The Prado Museum, Royal Palace & Plaza MayorMadrid 3 Days
Tapas, flamenco, the Prado Museum, Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Royal Palace – it is all the quintessence of Madrid. A city break in the Spanish capital is a journey into both centuries-old Spanish history and inspiring modern art & culture in the present-day vibrant metropolis.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 20 JUN 2020
Madrid is history, culture, art, tapas, museums, parks, people – all with a touch of the particular charm, atmosphere and character found in the Spanish capital.
Our 3-day itinerary covers a large number of the cultural highlights and top places to see in Madrid such as the impressive Gran Vía, the Prado Museum, the amazing Royal Palace, as well as the vibrant Plaza Mayor. We have included a bit of everything to get the feel of the city and the Spanish cultural heritage.
If your stay in Madrid includes a Sunday, make Day 2 of this itinerary the Sunday – since you will then be able to experience the Sunday flea market El Rastro.
DAY 1: The Prado Museum, Royal Palace & Plaza Mayor – Madrid 3 Days
You will start your first day in Madrid with a visit to the world-famous art Museum, the Museo del Prado.
The Prado Museum, in Spanish Museo del Prado or Museo Nacional del Prado, is the national art museum in Madrid. It features a spectacular collection of European art from the 12th century to the early 20th century, including a phenomenal collection of Spanish art.
The building was designed in a neoclassical style in 1785 by the architect Juan de Villanueva, and completed and opened in 1819. The structure was initially intended as the frame of the Natural History Cabinet. Nevertheless, Ferdinand VII, and his wife, Queen María Isabel de Braganza, decided that it should house a new Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures in Madrid – today’s Prado Museum. One of the cornerstones of the museum was the fine royal collection from Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs. Charles V, Philip II, Philip IV, Philip V and Ferdinand VII all contributed to the collections.
Since then the Prado has developed into being one of the most outstanding art museums in Europe. Today, the Prado Museum houses masterpieces of a wide variety of schools of European painting, in particular Italian and Flemish art.
Inside the Prado Museum you will find paintings by top painters such as El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, Ribera, Raphael and Van Dyck. Also Pablo Picasso’s Guernica from 1937 was here at the Prado Museum for a few years, before it was permanently moved to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 1992.
One of the true masterpieces you will have to look for is Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) by Diego Velázquez, the leading Spanish Golden Age painter. The young Infanta Margaret Theresa is surrounded by her maids of honour, two dwarfs and a dog. In the background, Velázquez portrays himself working. This is one of a whole range of Velàzquez paintings that the Madrid museum holds.
After filling your mind with visual impressions at the Prado Museum, you will now continue into the neighbouring Retiro Park. Just outside, or even inside the park, you will find several lunch options ranging from proper restaurants to places where you can just have a quick bite.
El Retiro or Parque del Buen Retiro is Madrid’s remarkable park which was first opened to the public in 1868. It was originally king Felipe IV’s urban oasis in Madrid. Despite a few years of decline during the War of Independence, the park has overall maintained its initial architectural lines and elegance. Today it is a most popular place in Madrid, both with tourists and locals. It is a lovely retreat in central Madrid!
There is always something going on here: puppet shows, musicians performing, groups of people interacting in the gardens… it is definitely the perfect place to do some people-watching!
You can rent a rowing boat for a refreshing ride on the lake, Estanque Grande del Retiro. Other attractions include
The Crystal Palace: It is a fine example of metal and glass architecture, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exhibition. Originally, it was designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco as a huge greenhouse in Madrid for tropical plants, but today it serves as an exhibition room by the Reina Sofía Museum. It is really outstanding in design – don’t miss it!
Palacio de Velázquez: This is an art gallery from 1881, originally known as the Palacio de la Minería. The palace was erected for the Exposición Nacional de Minería by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco. Today, it is used for temporary art exhibitions – and is even free to visit!
Alfonso XII Monument: The impressive monument, which is 30 m high, 86 m long and 58 m wide, was created by Benlliure in 1904 as the result of a national contest. An equestrian bronze statue of King Alfonso XII is the main motive surrounded by the statues ‘La Paz’, ‘La Libertad’ and ‘El Progreso’.
Relax in Retiro’s awesome gardens such as the Jardín de Vivaces, the Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, the Jardines del Arquitecto Herrero Palacios and the Rosaleda, which is a circular rose garden featuring over 4,000 beautiful flowers.
You can easily spend a few hours chilling out in the Retiro Park, where you soon will forget that you are in the middle of the bustling Spanish capital. There are really loads of things to do and discover here!
