes from the shape of the cheese. I imagine that Spanish teenage boys have a tough time ordering this cheese with a straight face.
But of course, what is Spanish cheese without Spanish ham? The pigs of Spain gave their lives so tourists like us could gorge on Jamon Iberico de Bellota from Guijuelo, Salamanca. Jamon Iberico de Bellota is two times as expensive as Jamon Iberico because it doesn’t just come from happy Spanish pigs, it comes from really happy Spanish pigs who are fed on acorns. Apparently the acorn diet makes the ham taste better. Oh the wonders of food science!
This goodness was all washed down with a glass of wine from Marques de Caceres, which is a Spanish vineyard that uses French winemaking techniques on Spanish grapes. Spanish cheese, Spanish charcuterie, Spanish wine…who needs France? Viva Espana!
3) Bocadillo de Calamares
Our next stop was at a Spanish honkytonk-type dive called La Campana, right off the Plaza Mayor. We were here for a popular Madrileno sandwich/drink combo, the Bocadillo de Calamares and Mahou beer. This is a fried calamari sandwich served with nothing on top except for lemon juice. The squid was funky fresh and and as hot as a sweltering summer day in Madrid. I was glad to (figuratively) drown the smoking sandwich in the light, ice cold local beer.
24 hour Treasure
I really liked this bar because they give you a lollipop when they bring you your check. So you don’t even need to pay anything extra for dessert!
4) Casa Lucas in La Cava Baja
This is a small bar that specializes in revamped versions of classic tapas. Here we got three. The first was croquetas de boletus, which are fried balls of mushrooms, bechamel sauce, and potatoes. (Yes, that’s exactly as rich and delicious as it sounds. Has anyone ever gone wrong with frying potatoes?)
The next was a gorgeous fried egg on top of a sweet pepper and onion melange. I could eat this for breakfast every day of my life. I’m pretty sure it would make me feel like Penelope Cruz.
Our final tapa was the not terribly beautiful to look at but delicious to eat albacore tuna with capsicums and onions in a tomato sauce. I simply adore albacore tuna and its chunky texture. I just hope albacore’s not that crazy tuna that was killing all those dolphins awhile back. That was really upsetting to read about.
5) El Lacon in Plaza Santa Ana
Here we were each allowed to individually order our favorite tapa, which I thought was a nice option on a food tour. I got the neoclassical Tortilla Espanola, which is egg and potato all cooked together in some olive oil. Man, eggs and potatoes are both so perfect and white and round and delicious. If there were no other foods in the world, I think I might be able to be okay with that.
Further Reading: 24 Hours in Madrid
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Madrid right now? Then let me help you get started with some further reading. I like Lonely Planet’s guide to Madrid. It’s divided into sections according to neighborhood, which makes it useful for planning purposes.
You can’t go to Spain without reading a little Hemingway. Otherwise, how will you understand when you go to a Spanish bar and they tell you about how Hemingway used to drink there? I suggest The Sun Also Rises because part of it is actually set in Madrid.
And if you want a nonfiction book about Madrid, Hotel Florida tells the amazing story of Hemingway and five other Leftist activists who worked in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Spoiler Alert! It did not end well. But you have to read the book to find out why.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Madrid. If you’re able to add another 24 hours in Madrid, check out this itinerary. And if you want to add a trip to Valencia, add this itinerary or this itinerary.