Explore Madrid in 2 Days
It takes time, effort and planning to properly explore Madrid. It is not a city we felt we could even begin to get to know in 2 days. In that time we could only pick a few highlights that interested us. We planned our time and metro travel carefully to explore Madrid and make the most of the 2 days.
In Madrid we found a higher security presence than we had been used to seeing so far. Particularly in the busy main square Puerta del Sol considered by many to be the modern heart of Madrid. After terrorist attacks in many of Europe’s iconic and busy spots it is no surprise this square has a constant armed police presence.
A good starting point for exploring Madrid is Plaza Mayor, a grand open square, likened to Madrid’s ‘living room’. This square has seen it all, bull fights watched by royalty, burnings at the stake, and executions during the Spanish Inquisition. These days the tourist office is here and so are the tourists. But if you visit with the history of the square in mind and ignore the souvenir sellers and the knock off handbags it is an interesting stop.
We were very interested watching the street hawkers, with counterfeit football tops and handbags, scarper when the police arrived. The hawkers are known as manteros, mantas means blanket. Visitors to European cities will have seen the many illegal goods arranged on blankets with rope tied at each corner. At the first sign of police, the ropes are pulled and all the goods are scooped up into a bundle and thrown over the shoulder. As soon as the police are gone the goods are arranged for sale again.
In Madrid the majority of manteros are from West Africa. They are economic migrants who have found themselves shut out of the job market by institutional racism and immigration bureaucracy. Having come to Spain in search of a better life they are forced into illegal street vending to support their families back home. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this situation, we learnt that there is more to that fake handbag or football shirt than meets the eye.
Chocolateria San Gines
If you need to start your day with a coffee and a pick me up, walk a few minutes away from the square, to the passage of San Gines, hidden in this alleyway you’ll find the queue for the best chocolate y churros in Madrid.
Established in 1894 this cafe serves traditional thick hot chocolate with churros, sweet fried dough sticks, to dip. Up there with tapas and paella, churros are an iconic Spanish food. With traditional marble table tops, green banquette seating and gold lettering, this charming cafe has hosted literary greats (and now seems to be host to every tourist in the city) and is a must do in Madrid. Don’t be too put off by the queue, you order as you arrive so it moves fairly quickly and there is more seating downstairs. But if it is too busy San Gines is open 24 hours a day so try again later!
One serving of chocolate with churros is often enough for 2 people to share, the chocolate is very rich. Best eaten hot and fresh.
Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
The tour of Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the stadium of Real Madrid was an absolute must for Paul and L. It was one of the reasons we chose to head North to visit Madrid, rather than follow the coast to Barcelona. The stadium tour is quite expensive, 43 Euros for just the two of them, so we split up for a couple of hours while they did their football thing. Our little football fan had an absolute ball and was buzzing with excitement afterwards. It was well worth the cost for a Real Madrid fan.
Here is what he wrote about his experience:
Today I went to Bernabeu Stadium. The Stadium of Real Madrid. My favourite thing was standing on the pitch. We saw the locker rooms, the trophy cabinets, the showers, the tunnel and the plunge pool. I got to sit in the players dugout and in the press room. At the end we watched a video about the players explaining their experience of running onto the pitch. It was lots of fun, and the best thing I have done in Europe.
After spending so much time in Europe I decided it was about time we visited an art gallery and got a little culture. Madrid is the ideal place to do this.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
We chose to visit Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia because they have many pieces by Picasso and Salvador Dali. I like Picasso and Paul is a fan of Salvador Dali’s work. The entry charge here is very reasonable, children are free in many museums and galleries in Spain. Reina Sofia has Madrid’s premier collection of contemporary art including one of Spain’s most famous artworks, Picasso’s Guernica.
We spent several hours there, enough for the children! Kids and art galleries aren’t always an easy combination. My best tip for keeping them engaged and interested in an art gallery? In each space ask them to pick their favourite piece of art and tell you why it is their favourite. If you are allowed to, you could take a photo of them next to it. If you can get your children to engage with one piece of art in each room then I think you’re winning. After all none of us can take in a whole gallery in one visit.
The gallery has interactive pieces too, museum staff make a real effort to engage the kids and show them what a moving sculpture could do.
Conveniently the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is walking distance to Madrid’s stunning Parque del Buen Retiro. Walk along the path of booksellers and you’ll come to the park entrance.
Parque del Buen Retiro
This 17th century garden and park is where the people of Madrid go to relax and stay cool in the summer. A focal point of the 125 hectare park is the artificial lake, you can rent a rowing boat for an iconic Madrid experience. The park also has a theatre with puppet shows on the weekend. With palaces, fountains and countless statues, not to mention more than 15,000 trees you could spend days here! It makes a restful stop when exploring Madrid and a good chance for kids to stretch their legs after the gallery.
It took us awhile to get to the actual park, we were pleasantly side tracked by the carousel… This was something that had been on Siena’s birthday wish list but we hadn’t seen one in Granada, so we had to make good on our promise here. The Europeans do have the most beautiful carousels.
Mercado San Miguel
If pushing and shoving amongst hundreds of other tourists to order a lukewarm, over-priced lunch is your thing. Then you should definitely head to Mercado San Miguel at lunchtime. If not, then do some research and figure out a quieter time to visit!
This market in central Madrid is worth seeing to browse the fresh produce and look at all the different tapas and Spanish dishes on offer. Or take a seat at the bar (if you can get one) and enjoy some Spanish wine or Sangria.
This covered market is no longer a place where locals do their weekly shopping. But it is a place where friends and family meet for a drink and a bite after work. Food can be hit and miss, some we enjoyed, some just wasn’t fresh and hot enough. And it isn’t cheap, considering you mostly have to stand to eat and drink. Visit for the atmosphere and the buzz but perhaps not the best food in Madrid.
Tip: Get a receipt for every purchase. You’ll need proof of purchase to use the toilet otherwise they charge you 50 cents. The toilets are guarded by grumpy, rude Spanish woman, they’ll shout at you if you don’t have your receipts.
Spending the tourist dollar wisely
As tourists or ‘travelers’ we got tired of being treated like a walking wallet. On the other hand, I understand the need for cities and countries to find a way to fund the increased infrastructure needed to cope with the tourist masses. For the most genuine and memorable experiences we must keep seeking out the small, local business that needs and appreciates our custom, rather than the souless tourist spots. But it isn’t always easy to do.
Our next stop, halfway between Madrid and Barcelona we found just such a place. We fell back in love with Spain and Spanish hospitality after becoming jaded by our big city experiences in Madrid.