Airport Layover: How and What to see in Madrid in 12 hours

We had under 12 hours to see Madrid since it was our layover en route to Vienna where we will start our driving trip around the Alps. Madrid is a modern metropolis that offers a taste of real Spain. Wide avenues are congested with traffic, but beautiful parks break up the urban landscape. Madrid doesn’t have the traditional charm of Andalusia or the beauty of Barcelona, yet it is an equally exciting and interesting city to explore.

Madrid in 12 hours, Photo by Outside Suburbia

The city was buzzing with activity when we landed early morning at the Madrid airport where our driver from Blacklane was waiting for us.  Madrid city center is just 12 kilometers from the airport, so you won’t waste too much time in transit.  We wanted to get a Spanish meal, stop at the Palacio de Cristal(Crystal Palace) visit at least one of the art museums and a few monuments. Without further ado, here is what to do in Madrid in 12 hours.

A walk in Buen Retiro Park and stop at Palacio de Cristal 

This was our first stop in Madrid, the city was barely waking up and it was nice to see people on their morning jog and kids running around in the park.  The Buen Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro) where the Crystal Palace (The Palacio de Cristal) is located is an oasis in the heart of Madrid. Although there is nothing really inside the Crystal Palace, we loved the play of light, the architecture and the location of it – it was one of our favorite stops for our day in Madrid.

Just beyond the busy streets, this lush 120-hectare park offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.  Created for the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 17th century, the park has lovely landscaping and tree-lined paths. From the main entrance at the Plaza de Independencia, you arrive at the pool in the center of the park. From here, paths lead to the Rosaleda (Rose Garden) and the formal French Jardín de Don Cecilio. You can even go on a boat ride in the lake inside, which of course we didn’t have time for. We spent about an hour here walking around leisurely and enjoying the views.

Fuente de Cibeles

The famous Cybele’s fountain (Fuente de Cibeles) can be found at Cibeles Square and is one of the most popular monuments in Madrid. Created in 1782 by Francisco Gutiérrez and Roberto Michel, the impressive fountain depicts the Roman Goddess Cybele riding a lion-drawn chariot. Behind the fountain is the Palacio de Cibeles cultural center, which hosts art exhibitions and workshops, conferences and concerts. This is where victories of the football team Real Madrid is celebrated as well.  It was not too far from Retiro Park.

Fuente de Cibeles, Madrid
Fuente de Cibeles, Madrid

Explore the extensive art collection at Prado Museum

Prado Museum is located in the heart of Madrid and if you are an art lover you can’t miss this landmark in the Capital of Spain. Inaugurated in 1819, Prado Museum is the home to more than 7,000 paintings and is one of the places you must visit in Madrid.  The world-class Prado Museum displays an endless array of masterpieces created during the Golden Age of Spain. The museum is housed in an 18th-century Royal Palace that rivals the palace of Versailles. The Prado Museum displays around 2,300 pieces of artwork in more than 100 rooms, located on three floors.

You can’t see everything in the short time you have, so plan to see just a section that interests you. If you have more than 12 hours in Madrid, you probably can spend a whole day here! Spanish paintings from the 12th century to the early 19th century form most of the collection.  You can find artworks by Spanish artists such as Goya and Velazquez. The collection also covers Italian, Flemish, French, British, and German paintings as well as Neoclassical Italian sculptures. Don’t miss Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio.

The Prado Museum suggests “routes” or self-guided tours of specific works or you can do a 90-minute guided tour to be more efficient and make use of the time you have in Madrid effectively.  Leave the big bags in the car as you can’t bring them inside the museum and no photos or food is allowed inside as well.

TIP : Buy tickets in advance to Skip the line at the Prado Museum and explore the Museum with an official expert guide
Prado Museum, Madrid
Prado Museum, Madrid

Visit the Royal Palace

Our next stop was the Royal Palace, this grandiose palace is the Spanish version of Versailles, a royal court designed to impress. Plan for another 90 minutes to 2 hours to visit this former residence of the kings of Spain. One of the biggest palaces in Europe. Rising above a steep slope overlooking the lush gardens, the palace is built entirely of granite and white stone. The palace was commissioned by Philip V in the 18th century. The majestic Neoclassical facade features Ionic columns and pillars, based on drawings that the sculptor Bernini originally intended for the Louvre in Paris. The balustrade features statues of Spanish kings.

Royal Palace, Madrid Photo by Outside Suburbia
Royal Palace, Madrid

The most striking feature of the interior is the staircase at the entrance hallway, with a fresco of The Triumph of Religion and the Church, that leads up to the main floor. The King Charles III apartments are among the beautiful rooms in the Royal Palace. Still used for State ceremonies, The Salón del Trono to the Throne Room is adorned with red velvet, beautiful chandeliers, tapestries and frescoes.

Look for the fresco The Greatness of the Spanish Monarchy, by Tiepolo said to be one of his finest works.  Throughout the palace, you will find masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, El Greco, and Caravaggio, and other exquisite Flemish and French tapestries. Made time to visit this Royal Palace even if you only have 12 hours in Madrid!

Royal Palace, Madrid Photo by Outside Suburbia
Royal Palace, Madrid

If you have only one day in Madrid, visiting the Prado Museum, Royal Palace and Plaza Mayor should definitely be on your itinerary and can easily be done in 6 hours.

TIP: Book a Guided visit to learn about the lavish rooms and hear about the curiosities of the Spanish monarchy.

