Spend a couple of days getting to know the historic centre of the city before you branch out further. Madrid is a very walkable city and many of its main sights are within easy reach of each other. Explore the Puerta del Sol – the geographical centre of Spain; Plaza Mayor; the Royal Palace; Almudena Cathedral; and Madrid’s oldest area, Madrid de los Austrias. Don’t miss a true local custom: enjoying a calamari sandwich on the Plaza Mayor and stop for a napolitana (chocolate or cream pastry) at historic bakery La Mallorquina.
Madrid may not have an internationally renowned landmark like the Colosseum or Eiffel Tower, but it does have some of the world’s finest art galleries. Explore the Spanish masters like Velázquez and Goya in the Prado and marvel at Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, in the Reina Sofia.
You’ll have built up quite an appetite stomping around all those art galleries, so head to La Latina tonight to sample some great tapas bars.
Explore one of Madrid’s most exciting and multicultural neighbourhoods by discovering its art and cuisine. Firstly, visit the Tabacalera, a former tobacco factory turned modern art space. Take a street art tour to learn all about the graffiti artists working the neighbourhood, or just keep your eyes peeled for some amazing urban art murals while walking around.
There are two great food markets in the area: Mercado San Fernando and Mercado Antón Martín. On the evening, grab a beer in one of the little bars around the Antón Martín market then see a film at the Ciné Dore, a beautiful 1920s arthouse cinema.
A great way of going a bit further afield is renting bikes. BiciMad, the city bike scheme, has bikes for rent all over the city. Head down to the riverside of the River Manzanares, which has recently been renovated, and along to the Matadero, a former slaughterhouse that is now a thriving cultural centre with regular exhibtions, markets and a cinema.
A night or two away is a great idea if you have two weeks in the city. Segovia, with its awe-inspiring Roman aqueduct and Alcázar palace, is less than 30 minutes on the train northwest of Madrid. Staying the night means that once the tourist buses have left, you can wander the city’s quaint narrow streets in peace and see the grandeur of the aqueduct by night.
Whether you want to cycle, jog, have a picnic, ride a cable car, hit the rollercoasters or go to the zoo, you can do it all in Madrid’s Casa de Campo. The city’s largest park is home to Madrid’s zoo and amusement park, as well as a pretty boating lake and two outdoor pools that are popular in summer.
While Spaniards tend to have a light breakfast, the concept of brunch is slowly catching on, especially in the city’s coolest barrios like Malasaña and Chueca. Start the day with brunch then explore these neighbouring barrios. The Romanticism Museum, in Chueca, is one of Madrid’s hidden gems (and has a lovely terrace café). If it’s hot and you fancy a relaxing day, opt for a dip in a rooftop pool (Hotel Oscar has great views and complimentary Cava). Spend the evening browsing the shops, stopping for a drink and sampling some of the area’s best bars and restaurants.
Head a little north of the centre and you’ll be met with the world’s first inclined skyscrapers, the KIO Towers, also known as the Gate of Europe. Just next door is the Fundación Canal, a gallery that holds interesting free exhibitions. Up the road are Madrid’s Cuatro Torres, or Four Towers, the city’s tallest buildings. End the day with a trip to Madrid’s temple of football, the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home of Real Madrid.
Today is the day to explore Madrid’s literary neighbourhood, Las Letras, where Golden Age greats like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega once lived and worked. This was Ernest Hemingway’s stomping ground when he was in Madrid and today is home to some great bars, shops and restaurants. Take in perhaps Madrid’s best view, from the rooftop bar of the Círculo de Bellas Artes and end the night with a flamenco show or by watching some live jazz.
Time to escape the city again, with a night away. There are lots of options (Toledo and Ávila are popular choices) but Cuenca is a bit more off the beaten track. It is famous for its ‘hanging houses’ that appear to be dangling off the cliffside above the river below. The Moorish city also has a well-preserved walled old town and castle.
Keep your last day free in case you want to revisit anywhere, or simply wander the city’s beautiful streets and find a charming terrace where you can enjoy a vino or caña (beer) and your last chance to people-watch. You might want to do a bit of last-minute shopping for souvenirs. Madrid al Cubo, just behind Puerta del Sol, sells quirky gifts and Taller Puntera is a lovely leather shop where you can see the craftsmen and women at work and buy a beautiful bag, wallet or purse to remember your time in Madrid.