Madrid was a sleepy village until the Moors invaded back in the 9th century, but it’s wide awake now with many unique attractions. Spain’s capital city of 5 million people is a great place to visit for its rich culture, nonstop activity, and dazzling diversity.
Spring is lovely in Madrid, with flowering trees and dozens of parks, each a retreat from the noise and big-city bustle. Best-known, and not to be missed, is 320-acre Parque del Retiro. John and I were enchanted by its rose gardens, lakes, statuary, playground, and a glass pavilion called the Crystal Palace. Music, puppets, and performers abound, kids scamper, and free concerts play on Sundays from May to October. One section, “Forest of the Departed,” is more sober. As a memorial, its 192 olive and cypress trees each represent a victim of the 2004 train bombings.
Another park we liked was the 20-acre Jardin Botanico. This beautiful oasis had blooming basswood and chestnut trees and the intriguing arbol del amor, with bright pink flowers growing directly from its branches and trunk. Before a stroll in the Botanico, John and I visited the world-famed Museo del Prado, next door. We were glad we arrived at 10 a.m. and walked right in; two hours later, lines were snaking around the block. The museum’s collection is a wealth of classical paintings by Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt and more- all the greats.
The Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, in a restored palace, is also well worth a tour for superb paintings. We started at the top and worked our way down through the Renaissance, 17th to 19th centuries, and finishing at the 20th century modern works. More contemporary art hangs in the Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (free entrance Saturday and Sunday afternoons). Picasso’s Guernica, the Reina Sofia’s highlight, is truly a powerful and compelling work, but the entire collection is impressive.
We took a peek at how 18th century royals lived at the Palacio Real. The imposing palace, where royal receptions are still held, is extravagantly furnished with velvets and tapestries, silver and frescoes.
One more museum before we get to the food: the fascinating National Archeology Museum. First we admired the reproductions of Alta Mira cave art, and then journeyed through time. Roman mosaics, jeweled crowns, pottery, crystal, medieval art – from the prehistoric to the 19th century, it’s all here at this amazing Madrid attraction.
Enjoying Madrid’s restaurants
In addition to feasting our eyes on great art, we were eager to feast on Madrid’s cuisine at a variety of restaurants. We started with tapas, the variety of small dishes that can make a meal, at La Trucha. They were perfect. Later we went back for excellent potato-leek-garlic soup and garlic shrimp. Many Madrid restaurants, some better than others, serve paella, the rice-seafood-meat dish flavored with saffron. It’s widely considered Spain’s national dish, with many regional variations.
Three Madrid restaurants known for their terrific paella are La Buganvilla, La Barraca, and La Paella Real. Spain’s ham is delicious and on every menu, but if you tire of it, try the roast chicken at Casa Mingo. Other recommended spots: De Maria for pricey but nicely done Argentinian style meats; light, modern La Gloria de Montera for Mediterranean cuisine; and, for vegetarian dishes, La Finca de Susana. Of course we had to try El Botin, said to be the oldest restaurant (1725) in the world. It’s a popular tourist stop and, while expensive, offers good food and service. El Cenador del Prado, in a plant-filled conservatory, was our favorite. The service was top-notch, and our lunches of smoked salmon salad and tender duck were outstanding. And for the final late-evening touch, always chocolate, Chocolateria San Gines is absolutely the best.
Staying at Madrid’s hotels
Centrally located hotels in Madrid face a common problem: all-night noise (probably not an issue at the Hotel Ritz Madrid, a palatial establishment with prices to match.) Most solve it with sound- blocking windows. Some guests request a quiet room away from the street, or just bring earplugs. There are scores of commendable Madrid hotels & lodgings, including hostels, apartment rentals, and pensions. A hard-to-beat choice is the Best Western Atlantico, one of several Best Western hotels in Madrid, and a chain you can usually count on. Rates are under 200 euros a night, the location is desirable, and the hotel is beautifully run. Hotel Preciados, in an 1881 building, has a modern interior with all the amenities and exemplary service. Hotel Europa, facing Puerta del Sol, the main, action-filled square, is one of the best for good value: clean, pleasant, a friendly and helpful staff, and reasonable rates.
We strolled the plazas, picnicked in the parks, tasted Spanish wines, and found magic in Madrid. What we missed we’ll do next time: the flamenco show and highly praised food at Corral de la Moreria, and the tapas tours. Both Go Madrid (a great website for all Madrid connections) and Adventurous Appetites have links to tours with guides who lead tapas bar tours that get rave reviews. We will also purchase a money-saver, the Madrid Card. The card allows entrance to some 50 museums and discounts on various Madrid tours and restaurants. And we’ll be sure to find a souvenir at the huge and lively El Rastro flea market, on and around Calle de Toledo on Sundays.
Madrid has an abundance of attractions, hotels and great restaurants; its a magical city just waiting for you.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com