Palacio Real at sunset
The colorful streets of Madrid are the top things to see during a short stay.
The colorful streets of Madrid are the top things to see during a short stay.

Short Trip to Europe? Want to see Spain? Only have a few days to see Madrid?

In the first post on 10 days in Madrid and Malta, Monika and I explained how travel contributes to our wellness and allows us to learn about ourselves and other cultures.  However, we didn’t have time to dig into the history of a Madrid or Malta before departing, so we learned about important historical information through free tours and paid attractions. This post is all about fun things to do in Madrid and Toledo over a short stay.

Healing my Hispanic Heritage

Learning about my Spanish heritage at the Palacio de Cristal.
Learning about my Spanish heritage at the Palacio de Cristal.

During this trip, my history and the history of my destination mixed together to offer me a truly unique few days in Spain. When I was young, my family sometimes spoke negatively of our Spanish heritage.  There were stories about family members with light skin and eyes, resembling our Spanish ancestors, who were given undue favor in the past.  As I grew up and began traveling, I learned more about the consequences of colonialism around the globe and the role Spain played in the atrocities of that era.  These negative perceptions stayed with me for years.

The first time I visited Spain briefly, I spent 2 days in Barcelona at a beach camp on the Mediterranean by night and explored the city by day.  Returning for the second time, ten years later, I began to ponder why I had always thought so negatively of my Spanish heritage?

DNA results- How Spanish am I really?

That’s always been a huge question in my head.  Much of my family’s oral history includes a heavy emphasis on our indigenous Mexican roots being the cause of our body type and features.  I always assumed that my DNA results would primarily be whatever category they put indigenous Mexican people in.  Apparently that’s East Asian and Native American. Who would have figured?

Wendie's 23 and Me DNA Heritage Testing Results- including Askenazi Jewish
Wendie’s 23 and Me DNA Heritage Testing Results- including Askenazi Jewish

When I got my 23 and me results, I was shocked.  The report included quite a bit of Mediterranean DNA.  I’m 50% Native American or what I would call “indigenous Mexican”.  The rest is a mixed bag of goodness including 21.9% Spanish & Portuguese which makes up the most of my 37.7% European DNA.  I was also super stoked to see the African and Ashkenazi Jewish DNA as well! (Even if it’s just a small percentage!)

Wendie's 23 and Me DNA Heritage Testing Results- not surprisingly included Sub-Saharan African DNA
Wendie’s 23 and Me DNA Heritage Testing Results- not surprisingly included Sub-Saharan African DNA

I received my DNA results just before leaving on my winter holiday excursion, so it was refreshing reminder to keep my mind open to new experiences and cultures while traveling.  After all, you never know if the culture of your destination is actually your lost heritage.     

Exploring Madrid con los ancestros (with the ancestors)- Top things to do in Madrid

Sandeman's free walking tour from Plaza Mayor to the Palacio Real is one of the top things to do in Madrid for free.
Sandeman’s free walking tour from Plaza Mayor to the Palacio Real is one of the top things to do in Madrid for free.

The first day we arrived I spent some time in our Air BnB meditating and asking my Spanish ancestors to help me appreciate Madrid.  I asked them to help me appreciate my roots and give me confidence to express myself and be understood in Spanish.

The ancestors answered my request by walking with me as I toured Madrid and Toledo, showing me how beautiful Spanish culture can be, and teaching me about Spain’s tumultuous past.  Monika even complimented me on how handy my Spanish was during our trip.

Reflecting on my time in Toledo.

Reflecting on my time in Spain, Toledo won my heart but Madrid was a great place to visit.

Reflections on Madrid as a Destination

Sandeman's Walking Tour offered this beautiful view.
Sandeman’s walking tour afternoon view

When Monika and I sat down to plan this post we figured out that neither of us were particularly in love with Madrid.  While it’s a fantastic city to visit, we mostly enjoyed the cheap flight to Europe as a launching pad for our second destination, Malta.  Madrid definitely had it’s highlights and cultural appeal. We preferred the charm of Toledo to Madrid. (Sorry Madrid!)

The ancestors did help us figure out how to enjoy a place we had only mediocre excitement to visit. In this post we’ll explore highlights and reviews of Madrid’s tours, major attractions, and Madrid travel tips.  Since we visited so fast we definitely made the most of our trip and got more out of our visit than we expected to. 

Top things to do in Madrid for a short stay

Since we didn’t have a lot of time for researching prior to departure, Monika made a few plans for Madrid of her must-see items and the rest of the sites we decided as we went.  

Here’s what we found to be the best attractions in Madrid for a quick 2-3 day trip:

2-4 day Trip to Madrid- Top Attractions

  1. Palacio Real at sunset with the bells tolling
    • Palacio Real is the Spanish version of Versailles.  I’ve seen a lot of palaces, this one was definitely more originate and well-guarded.  The tour is a walk through, no-photography tour of the palace with upgrades available. The ticket line is very long, I highly recommend you book your tickets and audio guide online.  Be sure to have your reservation information with you to show a staff person. Consider adding the kitchen tour, booked separately and in advance.  
    • Parque particular vistas de La AlmudenaIf you’re lucky you can catch the bells tolling at sunset, which for the middle of winter happened at 6 pm and was a nice conclusion to our free walking tour.
  2.  Flamenco show at Cardamomo- There are lots of Flamenco shows, we chose Cardamomo and they did not disappoint.  You can choose from dinner or drinks only seat options at different price points. If dinner is full, try booking two seats for drinks, the view is just as good.  Booking prior to your trip is highly recommended. There are tons of Flamenco options, read reviews and see where you can easily get tickets in advance. If you pre-purchase read the ticket pick-up instructions and times carefully.
  3. Wine & Tapas Tour-Interested in a super fun way to make friends for the evening? Meet new awesome travelers from around the world while you taste amazing wine and eat tasty tapas at three of the best tapas restaurants in Madrid. This walking tour had minimal walking, maximum eating and drinking, and extra opportunities for laughs and sharing travel stories! Great way to learn more about Madrid’s Tapas and Wine scene with a small group.
  4. Sandeman’s Free Walking tour– Starting at Plaza Mayor, give yourself extra time to find the tour guide in the crowded plaza. If you’re lucky you can catch the bells tolling at sunset from Parque particular vistas de La Almudena a the end of the 4pm tour. The tour covers much of Madrid’s history also includes a pit-stop at a wonderful coffee, snacks, and bathroom stop, Dehesa Santa Maria. Try their charcuterie plate and hot chocolate!
  5. Toledo TourThe tour bus drives you from from Madrid to Toledo with a walking tour included for 50 Euros per person. Roughly the same price as train tickets and you can purchase your tickets across the street from Museo Del Prado. Some tours may include lunch and you have several hours to explore the city at your leisure. Be sure to dress appropriately for the weather in Toledo and bring back a Toledo knife for your home kitchen!
  6. Museo Del Prado is a reputable must-see attraction in Madrid. The line is quite long so be sure to buy your tickets in advance if possible. The rule about bags and backpack size is strictly enforced, take this into account before you arrive.
  7. Palacio de Cristal & Retiro Park are must-see attractions in Madrid de to their tranquil nature in the middle of a busy city. Madrileños get to enjoy a huge open green space in the middle of the city with the beautiful art space, Palacio de Cristal. There are tons of tourists and locals enjoying the park. Do keep an eye on your belongings and use Google Maps to help you find your way out. The park is very large with many entrances and exits.

Where should you stay?

When looking for accommodations, you have several options.  Most affordable are hostels, Airbnbs and budget hotels. Each has their good and bad parts.  The most important aspect was where you want to stay in town. Madrid is very large, but if you choose the right location you will be centrally located to everything.  The Airbnb we chose was more convenient than the Budget hotel, but both were walking distance to a metro. 

Here are some examples that were the properties we stayed in during our trip. The good and the bad can be seen in the reviews but overall neither property was a complete hit.

Design Apartment Downtown Madrid-Location and kitchen were convenient, bathroom was small and awkward.  Price was great @ $61/night.

Ibis budget Madrid Centro Lavapies– location was a bit out of the central area but still walkable and metro accessible. Hair dryers are hard to come by and your shower may be in your bedroom. Price wasn’t great for a budget hotel @ $136/night.

What should you plan to buy?

  • Toledo knives- If you make the day trip to Toledo, make sure you have room in your checked bag for a few kitchen knives.  Be careful, these babies are sharp!
  • Majorica Pearls– Shops throughout Spain carry man-made Majorica pearls at very reasonable prices.  
  • Churros & Hot Chocolate- You can find lots of places to buy churros & hot chocolate. Finding a fresh churro stand with thick warm hot chocolate is a great way to warm up during a winter holiday trip to Madrid.

Why you should save your tips for Tapas.

Tapas can be a bit confusing, it’s like when you go to someone’s house and they offer you something but they are secretly hoping you don’t take it.  They will bring you tapas you didn’t order, the tapas will be good looking things you don’t know the name of, they’ll tell you what it is but they won’t tell you the price or if it is free.  Just remember, if you eat it, it might be on your check later. If you refuse it or don’t eat it, you likely won’t pay for it. However, if you don’t eat it, you’ll never know if it was free or not (unless you ask).

Build your tapas expertise on the Wine and Tapas Tour recommended above or read this article if you want to learn more. 

When you need to get around town

You have many options for travel around town.  Here are a few tips for each one. 

Sandeman's Walking Tour
Sandeman’s Walking Tour
  • Walking- Madrid is easy to navigate if you’re good with maps.  Save Madrid as an offline map in Google maps and walk around town or just get lost in one of the neighborhoods. 
  • Madrid Metro– Tickets vary in price by distance or you can buy a 10 day pass. Details on how to get around Madrid by metro are available on this website
  • Uber– The cheapest option getting to and from the airport was Uber ranging between $26-$35 depending on where we were staying in Madrid.  Uber was also a good option to get across town quickly for a tour or destination that was closing soon. 
Back of Palacio Real at sunset.
Back of Palacio Real at sunset.

Will Madrid break the Bank?

Overall, Madrid was a very affordable destination and launching pad for a 2nd destination in Europe.  The value was fairly reasonable for food, entry fees at attractions, and tours. Splurges like Flamenco and Wine & Tapas tours can be avoided to bring the cost of the trip down, however the experience is worth the extra cash.

Madrid Trip expenses for 2 people

Airfare- New York – JFK to Madrid, Spain$1600
Tours, Attractions, Things to do$300
Transportation around town- uber, taxi, etc.$100
Food & Gifts$400

This would be a “comfy” budget for Madrid and Toledo over 4 days 4 nights with travel days to launch to a second destination. Between two people that would be about $1450 each with the majority going to Airfare. If you are booking this as a trip to Europe or Spain in general and spending less time in Madrid than 4 nights, you could definitely cut this budget down at least $300 on accommodations alone.

Other budget saving tips

  • Don’t take Ubers or Taxis. You can walk to most major destinations if you have the time. Retiro Park was the furthest destination we visited and we still walked back one day.
  • Cut back on the food budget. It’s easy to eat a lot and buy everything you see. Save money by planning on eating every other meal out and buying food to cook in your Air Bnb.
  • Stay in a hostel. Depending on how old you are, if you’re traveling as a couple, or if you just like your alone time… this may not be the cost-cutting option for you. There are plenty of hostel options in Spain. Check them out, maybe you’ll save some cash and meet new people.
  • Skip some attractions. This would be my last resort for money saving. If I bother to go somewhere exotic and far from home, I definitely want to see all the things. So I splurge on this part. But you could stick to lower cost and unpaid options for fun and you will definitely save several hundred dollars.

Final Thoughts

When I asked the ancestors to walk with me while I toured Madrid, I wasn’t prepared for how rich the culture was and what I learned. I was surprised by the history of conquest and different populations mixing in Madrid’s city walls. The tumultuous history and hardships faced by the people of Spain were definitely not facts that I had paid attention to growing up.

Although I didn’t fall in love with Madrid as a city, I did have the chance to experience it through the eyes of several Madrid natives. That was a wonderful and enlightening experience well worth the money to better understand a lost part of my heritage.

Overall I’m glad that we chose Madrid as the first and last days to end cap our 10 day trip to Madrid and Malta. The Madrid part of our trip will definitely stay with me as an influential time for my cultural identity as a Latina.

Wendie and Monika at Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park.
Wendie & Monika at Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park

Love, Wendie & Monika

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