24 Hours in Madrid: The Best One Day Itinerary for Museum and Art-loving Junkies
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
My 24 hour adventure in Madrid was part of a longer, week-long stay in San Sebastian, Spain.
Going solo for a day-excursion as a female traveler, I am sharing my 1-day itinerary for staying staying safe and seeing Madrid.
Stop! Get a Multi-Pass before you go anywhere.
If you're anything like me, then every time you hear multi-pass you see Leeloo from 5th Element saying Mul-ti-pass... Mul-ti-pass... Mult-ti-pass... over and over.
Madrid's multi-pass might not promise a Leeloo-and-Korben-Dallas-space-adventure, but it's definitely the best way to kick off a zany 24 hours in Madrid. I'll be including my recommended metro-stop to reach each of the destinations below.
If you're flying into Madrid, you can purchase a Tarjeta Multi-Pass in Terminal 4.
The pass costs about 12 euro and allows for 10 trips on the metro (more than enough for 1 day). You can check out Metro Madrid for some more details about how to purchase the Multi-Pass at the airport.
1. Now, let's begin at the Palacio Real.
What better way is there to begin than at the home of the Royal Family?
The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. Okay, so they don't actually live there anymore, but the palace is still used for ceremonies. In fact, it is the largest, functioning Royal Palace in Europe! It has 3,418 rooms! (take that, Versailles)
If you love art, this is a fantastic place to start. You'll swoon over paintings from Caravaggio, Juan de Flandes, Goya, Velazquez and frescoes by Tiepolo, Giaquinto, Teniers, and Mengs.
If music is more your thing, then guess what? This palace is home to the world's only complete Stradivarius String Quintet. Seeing the quartet is a look-but-don't-touch experience... but occasionally the Royal Palace hosts concerts! If you can catch a concert on the day you're in Madrid, you can hear these exceptionally rare instruments played by the Cuarteto Quiroga—the in-house Royal Palace quartet.
Hours: 10am to 8pm (last entry is 1 hour before closing time)
Cost: 10€ but there are some free days
Pro Tip: if you're willing to spend a little more, you can avoid standing in line by booking a skip-the-line guided tour
2. Feel the energy of the Spaniards and their Sun.
I've never understood why we don't have city plazas in the United States. There's nothing more reviving than to people watch on the plaza, grab a drink on a cafe patio, and soak up a few rays of sunshine. The plaza Puerta del Sol—Gate of the Sun—is the beating heart of Madrid. For hundreds of years it has been a gathering place and a gossip-center.
Check out the clock-tower, little cafes, and shops surrounding the Plaza.
Metro: Puerta Del Sol
Pro Tip: if you want to take a fun photo, find the Kilometer Zero plaque in the center of the plaza. This marks the exact location of the heart of Madrid. All radial roads in Spain are measured from this spot!
3. Snag a yummy and cheap lunch
One of the things that kind of sucks about European culture is how long it takes to get food. I get it. Food is sacred, enjoy the time to relax, it's a social experience, yadda yadda yadda...
As nice as it is to sit down and have a gourmet meal, when I'm trying to travel fast and affordably, the last thing I want to do is spend 2 of my precious hours tucked away in the corner of a restaurant. Besides, who am I socializing with anyway?
Close by the museums is an infamous Tapas Bar & Sand-which Shop called El Brillante.
Be sure to try some Bocadillos—fried Calamari in a sand-which. This place was a reasonably priced and delicious lunch for a traveler on the go.
4. Study the Art Masters with Queen Sofia
Reina Sofia Museum
Hours: 10am to 7pm
Pro Tip: Ticket sales stop at 2pm, so be sure to get your ticket before then!
I should share a brief story with you solo-female travelers on this one:
As I stood in line for the Reina Sofia Museum, a gentleman in line said something to me in Spanish. I couldn’t understand. So, I sheepishly replied with my *immaculate Spanish, “Um...Lo siento, no entiendo. ¿Hablas Inglés?”
He then asked, “is this your first time in Madrid?”
I hesitantly responded, "Uh...Yeah..."
Great... I just identified myself as foreigner...
I immediately felt anxious. Could he tell his question freaked me out?
Why did he care? Was he going to ask me anything else?
I suddenly tried to remember the hundreds of safety tips I had read just weeks before coming to Madrid. Muddled bits of information spun around in my mind. What was it again that I wasn't supposed to share? Hmm...I felt my secret pocket. Was my passport still there? Yep, okay. Phwef.
Well, I definitely think I'm supposed to do something like cling to my bag for dear life cause this guy's pick-pocket buddy is about to emerge from some murderous alley, snatch it, and run away or something...
Just then I heard his voice again. “Ah, here have my ticket. I will get another,” he handed me his ticket and walked over to the ticket booth to get another. "Everyone should see this museum and traveling is expensive," he said as he walked past me and into the museum.
