Hi friends! Some of you are probably over my posts about our trip to Spain and London, while others of you probably wish I’d posted in more detail and shared more photos. While I was able to post updates while we were traveling, time and wifi constraints kept me from sharing photos from my camera and detailed accounts of the wonderful places we visited. Over the next few weeks, both for my own personal travel diary and for those of you who may want to visit these places someday, I plan to dedicate a post to each city we visited. I’ll spread them out so as not to turn this space into a temporary travel blog. I hope you enjoy them and that one day you’ll take your family to visit!
We started our month-long trip in Madrid, Spain. Not only is it an easy location to fly in and out of, it is also the home of my aunt and uncle. It gave us a nice home base to start from, easing us into international travel without having to figure out hotels and transportation right off the bat.
As we traveled through Spain, it really hit me how very different each region and each city is. Madrid, to me, is very business-like and cosmopolitan. It definitely has its own fascinating history, pockets of interesting neighborhoods, and cultural opportunities, but it very much feels like a modern city. While we found Madrid to be great for getting around easily, shopping, and top-notch museums, it didn’t have the beauty and personality we found in so many other Spanish cities and towns. That’s not a bad thing – we really enjoyed our time in Madrid. However I would definitely adjust your expectations. If you want quaint, typical Spain, you’ll want to include other regions on your itinerary. Now that we have that out of the way, here are the highlights of Madrid, especially if you’re traveling with kids and/or tweens:
We started off our first day in Madrid at Plaza Mayor. Think of it as the ultimate town square. Built in the 17th century, this enormous gathering spot is lined with cafes. It’s the perfect place to sit and have a drink and a snack while people watching. We had our first meal in Spain here, and we kept looking at each other and saying, “Can you believe we’re actually here?!” The kids got a kick out of the fact that where we were leisurely enjoying our lunch, there were once bullfights and public hangings.
Another highlight for the kids in Plaza Mayor are the various street performers. You see all kinds of crazy stuff – ninjas that seem to be levitating, human statues, people dressed up as trees. Their favorite was the tinsel-covered goat, who clacked his teeth together if you got close.
Just a 10-minute walk from Plaza Mayor is the Royal Palace. It has more than 2000 rooms! While you can’t tour all of them (thank goodness, says this mom who imagines a 10-hour tour with kids), you can tour some of the most amazing rooms. It took us about an hour and a half to get through the self-guided palace tour, and we all really enjoyed it. Throughout the trip I often relied on Rick Steves’ guidebook over a museum’s audioguides, and I think it worked well. I’d read the parts I thought the family would find interesting. I feel like we got so much more out of our city walks and visits to various sites using his book as our guide. There were no photos allowed inside the palace, so unfortunately I can’t show you the room made entirely of porcelain, or the hand-stitched wallpaper, but trust me – it’s awesome.
The most fascinating room for the kids was the hall where the royal banquets are held. The table is set to accommodate over 100 guests! We laughed about someone at the far end of the table yelling down to the other end to pass the rolls.
For Mike and I, the Stradivarius Room was the room we won’t soon forget. The palace has the best collection of Stradivarius instruments in the world. They have a full quartet that have an estimated value of $15 million per instrument! It’s crazy to stand in a small room surrounded by something that is worth so much.
Unfortunately the Royal Pharmacy was closed for renovations during our visit, but Eli loved seeing the Royal Armory. I mean, what boy doesn’t love a museum dedicated to swords, knights in shining armor, and instruments of torture?
Reina Sofia and CaixaForum
There are several world-class art museums in Madrid, including the Reina Sofia, the Prado Museum, the Thyssen, and the CaixaForum. While I would’ve loved to have visited all of them, I knew that with the time we had and with kids in tow it just wouldn’t be feasible. In Madrid, we opted to visit Reina Sofia and CaixaForum.
Can I just take a moment to step on my traveling with kids soap box? There is NO way to travel with kids and see each and every museum, cathedral and historic sight that these wonderful cities in Europe have to offer. You will all end up miserable, hating your trip and each other. You’ll be angry at the kids for not behaving or appreciating what they’re seeing. The kids will be insanely bored, tired and agitated, and will never want to travel again. It may very well be the trip of a lifetime, but you have to approach it as if you will be back again – either by yourselves or with older kids who can withstand more time in museums. We tried to balance each city with a must-see sight or museum, some down time, and something geared toward kids. Yes, we had our moments when someone was cranky because they didn’t like what we were doing. Yes, there were many things that I would have loved to have visited but had to forego. But looking back on the trip overall, I truly feel like we ALL got to do, see and experience things that we really enjoyed at one time or another. As a result, we have great memories and we all have the bug to travel to new places together again soon. Okay, stepping down from the soap box now.
