24 Hours in Madrid, Spain: What to Do During a Long Layover

by | Last updated Jul 21, 2021 | Europe | 0 comments

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So you just landed at the Madrid Barajas International Airport with a long layover. What to do? Instead of wasting away the day inside, why not explore Madrid’s top attractions while indulging in scrumptious tapas? That’s at least what we decided to do with our 24 hours in Madrid on our way to France from the USA.

Initially, we didn’t think we’d have time – or would even be allowed – to exit the Madrid airport and stay overnight in the city center. But we did and could! Right now, Spain is a green country and you can leave the airport’s international zone. (Note: the country’s current status could change in the near future, so check first).

Despite our long 9-hour flight from Dallas, we arrived in Madrid at 9:30 AM local time with feet itching to explore.

After checking in at our Airbnb in the heart of Madrid near Puerta del Sol, and after a much-needed shower and power nap, we wandered out into the maze of cobblestone streets connecting charming plazas and large, ornate squares to discover the best of Madrid in one day.

Here’s what to see and do with one day in Madrid during a long layover!

How to Spend 24 Hours in Madrid on a Layover

girl standing on plaza in madrid spain during a long layover

Getting From Madrid Airport to City Center

Once you pass immigration and collect your baggage, you’ll head down to the metro station on the ground floor. Getting from the airport to Madrid’s city center is easiest by metro, but you can take a taxi, bus, or train if you need to.

🚇 HOW TO GET A METRO CARD

To purchase a metro ticket, make your way to one of the large red machines. To use the metro around Madrid, you need to purchase a multi metro card (Tarjeta Multi) for 2.50€. With this card, you can recharge e-tickets on it and enter the metro electronically.

For 24 hours in Madrid, you will need a bare minimum of two metro tickets; one to get from the airport to the city center and the second to get back to the airport from the city center. You may consider also buying 1-2 extra tickets to get around Madrid’s attractions faster, in case you don’t want to walk everywhere.

🎟 METRO TICKET COST

  • Single metro ticket for one-way journeys on the same day (1.50 – 2€)
  • A packet of 10 metro tickets (12.20€)

You must also purchase the extra airport ticket, which costs 3€, when coming to/from the airport.

man purchasing metro tickets inside madrid airport

There are 12 metro lines in Madrid, plus bus, railway and tram lines. For simplicity, stick with the metro system since it is well-connected to all of Madrid’s top things to do.

📍 DIRECTIONS TO CITY CENTER

To get from the Madrid airport to the city center (Puerta del Sol), take the pink metro line 8 to destination Nuevos Ministerios.

From here, take the blue line 10 in direction of Puerta del Sur and get off at Tribunal. Next, change to the sky blue line 1 to finally get off at Sol, where you’ll start your one day in Madrid itinerary. This journey takes around 30 minutes.

Sol metro entrance and Tio Pepe advertisement sign on Puerta del Sol plaza in Madrid

Alternative option: Take the metro line 10 all the way to Plaza de España if you want to first visit The Royal Palace, the Miguel de Cervantès Monument, and the Sabatini Gardens. 

Travel Tip: Track how much time it takes you to get to the center because you need to estimate at what time you’ll need to leave to get back to the airport. Consider delays, weekend crowds, and the metro hours which circulate from 6 AM – 1:30 AM.

Where to Stay During a Long Layover in Madrid

If you have more or less 24 hours in Madrid to spare during a layover, it’s best to exit the airport and stay overnight in a hotel or Airbnb. The city center is concentrated with tons of things to do and see, making a quick trip even feel productive.

women in rooftop pool at dear hotel in madrid spainImage credit: Dear Hotel via Booking

To be at the heart of Madrid, find a hotel near Puerta del Sol. From here, you can walk to pretty much anywhere in the city center without having to use up another metro ticket.

Recommended places to stay nearby:

Wherever you stay, consider how far away it is from the nearest metro station so you can easily get back to it the next morning/evening to catch your flight onward. Use this metro tourist map to get an idea of which attractions connect to which metro stations.

