What to Do on a Layover in Madrid

June 17, 2017, 8:53 PM UTC

The Madrid–Barajas airport is the nation’s busiest and one of Europe’s largest; wherever you’re headed in Spain, odds are you pass right through. And while the capital city is worth a lengthy stay, sometime you’re on a tight schedule. Here’s how to spend 24 hours in Madrid—seeing as much as you can in as little time as possible.

Drop Your Bags At…

With just 24 hours, it’s key to choose somewhere comfortable and central, and ideally, an attraction in itself. Our pick: the Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques in Los Austrias. Officially opened in December of 2016, the 180-room hotel has been named a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Housed within a 19th-century palace once home to the Dukes of Granada de Ega, it’s within a quick walk of the opera house Teatro Royal, lively central square Puerta del Sol, the Baroque-style Almudena Cathedral, and the imposing Royal Palace.

Within the grounds of the hotel itself, a dip in the rooftop swimming pool or a stroll through the property’s peaceful gardens can really take the edge off a long flight.

While fully renovated as a luxury property, Palacio de los Duques still displays its history. On the ground floor of restaurant Dos Cielos Madrid, glass floors allow guests a peek at the original stonework below. Inspired by the paintings of Spanish artist Velázquez, his work is major design feature in the hotel; in every room, the bed’s headboard represents a different Velázquez piece, and even the artist’s characteristic rich color palette is echoed in the hues of the hotel design.

Eat Up

From the hotel’s main building, walk through the historic gardens of the original palace into the restaurant Dos Cielos Madrid, which occupies the former carriage house and stables for the horses of the King and Queen.

It’s the work of brothers and Michelin-starred chefs Javier and Sergio Torres, well-known to Spaniards for their television show Torres en la Cocina. Dos Cielos Madrid echoes many themes from their first Dos Cielos restaurant in Barcelona — a reverence for local and seasonal produce, nods to Spanish culinary tradition (and their own upbringing) through a modern lens. That means canelones with black truffle and Parmesan, in honor of their grandmother Catalina; young spring peas with jamón ibérico; and Callos a la Madrileña, a traditional dish of tripe with chickpeas, here reimagined with cod.

Not up for a sit-down lunch? Take a quick walk to the early 20th-century market Mercado de San Miguel. Like many European food halls, produce stands and butchers are interspersed with small bars and eateries. Create a tapas-style lunch with gorgeous seafood from La Casa de Bacalao, all manner of cheeses from Mya Valdalos Queso, and croquetas from the “Croquetas Cart.”

Or indulge your sweet tooth with a visit to Chocolateria San Gines, serving churros y chocolate since 1894. It’s hard to beat piping hot golden churros with lusciously rich chocolate, especially in such an elegant old-world space. (And it’s open 24 hours, in case your own sugar cravings tend to strike after a night out.)

See the Sights

Work off lunch with a scenic 15-minute stroll toward the gardens of El Parque del Buen Retiro—it’s time for some culture. (Snap a few photos of the Royal Palace and take a moment to appreciate the grand Plaza Mayor on your way.)

The Museo Nacional del Prado is the most famous of Madrid’s museums, up there in world renown with the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence. Its collection spans centuries of Spanish art, with masterworks from Velasquez, El Greco, and Goya, as well as diverse European exhibitions of Rubens, Rembrandt, and many more.

But you could just as easily spend an afternoon at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, a private collection whose works encompass nearly every major European artist from the past nine centuries, from Renaissance figures through Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, and Miró. Further south, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía houses Picasso’s masterwork Guernica within its comprehensive collection of primarily-Spanish 20th century art. Our advice — choose one museum and dedicate a few hours, rather than trying to speed through all three.

If the weather cooperates, get back outside and over to El Retiro, as grand an urban escape as Central Park or Hyde Park. Take a rowboat out from the lake’s northern shore; stroll through the Rose Garden; and snap a picture of the Palacio de Cristal, a stunning glass-and-cast-iron pavilion dating to 1887. Then reward yourself with a well-earned rest back at the hotel.


Hop in a ten-minute cab to Platea—a dining-hall-cum-theater that’s utterly unique in Madrid (or for that matter, anywhere). Housed in the renovated Carlos III Cinema, it’s a playground of food, drink, and performance. Over two floors and three galleries, Platea is home to more than a dozen small upscale bars and eateries, whose chefs, together, have six Michelin stars and counting.

Choose from Basque-style tapas at Pintxoteka or incomparable charcuterie at Aires a Dehesa. From every space in the theater, you’ll have a great view onto the night’s entertainment—perhaps a live band, before the soaring aerialists, before the cabaret-style performance. It’s dinner theater of a thoroughly modern persuasion.

Yep, You’re Going Out

Even if you’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow, you’re in one of the world’s premiere nightlife cities. No excuses. In nearby Malasaña, there’s the understated, elegant Martinez Bar, a great destination for Spain’s favorite cocktail, the gintonic; 1862 Dry Bar, a favorite of many Madrid mixologists; and Kikekeller Showroom & Bar, a modern furniture store by day, cocktail bar by night. Not too far away, you’ll find Gin Club inside the Mercado de la Reina, one of the first bars to truly popularize the gintonic craze, and still a great bet; and Del Diego, one of the most revered cocktail bars in the city, with a wide range of classics and originals.

Late-night, stop by Tupperware (that’s tupper-wary), a kitschy-colorful venue with wildly eclectic music, or for a real club scene, Barco, with frequent live music and weekend DJ sets. And then, of course, avail yourself of one last chance for churros and chocolate before you hit the airport in the morning.