Now it is time to explore the renowned Gran Vía. You can take the metro a few stops from Retiro towards the Gran Vía. The famous street leads from Calle de Alcalá, located close to Plaza de Cibeles, all the way to Plaza de España.
Designed as a thoroughfare, it was part of the urban planning in the beginning of the 1900s and constructed from 1910 to 1929. The street was a playground for architects, and interesting buildings were erected here. The most famous is probably the Metropolis Building which was built between 1907 and 1911 by Jules and Raymond Février. Atop the building a statue of a winged Goddess, Victory, shows.
The Gran Vía has over the years been known as: Avenida de la Unión Soviética during the Second Spanish Republic, Avenida de José Antonio and Avenida de los Obuses during the Spanish Civil War. It is a historic street, and it was here that the first department store in Madrid, the Madrid-París, could be visited.
The esplanade features fine examples of the early 20th-century revival architecture, including styles such as the Vienna Secession, Plateresque, Neo-Mudéjar and Art Deco. It is still one of Madrid’s favourite shopping streets – and a main artery leading to the city centre.
If you are into a bit of shopping this afternoon, the pedestrian-friendly Gran Vía is a good option with all kinds of retail shops featuring well-known brands, as well as elegant upscale boutiques.
Anyway, you may also opt for the vibrant pedestrian Calle de Preciados, just off the Gran Vía, a good alternative with lots of boutiques, department stores, bookshops, fashion … plus a number of restaurants and bars. You will have your shopping appetite satisfied here!
Now, before this evening’s show, you may go for a cocido madrileño, callos a la Madrileña, a paella or a tortilla de patatas – maybe followed by some churros con chocolate in one of the restaurants here.
Would you like to attend an Andalusian top flamenco performance in Madrid? Then you may choose to spend the evening at the Teatro Flamenco Madrid. You will need to get tickets for the show in advance.
The flamenco show will show you the passion of flamenco. It is a flamenco experience with dance, song and guitar playing in its traditional way.
DAY 2: The Prado Museum, Royal Palace & Plaza Mayor – Madrid 3 Days
Before going to the Reina Sofía museum this morning, take your time to enter the Atocha Station just opposite.
The Atocha Station is today the hub in Madrid used for high-speed trains. What is, though, particular about the Atocha Station is the old part of the station which surprises with a whole little rainforest inside! It is a jungle in the city, created in 1992, where you will find around 7,000 plants.
The lush garden, which is free to enter, contains plants and trees originating from a wide range of tropical regions such as Polynesia, the Philippines, Cuba and Brazil. Rubber trees, banana trees and mahogany trees are examples of the spectacular vegetation here. There is also a water lily pond which became home to a few turtles.
After enjoying the greeneries here among coconut palms, coffee and cacao plants, you are now ready to cross the street to enter one of Madrid’s fabulous museums.
During your 3 days in Madrid, you will do two of the major museums. Day 1 you visited the Prado Museum, and today it will be the Reina Sofía Museum (you will therefore have to leave the third member of the ‘Golden Triangle of Art, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, for another time).
The Reina Sofía Museum or Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is Spain’s national museum of brilliant 20th-century art in Madrid. The museum is dedicated to Spanish art and has a collection which comprises works by distinguished artists such as Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Serrano and Eduardo Chillida.
One of the true highlights in the museum is Picasso’s oil painted anti-war work Guernica, which portrays the suffering of people whirling around among animals and flames – it is one of the real draws in this Madrid gallery.
Moreover, the museum also features international temporary exhibitions, and it is considered one of the largest museums in the world within modern and contemporary art – reaching over 4 million visitors per year.
With your mind full of impressions from the museum, you will after a couple of hours here leave for quite another experience in Madrid: the El Rastro flea market (best if you can make it on a Sunday, but there are also some stalls in the streets around on a weekday).
If you are so lucky to be here on a Sunday (swap the days in this itinerary such that Day 2 becomes a Sunday, if possible), you will now continue to ‘El Rastro’ flea market taking place every Sunday (open until 3 pm) between Calle Embajadores and the Ronda de Toledo. There is both a ‘main street’ – but also some side streets with the real gems! Anyway, a number of stalls and shops on Ribera de Curtidores are open on weekdays, too.
Antique objects, second-hand items, clothes, jewellery, handbags, electronic gadgets – you will find it all here at the vibrant and colourful market. Do watch your valuables, since pickpockets are known to operate here in the crowd.
Afterwards, pop into one of the many tapas bars for lunch, when you start feeling hungry!
In the afternoon you will visit the Royal Palace in Madrid. Check out in advance on the Royal Palace website how to buy your tickets, and buy them before going – not to waste your time once in Madrid.
