Exploring Madrid

Introduction
Review: American Economy Class A321 Los Angeles To New York
Review: American Business Class 767 New York To Madrid
Review: American Flagship Lounge Dallas DFW Airport
Review: British Airways First Class 777 Austin To London
Review: Westin Palace Madrid Hotel
Exploring Madrid
Day Trip To Toledo
Review: Iberia Business Class Lounge Madrid
Review: Sala VIP Amnios Lounge Madrid
Review: Iberia Economy Class A321 Madrid To London
Review: American Business Class 777-300ER London To Los Angeles


The last time I’d visited Madrid was as a surly teenager on a trip I didn’t want to be on (perspective sure can be embarrassing), but I truly had no idea what to expect as an adult.

And goodness it’s a beautiful city!

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Sunset on Calle Cava Baja

Everyone had told us that the best part of Madrid was the food, but I was a little skeptical. I’m a pretty brave eater, but the last time I was in Madrid I stomped to McDonald’s for a salad after a dozen consecutive meals where the entire animal was brought to my plate (again: teenager). And the whole seafood-with-a-face thing is still contentious around here.

But oh my gosh, the food was amazing. Nearly everything we ate was delicious.

From a three course comida in a tiny cafe where no one spoke English:

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I don’t know what 80% of this is. But it was tasty.

To late-night churros and chocolate at the Chocolateria San Ginés (we went twice):

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I don’t know how they can count it as “drinking” chocolate when it can float a spoon…

And of course the previously-lauded gin and tonics:

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And no, I’m not ready to talk about the demise of our gin glasses yet.

Madrid Food Tour

Something that really helped our confidence with trying new foods and restaurants in Madrid was attending the “Tapas, Taverns & History Tour” offered by Devour Madrid.

This was such a fantastic experience, and I can’t say enough good things about it. The tour was a little pricey at €95 per adult (thanks Heather!), but considering everything we received I think it was a great value.

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Goat cheese with pink peppercorns and a lovely Spanish white at Taberna La Concha

We went to five different local taverns, enjoying a few glasses of wine and an assortment of tapas at each. Some locations were larger, and provided a variety of items to sample, while others showcased a prized recipe, like the delicate stuffed mushrooms at Meson del Champiñón.

Meson-del-champinon
And of course delicious, delicious, hams and chorizos everywhere we went

Our tour guide Mark was a delightful British expat who provided great insights into Spanish food and culture, and kept the group entertained as we ventured from spot to spot. He also provided us with a list of recommendations for the rest of the trip, including a very handy Google map with everything plotted out. Beyond that, when the group decided to continue the tour drinking on our own, he directed us to some great local bars.

I would absolutely recommend this tour, and if I had it to do over again would have actually booked additional tours with Devour Madrid. I’m not generally a guided tour person, as y’all know, but this felt more like when we meet up with one of our expat friends in a foreign city and they take us to their favorite haunts.

Devour Madrid offers tours in other Spanish cities as well, and if they’re even half as good as this one then I’d certainly check them out.

 

 

Museums and parks

While I loved wandering around Madrid, I didn’t get as much time for conventional sightseeing on this trip as I might have liked. My cousin Heather was on this trip with us as well, and spent quite a bit more time exploring the parks and museums, so she offered to write up her thoughts on sightseeing in Madrid. (I’m not going to change the font or indent everything, because it looks bad, so just know that the rest of this section is from Heather).

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The Westin Palace, known to locals as the Palace Hotel, is in a perfect location for sight-seeing. A person is able to experience nearly all of the most coveted attractions on foot within a day. This includes several leisurely stops along the way for what is undoubtedly Madrid’s best feature, food and drink.

Across the street from the Westin is the Museo Del Prado, featuring the best collection of Spanish art in Europe and considered one of the greatest museums of art in the world.

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The museum is quite large and depending on your level of interest could take several hours to explore. Museum admission is free Monday – Saturday, 6pm-8pm and Sundays and holidays from 5pm-7pm.

I planned to visit the museum from 5-7pm on Sunday evening to avoid paying the entrance fee.

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I was shocked upon my arrival at 4:50pm to see no less than 400 people with the same idea standing in line. However, within 15 minutes I had reached the front of the line, had my audio guide and list of masterpieces, and was ready to explore. So if you see a lengthy queue don’t let that deter you!

