In April, my husband and I did a 2 week trip to Portugal. We did a river cruise that started in Porto and went along the Douro River. In addition to the river cruise, we added a few days on land at the beginning and end of the trip. At the beginning of the trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal. At the end of the trip, we visited Madrid, Spain.
I’ve already covered our visits to Lisbon (http://tips2liveby.com/lisbon-travel-tips/), Porto (http://tips2liveby.com/a-primer-on-port-wine-and-visiting-porto/) and the Douro River Valley Region (http://tips2liveby.com/the-douro-river-valley-and-river-cruising-travel-tips/). Now it’s time to share some trips for traveling to Madrid!
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Madrid is both the capital of Spain, and its biggest city. In fact, with a city population of 3.2 million, it’s the third biggest in the EU behind London and Berlin. Madrid is located right in the center of Spain, which makes it a great base to start from when visiting the country.
While Madrid is a large city, like most major European cities, it is very easy to manage. It’s a walkable city with lots of pedestrian only areas. It also has a very good public transportation system.
Tip #1 – Getting Around: Puerta del Sol is the central square of the city. Most of the major tourist sites are within a 20 minute walk of the square, so when looking for hotels, that’s a great area to be located near. Madrid’s Metro is easy to use, and there are lots of stations located throughout the city. You can buy a 10-ride Metrobus ticket, which can be shared by more than one person, and works on both the Metro and the buses.
Tip #2 – Weather: Madrid is located in southern Europe. It has a Mediterranean climate, and can be very warm in the summer. We were there at the beginning of April, and the weather was very comfortable. T-shirts and shorts during the day, and long pants and a light jacket/sweater in the evening.
I used Rick Steves’ book to help me plan this trip. It’s a great resource with lots of good information. You can buy the newest Rick Steves’ Spain book by clicking the link.
We took a bus to Madrid at the end of our river cruise, but we flew out of Madrid’s Barajas Airport to go home. Ironically, to get to Lisbon (which is where we started our trip), we had to connect in Madrid on the way out. Flying home, we were able to get a direct flight.
Tip #3 – Madrid’s Airport: Madrid’s airport is very large. In fact, it’s one of the largest in Europe. It’s so large, that when we checked in and dropped our bags at the American Airlines counter, there is a sign that tells you to proceed directly to your gate area, as it will take you 45 minutes to get there. That’s no joke either. Getting to the gate entailed walking, going up and down escalators/elevators, and taking a tram. When flying out, arrive 3 hours early to give yourself enough time to navigate your way to the gate.
Tip #4 – The VIP Airport Lounge: When we flew out to start our trip, we had an 8 hour layover in Madrid. I thought about storing our bags and taking a taxi into the city to walk around for a while, but decided we would be too tired. So, we ended up paying 26 euro each to hang out in the VIP lounge at the airport. Best 26 euro we ever spent! There was a continental breakfast and lunch. Unlimited wine, beer, and other drinks. There were comfortable chairs, with outlets to charge your electronics. They even had showers. Some lounges only let club members in, but if you can find one that allows you to just pay to have access, it’s a great option.
Tip #5 – Currency: Spain is on the Euro. When traveling to another country, I always recommend waiting to get any local currency until you arrive. If you exchange money at the airport in the U.S., the conversion rate they give you will not be good. The best way to get cash in Europe is from an ATM. Be sure to call your bank before your trip, so they can set up your account properly. Also, withdraw the maximum amount permitted each time. You will be charged an ATM fee, so it’s best to minimize the number of times you have to withdraw cash. If you will be using your credit card, make sure to notify your credit card companies of your travel as well. I have a Capital One card that I use when traveling, as they don’t charge a foreign transaction fee.
As with anywhere in Europe, Madrid has a great train system. It’s very easy to travel between Spanish cities, as well as other parts of Europe. There are two main train stations in Madrid. The Chamartín station handles most of the international trains. The Atocha station handles most of the trains within Spain, including trains to Barcelona, Sevilla, and Toledo.
LOGISTICS IN MADRID
We stayed at the Westin Palace Hotel (http://www.westinpalacemadrid.com/en), which was located right near the Prado. While the location was fantastic, the hotel was quite expensive (it was booked as part of the post-cruise extension package), and not something I would normally spend money on. The room was beautiful, the buffet breakfast in the morning was amazing, and the service was topnotch. If you can afford the rate, this is definitely a great option.
Tip #6 – Stay Near Puerta del Sol: As mentioned earlier, if you look for a hotel in this area, you will be within walking distance of almost everything you want to see, as well as close to a Metro station. For more reasonable hotels, check out Hotel Europa (www.hoteleuropa.com) or Hotel Moderno (www.hotel-moderno.com). If you really want to go cheap and don’t mind staying in a hostel, check out Hostal Santa Cruz (www.hostalsantacruz.com).
Tip #7 – Book Directly With the Hotel: If you are booking your accommodations yourself, book directly with the hotel. Most hotels have a website that can be translated into English, and is easy to use. It is also very common to receive a discounted rate if you call and ask for one. When you book through a third party website like Hotels.com or Travelocity, the hotels have to pay a commission on each room booked. If you book directly and help them avoid the commission, they may be willing to pass some of those savings on to you.
WHAT TO SEE
As with any European city, there are plenty of sites to see in Madrid. Additionally, Madrid is home to a number of museums, including the Prado Museum, which is said to house one of the greatest collection of paintings by the European masters.
