Call us crazy, but we actually enjoy having an overnight layover in Madrid. Not only do we avoid the stress of having to make a connection with our sleepy heads, but we get the chance to spend a day exploring the city before moving on to our next destination. We also get really excited about taking the high-speed train.
Madrid makes a great travel hub from which to visit the rest of Spain, with high-speed trains connecting Madrid to major cities throughout the country like the spokes of a wheel. Check out this Rail Europe interactive rail map to see what I mean. Our strategy is to fly into Madrid Barajas Adolfo Suarez Airport, stay in a hotel near the Atocha train station, and catch a train to our final destination the next morning after a good night’s sleep.
Atocha is the main train station in Madrid and the largest train station in Spain.
The Spanish national rail company Renfe operates the high-speed AVE trains. The long distance high speed trains require seat reservations, and while it might be possible to get tickets at the station, personally I wouldn’t risk it. You also get a better price by booking in advance.
The website Seat 61 has a lot of great information on how the Spanish train system works with explanations of the different classes and fares. We like the Turista Plus class tickets, which gets you a Preferente (first-class) style seat at a price that is just a few dollars more than Turista class, but without the meal service. This just means you have to walk to the dining car to buy your own food and drinks.
You can reserve tickets online at the renfe.com website. It’s available in English, but we found it very difficult to work with and had trouble getting it to accept a U.S. credit card. Instead, we reserved our tickets online easily through Petrabax for a small price increase.
We booked a room at one of the hotels near the Atocha train station, which is located in a beautiful part of the city in walking distance to many sights and activities. The station is at the southern tip of the Golden Triangle of Art, an area stretching along the Paseo del Prado that includes three world famous Art Museums: the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Our hotel of choice here is the Hotel NH Madrid Nacional, a 1920’s era hotel located on Paseo del Prado, 48, about a 5 minute walk to the Atocha train station. The rooms were clean, modern, and very comfortable. Our favorite part of this hotel is the fabulous restaurant in the lobby called Tablafina. They have an extensive wine list and a glass case full of beautiful cheeses. Our server was very knowledgeable and recommended cheeses that paired perfectly with our wine. This was an amazing cheese plate for only €12. Their ham and cheese croquetas were also some of the best that we had in Spain, creamy inside with salty specks of ham.
In most American hotel restaurants, it would be hard to find food of this quality, especially without paying high prices. When we arrived to the hotel hungry and tired, it was nice to know that we could get delicious Spanish food and wine without leaving the lobby.
There are plenty of restaurants and tapas bars in close walking distance. Calle de Las Huertas is a historic street which runs more or less parallel to Calle de Atocha. This street is full of life with plenty of places for tapas along its length.
We stopped in to several, including Alimentacion Quiroga, a grocery store turned gastropub. Open from 9:00 am until midnight, you could stop in here anytime of the day for a coffee or glass of wine and a bite to eat; and not just any bite to eat but a beautiful selection of meats, cheeses, tapas and raciones. We had a plate of incredibly tender Ox cheeks (Carrilladas de buey) served with mashed potatoes. This was a pretty hardy and filling dish for about €8. From the end of Calle de Las Huertas, it is only another five minute walk north to the Puerta del Sol. This is Madrid’s most famous square, filled with shops and restaurants.
A long walk to wake up our muscles and take in some fresh air is just what we need after a long flight. The Atocha station, and our hotel, are close to two of the best urban parks in Madrid. The Real Jardin Botanico (Royal Botanical Garden) opened in its current location next to the Prado Museum in 1781. The nearly 20 acre collection contains over 6000 species of plants and trees on display. The park runs along the Paseo del Prado but the entrance is on Plaza Murillo. The park is open every day at 10:00 am with an admission fee of 4 euros. Closing times vary depending on the season, so check the website.
Just across the street is one of the largest parks in Madrid, the Parque del Buen Retiro which means Park of Pleasant Retreat. This 350 acre park was commissioned by the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 1630’s and belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until in became a public park in the late 19th century. With more time, we could have spent the day exploring the many statues, fountains, museums and lakes. The tricky part is trying to find the entrances – there is one on Calle de Alfonso XII at the end near the train station.
It’s important to us to have a spot nearby for coffee and pastry, so we felt very lucky to find Pannus Atocha. This little bakery on Calle de Atocha is a chain, but we still found the coffee to be good, the service friendly, and the selection of pastries almost overwhelming.
We walked by this storefront on our way home in the evening and the display of pastry is too tempting to ignore. The prices were so good that we couldn’t resist piling a plate full of pastries at about €1.00 each. No, we didn’t finish them all. A few bites of each was perfect with two decaf café con leches.
We were back again first thing in the morning for a repeat. Pannus is open 24 hours Thursday through Saturday, which was nice. Not that we were up partying until 4 am, but it can be hard to find coffee early in the morning in Spain.
The next morning, our location across from the train station made for a quick, easy get away to catch our AVE train. The 2.5 hour trip from Madrid to Malaga was smooth, quiet, and really fast. The beautiful scenery of the Spanish countryside whizzed by at astonishing speeds. At one point we were comfortably traveling at 300 km/hr (186 m/hr), which is pretty incredible to Americans used to an antiquated rail system. On our way back through Madrid at the end of our trip, we actually looked forward to dropping our bags in our room at the Hotel NH Madrid Nacional, savoring some wine and cheese in the lobby, and then heading out on the town for tapas. And maybe a pastry or two?