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Disobeying Rick Steves: Alternative Itinerary for Three Days in Madrid

How can you get the most out of your trip if you’ve only got 3 days in Madrid? Well, you can start by consulting the Rick Steves Madrid travel guide. But if you only follow his advice for top sites, you will miss out on an opportunity to engage deeper with the city. So feel free to disobey Rick Steves and have a great time doing it.

Building Facade in Madrid

Don’t get me wrong, I like Rick Steves. I occasionally listen to his podcast for travel inspiration and I find his Spain guide books to be practical, budget friendly and easy to follow. But that doesn’t mean that he and I always agree. I’m a well-traveled woman who knows what I like and after having visited thirty nine countries on five continents, I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes a city’s “must see sights” are not for me.

This itinerary will give you suggestions for what to do in Madrid for three days.  It incorporates some of Rick’s top suggestions, but it also includes some quirkier sites, cool neighborhoods and walking tours that will get you deeper into the city.

Read More: Learn about local history and culture and pic a few reads from my list of books on Spain.

What to do in Madrid for 3 days- Royal Palace
Royal Palace in Madrid

Rick Steves on Madrid

The Rick Steves’ Madrid guidebook includes suggested itineraries, walking tours, easy to read maps and other useful suggestions. They also rank the tourist sites according to a prioritized system: three triangles represent a must do, two are kinda-do, one is a maybe and then there are the untriangled also-rans. You can find information in the “At a Glance” section of the Rick Steves Madrid site. But in short:

▲▲▲ suggestions: the Royal Palace, Prado Museum, Reina Sophia museum and the Paseo (evening strolling)

▲▲ suggestions: Puerta del Sol square, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, National Archaeological Museum, Bullfighting, Flamenco, Plaza Mayor

No Thanks Rick, I’ll Pass on That

There are a few things on Rick’s list that I would suggest giving a pass. Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor are off-putting because of the tourist hordes and the incongruous photo opps with unlicensed Disney characters. It is oddly reminiscent of what I don’t like about Times Square in NYC. Do they still do bullfights anymore? And do you really want to see one? I have and it’s not for the faint of heart…pass. And while Flamenco was once a national art form, if that means going to one of those overpriced tourist shows with a rubber chicken dinner then give it a pass.

All that said, go ahead and buy the Rick Steves’ guide to Madrid, the maps and walking tour information is very useful.

Your Three Days in Madrid

The following itinerary for three days in Madrid keeps some of the suggestions from the Rick Steves Madrid guide but it also adds some additional suggestions. It has been organized around a particular neighborhood and set of sites. But, central Madrid is very easy to navigate so feel free to mix and match as you wish.

Three days in Madrid: visit Cerralbo Museum Madrid
Photo courtesy of Carrie from ©TwoSmallPotatoes

Cool Hotel Options in Madrid

For a large European city, Madrid hotels are surprisingly affordable.

  • Affordable Large Room: We stayed at the Lusso Infantas and loved the large room and modest price. Check reviews at Trip Advisor or book at Booking.com.
  • Centrally Located and Historic: The Only You Boutique hotel is located hear the La Justicia neighborhood in a 19th century restored mansion. “…the location is perfect for Plaza Major, good restaurants and the galleries”. Check reviews at Trip Advisor or book at Booking.com.
  • Contemporary Boutique: The Airtrip hotel is a small boutique hotel located an easy walk to the Atocha train station. “Great breakfast which is included, contemporary, clean, brilliantly renovated small boutique hotel.” Check reviews on Trip Advisor or book at Booking.com.

 Day 1 in Madrid

Morning: Royal Palace & Museo Cerralbo

Day one is centered around the western part of the city. Start with Rick’s recommendation to visit the Royal Palace. The Palace is the historical home for the royal family and it is still their official residence. You can spend several hours on a self-guided tour of the palace’s ornately furnished 3,000 rooms. Get there right at 10am to avoid the worst of the crowds.

After the palace, walk north two blocks to the Museo Cerralbo. Carrie from Two Small Potatoes recommends the Cerralbo Museum. She says that “even non-museum fans will be entertained at the Cerralbo Museum, with its eclectic mix of dainty Murano glass and barbaric medieval weapons”.

Afternoon: Lunch, Parque del Oeste, Shopping on Gran Via

Grab some lunch near Calle Princesa and then head into the nearby Parque del Oeste. There, you can find the Temple of Debod (which Marta from Learning Escapes also recommends as great for kids) and the Rosaleda rose garden. After the park, you can work your way east back to your hotel along the Gran Via shopping district.