I was jet-lagged, sunburned, and make-up free. I knew I definitely wasn’t looking hot enough to be hit on... if that's what he was going for. No, I knew there had to be some other reason he had talked to me and given me a free ticket to the museum.
Is this some sort of scheme? Buy the tourist a museum ticket and then when she's distracted by the art... kapow!?! Didn't see that one coming, did ya?
Nope. Nope. Nope. Turns out there was no reason for me to be paranoid at all.
At the end of the day, it was just a kind gesture from a good person. I think this experience, though, is what a lot of women go through in their traveling adventures. It's hard not to be paranoid. It's hard to receive a kind act without assuming there's a hidden agenda. And sometimes it's hard to see the best in people.
So, thank you kind gentleman for buying my museum ticket and sorry for being a *paranoid solo traveler* and thinking you were a creeper.
Madrid is a FABULOUS place to travel solo if you like museums and art.
You can linger as long as you want, and guess what? No one else gets bored or frustrated because you wanted to stare at a painting. Plus, in Madrid you're never really alone.
You get to hang out with Rubens, Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali, Dominguez, Maritte, Goya, Poussin, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Teniers, Lorena, Titian, El Greco, Raphael (not the ninja turtle), Velazquez, Murillo, and Ribera.
Part of me really wants to delve in deep here and give you an entire art history lesson about this museum... but I will spare you and just give you the cliff notes version.
Reina Sofia contains art from the 19th century onward. It tells stories of conflict, progress, political clashes, cultural ideals, and ultimately what it means to be human.
One of the most famous works housed here is Guernica by Picasso. It stands as a 20th century testament against oppressive regimes. Learn more about Guernica.
Seeing Guernica was one of the most visceral art-viewing experiences I have ever had. As I walked through the museum, I was greeted with crude sketches from Picasso’s childhood. Rarely do we get to see how the masters became the masters.
It was an incredible reminder to me that all great artists start somewhere, and they weren't always great when they started.
I was surprised by how many sketches Picasso did in preparation for creating this piece. In just two months he produced over 50 drawings/sketches and modified the large canvas several times! He wanted to get every face right. Every pose needed to be mastered. The entire composition was to be artfully assembled, and it was.
(no photos of Guernica are allowed inside the museum)
5. Make one last stop at the Museo Nacional Del Prado
Hours: 10am to 7pm
Metro: Banco de Espana and Atocha Stations
Pro Tip: If you can get to Europe before you turn 26, do it! Most of the museums will be free or significantly cheaper. Another blessing in Madrid was arriving at this museum, worried about money and finances, only to find out that I could get in for free! I was able to show the ticket counter my passport and they let me in for free. (Granted, they got a laugh out of the fact that I was just barely under turning 26 and narrowly squeezed in for free)
This museum is truly spectacular. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed.
When you first walk in you enter a long corridor of enormous, floor-to-ceiling fleshy nudes. Ruben surely liked painting voluptuous naked people. One of the things I admire about the work of Rubens is the way that he treats the female body in his artwork. it is remarkable, curvaceous, and distinct to his artistic legacy.
Since I couldn't take any pictures to share with you, some of my favorite pieces from this museum were:
Flevit Super Ilam by Enrique Simonet 1892 oil on canvas. Simonet depicts Christ’s humanity. Simonet traveled to Palestine to pain an actual setting and find appropriate figure types for his painting.
5 panel Altar Piece by Miguel Ximenez 1475-1485. The mixed media painting, which comes from the church of Santa María in Ejea de los Caballeros (Zaragoza), is made up of five panels. The central panel represents the Resurrection.
The Lovers of Teruel by Antonio Degrain 1884. Absolutely gorgeous work.
Joachim Patinir - no particular painting but I LOVED his use of color.
The Descent from the Cross by Roger Van Der Weyden Wow. Just wow.
The Dead Christ by Agapito Vallmitjana Barbany 1872 sculpture in marble offers an austere, realist interpretation notable for its technical perfection.
Art can transport us, enlighten our minds, and evoke feelings. I may have only visited Madrid for a day, but I felt as if I had seen Madrid through the ages.
In some eras, being a painter was like being a religious educator and a photographer. Art survives longer than people do and it often conveys our values. It is a wonder to me how works of art can take years, even decades, to complete. Where does an artist find that creative willpower?
Should we learn to be content with where we're at, or aspire to be more than we are?
If you have more than 24 hours in Madrid
I didn't have a lot of time in Madrid, so there are certainly some sights I missed out on.
On another pass through this city I would check out Madrid's hidden gems
Stroll Gran Via
Hang out at Plaza Mayor
See Mercado San Miguel
Check out the flea markets at the Rastro
Churros & hot chocolate at San Ginés (They’ve been making hot chocolate and churros since 1894)
La Tabacalera Museum
Eat Japanese food in a World War II bunker YUGO
Templo de Debod (Egyptian temple in the middle of madrid)
Javier Puerta Museum of Anatomy
Dolmen de Dali