Hi Frugalistas! It was a hot day when we arrived in Madrid. Just 24 hours in Madrid before we headed from Madrid to Barcelona by train. Despite the heat and our jetlag after the 24 hour flight we wanted to do a Madrid walk. Our do it yourself free Madrid walking tour took us through the old town centre as well as some newer spots. Visiting some of the popular sites in Madrid it proved to be a fun way to explore this stately, grand city.
Starting our do it yourself free Madrid walking tour
This walk is a loop, but due to heat and jet lag we chose to split it into two walks over two days. Because it is a loop you can start and finish your self guided walk Madrid easily depending on your Madrid accommodation.
We stayed at the Hotel Principe Pio (click here for more information), a traditional, solidly 3 star Madrid hotel right near the Jardines de Sabatini and the Royal Palace. It made sense to start our Madrid walking tour there. The Jardines de Sabatini are easily accessed via either Cuesta de San Vicente (a ramp) or Calle de Bailen (via stairs).
The Jardines de Sabatini are a peaceful, shady spot to linger, enjoy a little picnic or just admire the northern facade of the Royal Palace. It’s a good spot to give children a run around without too many people around.
Just watch out for the “petition girls” at the Cuesta de San Vicente entrance. This is a Madrid scam. Don’t stop, don’t make eye contact or engage and just keep walking – you risk being pickpocketed.
Madrid Royal Palace Tour (Palacio Real)
The Madrid Royal Palace is the third largest palace in Europe after Versailles and Shönbrunn at 2800 rooms. Its sumptuous interior is well worth exploring and is a welcome respite from the Madrid summer heat.
There are two queues to enter the palace – one for those with tickets and one for those without. The queue for tickets was long and the queue for those with tickets was very short, so as is often the case, it makes sense to book ahead.
The current palace was built by King Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV who had been brought up in France. And it shows. Unfortunately photography is not permitted in most of the rooms, but I’m sure my photos give you the general impression (and just quietly, what you are allowed to photograph are the more “restrained” areas).
After your Madrid Royal Palace tour you can either visit the Almudena Cathedral directly opposite or continue your walk around Madrid by visiting the Plaza de Oriente opposite. If you are ready for a refreshment stop there are many options around the far side of the Plaza de Oriente.
At the conclusion of your visit to the palace area, continue your walking tour of Madrid by heading south (the palace and cathedral should be on your right) to Calle Major.
Walking from the Royal Palace to the Plaza Mayor
Turning left into Calle Major the next stop on our Madrid free walking tour was the Plaza de la Villa, home to the Madrid townhall on the right hand side of the square. For such a grand and impressive city, the Madrid townhall is best described as “quaint”. The square itself is quite charming and photogenic as is the nearby church and Convent of Corpus Christi just off the square on Puñorostro.
Our next stop was the San Miguel market a quick hop down the laneway on the left just past the convent. The San Miguel market is a new style of market, that is becoming increasingly popular in Europe. Less market, more fancy food court in an historic covered market (this one dates from 1916) the San Miguel market ticks a number of boxes whether you are after a snack, full meal or just a quick drinks break on your Madrid city walk. Once finished in the market, your free walking tour in Madrid takes you onto the Plaza Mayor.
The Plaza Mayor is one of the most famous tourist sites in Madrid. This grand square is another excellent spot for a break at one of the many cafés and bar terraces. We arrived quite early before most were open and the square was relatively quiet. It was the perfect time to take in the grand scale and architecture of this Baroque era square, although I’m the first admit it lacked the buzzy vibe of later in the day and into the evening. On the upside, it was easy to appreciate the scale and detail of the square without having to worry about beggars and pickpockets.
Once you are finished in Plaza Mayor you have two choices – head on to the next part of the Madrid walk or wander down the historic Calle Arenal which will take you back to the Royal Palace where this part of the walk began.
Madrid Walk to the “new Madrid”
Our walk till now has focussed on the older part of the city. Our next component of the Madrid walk is into a newer (mainly 20th century) part of the city.
Leave the Plaza Mayor via Calle de Postas and you can’t miss the nearby Puerta del Sol. Puerta del Sol is handy for metro connections, but don’t rely on it as a spot to sit and regather your energy – little seating and no shade. If you need a break from your Madrid walk stop at Plaza Mayor instead.
History buffs will be interested in the red and white building with the bell tower on the southern side of the Puerto. Now the home of the Madrid Governor’s office it was the first post office in Madrid. It is, however, most famous, or infamous, as having been Franco’s police headquarters during the fascist’s reign. Lovers of more recent history should look up on the opposite side of the square for the famous Tio Pepe sign, a 1950s neon sign advertising the well known sherry.
If the square is busy or there is a (usually peaceful) demonstration going on, pay particular attention to your belongings as pickpocketing is a popular recreation in Puerta del Sol.
There are a number of shops lining the square. I particularly like a very traditional looking one selling Spanish style shawls and fans – the colours and patterns were amazing and the shop was busy with what looked like locals. If you are looking for something genuine it could be one of the best places to buy Spanish fans and shawls in Madrid.
Visiting 20th century Madrid
We are now heading to Gran Via and 20th century Madrid.
Keep to the southern side of the Puerta del Sol and walk up Calle de Alcala to where it meets Gran Via at the pretty Circulo de Bellas Artes building with its fancy bell tower. From here you have two choices – continue straight ahead and visit Retiro Park or turn left into Gran Via for the Gran Via Madrid walk.
Turning left into Gran Via on your Madrid walk you can’t help but notice the brilliant white and golden dome of the restored Metropolis building. This building was inspired by the Hotel Negresco in Nice.
The buildings along Gran Via aren’t particularly historic, but they are obviously a source of great pride to the city – most have been recently renovated. As you walk along Gran Via towards the Plaza de Espana you will walk through the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.
I was particularly looking forward to visiting the Plaza de Espana, but unfortunately on this visit, it was completely boarded up for a major restoration – oh well, there’s always next time.
Despite the heat and our jet lag we thoroughly enjoyed our free walking tour of Madrid, and all wished we had more time to explore. With more time we agreed we would have loved to have enjoyed more of the best walking tours in Madrid.
Plan your visit to Madrid
If you prefer a guided walking tour, Madrid has plenty to consider:
Viator also have plenty of Madrid things to do. You can get more information on Viator Madrid tours here.
You can find other free walking tours in Madrid (and the Madrid walks this walk is based on) in Rick Steves Spain guidebook: