My parents had an extended layover on their way to Italy, so I made them a walking path of the city's highlights. Then after admiring my own work for a little while, I figured I'd share it with you.
There are 4 main paths that I've highlighted in different colors to indicate which sections pair well together and to help you making decisions on where to go based on how much time you have. You have to walk the blue line at least once to get to the red circuit. The red circuit is the must-see route of Madrid in my humble opinion. I walked this route at least a dozen times while I was abroad.
Objects are definitely not as close as they appear in this map. For example, it usually took me at least 20 minutes without stopping to get from spot #1 all the way through the black line.
This guide isn't meant to be rushed. It's designed for leisurely strolling. The architecture of the buildings and the colorfulness of the city is what makes Madrid so great, so the walks are really enjoyable. This is also just my idea of what's best to see in the city. If you find yourself drawn off the path, go! One of the best places to use as a home base is Plaza Mayor (#3) or Puerta del Sol (#2). There are a bunch of streets that lead back to those two spots, so it's a lot easier to venture off around those areas.
1) While Plaza de Callao isn't the most remarkable location in the city, it's a great starting point. In this plaza, you'll find the movie theater where I saw Tom Cruise (true story), the famous Art Deco-styled Schwepps sign, and a department store called El Corte Inglés. If you go into the store and take an elevator up to floor 9 – la Experiencia Gourmet – you can get the best view of the whole city. Snack on tapas, sip some wine, and enjoy gelato as you take in the views of the city. My favorite time to go is during sunset, but the Temple of Debod (#8) is a very popular sunset spot as well.
2) Puerta del Sol is quite literally the center of the city. It's basically Madrid's Highway 1. All major roads in Madrid can be traced back to this semicircle. Puerta del Sol is a short walk away form Plaza Callao, indicated by the blue line. It's a completely pedestrianized shopping district. There's always a plethora of street performers, knock-off character costumes, and the occasional social gathering. Once in the plaza, you can find a statue of a bear eating from a tree, which is the symbol on the Spanish flag. I used to know the story behind it by heart, but I don't anymore. On the opposite side of the plaza is La Mallorquina, Madrid's oldest and most famous bakery. It's worth looking inside of while you're on the red track on the way to spot #3.
3) Plaza Mayor is one of my all-time favorite spots in the city. It has the classic Spanish colonial design, and there's always something going on. The restaurants in this square are typically overpriced, so don't bother to stop for food until after you've passed under the archway to spot #3. In this small passageway, stop in one of the shops and try a bocadillo de calamares. It's one of the best sandwiches I've ever had, and they're ridiculously cheap (roughly 3 euros). If you're looking for paella, wine, empanadas, desert or beer with tequila in it, continue on to spot #4.
4) El Mercado de San Miguel has the widest array of food you'll find in any one location. It's an open-air bistro market that will make your foodie heart flutter. You can order from whichever stand and take your food to wherever you can find an open seat. When you're done, you can leave your glasses and carry on. There are enough options to use El Mercado as a dinner stop, or you can attempt to exercise some self-control and just snack on a few items.
El Mercado de San Miguel
I cried tears of joy before and after this photo
5) On your way to el Palacio Real, walk along the Main Street. There isn't much activity past El Mercado, but you'll pass one of the cutest little plazas. You'll start to see the top of the cathedral and palace as you walk towards the end of the street, so just keep following that general direction until you get there. With only 24 hours, don't spend time going inside (especially if you've seen Versailles). The palace was actually modeled after Versailles, so if it looks similar, that's why. On your way to spot #6, walk through Plaza de Oriente. and enjoy the greenery.
Plaza on the way to el Palacio Real
A view of the palace from the gates
6) La Chocolatería de San Ginés is the city's hidden gem. You kind of have to search to find it, but it's so worth it. I don't care much for churros, but I care for these ones. It's about 4 euros for 6 churros (which is more than enough) and a cup of melted chocolate. You have to place your order inside at a the register first, then you take your receipt and sit down either indoors or outside and hand your receipt to a waiter. When you're done dipping the churros in the chocolate, drink it. I'm serious. That stuff is too good to waste. It takes like the most delicious hot chocolate you've ever had.
The path by the main entrance to San Ginés will put you back out on Calle de Arenal. If you keep following it, you'll end up right back in Puerta del Sol.
7) Heading in the opposite direction from spot #1 and following the pink line, you will walk along Gran Vía to reach Plaza de España. It's not as breath-taking as the plazas on the red circuit, but it's still an enjoyable view and a good landmark to help you get to spot #8.
8) El Templo de Debod is a very popular sunset spot. If I'm not mistaken, the temple was a gift from Egypt, but of course I've forgotten all of the important information (I'm a communications major, not a history major - obviously). It's prettiest at sunset, but I think the view is better from the rooftop bar because you can see the sunset behind the city skyline (which I prefer to a countryside view).
The black line marks Calle de Fuencarral, the spot for the best shoe shopping in all of Spain. This street is completely pedestrianized as well, so it's fun just walk up and down the walkways. This road was usually how I would get home after I spent a day walking around the city center and Gran Vía.
There are so many ways to spend a day in Madrid, but this is my favorite way. If you're more of a museum person, go East instead of West when you're in Puerta del Sol and you'll find yourself near Plaza de las Cibeles, el Buen Retiro, and el Prado. If you're more of a foodie, head further South from Plaza Mayor and stop in any of the restaurants lining the sidewalks. However you choose to spend your day, I wish you buen viaje.