I'm going to write something that some might find scandalous or, at a minimum, controversial: I didn't love Madrid. There, I said it.
Now, don't get me wrong -- I LIKED Madrid. I wanted to love it. I wanted to have that "I'm so sad, I can't believe I have to leave" feeling as I packed my bags after being there for three days. But I just didn't.
I know I'm likely in the minority with my thinking. Most people I talk to have only positive things to say about Madrid, and so I've been trying to pinpoint the reasons for my malaise. Other than mild jetlag, here's what I can figure:
* The weather was less than ideal. In fact, it was downright dreary for the majority of the three full days I spent in Madrid. It actually SNOWED on the day of my arrival. I determined (using my not-really-existent Spanish) that this was a pretty big deal while watching the news. Sunshine always enhances my mood and makes me feel differently about a place. I'm sure Madrid pulsates with energy in the late spring and summer, but during the days I visited it was just moody and sullen. Only during the afternoon of my last day did the sun kinda-sorta come out. I was finally able to don my sunglasses and join the others as they sat outside with a glass of wine and some tapas.
* I was traveling alone. Yes, I know, I'm a solo traveler and self-proclaimed strong, independent woman. However, I do think my experience in Madrid would have been greatly enhanced if I had a friend alongside me to enjoy the late and long evening meals the Spanish are known for. In fact, I am quite certain it would have been a completely different experience had I been spending time with a local.
* There was no "wow-factor" for me. In other cities I have visited, I turn a corner and literally mouth "WOW" as I stare at an incredible monument or landscape. In other cities, the "wow" might not be so obvious, but instead comes from a collection of moments or a general vibe I feel. Undoubtedly, Madrid has beautiful architecture and some noteworthy monuments, but for me it pales in comparison to a city like Rome, Italy or even a small town like Chefchaouen, Morocco.
A friend who lived and worked in Madrid for two years wrote to me before I left with these thoughts: "The thing to bear in mind about Madrid is that it's not necessarily geographically stunning like some other places. Madrid is all about the life it holds and the vibe in the street. So soak it up walking around, stopping in little bars, have a picnic in El Retiro."
I now know that my friend was spot on! Maybe I was just looking too hard for the big "a-ha" moment that never came. Maybe I needed to be more patient. I guess I just hoped for more. I did enjoy my time in Madrid, and with that in mind I wanted to share a bit about my favorite things:
El Retiro Park
This park is the most beautiful urban park I have ever seen. My AirBnB sat right on the edge of El Retiro, and I made a point each day to spend time walking in and around it's lovely green spaces. In fact, I spent one entire afternoon meandering the grounds, taking photographs, and people watching.
The park comes alive on the weekends: well-intentioned locals can be seen jogging on it's many paths, and young children are in the playgrounds or riding their scooters. The manicured grounds are immaculate and the trees were just starting to bloom when I was there.
There are also a number of architectural and historical elements in the park, including a lake for rowing, the fancy Crystal Palace pavilion, and numerous sculptures and fountains. It's a wonderful refuge in the heart of the city.
World Class Museums
If you are an art fan, you've come to the right city! The three main art museums in Madrid - the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and Reina Sofía - form what's known as Madrid's "Golden Triangle of Galleries". I find that "museum fatigue" sets in for me at around the two hour mark, so I made sure to hit the highlights when I visited The Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza (I skipped Reina Sofia).
The Prado Museum is Madrid's top cultural sight, and one of the world's greatest art galleries. Located along El Paseo del Prado, it houses works by the great European masters such as Velázquez, Goya, Raphael, Rubens, and Bosch (among other major Italian and Flemish artists).
The sheer scale of this museum is daunting, and the building itself is large and quite beautiful. I booked my ticket ahead of time online to avoid the long queues (€15) and paid for the audio guide, which I almost always find is worth the few extra euros.
I adored the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum! This museum contains art from the 13th century to the late 20th century, which meant that it included many works that I personally enjoyed more than those in the Prado. I purchased my ticket when I arrived (€12), and was happy to find it was not crowded at all. I also bought the audio guide which came in quite handy.
I skipped the 2nd (top) floor, which contains works of art from the Old Masters, as those pieces typically aren't my cup of tea. I quickly hit the Impressionists on the first floor, but spent most of my time on the main (ground) floor, which holds 20th century art including examples of Cubism (think Picasso, Gris and Leger, to name a few), abstract art, Surrealism, and Pop Art. I was giddy to find that the museum even held three pieces from my favorite artist Marc Chagall!
When I travel, much of my pre-trip research focuses on food. I am always in search of my next great meal! The Spanish have a completely different time schedule when it comes to eating. Typically, breakfast is a quick affair, lunch is a somewhat leisurely three-course meal, and their evening meal begins around 9pm and is sometimes comprised of tapas (small plates) and wine at different restaurants with friends or family.
Madrid has a thriving cafe scene. I absolutely love starting my mornings nice and slow by having a leisurely coffee at a sweet life cafe. I found a few gems in Madrid, and was able to enjoy "cafe con leche" at a few trendy places in the late mornings.
My food research always includes finding the best bakeries or pastry shops in any given city - and Madrid was no exception! For example, I made sure to indulge in some churros with chocolate at the legendary Chocolateria San Gines and tasted the to-die-for chocolate Napolean at the famous La Mallorquina.
Walking around a city is the only real way to get to know a place, and Madrid was perfect for that! I only used the Metro once when it was raining (it was super easy to figure out, clean and safe), otherwise I walked - and walked - and walked. Using Apple maps on my iPhone, I was easily able to navigate to all the sites, restaurants and cafes that I wanted to visit, although getting lost in the streets of a city is sometimes half the fun!
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Madrid, but I'm not aching to return any time soon. I'm excited to start my roadtrip around Spain tomorrow, so keep coming back for updates along the way!
MADRID: THE DETAILS
I stayed at an AirBnB right on the edge of Retiro Park. It was super convenient to everything and a lovely flat. Private message me if you want information about the exact listing.
I took a taxi to the city center from the airport. it's a flat rate of €30. There was no line at the taxi stand and it took less than 30 minutes, although it was late morning and there wasn't much traffic
I walked everywhere and used the Madrid Metro only once
For a morning coffee and breakfast, I recommend the following:
- Fonty Bistro - There are two locations; I went to the one on Calle Castello. Sweet little spot.
- Sucre Salon de Tea - very close to the Prado, but not over-priced nor touristy
- La Fabrica - lovely. Really good coffee and food (I had the tortillas de patata). Reasonable prices. Also check out the great shop and photo book store next door.
I had a wonderful dinner at La Gastroteca de Santiago. This is a very small restaurant near Plaza Major, so make a reservation in advance (I use The Fork to make reservations in Europe). I had the tuna with chickpeas which was wonderful, and 2 glasses of a very good Rioja, plus a complimentary glass of dessert wine at the end of my meal (€30). All of the patrons were Spanish except me (which is always a good sign!).
I had some interesting mid-afternoon tapas at Cacao Restobar. It was a great mix of Venezuelan and Spanish cuisines, and the owners were super nice (free glass of home-made Baileys? Sure, why not!)
I would also recommend checking out the Mercado de San Miguel, where they have lots of different food stalls. It was super packed on Sunday afternoon when I went, so I can't recommend any one stall specifically.