The Royal Palace in Madrid has been home to the Kings of Spain for centuries. It is no longer so, but it is still the royal family’s official residence in Spain.
A fortress was constructed here between 860 and 880 AD. In the old days, when the city was under Moorish rule, it served to protect Toledo from Christians. Later, after the Christian reconquest of Spain, Madrid became the location of the Kings of Castile, and from the 14th century the building was established as the fortress Antiguo Alcázar. It was soon recognised as the royal residence in Madrid, a royal palace.
In 1734 a fire ravaged the palace in Madrid, and Philip V began a reconstruction of the royal residence, designed by the architects Filippo Juvara and Juan Bautista Sachetti. It has stood ever since, and this impressive Baroque construction is the present-day Royal Palace in Madrid.
His successors Charles III, Charles IV and Ferdinand VII elaborated the interior design and decor, for example in the Hall of Mirrors. Since then the layout of the Royal Palace and its 3000 rooms have gradually changed with new monarchs.
The Royal Palace features the most magnificent halls in Madrid including the Throne Hall with a painted ceiling by Tiepolo and the Hall of Halberdiers. In addition to these, the Palace boasts a number of other fabulous rooms and cabinets such as the flower-decorated Gasparini Room, the Royal Chapel with string instruments, the Painting Gallery with spectacular works by Goya and Velázques, and the Royal Armoury showcasing an outstanding collection of armour and weapons belonging to the Kings of Spain residing in Madrid.
Over time the Royal Palace has hosted many important ceremonies in Madrid. It was also here in the Hall of Columns that Spain in more recent time signed the agreement of entrance to the EU.
Only a few of the thousands of rooms in the Royal Palace are open to visitors, but it is still plenty to get a good impression of the grandeur and splendour of the place. During your visit you will have a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of royal life as it has been for centuries here at the court in Madrid. You will realise that time flies, and you will probably spend a good part of your afternoon in the Palace!
Not surprisingly, the Royal Palace in Madrid is among the largest palaces in Europe.
When coming out again from the Royal Palace, you will continue to the nearby Parque del Oeste, which is another lovely oasis in Madrid with a relaxed atmosphere.
It is a green area, a natural park, originally created by Celedonio Rodrigáñez in 1906. One of the major attractions is the Rose Garden Ramón Ortiz. It occupies 15,000 square metres, and holds the International Competition for New Roses of the Town of Madrid every year.
Go for a stroll in the landscape garden and discover interesting monuments and different parts of the park. Don’t miss the Temple of Debod, an Ancient Egyptian temple.
You may also want to try the gondola lift, the Teleférico de Madrid from 1969, connecting the Parque del Oeste with the Casa de Campo.
Now it is time to go for tapas. You will find your way to the characterful street Calle Cava Baja in central Madrid. It is a charming street full of traditional and popular tapas bars and restaurants with an overwhelming offer of Spanish tapas.
The vibe is great, and you will be able to try a wide range of tapas specialities and good wines in the taverns. It is a true heaven for foodies! You can make a ‘tapas crawl’ popping into the various bars. Try some Basque pinchos and a caña (beer).
DAY 3: The Prado Museum, Royal Palace & Plaza Mayor – Madrid 3 Days
You will set out in the morning for the Matadero Madrid, an unconventional art gallery and cultural centre located in the south of Madrid. You can take the metro from central Marid to the Legazpi metro station.
Matadero Madrid is a cultural complex which used to be an old slaughterhouse and a livestock market. It is set in neo-Mudejar style pavilions from the beginning of the 20th century, and the industrial buildings are among the architecturally most interesting constructions in the whole of Madrid! The architect Luis Bellido worked on the project from 1911 until 1924.
With time the buildings were redesigned inside. The old cowshed became the location of the Ballet and National Dance Company, and the former slaughterhouse closed down. From 2017 it has reached its full extent as a cultural centre containing all kinds of art genres.
The place is today a thriving creative and multidisciplinary space for experimental and avant-garde art. It comprises a huge exhibition area, artistic works, performing arts and theatrical workshops in the Naves Matadero buildings, creative design in the Central de Diseño building, innovative visual arts in the Cineteca, as well as a literature collection in the Casa del Lector building.
It is a site which encourages public involvement and participation – and a favoured location to attend concerts and shows. Unarguably, it is a fascinating and different side of cultural Madrid!
On the last weekend of every month, the Mercado de Productores, a farmers’ market, takes place at Matadero Madrid. Here you will find abundant fresh local produce and goods from artisan craftsmen.
After the market experience you will go back to the city centre to see the stunning neoclassical and Roman Catholic Basílica de San Francisco El Grande in the Palacio neighbourhood.