I was alone and found this amount of time to be sufficient, however if I was visiting the museum with someone else I would pay the admission price (avoid queuing with pre-purchase online at www.entradasprado.com) and plan on more time.

Several other museums in Madrid offer free admission in the evenings or on weekends. If you’re traveling with kids who might not be up for a full day of learning, or just want to get a taste of a pricey museum it pays to check out the websites for the free opening times.

One block from Museo Del Prado is Buen Retiro Park. The park belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century and boasts many lovely features. Retiro Pond where you can rent a row boat and enjoy the sunshine, the Rosaleda rose garden, and it’s most popular feature, the Velazquez Palace.

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The 350 acre park is beautiful and a nice way to get to other popular city attractions without walking through the city streets.

The Puerta de Alcala, built in 1778 and one of Madrid’s best known symbols, was also within easy walking distance.
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As a solo female traveler, I don’t always feel entirely comfortable exploring a city by myself, but Madrid felt very welcoming. The city was well-signed, and walkable. I also appreciated staying in a hotel everyone had heard of — taking taxis or asking for directions was never a problem.

Overall

Madrid was an unexpectedly fun city for a long weekend. The architecture was interesting, and we saw some great museums and churches, but there wasn’t as much pressure to see “important historical sights” as there sometimes is in European cities.

Instead, we spent time wandering streets, enjoying incredible food and drinks, and generally soaking in the fun vibe of the city. All three of us agreed we would return in a heartbeat!

Have you been to Madrid? Any other tips or “can’t miss” spots?

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Comments

  1. a certain “not a destination blogger” be warned, this is an amazing review of Madrid! thanks Tiffany, especially for the museum tips!

  2. I LOVE Spain. I think it’s one of the best places to visit, personally. If you go back, head up to Vigo in the north, if you like seafood. It’s so amazing there, I can’t rave about it enough.

    Also, for some random reason, their Guinness beer is so much better there (only second to Ireland, IMO).

    But Spain is fantastic and for those on the East Coast, it’s a very “quick” trip to make.

  3. Thanks for the food tour tip, Tiffany. The last couple times we went to Madrid, we got caught in the Club Lounge trap and didn’t enjoy the local food. When we go back next year, we will sign up for the tour!

  4. My wife and I really enjoyed a long weekend in Madrid several years ago. Because it was a short trip, we did a Segway tour from MadSegs as our first adventure in the city. It was a great introduction since we were able to cover a lot of ground without getting too exhausted. For the parts of the tour we found most interesting, we went back to spend more time.

  5. @ keith — Hah, thanks! We’re trying to do more of these, but still feel like others do the destination details much better than we can.

  6. @ Gene — You must! The food is so good, and I think you and FCQ would really enjoy the vibe of the tapas bars we visited.

  7. Went to Madrid during the last July. Did not do any sightseeing but rather remain confined in my chamber(hotel room). It was 100 degrees out there. Only went to Vicente Calderón for sporting event.

  8. Great write up, Tiffany and Heather!

    Question: Is Englsh spoken by a lot of the locals in Madrid? Or should one brush up on their Spanish before going?

  9. @ TravelinWilly — I guess that depends on how comfortable you are with playing charades and/or having no idea what’s going on?

    For context, Ben’s Spanish is actually pretty decent when he doesn’t concentrate on it, I always lapse into this ridiculous Spanish/Italian hybrid that no one understands, and Heather only knows “Hola” and “Gracias.” But I didn’t really feel like we had a problem communicating (other than the glassware debacle).

    So I guess I’d say there’s “sufficient” English. Less than Germany, more than France, probably.

  10. I love Madrid and the food!!! On your second picture you have the “cocido Madrileño” which is very typical food: assorted meats (including “osobuco” or bone marrow), chorizo, vegetables, broth, beans and chickpeas. Delicious!!! Anyhow, definitely one of my favorite cities in the world.
    PS: Have you tried pig ears or the octopus (pulpo a la gallega)? 🙂

  11. @ Angel — Ooh, thank you! We had the octopus, and it was good (Heather enjoyed it more than me, I’m not a big fan of the suction cup situation). Did the pig ears on the last trip, and I think once was maybe enough for me. 🙁

  12. Just to give my comment on English in Spain. While I loved Madrid I was suprised how many people (i.e. at main train station) do not or do not want to speak English.
    However, its tough to beat the French level of English 😉

  13. I had a day in Madrid recently. I went into the Museo Del Prado at around 2PM expecting to be there for 1 or 2 hours. I was there until 7PM. The collection of art there is absolutely amazing!

