If you're planning a vacation in Spain, most likely you'll arrive in the capital of Madrid. Not only is this the seat of Spain's government, but you couldn't imagine a more fun city—practically every block is home to world-class dining and drinking options. Even with just a day or two, you can have a great holiday in Madrid, but with four or five you'll be able to explore beyond the city limits.

Planning Your Stay in Madrid

What makes this city of about seven million people so grand is that on the one hand, it's a modern European metropolis, filled with chic boutiques, expansive parks, copious cafés, and pulsing discos. On the other, it's home to centuries of Spanish history. You see it in the plazas and palaces around Madrid de los Austrias, the medieval center of the city, and the cobbled streets of Barrio las Letras, a neighborhood Cervantes once called home.

Thankfully, the major historical sights of Madrid are concentrated around the city center. From here, it takes no more than 15 minutes to walk between them. This is ideal if you're only in town overnight or for the weekend. If you do have closer to a week to spend in Madrid, you can venture beyond the center and make day trips to even more historic cities, like Toledo.

And when you might ask, is the best time to plan your getaway to Madrid? Click here to find out.

24 Hours in Madrid

Discover Madrid in a day

Travelers can rejoice in that Madrid's Barajas International Airport is connected directly to the city center via underground metro. It takes only about 30 minutes to reach the center, and when you do, you'll be right in the thick of the action. In fact, with limited time, you should take the metro to the Puerta del Sol, a plaza that's the epicenter of activity since day or night, it's always packed with people.

From the Puerta del Sol, you can walk a couple of minutes southwest to the Plaza Mayor, one of Spain's grandest plazas and the heart of Madrid de las Austrias. This entire historic area of Spain was built up in the 16th century during the Hapsburg Dynasty. Just down the street, in fact, you'll find the Royal Palace of Madrid, home to Spain's monarchs. 

If you have time in the afternoon, be sure to visit the Museo Nacional del Prado, which is home to the most impressive collection of Spanish art in the country. Other noteworthy sights located within minutes are the Teatro Real opera house (built in 1818) and Cibeles Fountain, which dates to 1782. One of Madrid's most famous landmarks, this fountain statue depicts the Roman goddess of fertility, Cybele, atop a chariot drawn by two lions.

Foodies will also want to spend their brief time near the center of Madrid, if only for the abundance of tapas bars on Calle Huertas in the Barrio las Letras. Another highlight is the Mercado San Miguel. At this historic municipal market (it's been open for over 100 years), you can graze until your heart's content on the seemingly limitless tapas on offer from the over 20 stalls. There are also international food options plus any number of desserts, from fresh churros and chocolate to artisanal ice cream.

If you're only in town for the evening, consider a guided tapas tour of Madrid. These tours take place in the aforementioned Barrio las Letras and include stops at some of the best tapas bars in the city. As an added bonus, your expert guide will help you order and explain the history behind the delicious tidbits on your plate.

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2-3 Days in Madrid

Toledo is a historic city located an hour from Madrid

Spend the first day exploring the historic center of the city, particularly the area in and around Madrid de las Austrias. You can also head just east of the center for a stroll around El Retiro Park. This 308-acre (125 ha) park is the green lung of Madrid, filled with fountains, gardens, lakes, and one particularly beautiful landmark, the Palacio de Cristal, a glass conservatory that was built in 1887. In the evening, head out for tapas around Calle de las Huertas.

You might also consider a day trip to Toledo, as it's the most historic city that's also located closest to Madrid (about an hour south of it). Toledo, located on a hill atop the River Tagus, was the capital of Old Madrid under the Visigoths until the eighth century. It looks every bit like the venerable kingdom of yesteryear. On a tour, you'll visit its Muslim alcázars and Christian cathedrals and stroll the historic Jewish Quarter. With a little more time, you could take a road trip from Madrid to Toledo and La Mancha

After traveling on day two, a good idea for an activity upon returning to Madrid is a walking tour of the city led by an expert guide. Or, if you want something more relaxed, opt for a cooking class and learn the secrets to traditional Spanish cuisine. Even more unique is a tour of local artisan shops in which you can visit a tailor of bullfighters’ costumes, a maker of handcrafted flamenco guitars, and even a purveyor of traditional Bota wineskins.

5-6 Days in Madrid

The famous windmills of La Mancha

With up to six days, you can experience Spain's capital plus travel even further outside the city. If you want, you could take a family vacation and split your time between Spain's capital and Barcelona. Regardless, spend the first couple of days exploring historic Madrid. Try to go beyond the center and visit other historic neighborhoods like La Latina, Chueca, and Salamanca, the last of which is pure elegance with its wide 19th-century boulevards, designer boutiques, and high-end restaurants.

Then you could not only enjoy a day trip to Toledo but extend it another day with a trip to La Mancha. This desert plateau region south of Toledo was immortalized as the home region of Don Quixote, but it's also filled with beautiful national parks like the wetland area Las Tablas de Daimiel and the exotic waterfalls at Ruidera Lakes. La Mancha is also one of the major wine-producing regions of the world, so this is where you want to go for a wine tour from Madrid.  

Finally, what better way to end a sojourn to Madrid than taking in a live flamenco performance in the oldest tablao (dance venue)? The Corral de la Morería has been open since 1956, making it the oldest live-flamenco venue in the city. Not only does it host nightly flamenco shows featuring renowned performers, but on any given night, you're bound to be seated among the glitterati of Spain as well as the occasional international celebrity.

If you have more time to indulge in a longer vacation, you could plan an off-the-beaten-path tour of Madrid and Barcelona. This would include food tours and cooking classes in both cities as well as day trips to the countryside for wine tastings.