Madrid is another must-see in Spain, though it has a different charm than Barcelona. There is a magnificent palace and some beautiful churches (and even a 4,000 year old Egyptian temple!), but in my opinion, it isn’t as immediately beautiful as its sister to the North. Still, with its magnificent museums, history, and breathtaking palace, it is definitely worth spending a couple of days here.
If you only had one perfect day in Madrid, I would do the following, though you need at least two to really take in the most important sights. A third day would also give you time for a day trip to Toledo!
Morning: For a tasty, Spanish breakfast that won’t break the bank but has all the atmosphere of the most hipster cafe in New York, head over to La Central. This coffee house/bookstore has great breakfast deals (a Spanish omelette and cafe con leche for €3, a toast with tomato spread for €2), and a cozy inviting atmosphere to enjoy your coffee outside of the busy Madrid shopping street right outside the door. There are also books to peruse, games for kids you can buy, and if you are lucky, a singing barista who will delight you with her voice as she squeezes fresh orange juice and brews coffee.
Mid-Morning: Head over to one of the two world-class museums Madrid has on offer. If you are there during the busy travel months, you can book tickets ahead of time to the Reina Sofia or the Prado. If you only want to visit one museum, then it really depends on your taste in art when deciding. The Reina Sofia has beautiful Dali masterpieces and Picasso’s world-famous Guernica. The Prado has an incredible collection that includes pieces from all the old-world masters, as well as Spain’s own Valesquez, Goya, and El Greco. They are both worth visiting, but I personally love the Reina Sofia because it has such different art than what I can see in other European museums. At the Reina, try to schedule your visit when there is a free lecture on the history of Guernica, which puts this masterpiece in context and really brings it to life with stories even your kids will find fascinating. Outside the Reina, there is even a play area, where you may see little kiddos running around with each other, so if your kids are older and want to move around a bit, there is no better backdrop than the Reina Sofia.
Note: Before heading to Madrid, you might want to check out the movie Goya’s Ghost. It definitely has some violence and disturbing scenes, so I would watch it sans kids but it gives a nice backdrop to some of Spain’s most tumultuous years and introduces you to the incredible artist who captured it all on canvas (Goya’s work can be found at the Prado).
Afternoon: Ahh, we are back to siesta time in Spain. Take this opportunity to enjoy a long, plentiful lunch at one of the many excellent restaurants in the city. Being a vegetarian, my recommendations
are limited, but we loved the lunch menu at the vegetarian restaurant Yerbabuena. It was €13 per person, but included three courses and a drink and all the food was extremely high-quality, fresh, and delicious (not to mention healthy).
If you are still hungry, head over to the iconic San Gines Chocolateria.This is also an option for the morning if you just love your churros y chocolate for breakfast. San Gines is Madrid’s most famous spot for churros y chocolate, so be prepared for a line. But, they move pretty quickly and the chocolate is definitely delicious!
Late Afternoon: This would be a good time to do a walking tour of Madrid. I suggest following Rick Steve’s walking tour, which includes some interesting historical nuggets and an opportunity to buy some delicious homemade cookies from nuns in a convent who you aren’t allowed to see. We did it, it was a fun experience and the cookies were yummy. You can also stop the walking tour to visit inside the Royal Palace of Madrid, which we didn’t do. We have both seen a lot of palaces and with a baby, it would have been too much. But, it is supposed to be incredible on the inside, so if you have the time and patient children, I would check it out.
Sunset: This is a bit of a walk, but I thought it was totally worth it (you can also take a taxi or bus). Head on over to the Temple of Debod. This temple was brought to Spain from Egypt in the 1970’s as a recognition from Egypt for all the work Spain had put in to preserving ancient Egyptian temples. The temple is more than 4,000 years old and sits on a small lake at the top of a park. It is beautiful at sunset and in the evening, when it is all lit up.
Evening: Time for tapas and/or dinner again! If you had the recommended large lunch, you are probably not craving a large dinner. So, I suggest grabbing a few tapas, and then strolling through the main thoroughfares of Madrid, which come to life in the evening. You will see babies out til 10 p.m. with their parents, grandparents, the city’s teenagers, you name it. Spain’s cities really come to life after dark during the evening stroll. Even if your bedtime is typically a little earlier, I would take in this magical atmosphere, enjoy some shopping that you couldn’t do in the afternoon, and take in some of the wonderful street musicians who will enchant you with their music.
Saturday Option: If you happen to be in Madrid on a Saturday during soccer (or as Europeans call it, Futbol) season, you might want to check out a Real Madrid game! Real Madrid is the number one soccer club in the world, so you can be sure their 85K person stadium will be full. However, within 24 hours of the game, the website opens up with some last minute tickets you snatch up. If you don’t find any seats together, then you can line up outside the ticket booth from about 1 p.m. and try to snag a few tickets that weren’t posted online. We did this and had a great time. We were able to get the cheapest tickets, which were €35 per person, and we are glad we did it. Note: even if you are with a baby, they need a ticket too, which unfortunately is not discounted. So, they may be sitting on your lap, but you’ll still have to buy a full-priced ticket. Also, no strollers, so make sure you bring a baby carrier if needed.
For more tips on general Spain travel, check out my 7 Tips for Traveling in Spain.