Wander in the 16th century square at Plaza Mayor

This elegant 16th-century plaza was built during the reign of Philip III. The Plaza Mayor was a center of commerce and municipal life as well as the scene of ceremonial events such as the proclamation of a new king and the canonization of saints. The square also served as a venue for bullfights, dramatic performances, and knightly tournaments.

Today, the Plaza Mayor continues to be an important gathering place in Madrid. The expansive cobblestone square is a pedestrian friendly with many outdoor cafés that are popular with tourists as well as with the locals.  On each side of the square are arched entrances linking it with the main streets of Calle de Toledo, the Calle Mayor, and the Calle Postas.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid - Photo by OutsideSuburbia
Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Find the Bear at Puerta del Sol

Located just a short walk from the Plaza Mayor, is The Puerta del Sol.  This town square aligns with the rising sun and was named after the sun emblem on the old city gate, which formerly stood here.  Besides being a hub of public transportation (with several bus stops and Metro entrances), the Puerta del Sol is also the “Kilometer Zero” point from which all distances on the Spanish national road network are measured.

The Puerta del Sol has been the scene of many historic events, including the Spanish resistance to Napoleon on May 2nd 1808, and in 1931, the Second Republic was proclaimed here. Lined with shops and cafés, these days the square is a place to hang out and enjoy life – the Puerta del Sol is still one of the liveliest squares in Madrid.

Bear at Puerta del Sol, Madrid
Bear at Puerta del Sol, Madrid

The famous plaza is also home to the most famous symbol of the Spanish capital: a 20 ton statue of a bear feasting of fruits from a tree. It gets its name from the original name of Madrid: ‘Ursaria’, which means ‘land of the bears’ in Latin. According to the legend, there were high numbers of bears in the adjacent forests, which, together with the strawberry tree, have been the symbol of the city from the medieval era.

See the Grand Monument of Puerta de Alcalá

A Grand Monument to the Spanish Monarchs, this grand Neoclassical triumphal arch was commissioned by King Carlos III to celebrate the arrival of the monarchs to Spain’s capital city. The monument was designed by Francesco Sabatini and built between 1769 and 1778. Nearly 30 meters high, the elegant granite entrance gate makes a grand impression. The facade is adorned with sculptures, capitals, and decorative reliefs. We drove by the gate and didn’t stop there for too long.

Puerta de Alcalá, Madrid
Puerta de Alcalá, Madrid

Do some shopping at Gran Via

Gran Vía is a popular touristic street in Madrid with many cinemas, theaters, restaurants, night clubs and bars. Gran Vía ends to the west in Plaza España Square and to the east at the intersection with Alcalá Street.  Appropriately named “the great lane” it is crowded with shoppers and sightseers. You will find quirky Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades fronting the banks, offices and apartments and also stores like Zara.  Make a quick stop to check it out or spend more time shopping if you have more than 12 hours in Madrid.

Eat some Spanish classics at Mercado San Miguel

This is Madrid’s most famous market and a foodie favorite. Mercado San Miguel is located right in the city center, just off the Plaza Mayor. Built in 1916, the wrought iron and glass structure was renovated and reopened as a gourmet food market in 2009. We wandered around and tried some Spanish classics like jamón Ibérico (cured Iberian ham), olives, and churros and then went to a restaurant nearby for lunch for a meal of paella, patatas bravas and enjoyed Madrileños favorite aperitif, vermouth before heading back to the airport.

Mercado San Miguel, Madrid Spain Photo by Outside Suburbia
Mercado San Miguel

If you have more than 12 hours in Madrid, here are a few more places to visit

Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía: Contemporary Art Museum

Opened by Queen Sofía in 1986, the Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía is Madrid’s avant-garde center for contemporary art. The sleek modern building was created by the architect Antonio Fernández Alba and has features that recall the Pompidou Center in Paris, especially the three glass towers that house the elevators on the outside of the building. There is also a lovely garden in the inner courtyard filled with sculptures.

The museum represents Spanish contemporary art with a collection that includes masterpieces by Juan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí.  Sadly we didn’t make it here and would be the first place I stop by if we make a visit to Madrid again. It was hard to decide between this and the Prado museum since we only had time for one!

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium home of the Real Madrid

If you a football/Soccer fan you probably want to stop at the Real Madrid stadium whether you are a supporter of the club or not. Real Madrid are Europe’s most successful football team with a record-breaking 11 European Cups to their name, so a visit to the massive 85,000 seater Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is a must. A tour will grant you panoramic views of the stadium, where you can step inside the dressing room, visit the dugouts and see the trophy collection, press room and presidential box.

Madrid in 12 hours, Photo by Outside Suburbia
Watching the ducks in Buen Retiro Park in front of the Crystal Palace ( Palacio de Cristal )

That was our short but sweet visit one day visit to Madrid!  Surprisingly we got to see quite a bit of Madrid in 12 hours, we wished we had more time to enjoy a couple of cold ones in one of the many beer terraces, catch a Flamenco dance or plan a visit to Toledo, Spain’s former capital but the Alps was calling…. Blacklane car service worked out perfectly for us since we were a family of four.  If you don’t want to hire a car as we did you can still take a cab into town and cover these sight on a hop-on hop-off sightseeing tour onboard an open-top double-decker bus as well.

Madrid Tours

Madrid in 12 hours, Photo by Outside Suburbia
Our favorite stop was Buen Retiro Park and the Crystal Palace ( Palacio de Cristal )

See this article for the cool street art murals in Madrid you can see even if you had only 24 hours in the city.

You might also like:
Top things to do in Barcelona
Andalucia Itinerary,
A road trip through the white villages of Andalucia
A day in Cordoba
Other posts from Spain


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