The Perfect 1 Day in Madrid Itinerary

buildings and lamp post of madrid spain at sunset

Madrid is the capital of Spain with tons of history, art, cuisine, parks, plazas, etc… So don’t even try to fit all there is to do here in one day! My advice would be to pick 1-3 activities and do them well – or fully – so that you have time to appreciate what you’re doing.

That said, feel free to make this itinerary your own. Below are the top things to do in Madrid in one day, including highlights of our personal experience and some attractions we didn’t get to do.

Free Walking Tour in Madrid

To get an awesome bite-sized overview of what Madrid is all about, take a free walking tour around the historic city center (Madrid a Pie).

girl at plaza mayor on self-guided walking tour of madrid spain

You will find guides with white umbrellas departing from Plaza Mayor every day leading groups of tourists in both English and Spanish. The tour lasts for 3 hours and takes you sightseeing to the following top attractions in Madrid, including:

  • Main Square / Plaza Mayor
  • San Miguel Market
  • Gran Via / Main Street
  • Almudena Cathedral
  • Convent of the Carboneras Sisters
  • Puerta del Sol

You can reserve a spot online or simply show up. Although it’s marketed as free, donations are encouraged (and expected).

If you’d prefer to have a dedicated guided tour, Madrid offers fascinating history walks, private Segway tours, and fun wine & tapas crawls, and more!

 

plaza with painted buildings in madrid spain

charming buildings and streets of madrid

Madrid Self-Guided Walking Tour

We missed the 11 AM free walking tour, so instead we did a self-guided one around Madrid starting with the center point of Spain at the Puerta del Sol.

Admittedly, walking around on our own was less fun than going with a guided group but we made the most of it and stumbled upon stuff we initially didn’t expect to see.

Overall, we passed by:

  • Paseo del Prado / Prado Museum
  • El Retiro Park
  • Neptune Fountain
  • Sainte Jerome Cathedral
  • Mercado San Miguel
  • Plaza del Ángel
  • Plaza Mayor
  • Puerta del Sol
  • Casa de Cisneros

and more that I’m sure I’ve forgotten! Here’s a rough Google map outline of everywhere we walked to.

Tour Madrid’s Art Walk (Museums)

paseo de Prado and Prado Museum in Madrid SpainPrado Museum

Saint Jerome the Royal is a Roman Catholic churchSainte Jerome the Royal Church

Madrid is teeming with incredible museums. For example, the Reina Sofía, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Prado Museum are three notable art museums that collectively form the “Golden Triangle of Art” of Madrid. You won’t be able to carve out time for each, so choose wisely!

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is a popular choice among first-timers to Madrid since it houses Picasso’s large 1937 anti-war oil painting famously known as Guernica.

The smaller but equally fascinating Thyssen-Bornemisza features art across styles and centuries. Then, of course, Spain’s National Art Museum – Museo del Prado – attracts art lovers far and wide to steep in masterpieces from other schools and the largest collection of Spanish paintings.

We didn’t have the energy to walk around a museum this time, but we did go promenade through the Paseo de Prado and go to see the museum, El Retiro Park, and the San Jerónimo el Real parish. Quite the hangout spot!

Tip: Purchase your direct entrance tickets online in advance to save time waiting in line.

 

Wander Around Plaza Mayor

people walking around plaza mayor, madrid's main square

bicycle on balcony inside Plaza Mayor in Madrid Spain

The Plaza Mayor, or Main Square, is not to be skipped on any 1-day Madrid itinerary.

It boasts an elaborate, rectangular plaza with ornate buildings featuring over 200+ balconies. At its center stands a statue of King Philip III, created in 1616. The square’s history dates back centuries and is interesting to read about (or hear about if you take a walking tour).

You may notice as well that the square has 9 large arch entrances, once used as gates. Inside, restaurants line the outer walls while winding cobblestone streets lead out into different directions of the city.

Between the two towers is an impressive fresco called the Casa de la Panadería which depicts the goddess Cybele and her marriage to Attis, plus details that represent Madrid’s history and culture as the capital of Spain.

Plaza Mayor fresco - Casa de la Panaderia in Madrid Spain

restaurant and arch entrance to plaza mayor in central madrid spain

Eat Tapas at Mercado San Miguel

I think one of the best things to do in Madrid – whether you have one day or three, five, seven – is to EAT and DRINK!

Gathering to eat tapas (also known as “tapear” in Spanish) is very engrained in Spanish culture. What’s better than drinking a glass of tinto de verano or a copa de cava while sitting around eating gourmet snacks and appetizers?

While you can find tapas bars and tabernas all over Madrid, the number one place to go is at the historic Mercado de San Miguel. Everything from the building and location to the atmosphere and diversity of food is invigorating.

inside the gastronomic market of Mercado San Miguel in Madrid Spain

mini crab patty tapas inside Mercado San Miguel in Madrid Spain

charming building of Mercado San Miguel gastronomic tapas market in Madrid Spain

Here, you can find immerse yourself in the flavors from every corner of Spain. There are other markets in Madrid, but this one is considered one of the finest gastronomic markets in the world.

Don’t miss out! Go early to snag a seat as you can imagine space fills up quickly. (Don’t worry – take away is possible, too.)

Explore Puerta del Sol

statue of Charles III and Tio Pepe building on Puerta del Sol public square in Madrid Spain

The Puerta del Sol in Madrid is considered the middle point of Spain and where Km 0 begins. In Spanish, it means “Sun Gate” which represents its historical significance as one of the city’s main gate entrances during the early 15th century.

On this lively square, you will see several significant monuments and buildings. Located just outside the Sol metro exit is the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree – the coat of arms of Madrid.

statue of bear and the strawberry tree on puerta del sol plaza in center of madrid spain

A plaque encrusted in the ground on the south end of the plaza commemorates the starting point of the Spanish road network at kilometer 0. You can find it right in front of the current office of the President of Madrid, which used to be the old Post Office.

Last Tips for Spending 24 hours in Madrid

Plaza Mayor in Madrid Spain with 200+ balconies overlooking plaza

What to pack and wear: Madrid can be brutally hot in the summer – pack light and wear breathable clothing. Since this 1 day itinerary in Madrid demands a lot of walking around, make sure to wear comfortable shoes. I wore my Teva sandals and shorts/shirt from Aerie and managed fine!

Safety: Madrid is a big city. So even though it’s safe, know that pickpocketing is common. Avoid strolling the side streets after dark, especially if you’re carrying valuables. Leave your travel gear in your hotel room and carry a light day bag as you explore around.

Metro: The metro system is confusing when you first arrive in Madrid, especially if you are traveling across “zones” that have different fees. For only one day in Madrid, consider purchasing single-journey tickets or a bundle of 10. Remember to buy the add-on airport ticket when traveling from the airport T2 or T4 stops.

Jetlag: Spain is typically 6 hours ahead of the eastern United States and 9 hours ahead of the west coast. You’ll experience jet lag in waves – I’d recommend taking no more than 20-minute power naps to ease into the new sleep cycle. Don’t forget to hydrate!

Most of the time, we slow travel. But trips like this, where we only have 24 hours to explore, we tend to pick up the pace. And although we didn’t get to participate in Madrid’s, we always join the city walking tours wherever we go because they offer such great oversight into the local culture while clueing you in on hidden gems.

This was our first time in Madrid and our first time exploring mainland Spain together (beyond Ibiza). Even though the clock was ticking on our stay, we enjoyed ourselves as much as possible in between bouts of achiness and sleepiness.

At the end of our day, we sat down at one last tapas bar (on the charming Plaza de Angel) and had a fresh plate of burrata mozzarella, olives, and a side dish of salmon with guacamole. All of it hit the spot and prepared us to leave Spain on a good note and jet off to France in the morning.

I hope this guide to spending a long layover in Madrid helps plan your short stay! If you have any questions about spending one day in Madrid on a long layover, shoot me a comment down below!

SAVE THIS GUIDE TO 24 HOURS IN MADRID TO PINTEREST! 

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Hi, I’m Bri! I’ve been slow traveling around the world in search of new adventures since 2013. I have lived in 8 countries on 4 continents including Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Europe! I created this blog to inspire others to live a life of adventure, seek out meaningful experiences, and to travel slowly and mindfully. Join me on this journey and let’s tick off our bucket lists! Read my story here.

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