How to Decide What to Do for 24 Hours in Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid from the Almundena Cathedral.
The Royal Palace of Madrid from the Almundena Cathedral.

You have 24 hours in Madrid to see and eat everything the city has to offer. Well, that’s not going to happen. But you can get a good feel for the city if you’re willing to prioritize and make a few tough decisions.

Here’s a guide to decide what to do for 24 hours in Madrid by answering some basic questions.

Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain.
Plaza Mayor, one of the most famous sites in Madrid.

How to Decide What to Do for 24 Hours in Madrid

First, Spanish or American Breakfast?

Breakfast isn’t really a thing in Spain so do like the locals and start your day with coffee and pastries. Go with the Spanish specialty of Cafe con leche (coffee with milk) at Toma Cafe, a hipster hangout serving beans roasted in-house, or HanSo Cafe, a welcoming shop with plenty of pastries.

If you can’t function without a breakfast more substantial than coffee and pastries, Toast Cafe and Cafe Oliver serve traditional American breakfast while Cafe Federal serves healthier options.

Now: the tough questions.

Royal Palace of Madrid
Royal Palace of Madrid has 3,418 elaborately-decorated rooms.

Tour the Royal Palace or the Museo del Prado?

Now you’re caffeinated and ready for some art and history. Today, you’ll see both, but first you have to decide whether to tour the Royal Palace or go to the Museo del Prado. One provides a peek at the Spanish royal family’s lavish life while the other is one of the world’s first — and best — art museums.

Why you should go to the Royal Palace of Madrid:

The Royal Palace of Madrid is still officially the residence of the Spanish royal family, but only used for state ceremonies. Construction started in 1735 and took 20 years to finish. The result is the largest royal palace in Europe by floor area, with 3,418 rooms occupying 1,450,000 square feet of floor space. Inside is a royal library, armory, pharmacy, chapel and crown room, all decorated with paintings and frescoes by some of Spain’s most famous artists, like de Goya and Caravaggio.

Bonus: If you have time, visit the Almundena Cathedral across from the palace. Climb to the top of the cathedral, built in 1993, to see a stunning view of Madrid and the Royal Palace.

The Crystal Palace in Bueno Park, Madrid.
The Crystal Palace in Bueno Park.

Why you should go to Museo del Prado:

The Museo del Prado is one of Madrid’s most well-known attractions and one of the best collections of European art in the world. Even the building itself, built in 1785, is an example of art and history. The main collection began as royal art holdings, so much of the art reflects political alliances from the 15th through 17th centuries. That means there’s plenty of art from France and Italy while England, Holland and Protestant artists are lacking.

Bonus: If you have time, visit the Palacio de Cristal nearby in the Buen Retiro park. The glass and metal structure, built in 1887 to exhibit greenery from the Philippines, is now empty but fills beautifully with light on sunny days.

Casa Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid.
Casa Botín’s building is from 1590 and the wood paneling added in 1725.

Eat at Casa Botin or Mercado de San Miguel?

There’s a lot of good food in Madrid, but you only have 24 hours in the city so every meal counts. Madrid is home to the world’s oldest continually run restaurant, Casa Botin, but also the Mercado Market, both steps away from the Royal Palace and Plaza Mayor.

Why you should go to Casa Botin:

Casa Botin was founded in 1725 and has been serving suckling pig (and other traditional dishes) ever since. Even the oven dates back to the 18th Century! Painter Francisco de Goya (the artist you spent the day admiring) worked as a waiter there and Ernest Hemingway (you know, the author) mentioned the restaurant in The Sun Also Rises. The inn-turned-restaurant is undeniably touristy, but the food is actually quite good. (See the full post on Casa Botin in Madrid here.)

Fried seafood at the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid.
Fried seafood at the Mercado de San Miguel.

Why you should go to Mercado de San Miguel:

Mercado de San Miguel is one of the most popular markets in Madrid, and with good reason. Inside the massive market is pretty much a build-your-own tapas smorgasbord with every kind of Spanish food you can imagine. Jamón ibérico hangs from the ceiling (and it’s served in cups! Meat cups!), seafood is served in every rendition possible, croquetas, burrata, every food you want to try in Madrid is at your disposal, complete with vermouth on tap or wines by the glass. (Vermouth on tap is a must-try!)

Related :: 7 Foods to Eat in Spain

Wine at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
Plaza Mayor is my favorite place for people-watching (and wine).

Relax at Plaza Mayor or see Flamenco?

Some people like to go from place-to-place while traveling, others like to soak it all in (and by that I mean day drink). At this point in your one day in Madrid, decide whether you’re in the mood to relax or experience some energy. If you want to relax, head to Plaza Mayor. If you want excitement, head to a Flamenco show.

Why you should have wine at Plaza Mayor:

Plaza Mayor dates back to 1577, even though construction for the current plaza didn’t begin until 1790. (The famous statue of Philip III, however, is from 1616.) Since then the plaza has showcased bullfights, executions during the Spanish Inquisition, marriages, markets and more, but mostly it’s been home to shops and cafes — like today.

It’s undeniably touristy, but one of Madrid’s trademarks. Don’t waste your time eating at any of the overpriced tourist restaurants; instead grab a table with a good view and order some wine. It’s overpriced too, but at least it’s good. People-watching is amazing here, from idiotic tourists (probably Americans… #SorryNotSorry) and people taking endless selfies (we’ve all been there).

The Metropolis Building in Madrid.
The Metropolis Building is another famous landmark of Madrid.

Why you should see a Flamenco show:

Flamenco dancing originated from Spain’s southern region, but some of the country’s best dancers perform in Madrid. Cafe Chinitas is a small flamenco bar with great dancers (and mediocre food, so skip eating). The dancing at Las Carboneras incorporates a modern flare in a former palace (!), while Villa Rosa stays true to flamenco’s Andalusian roots with traditional Arabic flair.

Related :: Four Days of Wine and Wandering in Madrid

Grilled octopus at el Apartamento in Madrid.
Grilled octopus at el Apartamento in Madrid.

Where to eat Dinner in Madrid?

After spending all day in Madrid’s past, it’s time to come to Madrid’s present. As you can expect from any world-class city, the food in Madrid is outstanding. The best restaurants pay homage to Spanish cuisine mixed with modern influences. There are a handful of Michelin-rated restaurants plus those receiving tons of praise, so picking the place is the hardest part. Reservations can be tough to come by, so book in advance if you can, and remember dinnertime in Spain is around 10 pm.

If you’re looking for restaurants in Madrid, check out el Apartamento (innovative Spanish), La Cabra (Michelin-rated traditional cuisine), Casa Labra (known for salt cod croquettes since 1860), Cafe del Principe (for a beautiful view), or La Casa del Abuelo (an Andy Warhol  favorite).

Churro in Madrid.
Churros are a must-eat in Madrid!

Sweet Ending

To end your 24 hours in Madrid, there’s only one thing left to do. And, of course, by that I mean one thing left to eat: churros and chocolate. The duo is a Madrid favorite famous around the world and you can’t leave Madrid without eating it. Chocolateria San Gines is a tourist favorite since 1894 that never closes. Since it’s open 24 hours, no matter how late (or early) it is, you can stop for a sweet taste to end your day in Madrid. Chocolateria Valor is a less touristy option with more varieties of chocolate for your churro-dipping pleasure.

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Madrid is worth visiting even if you only have 24 hours to spend there. But if you have more time, there’s plenty to do to fill a few days, plus great places nearby for day trips, like Toledo.

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