Reina Sofia focuses on the early 20th century, which means we saw Picasso, Miró, and Dalí. It houses Picasso’s most famous work, the enormous and very moving Guernica. We chose Reina Sofia over the Prado because I knew that there would be several paintings that the kids would recognize. I took the time before our trip to read a few books with them about the artists and paintings we’d see, and I highly recommend doing this. They were very interested and engaged during our visit, and they remembered things about the artists and the paintings that we’d read about at home. (The books we read were And Picasso Painted Guernica, 13 Modern Artists Children Should Know, and The Life and Work of Salvador Dali .)
Reina Sofia also edged out the Prado because they are hosting a special exhibit on Playgrounds through September 22. The Risky Kids writer in me couldn’t pass that up! We had one dicey moment when they mistook a part of the exhibit as an actual piece of playground equipment to sit on. I have no idea what the museum yelled at them, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Are you enjoying the exhibit?” We moved on quickly, had a talk about touching things in museums, and I gave thanks that it was a piece of wood and not a Picasso. Other than that, the museum was a hit.
We chose CaixaForum based on a specific special exhibit: a Disney Pixar exhibit! This was so very cool. It was full of original artwork from the movies, interactive stations for the kids, and a jaw-dropping huge zoetrope of your favorite Pixar characters. Again, no photos were allowed, but we were too busy enjoying the exhibit. Even if you don’t go in, a walk by the museum is a must-see. One side of the museum is a 3-story vertical garden!
El Retiro Park
This 350-acre park sits in the center of the city. Walking through it on tired legs probably isn’t your best idea with kids, but they’ll love it as a first stop in the day or for an evening paseo. Grab an ice cream from one of the many vendors and enjoy a leisurely stroll. You can rent rowboats in the large pond or take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park (of which we did neither, much to the grand disappointment of the kids). There’s a fabulous playground on the north side of the park, near the Retiro Metro entrance.
Parque Madrid Rio
Just a few miles from downtown Madrid, the Madrid Rio is an urban park set along the bank of the Manzanares River. A big section of Madrid’s highway was moved underground, and what used to be the highway was converted into a park, with wide bike paths, playgrounds, cafes and 17 (!) playgrounds. We rented bikes and went for a leisurely ride. The kids had a blast. It was a great way to see a different part of Madrid, and because you don’t have to worry about cars, a perfect family activity.
Because it’s such a cosmopolitan city, Madrid is great for shopping. Eli wasn’t so into it, but if you’re traveling with teens or tweens (especially girls), they’ll love the stores in Madrid. Elena loved shopping at Zara, Mango, Stradivarius (clothing – not to be confused with $15 million violins), and Bershka.
Don’t miss the huge El Corte Ingles in Puerta del Sol. It’s a very popular department store, and you can find them all over Spain, but this one is enormous. We found some good deals on clothing and souvenirs here as well. But my favorite part is the lowest level. It has a full grocery store downstairs!
Mercado De San Miguel
We visited markets all over Spain, and this one in Madrid was by far the prettiest and fanciest. It’s not very big, but it’s packed with vendors selling all kinds of tasty treats. Definitely come on an empty stomach! Sadly we’d already filled up on a disappointing (and expensive lunch), but that didn’t stop us from having an ice cream. Elena tried what appeared to be an odd flavor combination: lemon chocolate chip. It ended up being delicious and we were all giving her puppy dog eyes for a lick. If you have picky eaters with you, markets and grocery stores are your best (and cheapest) bets for feeding them well. Everyone can walk around and pick out what looks best to them, then you can find a nice spot nearby for a picnic.
So to sum up Madrid …
How much time should you allocate? We spent 5 days in Madrid and it was plenty of time to see the city. Three days would be pushing it, four would be perfect.
Must-See: The Royal Palace. How often can you say you’ve been in the King’s house (and Graceland doesn’t count!)? Everyone will find something they enjoy seeing here.
Best Tip: Figure out the Metro and use it to get around. It’s relatively inexpensive and extremely easy to navigate. We would buy a T10 ticket (which gets you 10 rides) for around 12 Euros. You don’t need a separate T10 ticket for each person. You buy one ticket, and then go through the turnstiles one at a time. Each person feeds the ticket in and goes through the turnstile. The next person retrieves the ticket and does the same. Easy peasy. The Metro is clean and safe. Of course you need to be aware, but we never had any issues with pickpockets or feeling unsafe. You do not need a car to explore Madrid!
Best Things We Ate: Churros at Chocolateria San Ginés. It’s open 24 hours, and after sampling churros all over Spain we have to say the dipping chocolate here was our favorite. It’s so thick, it’s almost like pudding!
The best tapa I ate in Madrid wasn’t specific to one restaurant, so look for it on any tapas menu. It was boquerones, or marinated white anchovies. I had them served atop freshly fried homemade potato chips and they were the ultimate bar food! So good with a clara, which is a combination of half beer, half lemon soda.
¡Hasta luego, Madrid! Next up: a day trip from Madrid to Toledo.