At the minimum, plan for 3 days in Madrid
Less than 1 day
Not worth the effort coming all the way to Madrid to spend a day. If you have a short layover, I would suggest you visit Prado (here is a plan to see Prado in 2 hours) and then sign up for a sightseeing bus which goes round the city giving you an overview of all attractions.
2 full days in Madrid
Two days in Madrid isn't really enough, but if that is what it is, brace yourself for long days and rushed itinerary. At best, you can see the main sights of Madrid (Prado Museum, Royal Palace, Sol), eat some great tapas and enjoy one night experiencing a flamenco experience.
3 Days in Madrid
With three days in Madrid, you can see key highlights, including the famous museums, at a more leisurely pace. You can also go to some of the less touristic central barrios such as Chueca, Malasaña, and Lavapies.
4 Days in Madrid
With four days in Madrid, you can experience Madrid at a leisurely pace. Apart from the key highlights, you can visit minor museums and also some of the best known green areas of Madrid. Some of you may prefer to visit Toledo as a day trip on the fourth day.
Helpful Tips to make your Madrid trip efficient
- Pre-book your visit to the Royal Palace and Prado Museum.
- Before landing at Madrid, you have to decide what are sights and activities that are most important to you and stick to them.
- Download the app “citymapper” to make sure that you can navigate the city efficiently by use of the bus, metro, train and cabs.
- Rent a bike to get a quick layout of the city or go on a Hop on Hop off tour of Madrid.
- Make restaurant reservations for lunch or dinner if you are planning to visit during the weekend.
- On a weekend city break to Madrid, do not be tempted to cover too much.
- Madrid is well known for its nightlife. Unlike Barcelona the diversity of nightlife is higher in Madrid, in my view. Be sure to enjoy an evening out in Madrid.
- Choosing a daytrip from Madrid is always difficult. Make sure you know enough about Toledo, Segovia, Avila, El Escorial and Salamanca.
- Despite being a large city, it does not matter where you stay in Madrid. The metro network is great! But decide if you even need a travel pass or just single trip tickets will do. And once you are in the centre, you can just walk around.
- The only attractions that need advance booking in Madrid are the museums; to be accurate it is only Prado museum. If you are smart and lucky you can even skip buying the Art Walk pass.
- Decide if Madrid tourist cards and travel passes are worth buying, for your trip. My personal recommendation is to not commit to any passes or cards.
- Family trips to Madrid are also fun and exciting for all. You children will have enough to do, even at the main attractions. So rest easy.
I would say you are in a good place with 12 days to plan a Spain itinerary. It gives you good enough time to have a relaxed trip.
More days in Madrid or Barcelona?
Madrid being the capital, you get to experience all the highlights of Spain condensed in one city. Thus I would suggest 4 days in Madrid and 3 days in Barcelona. Barcelona does have many attractions, but you will be able to explore most of Barcelona in 3 days.
Go ahead and make a plan to stay in Madrid for 4 full days. In my experience of hosting visitors from all over the world, I have seen that you will need this time to fully experience the variety, culture, food, art, and history of Madrid.
What to do in Madrid for 4 days?
Admire some of the world's best art
Madrid is a city of world-class museums, and I am sure you are up to your nose with advice on visiting all 3 museums of Paseo del Arte - Prado, Thyssen, Bornemisza - the famous Art Walk of Madrid. This enthusiasm is not uncommon but unless you are a museum junkie, you should save yourself all the research (and money); go only to the stunning Prado, the big daddy of all museums.
Madrid has a 3 Museum pass [ called The Paseo del Arte Pass or Artwalk Pass]. If you are keen to explore all the 3 museums, it may be worthwhile to get Madrid Museum Pass.
Step into the grandeur of Spanish royalty
The Royal Palace of Madrid is worth the visit, you will be bowled over by the sheer scale and grandeur. Kids will love the armory and you could even see the changing of the guard or the night lights. If you are really after Royalty in a big way, visit El Escorial, another massive Royal Palace turned monastery which is less than an hour away from Madrid.
Enjoy authentic flamenco
Many people will say that you should leave Flamenco for Andalusia but I disagree. The Madrid Flamenco is as authentic as they come and this way you will make time for other cultural immersion in Andalusia, which in itself has so many places to visit.
Crawl Madrid's famed tapas bars
The advantage of tapas bar hopping in Madrid is that you get to sample variations from all over Spain. Being the capital of politics and culture has its advantages after all! So add a Madrid tapas evening to your plan and save a few hours for something else in another part of Spain.
Revel in the pulsating nightlife of Madrid
Everyone who has been here says that Madrid nightlife has real character and diversity. Unlike Barcelona which has an upscale nightlife reputation, Madrid nightlife districts are each unique and embrace everyone. Be sure to try the gin-tonic, feel the city buzz from a rooftop bar, and end the night with early morning churros.
Sport and bloodsport
If you have football-loving folks in your group, be sure to consider a tour of Bernabeu whether you support Real Madrid or not. And if you like primal sports, then check in on the bullfighting schedule at Las Ventas, or consider a tour of the museum if the timing to watch a fight doesn’t work.
Plan an excursion to Toledo
Did you know that Toledo was historically the capital of Spain and even today it is a buzzing city full of monuments, food, culture, and stories? It is less than an hour away from Madrid and I would say that you plan an early start and late return on the day visit to Toledo. You will not regret it. That said, there are many other day trip options like Segovia, Avila, Salamanca etc. But if you are visiting the area for the first time then Toledo is my top day trip choice by far.
In between all of this on your visit to Madrid, 4 days will also give you enough lounging around time at Plaza Mayor, Mercado San Miguel, Retiro Park, Centro, and Sol. You will be able to visit Templo Debod, don’t miss this romantic spot bang in the centre of Madrid. And if you have kids with you, don’t worry kids will have enough to do in Madrid.