You can take a walking tour to see most of the city’s main sites. Most tours start at Puerta del Sol, and end at the Royal Palace.
Tip #8 – Walking Tour Companies: When we were at Puerta del Sol, there were lots of walking tours starting up. Just look for the tour guides carrying signs. For most, you can sign up right on the spot.
Madrid also has a “hop on, hop off” city bus tour that is very popular. You can buy a ticket directly from the driver (cost is 21 euro for the day), and just hop off whenever you want to see a site in more detail, and then hop back on when you are ready to move on. If you don’t want to do a lot of walking this is a great option.
Tip #9 – Free Walking Tour (well, almost free): I am a HUGE believer in Rick Steves and the books he writes on various countries in Europe. He always includes a self-guided walking tour in his book. So, for the cost of the book (which will more than pay for itself in tips he gives), you can take your own tour through Madrid. We followed his Puerta del Sol to Royal Palace Loop walking tour, and it took us to all of the major sites.
Tip #10 – Convent of Corpus Christi: Right near the Town Hall, you will find the Church and Convent of Corpus Christi. To the right of the church entrance, is a big brown door at Calle del Codo 3. There is a sign on the door that says “Venta de Dulces” (Sweets for Sale). The cloistered nuns sell sweets, but because of their religious beliefs, they are not permitted to be seen. Ring the buzzer. After one of the sisters answer, says “dulces”. They will let you in. Follow the sign to the torno, or lazy Susan, that lets the sisters sell their bake goods. Select what you want from the menu, announce your choice, and place your money on the tourno. Your sweets and change will be returned to you the same way.
If you have the time, I would recommend taking a day trip to Toledo, Spain. My husband and I were very excited to go there, as we grew up in Toledo, Ohio, which is its sister city. The city is absolutely beautiful and full of a lot of rich history. We were only able to spend a few hours there, but I would definitely recommend it as a full day trip.
Tip #11 – Take the Train: There were a lot of tours offered that would take you by bus from Madrid to Toledo. However, you could do it cheaper on your own by just taking the train. Just be aware, that the early and late trains can sell out due to commuters, so reserve ahead.
We happened to be in Madrid on the Thursday and Friday before Easter. One of the most interesting (and a little scary) experiences we had during our visit, was viewing one of their Holy Processions. The people of Madrid celebrate the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ with “pasos”. Pasos are religious icons that are taken out and paraded through the streets during Holy Week. While it was an experience that most tourists don’t have the chance to see, it was a little intimidating. We lined up along a street like you would for a parade. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. By the time we decided we had enough, the crowd was so packed in, that it was a struggle to get out and very claustrophobic.
Tip #12 – Have an Escape Plan: We were standing right in the middle of the street. If I ever decided to view one of the Holy Processions again, I would make sure I was standing at the outskirts of the crowd so I could leave if I wanted. The Holy Procession is LONG and SLOW, so if you are going to do it, be prepared to stand for a long time.
Tip #13 – Plan Alternate Transportation: The roads will be closed down anywhere the Procession goes. It will not be easy to get around the city. After the Procession, the whole city likes to party, so restaurants and bars will be packed as well.
Lastly, a must-do in my opinion is to see a flamenco show. The music, dancing and singing are beyond intense. One of the best places in all of Spain to see flamenco is Corral de la Moreria (www.corraldelamoreria.com). They typically put on two shows per night. You can just go for the show and drinks, or you can have dinner as well. The performance was amazing, and a definite highlight of the trip.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
Madrid has some fantastic foods and some fantastic wines. As you are walking through the streets, check out some of the little shops that are selling meats, cheeses and wines. You’ll find some delicious things at a very reasonable price.
One of the coolest things I discovered in Madrid, is that most bars give you a free tapa if you order a drink. Score! We did a “tapas crawl” with two of our friends that we met on our river cruise, and it was a lot of fun.
Tip #14 – How to Order: If you are looking to get the free tapa, only order a drink. They should bring your free tapa out with your drink. If you don’t get one, just ask “Tapa?” If you order food right away, don’t expect to get the free dish.
The “Great Tapas Row” on Calle de Jesús happened to be located a half block from our hotel, which made it very handy. Some of the bars we liked the best were:
Cervecería Cervantes: Known for their seafood, when you first walk in, the place appears to be a small bar with small seating area with tables. If you want to sit and have dinner, ask for seating in the dining area in the back, which is a really cute little area.
La Anchoíta: While I am not a fan of anchovies, this place not only has some great wine, but it also has beer and vermouth on tap.
El Olivar: Make sure you get the little green peppers here. They are absolutely delicious! We actually went back the next day for dinner here, because the food was so good.
Taberna Maceira: Decorated in the Galician style with lots of wood, you’ll sit at a large wooden table on wooden benches. They brought my wine in a wooden mug.
To see and sample some local gourmet foods and wines, check out Mercado de San Miguel (between Plaza Mayor and Town Hall). Housed in a structure built in 1916, it holds over 30 different vendors. It’s worth going in just to see the different types of food, and a good spot to grab some lunch.
Madrid is a great city, and definitely worth a stop if you are traveling in the southern areas of Europe. Enjoy your travels!
Have questions about Madrid and the surrounding area? Have you been there and I missed one of your favorite places? Comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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