  14. I found the Devour food tour in Seville. Our guide Jaimie and the tour was absolutely amazing!! Great food and history of the city. Headed to Barcelona tomorrow and scheduled another food tour there! Wish I had known about it when we were in Madrid a few days ago. I Love Spain so much!!

  15. To second what Thomas said, I recently had an unplanned layover in Madrid en route a smaller, regional airport and was stunned at how little English was spoken. Given the unintended delay wasn’t the airline’s fault, I expected nothing as far as compensation. However, like Tiffany I speak Spanish, Italian – and sometimes a hybrid of the two – in addition to a couple of other languages, and I feel like I only received the hotel and food voucher I did from Iberia as a result of my Spanish proficiency.

    The Iberia agent at the Customer Relations counter flat out asked if I spoke Spanish prior to engaging in discourse. When I replied in the affirmative, she seemed genuinely relieved. As we prattled on in Spanish, things looked remarkably better for me than the other passenger at the counter from the Indian subcontinent, I presume, that had a similar issue but spoke no Spanish at all. I found this to be true throughout my night out in Madrid and at the hotel near the airport.

    Long story short, I’d recommend any traveler to Spain at least attempt to speak the language. I’m headed to Paris in December and my sober French is non-existent. Drunk French is apparently pretty passable…but I don’t intend to be intoxicated for the entirety of the trip, so I’m planning on brushing up as a result of my experience in Madrid a few months ago.

  16. Hi Tiffany,

    Does Spain have immigration check when you leave Spain? Or it is same as US, u can leave and no one would check just like US. I only got a 10 day visa, I may want to stay couple of days longer.

  17. I went to Madrid 2 weeks ago. I was not impressed. Overpriced for what you get. Noises everywhere and the airport was great but not a place to visit a second time. Not impressed.

  18. We stayed in Madrid for 4 nights at the Westin Madrid as well, beautiful hotel, love the glass dome in the restaurant! There aren’t much to see in Madrid if you are not a museum person but it’s a perfect base for day trips! We visited Toledo, Segovia, and Avila. Segovia is special, it’s home to one of the best preserved Roman aqueduct and the Segovia castle that resembles Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle (I had been to a few places where they said the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty castle so not sure which one is the one LOL). Avila is a hidden gem, less touristy and you are able to walk on its medieval wall!

  19. Gravatar Test 🙂

    Nice report…there are regularly nice business class fares from FRA to MAD with LAN. Going to check out Madrid for a weekend when it will be a little warmer next year. I’m looking forward to the tapas tour 🙂

  20. Dearest Tiffany, as usual your blog is beautifully written and super-helpful.
    Would you say that Madrid will be as interesting to medium-sized children as it is to museum-going adults? As a city, is walking around it as cool as it is in Paris? Or would you say Madrid is more for adults?
    Thank you for your wisdom!

  21. @ Karin — Thanks! I think it depends on the kids. We saw lots of younger people out enjoying tapas with their parents, and we talked about how Heather’s girls would have enjoyed going to a soccer match, etc. And everyone loves churros.

  22. I came to Madrid for a 9 month assignment. That was in 2010 and I’m still here and can’t imagine living anywhere else now.

    But as was mentioned, the language situation can be a bit dicey so at the very least make sure you have a mobile translator ready to go.

  23. Spain is easily one of my favorite non-American destinations and Madrid is awesome.
    We just returned from a week in Andalucia (Granada, Seville, and Cordoba). Earlier this year we were in Bilbao and San Sebastian. We always add a few days in Madrid to our trips.
    One thing I love about most museums in Spain is that they ban all photography. It’s wonderful!! You could spend half a vacation trying to avoid getting in people’s endless photos.
    If you’ve never tried the Ritz Madrid – I highly recommend it!

  24. I’ve lived in Madrid for 2 years, working at a bilingual public high school… I’m so happy you loved it! Most of my friends who’ve visited have hated the city, and the friends who have loved it have prefered Barcelona. But who can complain about Spain?! Gin tonics, dobles, cañas are as cheap as F! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  25. The Prado can be busy and while it’s a great collection there is a limit to the number of portraits of Spanish Kings I can wait in line for. On the other hand the Thyssen , also just around the corner from the Westin Palace, has a stunning collection of modern art ….and rarely if ever any queues

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