You don’t have much time, so concentrate your sightseeing around the centre of the city. Take the metro, cercanías (commuter train) or a taxi (all taxis have a flat €30 fare into the city) to the neighbourhood of Sol. The Puerta del Sol is a public square that is right at the centre of the city and is a popular meeting point and the location of your first stop.
Head down Calle Mayor away from Sol and you will arrive at Madrid’s cathedral. It is relatively new; it was only completed in 1993. In 2004, King (then Prince) Felipe married Letizia Ortiz in a grand ceremony at the cathedral. After you’ve explored inside, head down the street next to the cathedral to see Madrid’s original Moorish walls, a sight that is often missed by visitors.
The largest royal palace in Europe sits on the beautiful Plaza de Oriente, which is a lovely square of manicured gardens and statues. You can go inside the palace, but if you are pushed for time, just enjoy the view from the square. Don’t miss the adjoining Sabatini Gardens, a great place to stroll that has lots of great views of the palace.
From the palace, cut across the Plaza de España to the Gran Vía, Madrid’s main shopping street, lined with impressive early-20th-century architecture. The Telefonica Building was one of Europe’s first skyscrapers. Today, the street is home to Spain’s biggest high-street brands, such as Zara and Mango.
All that walking will have built up an appetite, so head to the Barrio de Las Letras, Madrid’s literary quarter, for some food. This area is a great mixture of traditional old taverns and modern restaurants and bars, so whether you’re looking for vegan food, or traditional Spanish tapas, Las Letras will have you covered. Stop at Cervecería Alemana for a beer at what was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Madrid haunts.
You can get the metro back to the airport from Sol, or there is an airport bus that goes from Plaza de Cibeles, not far from Barrio de Las Letras, every 15 minutes.