One of the sunniest and liveliest capital cities in Europe, Madrid has a lot to take pride in. Indeed, its inhabitants, the Madrileños, are so proud of their city that they modestly declare “desde Madrid al Cielo”: that after Madrid there is only one remaining destination – Heaven. While their claim may be open to dispute, this compact, frenetic and fascinating city certainly has bags of appeal and its range of attractions has made it a deservedly popular short-break destination. Here's a day-by-day itinerary to help you plan a perfect weekend filled with amazing things to do in Madrid.
Things to do in Madrid: Day One
1. The Prado
The Prado is Madrid’s premier tourist attraction and one of the oldest and greatest collections of art in the world. This top things to do in Madrid contains a fabulous array of masterpieces by artistic greats such as Bosch, El Greco, Titian, Rubens Velázquez and Goya.
2. The Retiro
Ward off any museum fatigue by freshening up with a stroll, jog, bike ride or even rollerblade around beautiful and bustling Retiro park. The tranquil gardens within the park are exquisite, and row boats can be hired from the shore of the lake. Be sure not to miss the Crystal Palace, originally built as a greenhouse for exotic plants in 1887, and which can now be admired for its architectural beauty, and the temporary exhibitions which it holds - you'll never get bored with the things to do in the Retiro.
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For a taste of some classic Castillian cuisine, as well as excellent homemade deserts, try the well-regarded Asador Arizmendi in Tirso de Molina. Getting acquainted with the food is one of the top things to do in Madrid, something worth carving out time for.
4. The Palacio Real
Marvel at the magnificent, over-the-top decor in this one-time royal residence now used only for ceremonial purposes. The palace was built in the eighteenth century by Felipe V, who sought to create a luxurious palace to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Crown, as is evident in the swirling marble floors, celestial frescoes and gold furnishing.
When it comes to coffee in Madrid, it's worth splurging a little: looking out over the plaza towards the royal palace, the elegant but pricey Café de Oriente makes a great place for a relaxing drink.
6. Plaza Mayor
Built when the city became Spain’s capital in the sixteenth century, Madrid’s atmospheric main square is now primarily a tourist haunt, but retains an aura of traditional elegance and grandeur. A large bronze statue of Felipe III, dating from 1616, dominates the centre of the square - a walk around here is still one of the top things to do in Madrid.
7. Madrid de los Austrias
Next, explore the twisting grid of ancient streets surrounding the square, filled with Flemish-inspired architecture of red brick and grey stone. The barrio (district) of La Latina, which stretches south of the square, is particularly appealing.
Hit the tapas trail around barrio de la Letras, the literary quarter, known to locals as las Huertas. Hop from bar to bar, sampling local specialities. Casa Alberto, Casa González and Casa del Abuelo II are good places to make a start.
Finish the night off with one of the most thrilling of things to do in Madrid: some authentic flamenco at Casa Patas. The best nights are Thursday and Friday.
Things to do in Madrid: Day 2
1. The Thyssen Museum
The Thyssen holds an outstanding art collection assembled by the Thyssen-Bornemisza dynasty and provides an unprecedented excursion through Western art since the fourteenth century. From pre-Renaissance works to cubism and surrealism, there's certainly something for everyone
2. The Santiago Bernabéu
Home to the all-star Real Madrid football team, a tour of this 80,000 seater stadium is a must for any football fan. Catch a glimpse of the hallowed turf as you visit the changing rooms, stroll around the edge of the pitch, and take a seat in the VIP box. Better still, take in a game.
Prepare yourself for a spot of shopping in Chueca and Malasaña by sampling a mouth-watering range of tapas at El Bocaito.
Located in the commercial heart of the city, vibrant and bustling Chueca and Malasaña districts are home to some of the city’s hippest fashion outlets and most interesting independent stores, including a host of vintage shops.
5. Museo Reina Sofía
An essential stop on the Madrid art circuit is the Museo Reina Sofía, an immense exhibition space providing a permanent home for the Spanish collection of modern and contemporary art, including Picasso's monumental room-sized painting, Guernica
6. Gourmet experience
Head for the ninth floor of the city centre branch of the classic Spanish department store El Corte Ingles to enjoy some breathtaking views of Madrid. Gaze out over the Capitol building on the Gran Vía, the Palacio Real, and out towards the distant mountains from one of the bars and food stalls set up on the top floor.
Established in 1725, El Botin is holds the Guinness record as Europe’s oldest restaurant, and serves up superb, traditional Castillian food.
8. Dance til you drop
Work off some calories with a dance at one of Madrid’s many nightclubs. Joy Madrid has an eclectic mix of music, a fun atmosphere and a fantastic setting for a late-night drink.
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The perfect trip can't do without the perfect place to stay, study our guide to where to stay in Madrid and find the right one for you. For an alternative Spanish city break explore our guide to Valencia city break: a perfect weekend in Spain.
Discover more of Madrid with the Pocket Rough Guide to Madrid. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image: Old cobbled street in Madrid © Catarina Belova/Shutterstock.
Top image: Gran Via, Madrid's main shopping street © Studioimagen73/Shutterstock