View of Catedral de la Almudena from the Plaza de la Armería, on the grounds of the Royal Palace, as taken from my iPhone.
My family visited the capital city, Madrid, as the first part of our vacation to Spain [We also visited Seville, Granada, Barcelona]. I knew I was going to miss the beginning of the trip because of work and debated whether I should stay an extra couple days to see Madrid. I am glad I did. First, the Royal Palace of Madrid is a must see attraction in Spain. Next, Retiro Park is an impressive city park. Madrid is also home to some of the most prodigious art museums in the world. Moreover, there is some great food in Madrid. While Barcelona probably features a higher number of and more diverse quality food options, my favorite restaurants in Spain were in Madrid. They included historic restaurants that have been around for a long time. In fact, the oldest recorded restaurant in the world, Sobrino de Botín, is situated in Madrid. With an international airport, Madrid is one of the main points of entry into the country. Accordingly, it is a natural stop before hitting other destinations in Spain. Moreover, there are day trips from Madrid to other popular cities (e.g. Toledo). Regardless, the capital city is definitely worth spending 2-3 days during a trip to Spain.
- Main Points of Interest
1. Royal Palace of Madrid (Calle de Bailén, s/n, 28071 Madrid, Spain)
For me, the Royal Palace was definitely the highlight of my visit to Madrid. The beautiful views from outside of the palace were actually surpassed by the glamour and majesty of the designs, architecture, and gold inside the building. When I first entered the grounds, I was greeted with the impressive size of the courtyard, Plaza de la Armería, and the stone architecture of the outside structure of the palace. Moreover, I suggest going all the way to the west end of the courtyard. There were great views of the mountains that neighbor Madrid. Once I entered the palace, there were many stunning rooms that captured my imagination with their allure. Visitors are allowed to take pictures of some of the initial rooms on the tour. However, photographs are prohibited for most of the rooms. Naturally, they are the most beautiful rooms. Accordingly, it was like being able to take pictures of the appetizers but not the main entrees of a grand meal. Nonetheless, the magnificence of the palace resonate in my memories. Specifically, the Royal Chapel completely blew me away. It is a gold room. It is also the tallest room in the palace with a dome above that was designed to appear to float weightlessly. In addition, sculpted angels grace the dome to add elegance and movement as well as merge with the painted figures. The idea for the dome was to serve as a metaphor for an open space leading to heaven. For all those reasons, the Royal Chapel was my favorite room in the palace.
Since tours of the Palace are very popular, I recommend booking a tour in advance for a specific tour time. I also enjoyed the self-guided audio tour since I could move at my own pace and listen to stories of the room I was looking at when I wanted to learn more about it.
Plaza de Espana (Plaza de España, 28008 Madrid, Spain)
Past the northeast corner of the Royal Palace, the Plaza de Espana is a popular tourist spot. It is a small square with a monument dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who is the Spanish writer that wrote the famous novel Don Quixote. It was a quick stop that was a nice to do after a visit to the Royal Palace.
- Retiro Park
It is a wonderful city park. It is especially pretty in the Fall with the change in colors of the leaves. I spent a couple hours in the Park both days I was in Madrid. I entered through the Puerta de Alcala at the northwest corner of the Park. The Puerta [door/ gate] is a giant stone gate with multiple arches. Once I entered Retiro Park, I walked down a pathway lined with flowers in the middle. It was a preview of beauty inside. There are many good spots to see which included lakes, gardens, fountains, monuments For example, the Estanque is a big manmade lake in the north end of the park. Other people rented row boats and paddled around the water. There is also the Monument to King Alfonso XII on the east side of the lake. It is comprised of a large statue of the king riding a horse in the middle surrounded by a semicircular colonnade [series of columns that looked like half of the exterior of a Roman coliseum]. When I walked further south in the Park, I got to the Crystal Palace which is a see through glass building. There was a pond next to it with a fountain spouting water in the air. When I stood on the east side of the pond with the Palace in the background, it was definitely one of the best pictures I took in the Park.
There are also gorgeous gardens throughout the Park. The Oriental Gardens and La Rosaleda in the center of the south end of the Park were pretty. However, the most beautiful garden in Retiro Park was the one in the southeast corner of the Park: Gardens of Cecilio Rodríguez. It has rectangular pools with mini fountains lined with flowers and hedges along the sides. Behind them, there were unique trees and pergolas [arches] with ivy growing behind and wrapping around them. Next, there is the Paseo de la Argentina. It is a promenade with statues of former kings. Moreover, there are paths in the Park where tall trees hover above and the tops are close knit so they form sort of a dark forest. Of course, the best way to see everything is to just wander around the Park. I went down the middle one day then down the east side and up the west side the other day. Nevertheless, do not miss the Plaza del Parterre on the west side. I exited the Park from there both days and it was the perfect finish. It is a multilevel plaza with gardens, hedges, and trees with views of elegant buildings from the city in the background.
