When you can only manage to book 16 hours in a city like Madrid, is it worth it? And how to plan?
On a recent trip to central Spain hosted by the Spanish Tourist Office, I asked to extend my trip. After all, it was my first time in Spain, and 3 days wasn’t nearly enough. When I was only offered a day-long extension in Madrid ahead of my return flight, I wondered how to make it work.
But hey, guests of ours on Untours in Andalusia and Barcelona add time here, sometimes in short clips. So why not? I knew I would need to be laser-focused. Though I considered winging it and walking around, I feared bad weather, so I scheduled tightly. Instead of meandering, I planned to focus on four good things.
Here’s what I saw and did, along with some lessons I learned.
Stop 1: The Prado
Lesson: Reserve ahead to skip the line.
Also: Study the museum map on the website ahead of time.
Goya, El Greco, and Bosch, oh my! Velazquez too. While the collection is exhaustive, the reservation let me skip the long line and waltz right in.
And having a strategy ahead of time helped me make hard choices and budget my time wisely on this first visit. Without a plan, a massive museum like this one will totally overwhelm you. You can’t “do” the Prado in a single visit, even in a full day. You must prioritize and console yourself with promises to return some day. The point is to enjoy this experience now.
Knowing this, I had studied the map of the museum online, so I knew exactly where to head first, not wasting a single moment to get my bearings. I also focused my attention on the artists and collections I could only see there, namely their vast collections of the Spanish artists mentioned above. And of course that crazy man Bosch.
I have a list of masterpieces I missed and they will be top of list for next time, but I feel I got a good immersion in the Spanish painters I’d seen less of in previous travels outside of Spain. In all, it was a satisfying three hours of viewing and experiencing some of Spain’s most important paintings.
Stop 2: Mercado San Miguel
Lesson: A well timed meal or strategic snacking can save you time.
Also: Use YouTube to learn what and how people are eating NOW in a place.
After devouring art for lunch (i.e. skipping a meal), I was famished. My stroll around the city was a little rainy and somewhat disappointing. It was too cool and gray and damp to enjoy the parks, and the grand squares were crammed with the cranes and construction debris for Christmas market stall setup. I circled the restaurants around Plaza Major at a very unsavory time for a meal, feeling the full peril of the situation.
So I headed to Mercado San Miguel, where I found a crowd that seemed equal parts tourists and locals out on the town for Sunday strolling and snacking. Considering my watch and wallet, I knew I needed to be strategic. The Mercado does not have the city’s best tapas, and it is expensive, but it is a solid choice.
So, mindful of recent advice I got from a favorite YouTuber from Madrid, I started with vermouth and banderilla, long spears filled with salty, spicy, and pickled things. All that salt and spice work perfectly with the sweet bite of the vermouth. Next a plate of mixed canapes. Then I moved on to cava and octopus salad.
This meal, eaten in stages amid a happy chatter and small talk with some locals, held me for the day! I was sad to excuse myself from the company of a shared wine barrel “table” to dash off to my evening date with Picasso. With a polite goodbye and a cone of calamari to go, I walked on to the modern art museum.
Stop 3: Museo Reina Sofia
Lesson: Take advantage of museums’ evening hours to extend your day.
Also: Enjoy all parts of the experience, even the waiting.
The minute I knew I would have a day in Madrid, I hopped online to book a ticket to Madrid’s modern art museum, to see Picasso’s opus, Guernica. I was delighted to find that not only were there evening hours, but the tickets were free for this evening!
Waiting in the security line among well-heeled Spanish speakers, I was reminded of my favorite reason to visit museums after dark. Aside from the chance to extend your day, they tend to draw a more local crowd. The Reina Sofia‘s crowd did not disappoint. Instead of passing the time on my phone, I looked up and around and drank it in. People watching and eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand turned a tedious wait into a part of the experience.
I came for Picasso, but enjoyed Miro, Gris, Braques, and the other usual suspects. Another set of Spanish painters on which to focus! The special exhibit was also interesting; those changing exhibits are what bring the locals in, after all.
Stop 4: Flamenco
Lesson: Stay up late; reserve a table or show as motivation to stay out late.
Also: Be mindful of distances and choose a nearby venue.
All that art and walking had me positively zonked. I ducked back into my hotel to freshen up and change. I just might have dropped into bed right then and there, but I had purchased tickets to a Flamenco show! After fretting a bit about which theater to book, I had settled on a respectable one that was an easy walk from my hotel. That was key!
Though I booked the 9:30 show, I could have really extended the day and booked an 11:00 one, and fit in a proper restaurant dinner ahead of the show. You can dine at most Flamenco venues while you watch the dancers, but only a handful of the city’s Flamenco theaters offer excellent food. Go for the show, not the food.
As I claimed my “free” drink on my way into the theater, I was a little nervous about being surrounded by tourists. Surely the table of men in the front row eating what may have been frozen paella reinforced this fear.
But my local friends from the market had been impressed and excited when I told them I had tickets for flamenco that night. And just before showtime, others filtered in speaking Spanish, and a group of Madrileños filled the table next to mine, women out on the town, as full of energy as the dancers.
As full of energy as the whole city, I devoured Madrid in four big bites. Exhausted on my (mercifully) short but scenic walk back to the hotel, I slept deeply for the remainder of the night and on the following day’s long plane ride home. Of course I dream of a more leisurely experience of Spain and hope to return on an Untour to Spain next time!