It features an impressive dome with a diameter of 33 metres and a height of 58 metres, the largest in Spain, above a circular floor.
At this location Saint Francis of Assisi arrived in the 13th century in connection with his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – which was the foundation of the convent. Four temples have been erected here, the last and current one being a Franciscan Order basilica dating back to the 18th century. It was designed in a neoclassical style based on a design by Francisco Cabezas.
What is real spectacular is the collection of paintings by renowned Spanish artists from the 18th and 19th centuries. It comprises exceptional works by for example Zurbarán, Goya, González Velázquez, Casto Plasencia and Francisco Jover. The Basilica also boasts a number of magnificent marble sculptures.
The Mercado de San Miguel in the heart of Madrid is next. It is also here on the famous market that you may be tempted to have lunch!
Inside the covered market from 1916 you will find gourmet tapas options at the more than 30 different vendors offering an enticing variety of freshly prepared tapas and other foods – all ready to eat. You can opt for beer, wine or champagne to drink along with the ham, olives, sausage and other appetising bites.
The second church you will admire today is the Almudena Cathedral a few hundred metres away. It is also a Catholic church and the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid.
When the capital changed from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the capital was left without a cathedral. Despite a lot of discussion over the years about the construction of a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena in Madrid, it was not until 1879 that such a project was finally undertaken.
Although first planned as a church which would serve as a pantheon for Queen Maria de la Mercedes, it was only with the creation of the Madrid-Alcalá bishopric, that the project changed to become the actual Almudena Cathedral. The original Gothic construction got inspiration from the cathedrals of Reims, Chartres, and León.
The work has taken about a century. The crypt was already opened in 1911, but work was put on hold during the Civil War. A new architectural design was proposed based on a national contest in 1944, won by Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro. It was changed to a baroque exterior matching the façade of the Royal Palace next to it. The cloister was completed in 1955, the main façade in 1960 and the entire Cathedral as late as in 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II!
Today it stands as an amazing, massive structure in central Madrid – and one of the absolute must-sees!
They sights lie all close here. A stone’s throw away from the intriguing Mercado de San Miguel you will reach the Plaza Mayor which is the real heart of Madrid.
The symmetrical Plaza Mayor is a beautiful square flanked by arcades and surrounded by three-story buildings dotted with balconies facing the square. It was designed and laid out during the Habsburg period in the neighbourhood which throughout the years has been famous for both bullfights and coronations.
The Plaza Mayor as of today was essentially formed by the architect Juan de Villanueva who was commissioned to do the project in 1790, after devastating fires ravaged this part of Madrid. He lowered all building fronts, enclosed the square corners and introduced nine magnificent arches as new, eye-catching entrances to the plaza.
Once the Plaza Mayor was adorned with lovely gardens, but those were removed already back in 1936, when the treasured Madrid space got a new look.
Centrally located in the square you will spot the bronze statue of the mounted King Philips III, which was constructed in 1616 after Giambologna’s design, but not placed on the very Plaza Mayor until 1848!
The Plaza Mayor features a number of elegant, stylish buildings with an interesting cultural heritage. One of these is the Casa de la Panaderia which was built by Diego Sillero around 1590. It used to be the main bakery of Madrid, which was particularly known for selling bread here at the Plaza Mayor at such a low price such that everyone could afford it. Later, it has been a place for royal lodgings, the History Academy and the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Today it houses the Plaza Mayor Tourist Centre which can provide you with all kind of visitor information about Madrid.
The Plaza Mayor is always bustling with people and it is the perfect place to do some people-watching right in the centre of Madrid!
All close to the Plaza Mayor you will find another one of the grand squares in Madrid, the semi-circular Puerta del Sol, also a busy place in the city. The Kilómetro Cero is the centre of the radial network of the roads in Spain – from where all distances are measured.
Another iconic thing on the square is the famous clock whose bells mark a Spanish tradition, namely the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes, one for each chime at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The Puerta del Sol was originally, in the 15th century, one of the gates through which you entered the walled city. Not surprisingly, the gate symbolised the rising sun which appeared here, since the gate faced east. Hence the gate was adorned with an image of the sun!
Meander around the remarkable square and pay attention to all the details!
One of the interesting monuments on the plaza is a huge statue of a bear eating fruits from a tree. It refers to the legend that a multitude of bears lived in the area where also a strawberry tree grew.
Nowadays the square is also often used as the focal point of protests and demonstrations.
When you are done here, it is time to find a good restaurant in the centre of Madrid, and you may pop into the Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world from 1725, just off the Plaza Mayor – at least to have a look!
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