The centrally-located capital of Spain, Madrid so often gets overlooked in favour of its more touristy national counterpart, Barcelona.
But if you want to discover a more local city vibe in this country, then can I suggest heading for the capital instead.
A fairly small and easily navigable European capital, it’s amazing just how much of a Madrid itinerary you can cram into 2 days.
Yup with all the best parts of this city accessible in a short timeframe, this makes the Spanish capital the perfect weekend break option.
So here’s how to do it easily, enjoyably and most of all affordably!
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Getting to Madrid
From pretty much anywhere in Europe, Madrid is quick and easy to get to – just as well, because it’s on my list of the top 50 places to visit in Western Europe!
Budget airlines fly from across the continent to Madrid’s single airport and, as always, I use Skyscanner to find the best deals.
From Madrid airport, it’s then quick and easy to take the Airport Express Shuttle into the city, which operates 24 hours a day. Single tickets cost 5 euros and are purchased onboard with either cash (maximum is a 20 euro note) or by contactless card. Stay on until the last stop and the bus which will drop you at the huge Atocha station in central Madrid, where you can connect to the metro system.
Alternatively, if you’re taking the eco-approach (and well done you) you can easily arrive into Madrid from elsewhere in Europe via train or bus.
My go-to service here is always Trainline, which covers bus and train bookings across Europe and which I love for its easy-to-use app, price comparison feature and live departure boards.
When to Visit Madrid?
There’s no doubt that the peak tourist season in Madrid is during the European high season of July and August.
However, this is when it’s crazy hot in the capital and most Spaniards leave town and head for the beach!
As such, if you want to experience the local vibes of this city and not melt at the same time, I suggest undertaking your Madrid itinerary during the shoulder season of April – May or September – October.
Blue sky days and warm temperatures are still common at this time, the crowds thinner and the prices of accommodation lower.
I completed the exact Madrid itinerary I’m giving you here in mid-September and it was the perfect time to explore the city, with temperatures in the mid-20’s and those cloudless skies making the perfect backdrop for some good sightseeing snaps!
Madrid Itinerary: Day 1
On day 1 of your Madrid itinerary, I suggest exploring the east of this city.
If you stay near Tirso De Molina, as I did, then enjoy a leisurely breakfast in one of the many great cafes in and around this Old Town area that lies to the south of the station.
Panifesto Lavapies has some amazing sourdough you can grab and nearby Mamua Café Bar does a great espresso!
La Encomineda is also a top vegan restaurant in this part of the city and Adorado Bar Madrid comes highly recommended too.
Afterwards, enjoy a stroll through the historic streets in this part of town, which have some beautiful old alleys you can wander. The way the light catches them is stunning in the morning and each street is full of small independent shops that are perfect for a spot of window-shopping or picnic purchasing.
If you are visiting Madrid over a weekend, then on a Sunday the famous flea market at El Rastro, which takes place in this area, can’t be missed. It’s full of colourful characters and even more colourful artefacts!
In the afternoon on the first day of your Madrid itinerary, it’s time to get your cultural hat on and visit some museums!
Top of the list is the huge Prado Museum – where you could spend all day to be honest.
It’s one of the world’s best art museums and also one of its most visited. To truly appreciate the artwork here, I suggest taking a guided tour if you visit. This top option includes skip-the-line admission.
Follow the Prado with a stroll through the beautiful Botanic Gardens (Real Jardin Botanico), which make up part of the huge El Retiro Park.
El Retiro is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch in the sunshine (with one of those amazing baguettes from Panifesto Lavapies) and afterwards don’t neglect a stroll to the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) and a paddle on the lake at Estanque Grande del Retiro.
As the afternoon draws on, head to Puerta De Alcala for some iconic Madrid snaps, before hitting up the civic and cultural centre (Centro Centro) with has a fabulous observation deck.
Giving amazing views over the whole of Madrid – it used to be the main Post Office building in the city – it costs just a few Euros to get up there.
Then, for golden hour, take in Fuente de Cibeles just below the observation deck and finish along Calle Gran Via for a sunset shop and snap!
At night, head to the trendy Malasana district for some amazing drinks and then enjoy a late dinner – Spanish style! – around Plaza Santa Ana or a treat yourself to a Hammam experience at nearby Hammam Al Andalus Madrid if you’re pushing the boat out!
Where to Stay in Madrid
Without a doubt, the best budget accommodation in Madrid can be found through VRBO.
Honestly, I took one look at the prices of private rooms in hostels here and almost had a heart attack.
Even the cost of a dorm bed seemed extortionate in this city!
As such, I’d highly recommend finding a great local rental property in the city, which you can scoop up in a great location, such as around Tirso de Molina (where I stayed), for a fraction of the price.
Otherwise, if you want to be in the heart of the city, check out this epic apartment for 6 people, which is a bargain given its right in the city centre with aircon, beautiful decor and owners who are ranked as Premier Hosts too!
If you do prefer to stay in a hostel, perhaps because you are a solo traveller and want to meet others, then my top suggestion is The Hat Madrid, which provides good bang for your buck.
Madrid Itinerary: Day 2
On day 2 of your Madrid itinerary, it’s all about discovering the west side of the city.
Have breakfast near La Latina and enjoy the market and beautiful streets here – sitting out at one of the pavement-lining cafes really is the best way to start the day!
Don’t miss the Mercado de la Cebada in this area either, it’s a real local affair.
From here walk to Puerta del Sol and see the famous El Oso y El Madroño statue as well as the iconic Tio Pepe sign.
Then continue onto the glamourous Plaza Major.
Enjoy strolling through the arches of this central point in the city, which give a grand perspective of this huge and atmospheric square, and spend a while just marvelling at the beautiful architecture.
Although you can stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants / cafes here too, the prices are crazy, so I advise heading just around the corner instead to enjoy an atmospheric lunch in the busy Mercado de San Miguel.
A delight for street food lovers, this marketplace has been lovingly restored and now has a distinct foodie / hipster vibe to it. Meat and cheese lovers will be well catered for, but vegetarians won’t hungry either!
In the afternoon, hit up the Cathedral de la Almudena – a can’t miss part of your Madrid itinerary. It costs just 1 euro to enter this huge church, which is the main religious building in this city despite being relatively new.
After this, it’s onto the nearby Royal Palace which, if you want to visit, you should definitely buy tickets for in advance! Get your skip the lines tickets here… trust me once you’ve seen the queues, you won’t regret it!
Then carry onto the delightful Sabatini Gardens, and the impressive Teatro Royal, before heading to the Temple de Debod for sunset, where the elevated views will give a great perspective across the capital and the perfect end to your Madrid itinerary.
Then, after dark, I suggest heading to the fun Lavapies district for an insight into the cultural diversity of the city.
Once a dangerous, no-go area, this place is now filled with fun streetside, casual bars you can easily grab a social beer at.
Otherwise, play it more mainstream and check out the favourite nighttime entertainment street of Calle de la Cava Baja instead – which is back near La Latina metro station.
5 Essential Packing Items for Madrid
#1 Good Camera – You will be pretty much snapping non-stop during your time in Madrid and will need a good camera to do this gorgeous city justice. I highly recommend the Sony A6000, which I use for all my travels and love, not least because it’s light, compact and robust!
#2 Good Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking in Madrid, it’s as simple as that! Make sure your feet are comfortable therefore with a pair of New Balance Trainers. Perfect for stylish city strolling, I love mine!
#3 Good Guidebook – I’m still a massive fan of the Lonely Planet Guidebooks and do think their Madrid edition is well put together. Able to save you a lot of money if you want to learn about the history of this capital but not continually pay for a guide, getting the eBook is a great way to keep your luggage weight down too!
#4 Good Backpack – And to carry your camera and guidebook, you’re going to need a decent backpack that will help you balance the weight as you walk and sightsee. In my opinion, you can’t go past the Bobby Anti Theft Backpack, which is also perfect for helping you avoid pickpockets.
#5 Travel Insurance – And finally, at number 5, I wouldn’t go anywhere in the world without proper travel insurance coverage and always recommend the policies from World Nomads as the best option when backpacking Spain and beyond.
More Time for Your Madrid Itinerary?
If you have more than 2 days or a weekend for your Madrid itinerary, then I suggest taking a day trip out of the city to explore some of the gorgeous destinations around the capital on your 3rd day.
The cities of Toledo (a UNESCO-listed site known as the 2nd Rome) and Segovia are my pick of the Madrid day trips and this highly-recommended tour allows you to experience both in one day. It also includes a ticket to the Alcázar of Segovia, which apparently was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s famous castle!
And if you’re travelling to Madrid as part of a longer trip to Spain and are wondering where to head next in this country, check out the 7 day Spain travel itinerary I wrote for some brilliant ideas.
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So there you have it, my perfect Madrid itinerary for the best 2 day trip.
I’d definitely recommend getting this capital on your bucket list soon if you haven’t been already – it’s so easy to cover so much of it in just a short time that it’s an ideal weekend city break.
Have you been to Madrid?
Let me know about your experience in the comments box below…