Tuesday, July 21, 2015

48 Hours in Madrid

48 Hours in Madrid - an expat's guide to the best sights, restaurants & rooftop bars

Though Barcelona often seems to outshine the capital with its flashy sights and attractions, no trip to Spain is complete without visiting the vibrant city of Madrid. Contributing its own unique flavor to the cultural amalgam of modern day Spain, Madrid’s colorful personality abounds with picturesque sights, captivating history and exceptional gastronomy.

Located in the heart of Spain, Madrid not only gives easy access to Seville, Granada, Barcelona and other Spanish cities well worth visiting, but it's also the perfect stepping stone for a more extensive Eurotrip. With countless things to do and see in the inviting Spanish capital, here's how to spend 48 hours in Madrid:



Buenos días! Start your first morning in the bustling Puerta del Sol, the heart of the city and the geographic center of Spain. Here you can find Madrid's most famous bakery, La Mallorquina. Edge your way through the crowd of Spanish abuelas picking up their favorite sweets and treat yourself to a savory chocolate napolitana from this timeless pastry shop.

Take in the energy of Puerta del Sol, admiring the impressive facades and giant Tío Pepe billboard watching over the city. Cross the street towards the old post office to find the Km 0 plaque, the origin of all major freeways in Spain.

Next, head towards Plaza Mayor. While nowadays Plaza Mayor is often swarming with tourists, this lively square still retains some of its old world charm. This historic epicenter with an enthralling (and sometimes bloody) past is now brimming with bursts of color, boisterous street performers and curious people-watchers. While the overpriced restaurants are to be avoided at all costs, the beauty of Plaza Mayor is nevertheless undeniable.

Plaza Mayor

Venture towards the Royal Palace, passing by Plaza de la Villa and stopping inside the Almudena Cathedral. The bright pops of color and dazzling geometric shapes on the cathedral's ceiling provide for a delightful contrast from most other churches in Spain. 

Right next door to the Almudena Cathedral you will find the Royal Palace, which boasts an ornate and decadent interior that could almost rival Versailles. Built in 1736 by the Bourbons, Madrid's Palacio Real is the oldest functioning palace in the world. Take a short tour of this regal estate to fully appreciate its grandeur.

Madrid's Palacio Real


Next, make your way to Mercado de San Miguel for a delectable feast of tapas. Admire the market's elegant architecture as you wander through the many stalls of traditional Spanish treats. Indulge on delicacies such as jamón ibérico de bellota, Campo Real olives, an assortment of savory Spanish cheeses, Marcona almonds and fresh seafood, and wash it down with a glass of wine or a caña (a small beer).

Jamón ibérico at Mercado de San Miguel

After that, head to Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid's answer to Central Park. As you stroll around this picturesque park, explore the Palacio de Cristal, take a ride on a paddle boat in the park’s small manmade lake, or grab a spot at one of the outdoor cafés to people watch as you enjoy a tinto de verano (a mix of red wine and lemon Fanta, which is what the locals drink in lieu of sangria).


There's nothing more madrileño than a good rooftop bar. Just before sunset, head to La Azotea at the Círculo de Bellas Artes for some of the most sublime views of the city. Admire the breathtaking scenery as you sip a refreshing libation, or simply take in the spectacular views. Stick around after sunset to see the city sparkle at night.

The views from Círculo de Bellas Artes

For dinner, make your way to La Latina for some tapas at Juana la Loca, home to the city’s best slice of tortilla de patatas – a traditional omelet made with thinly sliced potatoes and onions. Be sure to also try their mouthwatering huevos rotos – fried eggs atop French fries and sprinkled with thin slices of jamón ibérico.

Seeing as Spaniards are notorious night owls, you'll notice the streets here are still buzzing after dark. You can join the native party animals and stay out until the sun rises, or save the fiesta for Day Two after you've conquered the rest of the city.



Though breakfast may not be the biggest meal of the day here in Spain, your tastebuds will surely delight in starting your morning with a creamy café con leche and pan con tomate (toast with freshly grated tomato and olive oil) from Toma Café in Madrid's hipster neighborhood of Malasaña. Home to the best coffee in the city, this charming café is worth getting off the beaten path for. After fueling up, explore the trendy boutiques and cozy vintage shops of Malasaña before making your way towards Plaza de España.

Neighborhood charm in Malasaña

Wander through Plaza de España as you head to the Royal Palace, stopping in the Jardines de Sabatini. Tucked just behind the Palacio Real, these gardens are the most luxurious place to admire the palace's regal facade. Next, venture to Plaza de Oriente for more impressive gardens, statues and peaceful surroundings.


Around noon or one o'clock, especially on a Sunday, you can find many locals partaking in la hora de vermut, or "the hour of vermouth" over pre-lunch appetizers. As the capital's chosen aperitif, this sweet drink has become thoroughly engrained into madrileño culture. Grab your pre-lunch vermouth at Taberna Real, which used to be a residence for people who worked at the Royal Palace.

After whetting your appetite with this smooth aperitif, sate your hunger with an afternoon of tapas crawling in La Latina. Tapas crawling, or going from bar to bar in search of the best small dishes to share with friends, is one of Spain's most revered traditions. Take a stroll down Calle de la Cava Baja, a charming medieval street overflowing with tapas bars and taverns from end to end. Be sure to stop by Taberna La Concha and Taberna Los Huevos de Lucio, among many others.

Treat yourself to a tasty slice of tortilla de patatas

Following lunch, copy the locals and take a midday siesta, or power through your food coma and continue conquering the capital.

If you're an art lover, you can't miss Madrid's array of world class museums. Check out the Museo del Prado for classic Spanish masterpieces by Goya and Velázquez, or the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía for top notch modern art such as Picasso's Guernica. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum showcases a wide variety of artists and artistic styles, while the up-and-coming Caixa Forum offers bold temporary exhibits and modern art collections.

Not a huge fan of museums? Pop over to Gran Vía, often referred to as the "Spanish Broadway". This sprawling street is home to many upscale hotels, nightclubs, theaters and most importantly, some of the city's best shopping. Amongst the most famous Spanish stores such as Zara and MANGO, this congested avenue flaunts eye-catching examples of early twentieth-century architecture.


Considering Madrid is one of Europe's sunniest capitals, madrileños love an excuse to get out in the fresh air and enjoy their libations with a view. Follow the locals' lead and discover the many lively rooftop bars that Madrid has to offer. For some of the best views, try Gymage in Malasaña, Hotel Roommate Óscar in Chueca, Ático de las Letras right off Gran Vía, or The Hat near Plaza Mayor.

Rooftop views from The Hat

Before preparing yourself for a night on the town, treat yourself to dinner at one of the city's trendiest tapas bars, Lateral. Offering several locations scattered throughout the capital, Lateral boasts a delectably modern take on gourmet tapas. If you're in the mood for something different, check out some of the other best places to eat in Madrid.

Late Night

Did you know that Madrid has the highest number of bars per square meter in Europe? With so many vibrant options, it’s no surprise that the nightlife here is unparalleled. Spaniards tend to stay out until sunrise, so be sure to caffeinate accordingly!


Many tourists and study abroad students flock to Kapital, Madrid’s famous seven story night club with a different floor for every musical genre. If you're looking for something more posh, head to Barrio Salamanca for more upscale clubs such as Gabana. If nightclubs aren’t your thing, forgo the discotecas and check out the bars on Calle Pez in hipster Malasaña.

Once the sun rises, you’ll surely be craving an early morning snack. Feast upon the city’s best churros con chocolate at Chocolatería de San Gines, one of Madrid’s most iconic eateries. Conveniently open all night long, San Gines is the perfect spot to refuel or simply soak up the night's gin and tonics.

After two days of getting to know Madrid's dynamic personality, hopefully you've fallen in love with the city and tasted an authentic flavor of Spain.

If you're lucky enough to have more than just 48 hours in Spain's capital, be sure to check out some of the best day trips from Madrid.

Have you ever been to Madrid?
What would you add to this itinerary?


  1. This is such a helpful guide, Courtney! I haven't booked tickets yet or really thought through the logistics, but I think I might head to Spain for a few weeks in September and Madrid is definitely on my list of places to visit, so your list is going to come in handy! :) I want to take a day trip to both Toledo and Segovia while I'm in Madrid, so do you think an additional two days spent in the capital would be enough? :)

  2. I really love Madrid and just spent a weekend there. We always stay in a hotel in the central but quiet Salamanca area, but still have loads of things in walking distance.

  3. Woot!! We are heading to Sevilla and Barcelona in December (so psyched!) but will have to come back for Madrid next time!

  4. This is such a great guide! I wish I had the chance to check out some of those rooftop bars when I was in Madrid. It was the beginning of January though (I spent New Year's there) so it was a bit cold for that - but I loved the city, and hope to get another chance to explore more someday!

  5. Love this quick guide to Madrid Courtney! You always make me dream of Spain! And that idea of a rooftop bar is one that I'm kind of in love with! I need to make it happen one day!x

  6. omg what a beaut! Madrid looks lovely! And oh my gosh that bookstoreeee

  7. That bookstore is my fave!! They also have an adorable black shop cat who likes to hang out outside :)

  8. Yes, come! Visit Madrid!! I'll gladly give you a tour anytime :)

  9. Oh yeah, January is a bit too cold for the rooftops! Unless you REALLY bundle up (or just drink a lot of vino, haha). Hope you get a chance to visit in warmer weather :)

  10. How exciting! Both are magical places, but Sevilla will always hold an extra special place in my heart :) Besides Madrid, it's my favorite place in Spain! (And most importantly, THE FOOD IS AMAZING.)

  11. Thank you Andrea! :) I use a Canon Rebel T2i with a Sigma f/1.4 30mm lens (followed up with a lot of Lightroom editing, haha!)

  12. Oh, I love Barrio Salamanca! It's a neighborhood I don't know as well as the others, but the architecture is simply gorgeous there.

  13. September is one of the best times of the year to visit!! Good question - you could easily speed through both Toledo and Segovia as half day trips, but they're both such cute towns that you might want more time to wander. If that's the case, I would add one extra day and skip another Madrid activity such as the museums.

  14. I will definitely save this post for when we get the change to visit Madrid! (and I might even do one like it for 48 hours in Hamburg, hope you don't mind)

  15. My absolute favorite part of Madrid is the El Retiro Park!!! Great itinerary , we pretty much did this

  16. I literally see that bookstore everywhere on insta!! Can't wait to scope it out in August :) Gorgeous pics as always.

  17. Still dreaming of my weekend in Madrid for this summer - and now I don't even have to do any research ;)