In trying to get to Namibia, I ended up in Spain. Let me explain: we had a tremendous trip planned for the Skeleton Coast, but could not find any way to use some abundant air miles to get from the Midwest to Windhoek. That’s when I started looking at cheap European-Namibia flights and I found a winner. Qatar Air r/t from Madrid to Windhoek for about $600. And we had plenty of air miles to get to Madrid for free (plus nominal taxes, not even $100). So what was already a great trip plan received a bonus: my first trip to Spain.
Looking at Madrid for my first time I knew I wanted to be near the center of the city. It’s known to be quite walkable and, in fact, the municipal government has been pushing that pedestrian focus in urban design for environmental and quality-of-life reasons. We got a room at Hotel H10 Villa de la Reina on Calle Gran Via (the city’s main drag). Before the trip, as I ran a few target sites through Google, they all seemed like long-ish walks but doable. Numbers on the map don’t always tell the tale: When we actually put shoes to pavement, everything seemed much closer. The Royal Palace/Palacio Real, the holy triumvirate of art museums (Prado/Reina Sofia/Thyssen-Bornemisza), key train and subway stations, markets, cool bars and barrios. Add to that an easy metro ride connection to the airport.
The Royal Palace – Palacio Real de Madrid – and its companion, the Cathedral of Santa Maria. With 3,418 rooms, it is the largest active palace in Europe. Entry is about 10E for basic admission and you can buy online days in advance (timed entries are limited, every 15 minutes) and avoid lines.
Just by luck we caught a free concert in the afternoon with Placido Domingo and others singing inside the cathedral. A large crowd filled the square outside to watch it on large screens.
The Prado was perhaps our farthest destination, almost — *gasp* — fifteen minutes walking from our hotel. And even that seems short when you are ogling handsome architecture, storefronts, or the magnificent on your stroll to the museum. (Visit the Palacio de Comunicaciones in time for sunset to take a drink at the rooftop bar.)
Palacio de Comunicaciones also referred to as the post office or Palacio de Cibeles
I am a big fan of having a guide. Books are great, random strangers with insights are also fun, but nothing can substitute for a knowledgeable guide with good storytelling abilities and local insights. We worked with Mad Snail Travel three times this week. Our first guide was the director himself, Enrique. (We posted something with him on Instagram and a friend in California replied that she too had gone on a tour with him in the past! Small world.) Enrique took us on a tapas tour followed by our visit to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, dedicated to 20th century art and the home of Picasso’s Guernica. Great food, great laughs, great art.
Marta — an Art Historian, in fact — guided us through the overwhelming collection at The Prado. Along with her knowledge of specific works, the backstory of the art and artists, she made sure we didn’t miss anything and completed the tour before museum-exhaustion could set in. Charming and passionate about her subject area.
Finally, Pedro took us through Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, a private collection of 1,600 works that become accessible to the public in 1992. Again we had the benefit of someone who really loved the artwork and could draw our attention to details we’d otherwise miss. And again, time management: he moved us through the collection with the time we had available. (I am notoriously bad at pacing myself in museums.) Mad Snail Travel offers much more than the art museums, including city and walking tours, gastronomy tours, and custom-made excursions. (I see they’ve also added Lisbon, Portugal — so maybe I will run into them again in the future.)
Even some local craft beer and cheese (natural combination for a Wisconsinite) at Bee Beer and Cheese. located in Chueca, known as the city’s gay neighborhood, a popular and diverse section of town with abundant boutique shops, cafes and bars.
Stating the obvious: tapas are the way to go. Order a drink – vermouth on tap will do nicely – and get a free plate on the side in many places. For budget travelers, this is an excellent deal. Don’t let it prevent you from going out for a proper dinner at a nice restaurant; but it’s easy to have a few of these and skip the full meal each night.
We attended cooking class at Alambique. This is Spain’s oldest such culinary school, founded by Clara María González de Amezúa back in 1978. Taking a morning or afternoon course is deliciously instructive, a celebration of Spanish cuisine. Even if you don’t get to a course, the setting is a foodie’s dream: wall-to-wall kitchen and cooking wares. This is perfect for travelers, but I also admire that they do a lot of work with locals and youth, to educate and keep traditions alive as well as expand culinary horizons.
Churros in an almost pudding-thick hot chocolate. Don’t miss this.
One of the most famous churro sites is Chocolatería San Ginés and they are open at all hours, so you have no excuses.
Mercado de San Miguel is a covered market with a vast assortment of counters for tapas, paella, drinks, desserts, and more. Not far from Playa Mayor.
La Mallorquina pastry shop lies at the western corner of Puerta del Sol, a bustling plaza (a five-minute walk from Calle Gran Via) where several lines of Metro and InterCity rail meet underground.
Museo del Jamon is another block west of here, perfect for its tapas featuring its delicious cured namesake.
Day Trips from Madrid
In addition to all Madrid has to offer, Toledo (UNESCO-honored city with historic synagogue and cathedral, marzipan, El Greco art sites) and Segovia (turn-of-the-century UNESCO World Heritage Roman aqueduct, impressive cathedral and castle, roast suckling pig) are easy day trips for the charms of smaller historical towns. Take a bus or a train and it’s a snap.
Convinced to visit Madrid yet? Check out flights and Madrid hotels.