If you need to use the restrooms while at the park, there are public restrooms inside the library in the middle of the park on the east side.
- The Prado Museum (Paseo del Prado, s/n, 28014 Madrid, Spain)
It is the premiere national art museum in Spain. Not surprisingly, it features a lot of paintings dedicated to Christianity. There are also plenty of art related to Spanish and European history, landscapes, and portraits. For art aficionados, it is definitely a must visit. I could have definitely spent half a day leisurely admiring all the art and the history it reflected. Nevertheless, I was short on time so I moved around the Prado quickly and mainly just looked at the paintings and occasionally read the descriptions under them. Personally, I felt even the express experience was certainly worth it.
Moreover, there is a ban on photos throughout the Prado. I did not know the rule before I snapped pictures of a couple of paintings. While the security guards would not have made me delete the photos, they were certainly strict in telling visitors not to take photos when they see it. In reading about the premise of the rule, I agree with it. Before the ban, photo taking [especially selfie sticks] was ruining the art experience. Imagining the selfie sticks and photo taking at other tourist locations throughout the city also occurring inside the Prado, I definitely prefer a ban and not being able to snap a few photos of paintings I really liked than trying to dodge a bunch of selfie sticks.
- Other Points of Interest
1. Plaza Mayor (Plaza Mayor, 28012 Madrid, Spain)
It was once the center of Old Madrid. It is still in the heart of the current city. The plaza is in the shape of a square with buildings of classical Spanish architecture forming each side. There are multiple arches that cut through buildings that provide the entrance and exits to the Plaza. It is certainly a unique spot in the city. Moreover, I walked through it just trying to get to different key points and famous restaurants in Madrid. As such, it was not a point of interest I had to go out of my way to see.
- Puerta del Sol (Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, s/n, 28013 Madrid, Spain)
It is another major plaza in Madrid. A lot of the main roads in the city converge at this point. I guess you can say all roads [in Madrid] lead to Puerta del Sol. It is basically the Times Square of Madrid. The New Year’s celebration for Spain has been broadcasted from the Puerta del Sol since 1962. The famous clock in the plaza marks the beginning of the New Year. It is very close to Plaza Mayor. Like the other plaza, I passed through it naturally on my way to and from key points in Madrid. Similarly, I did not have to go out of my way to see it.
- Gran Vía
It is the grandest street for shopping in Madrid. The vibrant, glitzy shops and bright lights make it similar to Broadway and Times Square in New York. It is also overrun by tourists and very crowded throughout the day. I worked in Times Square for years and personally try to avoid passing through it or spending a significant time there because it is a madhouse. I had similar feelings about Gran Via. Nonetheless, I stayed at the Hotel Atlántico (Calle Gran Vía, 38, 28013 Madrid, Spain) on Gran Via. It definitely fits in with the rest of the street with a flashy exterior. The rooms look fancy inside as well and were very comfortable. In my opinion, it was not overly expensive for the quality I was getting but hotels are generally more expensive in the United States. The one aspect of the hotel that was inconvenient was that there is only one small elevator. The stairs are fine when I was going down but I had to use the elevator going up as I was on a higher floor. While I definitely enjoyed the hotel, I probably would not have picked it if I realized how busy Gran Via is on a regular basis. When I was walking back to the hotel, I used routes that allowed me to turn into the location of the hotel at the last minute to avoid the immense people walking through Gran Via.
- Famous Food Spots
1. Sobrino de Botín (Calle de Cuchilleros, 17, 28005 Madrid, Spain)
Founded in 1725, it is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest restaurant in the world. While it was not the best thing I ate in Madrid, a restaurant does not last for centuries if it does not feature fantastic food. The restaurant has a dinner deal that includes alcohol and dessert. However, I do not drink. Since it was an extra $5 from to just get two entrees, I decided to try Botín’s two star dishes. Its most famous dish is the suckling pig. The skin was very crisp and thin. I was very impressed. As a Chinese person, I have eaten a lot of roast pig. However, the crunchy skin on it is usually much thicker. Accordingly, the skin on Botín’s suckling pig was definitely unique and tasty. On the other hand, the pig tasted and smelled a little gamey so it is not for everyone. The other popular dish is the lamb. It tasted like very good lamb shank. It was tender but not quite fall off the bone good. The skin was also crisp but not as crispy as the pig skin. It was gamey but not nearly as gamey as the pig. The dishes also came with a side of potatoes which were seasoned very well. The bread was also baked fresh and excellent.
The overall experience was great too. The design of Botín still has its original architecture and layout. It still uses the same brick oven from when it first opened. Although I did not go on a tour, the restaurant will also treat its diners to a quick tour of the building. Overall, it was very good food and an amazing experience.
- Chocolatería San Ginés (Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5, 28013 Madrid, Spain)
It is Madrid’s most famous chocolate shop and dates back to 1890. It is open 24 hours. Not surprisingly, it gets very busy. I got there at 9 AM one day and waited for 20 minutes. I went back the next day before 8 AM. It was busy but there was no line. They have a to-go shop across the street from the main restaurant but it is only to go. In my opinion, sitting and eating in the restaurant is part of the experience. The cholate shop is known for its churros con chocolate. The dough is golden crisp and thin. The chocolate is delicious. I prefer the temperature to be hotter but it was definitely warm. Although it is not the best churros I had in Spain, it is certainly fantastic and a must try in Madrid.
- Mercado San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005 Madrid, Spain)
It is the famous market in Madrid. It is certainly touristy but the food is still great. It is extremely packed and a struggle to walk around the tight, open air confines. I recommend walking around the market and assessing the various options before selecting what you want to eat. I tried a few spots. First, I liked the Paella Bar. The paella was naturally awesome and the tzatziki sauce was excellent. Next, I tried oxtail at Raza Nostra. It was very good. On the other hand, I regretted not eating the ribeye. I watched as it was cooked for other patrons and it looked amazing. Finally, I also tried the Salmon Corner. The smoked salmon was definitely excellent. The Mercado San Miguel is crowded but certainly a must see and taste for tourists and foodies.
- More Food
1. Casa Lucas (Cava Baja, 30, 28005 Madrid, Spain)
Although Casa Lucas is far from as famous as the historical restaurants in Madrid, I had my best meal in Spain there. It is a modest sized space with a local pub feel. The food was absolutely incredible. I started with the Alella, which included chicken and corn mousse. The chicken was white meat so not the juiciest cut of chicken. The sauce, which comprised of soy sauce and sesame oil, was special. On the other hand, it was a little salty. Next, the caramelized onions really made the dish explode with flavor. In regards to the corn mousse, it was unique and delicious. The dish also came with potato chip strings, which were good. The Alella dish was big. It could have been a meal in itself but is just an appetizer on the menu. For my entrée, I had the oxtail. It is in the running for the best I have ever eaten. Although the oxtail meat was not on a bone, it was fall off the bone tender and juicy. The meat broke apart immaculately in my mouth. More impressively, the dish made me like prunes. The sauce was a mix of prunes and pistachio. The pistachio aftertaste was delightful. The sauce tasted like butternut squash. Finally, there were mashed potatoes laid out like a puree on the bottom of the dish. The dish was perfect. I definitely recommend Casa Lucas.
- Platea (Calle de Goya, 5, 7, 28001 Madrid, Spain)
It is a unique spot in Madrid. It is a former theater that retains its original layout. The servers mainly speak Spanish but the language barrier was manageable. In the basement, there are a variety of food options. On the patio [ground floor], there are drinks and tapas with live entertainment on stage. I went to Canalla Bistro on the first floor [really the second floor] that overlooks the stage and patio from what would have been the second deck of the theater. The restaurant is from Michelin star chef Ricard Camarena. The food was outstanding. I ate 4 different starters. I started with bread and cod salad. The fish was excellent and tasted like tuna fish. The red peppers really accentuated the taste. Next, I had spring rolls. It had an atypical, vermicelli skin. On the other hand, I felt the fish inside the roll was too thin. I could not taste it. It was like eating lettuce wrapped in vermicelli. Nevertheless, it was decent because the sauce was very good. I also had the salmon tartare. It was in a cone. The salmon had a smooth and fishy taste. I liked the wasabi sauce because the wasabi taste was lightened. Moreover, I ordered the nigri. It comes in two pieces. The fried shell was very crispy. The sushi rice was on point. There was just enough duck for a strong duck taste. In my opinion, it was by far the best starter. For my main entrée, I ordered the avocado cannelloni. It was tuna wrapped in avocados. The tuna was fresh. The great taste in the dish was sourced from the avocado and sauces. The bits of croutons and tomatoes worked great with the dish.
Canalla Bistro was not cheap. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful, unique meal. It was also a great spot to enjoy the lively and colorful ambience of Platea.
- La Mallorquina (Calle Mayor, 2, 28013 Madrid, Spain)
It is a historic bakery in Madrid that was founded in 1894. The pastries are excellent. I asked for a chocolate croissant then just pointed at a pastry that looked like it with chocolate coming out of the middle. Whatever they wanted to call it, it was great. The chocolate was delicious and very sweet. The dough was flaky on the inside with a crisp, sweet glaze on the outside. I definitely recommend stopping at La Mallorquina for some baked goods.
