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The Perfect Madrid 4 Day Itinerary

Move over Paris and London. Madrid is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. And we have all the details for the perfect Madrid 4 day itinerary. With world-class museums, lively food culture and beautiful city parks that hug the city with their green lungs, Madrid is a must-see European capital.

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How Many Days Do I Need In Madrid?

Three days is definitely enough to see the major tourist sites of Madrid. But if you are focused on Madrid alone, we love a 4th day in Madrid to get off the beaten track and experience some of the unique neighborhoods of Madrid. 

We recently spent over a week in Madrid, including day trips from Madrid to some of the local, unique towns accessible by high speed train. And we left still wanting more.

How to Spend 4 Days in Madrid

Day 1: Get a Feel for the City 

Madrid Walking or Biking Tour

We love to start our time in any new city with a walking or biking tour. You can grab a free walking tour with Sandmans that begins at Plaza Mayor. The tour goes daily at 11 a.m. 

Or you can arrange a walking tour in advance. This walking tour is about $15 per person so a bit more than the recommended tip. But the lower cost is primarily because it keeps the groups to 10 or fewer people.

Remember, while many walking tours are technically free, the guide depends on your generosity. A good rule of thumb is to tip 10€ per person. 

Or take a bike tour. If you know us at all, you know we love, love, love to explore a new city by bike. So of course we took the opportunity to see Madrid on two wheels. 

The tour we recommend begins just a block outside of El Retiro Park. And really there is no better place in Madrid to explore on bike than Retiro Park. 

The tour then takes you through Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace and then into the charming neighborhoods of La Latina, with a stop at Mercado la Cebada, then on to the Literary Quarter and a hint of Lavapiés. 

While you will definitely want to go back and truly explore all of these neighborhoods, the bike tour was an excellent way to get familiar with the major sites and neighborhoods of the city. And hey, we got do it all on a bike, which is the absolute best. 

Is Madrid bikeable?

A note about Madrid’s bikeability. We are always, always looking for our next place. And bikeability is really important to us. Madrid is definitely not as bikeable as Barcelona, with its protected bikeways. 

But as our guide described to us, there is definitely a city-wide movement in Madrid toward sustainability. And bikes are going to be a big part of that. The city has already invested in a bike share program. And our guide was hopeful that in the next decade, Madrid could move into the rankings of most bikeable European cities. We hope to someday put it on our list

Plaza Mayor

After your tour, you’ll want to head to the heart of Madrid. Originally constructed in 1619, the Plaza Mayor has been through several fires and a few names. The Plaza has been used as a market, bull fighting ring, and as a site for public executions. 

Today, people come to walk the square, admire the frescos, and take in the little shops and cafes around the square. We never recommend eating and drinking in any city’s main square, as the prices are high and the service typically not as good. But if the day is hot and you’re willing to pay a bit more, then maybe stop for a glass of cava.

Mercado San Miguel

Just outside of the Plaza is the justly famous Mercado San Miguel. The Mercado has been operating for over 100 years. And while it is not quite as old as El Boqueria in Barcelona which opened in 1217, it is perhaps more popular. But mostly with tourists.

Mercado San Miguel is a wonderful place to take in all the sights and smells of Spanish cuisine. But you won’t see many locals shopping there. Prices in the Mercado are twice as high than in most neighborhood grocery stores and markets. 

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seize the opportunity to walk by the over 30 food stalls. And if you are up for a splurge, definitely grab some Spanish manchego cheese. Amazing.

Explore the Oldest Part of Madrid

In the afternoon of your first day, we recommend spending the rest of your afternoon in the neighborhood of El Madrid de los Austrias. 

Named after the Hapbsburgs who ruled Spain from the 15th-17th century, this neighborhood, which also includes Plaza Mayor above, is the oldest part of the city. And given its historic roots, it is here that you will find the Royal Palace and the Madrid Almudena Cathedral.

things to do in Madrid: visit the cathedral of Madrid

The only cathedral in Madrid has a storied history. Started in 1887, the building endured multiple architects, underfunding, and a civil war. In the end, the cathedral is the product of two different styles of architecture: classical and neo-Gothic. 

While the Cathedral is very close in proximity to the Royal Palace, the two buildings are unconnected. The exception being that the Cathedral is placed on a north-south trajectory, versus the much more common east-west placement–to face the same direction as the Palace.

Visiting the Cathedral is free. Most visitors spend about 20-30 minutes, mainly taking in the enormous size of the Cathedral as a part of their time at the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real de Madrid

The largest royal palace in all of Europe, this site should definitely be on your must see list of places in Madrid. With over 3,000 rooms, the sheer size of the palace is difficult to comprehend from pictures alone. 

The Palace, once a Moorish fortress, is officially the home of the Spanish royal family. However, the king and his family choose to live outside of Madrid leaving the palace open to visitors when not in use for state functions. And It is certainly rare to be allowed admittance into a royal palace.

The palace is also home to amazing frescos and works of art by Goya, Carveggio, and many more. The cost to enter is 13€. However, like other state-run museums and sites, the site is free the last two hours it operates.

Day 2: Retiro, the Prado and the Literary Quarter

El Retiro

Start your day with some nature. El Retiro is one of the many UNESCO sites in Madrid. And truly Madrid’s “central park” is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. We definitely recommend seeing the park via bike. And it is easy to grab a bike through Madrid’s city bike share program.

Whether you experience this green space on foot or by two wheels, you definitely should not miss the Crystal Palace, an impressive greenhouse, built in 1887 for the World’s Fair. Another don’t-miss is the man-made lake that greets you just after the main gates. Here tourists and locals alike rent rowboats and enjoy some Spanish sun while paddling around the lake. 

Prado

Home to over 8,000 paintings including the largest holding of Spanish paintings, a trip that does not include the Prado is a missed opportunity. But be aware that this museum, similar to the Louvre, is quite overwhelming. So let go of any guilt and pick the 10 works you most want to see…and let the other amazing masterpieces go.

We placed the Prado in the afternoon of the second day, but we actually visited it closer to the evening. All state-owned museums and sites are free to visitors during their last two hours. So we actually took advantage of the savings and ended up spending a little under two hours taking in the Prado’s top highlights. 

However, if you want to get into the Prado for free you should definitely cue up at least 30 minutes before the free period. We were there at 5:45 (the free hours on Monday-Saturday are from 6-8 p.m.) and there was already a line at least 150 people deep. But not to worry, the line moved very fast.

We were most recently in Spain in November, which is not the high season. If I were in Spain during the high season of June-August, we recommend just paying the ticket price of 15€ and taking your time to more fully explore the Prado’s extensive holdings.

Atocha

If you are taking any day trips from Madrid, you will almost certainly find yourself in Atocha Station. But if that is not the case for you, the station itself is worth a stop.

In 1992, Atocha added a sprawling tropical garden to the center of the station. Under a roof of glass and iron, 7,000 different tropical plants brighten the commuter’s journey.

If you happen upon a rainy day in Madrid, grabbing a coffee at Atocha can make a dreary afternoon a bit brighter. 

Las Letras Neighborhood

If you want to walk the steps of such famous Spanish writers as Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega, you need a few hours to walk (or bike ride) the literary quarter of Madrid.

Literary rivals Cervantes and Lope De Vega actually lived on the same street–talk about bad luck. You can still visit the home of De Vega, but Cervantes’ home was destroyed. A commemorative plaque shows you where it was.

But mostly the literary quarter, which runs between the Paseo del Prado and Plaza de Santa Ana, is a great strolling neighborhood.

Day 3: El Rastro, Lavapiés and Reina Sofia

El Rastro

If you are in Madrid on a Sunday, you definitely have to check out El Rastro. A flea market with over 3,000 stalls. And no, I didn’t accidentally add an extra 0. There are just that many vendors.

Over 100,000 people come to the market in the heart of Lavapiés so if you are serious about getting some deals, get there early. The market is manageable between 9 a.m., when it opens and 10:30 a.m. But by 11 a.m. it is totally packed.

El Rastro at 11 a.m is packed to the gills
Packed!

Lavapiés Neighborhood Art Walk

If you appreciate street art with all of its colors and commentary, then look no further than Lavapiés. While a good tour of the art will probably center around Calle Lavapies, you can literally just wander the streets and see art everywhere. 

things to do in Madrid: see the street art of lavapies

But if you are interested in the artists and movements behind the works, we definitely recommend a guided tour of the street art. The tour takes about 2 hours. 

Mercado San Fernando

After an hour or two of experiencing the street art of Lavapiés, we definitely recommend stopping at Mercado San Fernando for good eats.

The outside of the market building itself is home to some beautiful street art. The market is one of 5 in central Madrid. 

Since 1944, the community has been working to revitalize this market. And their efforts have definitely paid off. We stopped and had the traditional tapas of patatas bravas and padron peppers. Yum!

things to do in Madrid: eat Spanish tapas at Mercado San Ferdinand

Mercados like San Fernando are definitely more for the locals than for tourists. So if you do visit Mercado San Miguel, from our day 1, Mercado San Fernando is a good alternative and opportunity for a more authentic Madrileño experience. 

Reina Sofia

If you visit one museum in all of Spain it should be Reina Sofia. The museum was literally built to house Picasso’s masterpiece, “Guernica.” And the artist’s commentary on the Franco regime should not be missed.

But even more than the art is the architecture. The museum was built around a renovated hospital and truly blends the past and present. 

Don’t miss the courtyard when you visit. Not only is the nature and open sky remarkable, they have one of the largest, most beautiful Alexander Calder sculptures that we have ever seen. And we are big fans.

things to do in Madrid: see the Calder at Reina Sofia

Day 4: Puerto Del Sol, Shopping or Strolling

Puerto Del Sol

Spain’s most central and most visited plaza is Puerto Del Sol. Originally the site of one of the city’s gates, Puerto del Sol is one of the most visited sites in Madrid. 

Visitors come to admire the famous Real Casa de Correos clock. And if you happen to be in Madrid – or any Spanish town – on New Year’s Eve, you are in for a treat. 

On New Year’s Eve, Spaniards gather in the town square and at the stroke of midnight eat twelve grapes to bring you good luck. Madrileños gather here under the clock to usher in the new year. 

Puerto Del Sol also has Oso y Madroño. The bear enjoying berries from a strawberry tree is the symbol of the city. The spot serves as a central meeting point for many Madrileños.

Near Puerto Del Sol is Madrid’s oldest chocolateria, San Ginés. The two-story shop has been serving delicious hot chocolate and churros since 1894. 

If you don’t stop at this chocolateria, you must, must, must stop at at least one during your time in Madrid.

Gran Via

If you are interested in the bright lights, big city side of Madrid, then Gran Via is your spot. Home to shopping, restaurants, shows and bars, Gran Via is the spot for you.

Casa De Campo

Or if you are interested in a quieter Spanish experience, ditch Gran Via and head to Casa De Campo. Once the royal hunting grounds, Casa de Campo has miles of walking trails. If you are traveling as a family, Casa de Campo is also home to the zoo and the Madrid amusement park, Parque de Atracciones.

Things to do in Madrid with Teens: The entrance to Parque de Atracciones  de Madrid

If you only have 3 days in Madrid or want to take a day trip, we definitely recommend combining days 3 and 4. Of all the activities in these two days the must see are El Rastro (if you are there on a Sunday), Puerto Del Sol, and the Reina Sofia.

Have More Than 4 Days: Day Trips from Madrid

We definitely recommend taking a day out of the city to explore one of the smaller towns and sites. Or even day-tripping it to Barcelona, read on for details.

When we lived in Spain, we overnighted in all of the sights that we are listing below. But even a day trip is absolutely worth it. 

We have kept the descriptions short, but if you want to learn more, we have more details on these sites, with the exception of Avila, on our post of best places in Spain for first-timers

El Escorial

El Escorial is a hugely impressive building that houses a monastery, basilica, royal palace and a mausoleum for most of the modern kings and queens of Spain, El Escorial is a lovely day trip from Madrid. 

Things to do in Madrid: Day Trip to El Escorial

Unlike the rest of the sites we’ve recommended, there is not a high speed train to El Escorial, but at only 40 minutes on a regional train, it is well worth the trip.

Toledo

It is hard to argue against what is popular and Toledo is definitely the most popular day trip from Madrid. And as a nearly perfectly preserved medieval town and the home of sword making since the 15th century, you will not be steered astray by the masses. 

The view from the public library in Toledo is stunning

When there, use our secret tip and check out the view from the cafe at the public library. You will not be disappointed.

Segovia

Perhaps our favorite little town, Segovia greets you with 2,000 year old Roman aqueducts. And if that isn’t enough, there is a remarkable late Gothic cathedral and an alcazar that puts any Disney castle to shame. 

things to do in Madrid: day trip to the roman aqueducts of segovai

Needless to say, we definitely recommend a day trip to this charming town. High speed trains go between Madrid and Segovia numerous times a day. You can also get there by bus. 

Avila

While not on our “must see” places in Spain, we still put the walled city of Avila very high on the list of places to see. 

What makes the town famous is its spectacular and very complete medieval walls. It is quite remarkable to literally walk about the city on the pathways of the walls like guards of old.

But what we loved the most was the food. If you are adventurous, the legendary chuletón de Ávila, or suckling pig is a must. 

Barcelona

Okay, maybe we are the only people crazy enough to do this. But on our last trip to Madrid, we literally day-tripped to Barcelona. 

Barcelona is absolutely worth multiple days on its own. But for this trip, we really wanted to center ourselves in Madrid. We also wanted to travel a little slower and were committed to not unpacking and repacking during our 8 nights. 

And so, we hopped on a 6 a.m. train going and a 6 p.m. train returning and made a big, long day in Barcelona. And listen, yes, it was a lot. But it was so very worth it. 

things to do in Madrid: day trip to Barcelona to see inside of Sagrada Familia

During our day trip, we of course visited Sagrada Familia, which everyone that can should visit in their lifetime. The day trip also afforded us enough time to see Park Güell, stroll the Rambla, and stop for drinks and tapas in the oldest market in Spain, La Boqueria. 

Barcelona as a day trip is a bit unconventional, but the high speed train makes the journey in just a 2.5 hour ride one way, so it isn’t impossible. We arrived home tired, of course, but so full of Spain’s most visited city. 

How to Get from Madrid Airport to City Center

Tourists arriving in Madrid can travel by public transit or private transfer from the main international airport, Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas.

Taking the Metro from the Madrid Airport to City Center

As budget travelers, we definitely recommend traveling by public transit. Line 8 of the Metro, the pink link, connects directly with the airport. 

However, be aware that if you are staying in the city center, you will most likely need to change trains at least once at “Nuevos Ministerios”.

A one way metro ticket is 1.50€. However, there is a 3€ per person airport surcharge, both coming and going via the metro to city center. So expect to pay 4.50€ per person for your one-way trip from the airport into the city center. 

The time to get from the airport to the city center really depends on where you are staying. Staying in Lavapiés took us about 40 minutes on the metro.

Take a Bus from Madrid Airport to City Center

You can also take the Express Bus from the airport to the city center. The bus is called the Express 203 line. It stops at each terminal and then ends at Atocha station. 

The bus takes about 40 minutes, if traffic isn’t too crazy. And the cost is 5€. The bus may be better if you are staying in Retiro or Lavapiés. But if you are staying in Centro or Malasaña, then it is much smarter to use the Metro.

Private Transfer from Madrid Airport to City Center

A taxi or rideshare from the airport to the city center will cost between 30-40€. 

Where to Stay in Madrid

Madrid is divided into 21 districts, but not all of those would be of interest to tourists. Tourists visiting Madrid typically stay in Centro, Salamanca, Malasaña, Retiro, La Latina, Las Letras, or Lavapiés. 

Our favorite neighborhood is Lavapiés. We love the bohemian art vibe, the amazing non-Spanish food (listen, I know the Spanish food is amazing, but after living there sometimes you need delicious Indian food), and its proximity to Atocha for day trips. 

Here is a quick breakdown of the most common neighborhoods.

Centro: Best for first timers 

Salamanca: Most luxurious

Malasaña: Best Budget

Retiro: Best for Families

La Latina: Great for Foodies

Las Letras, the Literary Quarter: Culture Seekers

Lavapiés: Street Art, Nightlife, and Bohemian Vibes

Tips for Visiting Madrid the First-Time

Prepare to Eat Late

Spaniards eat late. The mid-day meal is typically eaten around 2 p.m. And the evening meal is eaten after 8 p.m. 

You can certainly keep your own eating schedule, especially if you are budget travelers like us and tend to cook a lot of our own meals to save money while traveling. But definitely be aware that restaurants often don’t reopen in the evenings until 8 p.m. if you want a sit down meal.

However, at any time, you can grab some tapas and drinks at local eateries and cervecerias. Spaniards tend to grab a drink and a few tapas on their way home from work around 7 p.m. So you are never going to miss out, making an early (by Spanish standards) dinner of tapas. 

Learn Some Spanish

In general, only about 27% of Spaniards speak English, which of course makes sense, given that it is not their cultural or national language. 

According to the English Proficiency Index, out of all of Europe, Spain, Italy and France have the lowest English proficiency in Europe. If you are curious, the Dutch have the highest. 

So see this as an opportunity to pick up some tourist Spanish for your trip. Even just the all important question, ¿Hablas inglés? Is the best place to start.

Use Public Transit

Madrid has a wonderful public transit system. Their metro is comprehensive and reliable, and where it doesn’t go buses do. You really should have no reason not to get around by public transit or your feet in this very walkable city. 

What Metro Card Should I Buy When Visiting Madrid?

While you can certainly buy single tickets on public transit, the most cost effective way to travel is to buy a reloadable card. Madrid’s ticket choice for all short term travel is called the “Multi Card.”

As with most public transit systems, your first step is to actually purchase the card. In the case of Madrid’s Multi Card, at 2.50€, the cost is quite reasonable. And machines at every metro station sell them.

However, the benefit of the multi-card is that the entire family or group traveling together can use the same card. So you only need to expend that initial cost one time regardless of how many people are traveling with you.

As tourists, you really have 3 options: single passes, a 10-trip pass and the tourist pass. Let’s debate all three choices.

If public transit is your main mode of transport, besides your feet, and it should be because Madrid’s Metro is fantastic, then we definitely recommend moving beyond the single ticket. 

While the single ticket allows you to never buy a ticket you won’t use, it also requires you to stop and reload every single time. Ugh. So we definitely recommend adding the 10-ticket pass. A single ride on metro or bus is 1.50€

We think the 10-trip pass is the best way to go because it allows you to only stop once to load every day or two depending on how much you ride – and how big your group is. But unlike the Tourist Pass, which we will explain next, you aren’t paying for rides you won’t take. The 10-trip pass is 12.20€. So if you compare it with purchasing single tickets, you are basically saving a quarter every time you ride.

Tourists can also get the tourist pass. The daily cost of the tourist pass goes down the more days you have it. So for example, a one-day tourist pass for Zone 1, which is the main center of town where most tourists stay, is 8.40€. But a 4-day tourist pass is 22.60€, which comes out to about 5.65€ per day.

Okay, so why choose the 10-ticket pass over the tourist pass? It is really a preference. But in truth Madrid is a very walkable city. It was very rare for us to use public transit more than 2-3 times per day. If you ride public transit 3 times daily, using the 10-ride pass, the daily cost is 3.66€. 

So the 10-ride pass basically saves you about 2€ per day. What is 2€, you might be thinking. Well not that much really. But if you are budget travelers like us, 2€ per day x 3 people over 4 days is 24€. It isn’t everything. But it is definitely some delicious tapas and a few cañas or a few more chocolate bars at the grocery store. 

Pack Good Walking Shoes

As discussed, the public transit system is top notch in Madrid. And yet, many of the main tourist locations are near enough to each other, that it often makes more sense to walk than ride. 

When we are in Madrid, it is not uncommon for us to walk 6-8 miles in a day. So pack a really reliable pair of walking shoes so each day you are excited to explore more of this amazing city.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Madrid 4 Day Itinerary

Is 4 days enough in Madrid?

Yes. In truth, three days is enough to see most of the major sites in Madrid. 

Travelers will often use the 4th day to day trip to either Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, Avila, or El Escorial.

Is Barcelona better than Madrid?

Clearly, preference is a factor. But for longer stays, Madrid with its museums, cultural sites and amazing day trips is a much better base than Madrid.

Can you day trip from Madrid to Barcelona?

Yes, we did it. There are numerous high speed trains that run between the two cities. The trip is 2.5 hours one way.

While only spending 1 day in Barcelona will not allow you to see all the amazing sites of this city. It does let you visit the major sites and get a nice feel for the city.

We were pretty tired after our day trip from Madrid to Barcelona. But it was absolutely worth it.

Is Madrid safe?

Yes, crime rates are relatively low in Madrid. Of course, there is always the concern of pickpockets, especially if you spend time at El Rastro. But be smart, keep your wallet close, and don’t be flashy with anything.

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