Eating Tapas for three days in Madrid
Even the dogs like tapas in Madrid

Evening: La Latina & Cava Baja

In the evening, head into the La Latina neighborhood for tapas. The Cava Baja street is just a few blocks south and east of the palace. The three block stretch is stuffed with tapas bars and restaurants. You can make an evening of wandering the street, stuffing yourself with various wines and nibbles. Alternatively, if you have a free midday sometime during your three days in Madrid, you can also take a daytime walking tour of La Latina.

Disobey Rick Steves in Madrid, visit Retiro Park
The Crystal Palace

Day 2 in Madrid

Morning: Prado

Spend the morning at Rick Steve’s top triangle and visit the Prado. It’s Madrid’s premier museum and is loaded with masterpieces by Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, El Greco, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and others. To avoid lines, get to the museum just before the 10am opening time. Many people just focus on seeing the top 10, but the museum holds thousands of works so go past the top 10 and spend time exploring the rest of the collection.

Afternoon: Retiro Park

Grab lunch to-go and head into Retiro Park. Retiro is a large, well tended city park just east of museum row. The park has a very peaceful ambiance and you can easily find a shady bench to rest from your tromp around the museum. After you eat, head over to the Crystal Palace. The palace gets no triangles from Rick Steves, but I think it’s enchanting. It’s a Victorian glass wonder in the midst of the park. They have created a peaceful atmosphere and offer bentwood rockers and reading material to encourage quiet contemplation. After the Crystal Palace you can also rent a rowboat and go out on the little Retiro lake.

Evening: Ciculo de Bellas Artes, tapas in Justicia

The Circulo is located just a block from the Plaza Cibeles. It offers photography, art and cinema exhibitions. They have a rooftop deck that is the perfect place to grab a drink and watch the sun setting over the city. The building isn’t very tall, but then Madrid isn’t a tall city, so you could easily see the whole southwestern part of the city spread before you as the sun goes down. It is a great way to start off an evening of strolling and tapas eating.

Tapas are not just an alternative to dinner, it’s an art form which you can perfect through repetition. So even if you eat tapas on night 1 in La Latina, you should do it again on night 2 in the La Justicia neighborhood. Samantha from There She Goes Again recommends the El Tigre bar Las Justicia. Start there and then just roam (or stumble) north through the neighborhood to find more bars and restaurants. I did just that and was rewarded with a surprisingly tasty bit of aged goat cheese from a kindly bartender.

Rick Steves Madrid Guide Recommends Reina Sophia Museum

(Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that if you chose to purchase, I’ll get a small commission.) 

Day 3 in Madrid

Morning: Reina Sophia

Rick and I agree that your Madrid itinerary should include the Reina Sophia. It’s a fabulous modern art museum, famous for housing the Guernica by Picasso. I saw the painting while visiting Madrid in the ’80s and it had a profound affect on my appreciation of all modern art. The painting still impresses and the broader exhibition in the Reina Sophia includes pre and post studies of the subject, artifacts related to the Guernica’s traveling exhibitions and other paintings from the Paris World Fair during which the painting was unveiled. The rest of the museum is well organized and well worth a long visit. If you have a free evening on Monday or Wednesday-Saturday, you can re-arrange the itinerary and go for free between 7-9pm.

After the museum, wander north toward Calle de Principe and find a place for lunch among the alleyways and cobbled streets.

Afternoon: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

The Thyssen is a well curated, medium-sized private museum that houses an impressive collection of impressionism and post-impressionism. Rick only gave it two triangles but I give it three for the thoughtful collection and easy layout of the museum.

After the Thyssen, wade back into the neighborhood and find a coffeeshop for pastries or churros and chocolate. All of Spain has a very active cafe culture and Madrid is no exception. Walk for two blocks and you’ll happen upon a cafe serving strong coffee and excellent pastry. It’s the best way to get to know a city. Samantha also advocates for churros con chocolate. It’s hot chocolate with a fried donut of sorts and it will definitely satiate your sweet tooth.

Evening: Tapas and Wine Walking Tour

Who says you can’t eat tapas for three night running? There are a number of 3-4 hour evening tours which will introduce you to the tapas scene in a specific neighborhood. Doing it as a tour allows you to explore places that you might not have otherwise found on your own.

  • This tour covers four bars in and around Santa Ana plaza. Check out the itinerary or book here.
  • This tour meets at the Plaza de la Independencia and takes you to several wine bars and then ends at a gastropub for dinner. Check out the itinerary or book here.
  • This one includes 4-5 stops in the Opera area. Check out the itinerary or book here.
Madrid itinerary for 3 days- eat Tapas everyday
Tapas for dinner, every night of the week

If you have an extra day, consider this day trip to Sevovia

There is no shortage of great things to do in Madrid. So take my advice, and Ricks’s and create your own itinerary of triangles. Buen Viaje!

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