Madrid in 1 day

madrid for a first time traveler

A hub of culture, history, and modernity, Madrid offers a perfect starting point for your Galician adventure. As you acclimate to the Spanish rhythm, take a day to explore three iconic sites within the city: the majestic Royal Palace, the expansive Retiro Park, and the world-renowned Prado Museum. Each destination encapsulates a distinct facet of Madrid’s allure, providing a glimpse of the grandeur that awaits as you embark on your Galician escapade.

Finally, you’re venturing into the enchanting region of Galicia, Spain, chances are your journey will commence in the vibrant capital city of Madrid. Craving a whirlwind Madrid experience in just one day? Look no further. In this guide, I’ve distilled the essence of this vibrant city into three must-see places that will make your day unforgettable. Even if it’s your first time in Madrid, get ready to explore it like a seasoned traveler. We will focus our day around the 3 must-see:

My tip: By securing your tickets ahead of time, you'll not only save valuable time but also bypass long queues. This holds particular significance for the Royal Palace, where a scheduled entry is required.Meanwhile, for the El Prado Museum, entrance tickets offer flexibility.
Gabriela Garcia

The Royal Palace

A timeless masterpiece of opulence, the Palacio Real is the European largest palace. Majestic architecture, rich history, and grandeur come together in this royal residence, offering a glimpse into Spain's regal past.

madrid in 1 day

Let’s kickstart our day with a visit to the Royal Palace. Whether you choose to begin your itinerary from the end, both options are ideal for the early morning, when the crowds are yet to arrive.

The Royal Palace History

The Royal Palace dates from the 17th century, but it actually rests on the site of the old Alcázar of Madrid, a medieval castle converted into a palace. Philip II made of it the official residence of the monarchs of Spain beginning in 1561. The Alcázar was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Eve 1734. According to legend, members of Philip V’s court of French ancestry started the fire with the aim to build a French-style palace. Philip V was Louis XIV’s grandson, and was raised in Versailles.

At 12.15 am, December 25, a fire was declared in the palace.Even with the fact the building was quickly evacuated and monks from a nearby convent rang the bells, the warning was ignored. People believed it was the call to the Midnight Mass.Despite their efforts, it is estimated that at least 500 paintings got burnt. Surprisingly, a portion of the pictorial collections had been moved ahead of time to the Palacio del Buen Retiro in order to protect them from the reforms begun by Philip V. The fire consumed the palace over the course of four days. Extraordinarily, the royal family was nos there, even though Christmats Eve was normally celebrated at the Royal Chapel. Those facts, along with the reality that Philip V detested the palace and the speed of the proposal to build another one on the same grounds arose, were the ingredients that fed the rumor that the Monarch was after the fire.

The first stone of the new palace was set in 1738, and building was not finished until 1751. For the monumental task, King Philip V commissioned the best European architect of the period, Filippo Juvarra, who was succeeded by Gianbattista Sacchetti after his death. Charles III, the first monarch to live in the Royal Palace, moved there in 1764.

Although it is still the King of Spain’s official residence, the current kings do not live there. Howver, the palace is frequently used for official audiences and events.

What to see in the Royal Palace of Madrid

You won’t have time to visit all 3,400 rooms (they won’t let you, anyhow), but you should pay attention to the following:

Plaza de Armería 

From the Hall of Columns to the Porcelain room: The most magnificent part of the palace is visited along a guided trail. It includes the Gasparini Room, the Throne Room, Charles III’s room, etc..

A must-see for anyone who enjoys weapons is the Royal Armoury. After leaving the main building, proceed to the right.

The visit will last about 2 hours. After leaving, walk in the  Plaza Mayor direction, or stop in the near San Miguel Market.  This culinary haven invites you to savor an array of gourmet delights – from Spanish tapas to fresh seafood – all under one exquisite roof. You deserve a rest  😉 To explore some of the delicious snacks could be a good idea, the day is gonna be long, my friends!A

El Retiro Park

This verdant haven offers an escape from the urban rythm, where tranquil lakes, lush gardens, and shaded pathways beckon. A breath of fresh air awaits as you venture into this iconic park, ready to unveil its hidden delights and provide a moment of reprieve from the city's pulse.

Before moving to the next spot, please, take a look to the near Plaza Mayor, if you haven’t. Walk to Sol, the social hub of the city, and consider using Metro line 2 to go to El Retiro (otherwise is a 25′ walk that you should save to enjoy the park AND the museum!). 

Once in the park, don’t miss: 

-The Cristal Palace, where you can finde itinerary exhibitions organized by the Reina Sofía Museum. It used to be a greenhouse for exotic flowers.

-The lake (El estanque), where you can row. Too tired? Consider a short and refreshing nap in the breezy surroundings. Admire the Monument to Alphonse XII, inaugurated by his son, Alphonse XIII in 1922.

– the Rosaleda, or roses-garden, with more than 4.000 rose bushes, which look and smell amazingly during May and June.

-the Fallen Angel, discover the enigmatic allure. This artistic monument made of bronze and granite is maybe the only one monument depincting Lucifer’s fall from Grace. Intriguing, isnt’ it?

I hope with this urban oasis let you ready for our next stop. Leave the park through the Felipe IV door, and walk 5 minutes to the museum. If you are feeling hungry, see my suggestion at the end of the post.

El Prado Museum

Nestled in the heart of Madrid, lies a treasure that has captivated the world for centuries – the renowned El Prado Museum. As one steps through its grand entrance, they are transported into a realm where the genius of some of history's most celebrated artists comes to life.

first time in madrid
Larry Wentzel, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

What to see in EL PRADO MUSEUM

The Collection

El Prado Museum, originally built as a Natural History Cabinet by King Charles III, has evolved into a sanctuary of artistic expression.The museum’s halls are a labyrinth of creativity, hosting an array of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts that whisper tales of their creators and the eras they hailed from. 

The Prado Museum in Madrid is indeed vast, housing an extensive collection of artworks spanning centuries. With over 8,000 paintings, 7,000 drawings, 4,800 prints, and 1,000 sculptures, it’s one of the most important art museums in the world. 

My tip:
Navigating such a large collection can be overwhelming, which is why joining a guided tour can be immensely beneficial. In brief, a guide will focus on the main masterpieces and tell you about their historical and cultural contexts.
Gabriela García

The main artworks

However, if you decide to visit the museum on your own, grab a map once you enter, at the information desk. You should not miss the following crown jewels.

El Prado, ground floor: Bosch, Durer and Goya

– The garden of Earthly delights, a tryptich masterpiece by Hyeronimus Bosch. Painted in the early 16th century, it’s a surreal journey through paradise, earthly indulgence, and nightmarish visions. Take your time to pay attention to the details:  The left panel depicts the biblical Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve in a lush paradise surrounded by exotic animals.The central panel unveils a vivid and surreal panorama of human indulgence and pleasure. It features a fantastical landscape filled with bizarre creatures, extravagant architecture, and scenes of hedonism and excess. Finally, the right panel is a harrowing depiction of the Las Judgment. It portrays a chaotic scene of souls being judged, tormented and condemned to various fates. (1505)

-Durer’s self portrait is notable for its exceptional attention to detail and its presentation of the artist as a refined and sophisticated individual. The fine clothing and intense gaze convey a sense of self-assuredness and dignity. The portrait could indeed be interpreted as Dürer’s attempt to position himself as a respected member of the emerging intellectual and artistic elite. (1498)

-Goya’s 2nd and 3rd of May: these artworks showcase Goya’s masterful use of emotion and storytelling. The 2nd of May captures the Spanish uprising against French forcesin 1808, exuding chaos and defiance. In contrast, The 3rd of May portrays the brutal aftermath, with Spanish civilians facing a French firing squad. The contrast between the two scenes highlights Goya’s ability to convey human suffering and resilience, making these paintings profound reflections on the horrors of war.(1814)

-Goya’s dark paintings are a series of haunting works created during his later years, reflecting his profound  disillusionment with the world. Painted directly onto the walls of his residence, these somber artworks explore themes of madness, mortality, and societal decay. They include the mithologic Saturn Devouring His Son,  Aquelarre, a nightmarish scene of  demonic figures. 

El Prado,first floor: Velazquez

In the first place, Las Meninas, by Velazquez:  This iconic work offers a glimpse into the Spanish court, depicting the young Infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by her attendants, a mirror, and the artist himself.The artist’s self-portrait in the mirror raises questions about perspective and the viewer’s role, while the play of light and shadow showcases Velázquez’s remarkable technical skill. (1656)

-Surrender of Breda, by Velazquez. the artwork captures the moment of victory as the Spanish general Spinola graciously accepts the keys to the city from the Dutch commander Justinus of Nassau, during the 80 years war. Observe how Velazquez conveys the dignified exchange between the two sides in a powerful allegory of humanity and honour. (1635)

-Las Hilanderas, or The Spinners, by Velazquez. Velázquez’s mastery lies in his ingenious play with perspective, blending reality and myth. The foreground features the women working, while in the background, a tapestry unfolds depicting the Greek myth of Arachne challenging the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Velázquez’s fusion of two scenes within a single painting explores themes of creativity, craftsmanship, and the blurred lines between reality and storytelling. (1660)

El Prado,first floor: Rubens, Rembrandt, Murillo, Zurbaran

-The 3 graces, by Rubens, a masterpiece of Baroque art. It depicts the 3 mythological daughters of Zeus: Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. It’s widely believed that the figure on the left, Thalia, is actually a portrait of his second wife, Hélène Fourment. It’s a personal painting, depicting 2 graces welcoming Helena, mixturing mithology and his own life. The painting celebrates the ideals of beauty, harmony, and companionship, exemplifying Rubens’ skill in capturing movement and emotion. (1635)

-Artemisa, by Rembrandt. This artwork portrays the tragic Greek mythological figure Artemisia, who, in grief over the loss of her husband Mausolus, mixed his ashes with wine and consumed them. Rembrandt’s evocative portrayal captures her emotional turmoil, using chiaroscuro to emphasize her intense expression and the interplay of light and shadow. The texture of her skin and the details of her clothing showcase Rembrandt’s exquisite technique, while the psychological depth he infuses into the painting adds layers of narrative complexity. (1634)

-Murillo’s Sacred Family: this painting portrays the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus – in a tender moment of domestic tranquility. Murillo’s portrayal captures the warmth of familial love, emphasizing Mary’s gentle expression as she cradles the Christ child. The play of light and soft colors adds a serene atmosphere, while the attention to detail in their garments showcases Murillo’s technical mastery in a harmonious blend of devotion and humanity. (1650)

-The Defense of Cadiz, by Zurbaran: this artwork captures the heroic defense of the city of Cádiz against an English naval attack in 1596. The dramatic composition, with billowing smoke and figures in action, conveys the intensity of the battle. Zurbarán’s mastery of light and shadow adds depth and emotional resonance to the scene.(1634)

Rewarding end for a comprehensive day in Madrid

I’m pretty sure that the symphony of artistic expression left an indelible mark on your soul. At this point you must be tired.

Go to the Murillo Café or to Los Rotos as a reward for a complete- long day.A

what to eat in Madrid

Huevos rotos

Huevos Rotos, which translates to "Broken Eggs" in English, is a popular Spanish dish known for its simplicity and deliciousness. It's a classic comfort food that typically consists of fried eggs served on a bed of crispy fried potatoes, often accompanied by slices of ham or chorizo. The final touch is in your hands: you must break the eggs and mix everything.

While Madrid’s treasures are vast and diverse, this one-day itinerary is tailored for my pilgrims on a quick stopover as they embark on their Camino journey. Madrid offers a myriad of experiences that can’t possibly be explored in a single day. As you bid farewell to this vibrant capital, remember that the Royal Palace, El Retiro Park, and the Prado Museum are just glimpses of the city’s wonders. The charm of its neighborhoods, the energy of its streets, and the authenticity of its tapas bars are all part of Madrid’s allure. As pilgrims on a different kind of journey, may this one day be a memory you treasure, igniting a desire to return and explore further when time permits. In the meantime, whether you are one of my pilgrims or not, enjoy the city!


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