Welcome to Madrid, where the past and present collide in a city that is driven by modernization but maintains its historic charm. Bright and bustling with activity, Madrid reveals Spain’s rich history under the facade of its skyscrapers and trendy restaurants. In just 24 hours, explore Madrid by neighborhood, sample the local cuisine and immerse yourself in the Spanish lifestyle.
Morning in Malasaña, 9 a.m.
Start off the morning at Toma Café with a hot cup of café con leche and slice of fresh avocado toast in Madrid’s trendy neighborhood Malasaña. On your way to and from the hole-in-the-wall cafe, wander down streets filled with specialty shops ranging from vintage clothing to gourmet popsicles to cat-themed bookstores. Next, head southeast to Calle Fuencarral, a street famous for both Spanish and international franchises and a first glimpse of commercialized Madrid.
City Center, 10 a.m.
Before you know it, you will have stumbled onto Gran Via, Madrid’s “Broadway,” a bustling avenue lined with classic theaters, giant department stores and world-class restaurants. Take in the excitement and chaos as you make your way toward Puerta del Sol, the cultural and geographic center of Madrid and the entire Iberian Peninsula. Be sure to check out the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree and pick up an authentic Spanish fan from Casa de Diego as you dodge club promoters and street performers crowding the square.
Uncover History, 11 a.m.
Next, head down to the historic center of the city, where you will encounter Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real. These two artifacts from Spain’s royal past have been integrated into modern-day culture; the plaza houses Madrid’s Christmas markets in December alongside the bronze statue of King Philip III and the Palacio Real preserves monarchical history while serving as a venue for official state events. Lunch in Spain will not start until 2 p.m., so if you are hungry for a snack, head to Chocolatería San Ginés, opened in 1894, for Spain’s infamously rich hot chocolate with churros or the puffier version, and my favorite, purros. Alternatively, stop by Mercado de San Miguel to sample the Spanish tapas of your choosing from wedges of tortilla Española to paper cones full of jamón y queso or pinchos de gulas, baby eels served on bread native to the north of Spain.
Culture Fix, 12 p.m.
You simply cannot leave Madrid without soaking up some of the greatest hits of Spanish art. Between the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums in Madrid’s “Golden Triangle of Art,” art connoisseurs and amateurs alike will be spellbound by Madrid’s immense collection, from the grandeur of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” to the anguish of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” If you have time, be sure to stop by the CaixaForum Madrid, a contemporary art museum nested in the shadows of a giant vertical garden.
Skyline Dining, 2 p.m.
While your art craving may be satisfied, you are likely ravenous from a morning of adventure. Time to see the capital from the sky, so head to the Callao metro stop to enjoy lunch atop El Corte Inglés, a mega-department store whose 9th floor features a variety of eateries and an unbeatable panoramic view. I highly suggest ordering the grilled vegetables and octopus from Asadores Imanol and a 1950s-inspired cocktail from Juanillo Club. Typically, Spaniards take an extended lunch break, so feel free to relax and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city from above.
Siesta in Style, 4 p.m.
Next up is the northeast side of Madrid, where you will find a more residential and family-friendly scene. Starting with Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s central park, take a leisurely stroll through the 350 acres of paths, gardens, fountains and even a crystal palace. If you’re there in the summer, you might even catch the Cuesta de Moyano, a hill lined with vendors selling books, where you can snag a tattered copy of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “Don Quixote.” Sit down in the small oasis and stay a while. With a set of fresh legs, pass by the imposing Puerta de Alcalá and head north to Barrio Salamanca, where you could spend hours window shopping and admiring the facades of Madrid’s elite neighborhood. During Christmastime, Madrid is known for its creative lights that are unique to each avenue, and Salamanca boasts some of the showiest displays.
Timeless Sunset, 7 p.m.
In Spain, the sun does not set until around 8 p.m. due to the country’s misaligned time zone, so take advantage of the extended daylight to make your way up to the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple from the 2nd century B.C. dedicated to the goddess Isis and donated to the country of Spain in 1968. On your way, stroll by Plaza de España for a statue of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra or detour through Parque del Oeste for views of the city’s edge.
Spanish Fare With a Twist, 9 p.m.
Time for dinner, so hop back on over to Malasaña for an upscale dining experience at 80 Grados for a locally sourced, organic and environmentally friendly twist on traditional Spanish dishes. Must-try dishes include salmorejo, patatas bravas and croquetas, a set of timeless tapas cooked no higher than 80 degrees Celsius. After dinner, meander down through Chueca, a popular neighborhood for Madrid’s gay community, to soak up the scene and savor the night.
Party Like a Local, 11 p.m.
If you plan on going out in Madrid, be aware of the late-night schedule that most Madrileños keep: Young people go out to bars around midnight and wait to hit the club until 2 or 3 a.m. Pace yourself by starting the night off at Malaspina, a crowd favorite for its mojitos and complimentary tapas. Next, stop by Star Coyote, a bar-and-club combination with locations both near the city center and the university, depending on what type of crowd you hope to find. If you make it to 3 a.m., end the night at Teatro Kapital, the famed seven-story nightclub. Each floor features a different genre of music, so if Reggaeton is not quite your speed, you are sure to find alternatives that better fit your taste.
Even after a busy day like this one, there is still so much more to see in the third-largest city in the European Union. Who knows? Maybe you will even decide to cancel your flight home.