- Café Federal (Plaza de las Comendadoras, 9, 28015 Madrid, Spain)
It is an excellent breakfast spot. The French toast was legit and one of the better ones I have eaten in my travels. The cornflake crust was crunchy and sweet. It was drenched in sauce so it was soft. The blueberries and raspberries on one of the pieces of toast was great. On the other hand, I did not care for the cream (mascarpone) on the other piece of toast. Then again, I am not a big fan of cream anyway. Regardless, Federal is a good way to start your day in Madrid.
- Frutas Prohibidas Bar (Calle Libertad, 37, 28004 Madrid, Spain)
If you are looking for a healthy option in Madrid, it is a good hole in the wall type spot. I ordered an acai bowl. The fruits on top were delicious. The granola had a great crunch. It was also the first time I had guarana [a Brazilian fruit] in the base. It was very tasty. On the other hand, my gripe with the bowl was that the acai base was more like a smoothie than the hard sorbet texture of the acai bowls I am accustomed to. While it was still very good, I prefer an acai bowl I eat instead of drink.
I was definitely impressed with the coffee scene in Madrid. The coffee shops I tried were definitely representative and the quality I expected from great specialty coffee shops. Moreover, there were shops with drinks that were different from everything else I have tried before.
- La Colectiva Café (Calle Francisco de Rojas, 9, 28010 Madrid, Spain)
It was my favorite coffee shop in Madrid. My latte had a rich and smooth texture. There was no hint of bitterness. Moreover, there was perfect microfoam on top. Generally, large lattes have a high bust probability. Due to the size, there are likely spots where it is a slop of milk or poor texture. Nevertheless, the large latte at La Colectiva Café had the perfect consistency from top to bottom.
- Hola Coffee (Calle del Dr. Fourquet, 33, 28012 Madrid, Spain)
It was the closest specialty coffee shop I found by the Atocha train station. It was about a 15 minute walk from the station. The latte I had at Hola Coffee was fantastic and unique. It featured perfectly smooth microfoam. The uniqueness of the drink was that it had a very fluffy thickness. I have never tasted a latte quite like it. Overall, it was amazing.
- Toma Café (Calle de la Palma, 49, 28004 Madrid, Spain)
This coffee shop is known for its flat white. The art on my drink was great. In terms of the drink, there was no hint of bitterness. Moreover, the barista nailed the drink. He got the flat white correct with the less thick, more watery texture while not diluting the coffee taste. In fact, it had a rich coffee taste. In addition, the shop was a super busy spot. It was crowded and I had to squeeze in at the right time for a seat to enjoy my drink.
- Hanso Coffee (Calle del Pez, 20, 28004 Madrid, Spain)
It is another stellar, specialty coffee shop in Madrid. My latte had great latte art with the perfect microfoam. The drink had a rich, smooth latte taste. In addition, the drink was large. While it was a little watery at times, it did not dilute the coffee taste. Nevertheless, that slight defect is why I rank it a little below the other shops I tried in Madrid.
- Atocha Station
If you are leaving out of Madrid to another city, the Renfe [train] is a popular mode of transportation. The Atocha Station is the Renfe station in Madrid. If you are coming from the airport and heading to a longer train ride, the fare for the train [C1] from the airport to the Renfe station is free. There are machines in the airport just outside of the train lines to put in the code you received for the longer train and select a ticket for the C1. Make sure to get to the Atocha station early for your scheduled departure time. It can be a little confusing to get around the station. Moreover, there is an X-Ray machine that scans all luggage. As such, there will be a line to get past security. Once you past it, there are screens that will tell you what platform your train will arrive on. There may be multiple trains on the same platform so do not be shy on asking whether you on the correct train. There is also assigned seating on your ticket, which helps in determining whether you are in the correct spot.
Overall, it was definitely one of the more hectic and confusing train experiences I have encountered. Of course, part of it was the language barrier. Nevertheless, the high speed rail runs well.
- Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport to City Center
Mass transit connects from the airport to the City Center too. I took Line 8 and switched trains to get to Sol. I rushed and hastily bought a ticket without checking what fare I should have gotten. In retrospect, I should have purchased the Madrid Tourist Travel Pass for 5 Euros to avoid the airport supplementary charge of 3.5 Euros. Even with a little confusion and needing to ask a police which train I needed to switch to, the mass transit was a convenient way to get to the City Center. On my way back to the airport, I took an Uber. At 9 AM and not a busy time, it was less than 30 Euros.
Links for other Cities in Spain: