Sometimes the cheapest airfares come with the longest layovers. On the way to Lisbon, I had a 16-hour layover in Madrid. Initially hesitant to purchase the ticket, I realized that I would have one day in Madrid to explore for free. Who could pass that up?
The Madrid Barajas International Airport (MAD) is the perfect airport for a long layover. Each terminal has luggage storage (€10 a piece at the start of 2017) and the metro stops right at the terminal. Within 20 minutes, I found myself in downtown Madrid.
Temple of Debod
Disembarking at the Plaza de España, I made my way on foot to the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple right in the heart of the city. It’s small, but still impressive especially as you don’t expect to see a temple in Madrid. The best part, though, was at the end of the plaza past the temple – an amazing view overlooking Madrid with the palace and Cathedral de la Almudena dominating the view.
Royal Palace & Cathedral de la Almudena
Making my way over to the royal palace, I found myself in the Sabatini Gardens. Perfectly landscaped with a fountain in the middle, it made for a nice stroll. Walking up the stairs, it wasn’t long until I was in front of the Royal Palace of Madrid. I couldn’t go in as I was there too early, but it is an impressive structure to look at. Going around the building, I found a fantastic view of the large Plaza de la Armeria. Right next door is the Cathedral de la Almudena, the largest cathedral in the city, with its ceilings decorated in vivid colors.
To see Madrid, the plan was to walk across the city. With only two miles to cover, I knew I could take my time and not have to rush about. And Madrid is such a walkable city with beautiful architecture to keep you interested until arriving at the next major site. This I quickly realized as I made my way past the Teatro Real heading down Calle del Arenal. Madrid’s street signs are beautiful tiles – each street having a different scene/pattern.
San Gines Chocolateria
As I was in the area, and since they are open 24/7, I made my way to San Gines Chocolateria. Churros con chocolate……. I was not passing that up. This place has such a reputation that even at 9 a.m., they were packed! And with good reason. Churros + chocolate = yummy!
After deciding against a second serving, I wandered towards the Plaza Mayor, a large plaza flanked by some incredible buildings. Being there at the end of December, the square was filled with a massive Christmas Market.
San Miguel Market
Wandering down one of the many small side streets that meet up with the Plaza Mayor, I found myself walking around the San Miguel Market. The building itself is gorgeous – wrought iron framing floor to ceiling glass windows. Inside are 33 stalls of various foods and drinks – if you came to Madrid to sample local cuisine, this is the place. Many stalls offer mini versions of their dishes for about €2, so you can sample away on seafood, meats, fruits, and desserts. I made my way around twice before deciding where to sample.
Following Calle Mayor, it was a short stroll to the Plaza Puerta del Sol, where it was a sea of people. All the major shops are found in this area and everyone was out! The plaza has one of the coolest signs you will see. Be sure to look for Tio Pepe.
Continuing, still loving the amazing architecture, I was in front of the Plaza de Cibeles. A stunning plaza that is a chore to walk across. This area houses many of the museums in the city. As an Impressionist lover, I had to visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. With a wonderful collection of art, this museum is the perfect size to spend a couple of hours admiring the paintings without having to skip over anything (if you’ve been the Louvre, you know what I mean).
El Retiro Park
After a short jaunt, I was entering El Retiro Park. I could have easily spent my entire day here. The park is gorgeous and the whole place was bustling with activity. Street musicians, all immensely talented and so varied (from Dixieland to folk), had their areas of the park. Storytellers and puppet shows entertained children. Sitting on the banks of the large pond watching people in row boats in front of the monument to Alfonso XII. The park is also home to the Crystal Palace. Such an incredible yet fragile structure. Upon entering, there was an art installation of the sound of glass breaking and shattering, which was a bit unsettling as you are surrounded by glass.
Being later in the day, I had the brilliant idea to visit the Prado Museum as it is free to visit between 6-8 p.m. Well, turns out it wasn’t so brilliant. Arriving at the museum about 15 minutes before the “free-hours” began, the queue of people was massive! The line was easily already 300+ people. So rather than waste time in line for 30+ minutes to then fight crowds inside, I passed on the museum. Hopefully, next time.
Rather, I went to San Jeronimo el Real across the street. A small but beautiful church to look at – however, the doors were sealed tight so I couldn’t go inside. I then strolled around for a bit before grabbing a bite to eat. Then, it was another 20 minute Metro ride back to the airport.
Exploring a city on a long layover has its pros and cons. If you time the layover perfectly, you have a free day to explore rather than kill time in an airport. However, will you get to really know the place in a few hours? No. But, you do get a taste that hopefully makes you want to go back for more.