Madrid, Spain: Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain. It is a cosmopolitan city, a business center, headquarters for the Public Administration, Government, Spanish Parliament, and the home of the Spanish Royal Family. The city is known for its great cultural and artistic heritage, as well as the liveliest nightlife in the world. The culture of Madrid was dominated by its Royal history, center of the Spanish Empire. The Royal Palace, big buildings, plazas, enormous cathedrals and churches are plentiful in Madrid, along with much medieval architecture. Unlike many other big European cities, Madrid is an extremely clean city. The city has very modernized and well-connected buses and metro which makes it very easy for the travelers to go to all the places that they want to go.
We went to Madrid during the Christmas time and I was amazed by the holiday spirit of this city. The decorations, Christmas markets, enthusiasm among the locals (even in the windy, freezing days) were very charming. Although I won’t lie that some of the places/café/plazas during this time of the year were so overly crowded that I couldn’t properly enjoy Madrid as I thought I would. But if you like big city life, with lots and lots of people around you, and traveling without children, then Madrid is the place to enjoy every second while you are there. The city comes to life at night. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy that nightlife with 2 kids J. One thing to remember when in Spain (in a city like Madrid) that very few people understand English. We have had hard time communicating with some of our hotel staffs. Even though it is a heavily touristic city, unlike many other big cities in Europe, the locals in Madrid are not very fluent in English.
Time of Traveling: We flew to Madrid on the Christmas day and stayed there for 4 long days. We were done visiting all the places we wanted to visit within 3 days, then kept one day to go to Toledo (once capital of Spain) with a guided bus tour for a whole day (thanks to my lil sister Nawshi for this great suggestion). As I mentioned above, it was very cold in Madrid that time, nearly freezing. But luckily we got no snow or rain.
Hotel We Stayed in: We stayed in Hotel Holiday Inn near Santiago Bernabeu. This was a bit far from the main attractions like Puerta del Sol or the Royal Palace. But the price was great and we had no problem taking the Metro every morning to go everywhere else.
What to buy from Madrid: If you are a big Real Madrid FC soccer fan, then may be buying their authentic souvenirs are great items to buy. Also, leather items like purses, boots are very reasonable here. During the Christmas time, there are lots of markets that sell original hand-crafted items from Madrid like potteries, home decor, wall hangings, kitchen/household gifts, and etc. at a cheap price. Also, don’t forget to buy a football jersey or other official products of Real Madrid FC.
Places we visited: I tried to give as much as information I could for all the places we visited. At the end there are some names of the places where we didn’t go this time. May be you can search those names and will get more information on those places.
1) Puerta del Sol: This definitely has to be the heart of Madrid. I have never seen a square as crowded as this one before. There had to be hundreds if not thousands of people in Puerta del Sol and the surrounding streets. This is a favorite meeting place for the locals and a must see for the tourists. It is surrounded by lots of small, narrow streets. It is about 20 minute walk from Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza Mayor is just around the corner through a small street. The Royal Palace, Catedral de la Almudena, and Plaza de la Villa are also within walking distance. You can find some American chain fast food restaurants here like KFC, Subway along with some local restaurants in Puerta del Sol. The small streets surrounding this area are great places to do some shopping. There is a metro station (Sol) right in the center of this square. BE EXTRA CAREFUL of your belongings here, we were told by few people that pickpocketing and snatching are very common here. The Christmas decoration was awesome. My kids loved taking pictures with all the Disney/Nick Jr. characters that were roaming around the place, ofcourse you have to pay some cents for that.
In the center of the plaza you will see the Statue of King Charles III on his horseback. Facing the statue is the Royal Post Office, which is Madrid’s original post office, now is the office of the President of Madrid, the head of the regional government. The clock tower there is the place where New Year’s celebration takes place every year. Tradition is that you eat 12 grapes (one for each ring of the bell) at the beginning of a new year. In front of that building, there is a plaque which is called Kilometer Zero, marks the center of Spain’s highway system. On the east side of the plaza is the famous Bear and the Madrono Tree Statue, which is the emblem of the city of Madrid.
2) Plaza Mayor: Plaza Mayor is very close to Puerta del Sol, in the heart of Old Town Madrid. If you are using metro, it is in the same station as Puerta del Sol. It was absolutely lovely during Christmas. There was a huge Christmas market in this plaza selling all sorts of different things. Enjoy the street performers singing, dancing, and showing their talents. Again BE VERY CAREFUL of your items here, I saw many people carrying their backpack in the front to avoid any snatchers. Near Plaza Mayor, there is an indoor market Mercado de San Miguel. You can find variety of high quality food here from fresh bakery, to dry meat, pickles, and etc.
3) Plaza de la Villa (Casa de la Villa): You will see it if you are walking from Puerto del Sol/Plaza Mayor towards Palacio Real. It is a smaller place compare to other plazas in Madrid. But this used to be the main square during Middle Age. Presently, it houses the former City Hall, the former Academy of Fine Arts and the Archbishopric.
4) Palacio Real (the Royal Palace of Madrid): This is the largest palace in Europe by floor area with 1,450,000 sq. ft. (135,000 sq. meters). Though it is the official residence of the King of Spain, the royal family does not reside here. It is only used for state ceremonial purposes. The palace is on the site of a 9-th century fortress. The present building was built in the years 1739-1755 and the last monarch who lived continuously in the palace as Alfonso XIII. It is one the most emblematic and gorgeous buildings in Madrid.
The entrance fee is 10 euros per adult and 17 euros with audio tour. The palace is open from 10am to 8pm during April 1st – September 30th and from 10am to 6pm during October 1st – March 31st. The ticket office closes 1 hour before palace closes. Plan to stand in the line for a while.
From the big, beautiful courtyard of the palace you can access the Real Farmacia (Royal Pharmacy) which was a laboratory of early medicines. Then you see the State Rooms containing lots of artistic treasures. These rooms are lavishly decorated with elegant tapestries, porcelain, chandeliers, and carvings. The Real Armorial (Royal Armory) is a world renowned, two-story building of medieval weapons and armors. Unfortunately, there is no English description of the displayed weapons. The Royal Armory is also not a stroller-friendly place to visit if you are traveling with kids. Photography is not allowed inside the rooms of the palace, but you can take pictures in the courtyard or the surrounding places. You can end your visit by going to the nearby Plaza de Oriente, which is located on the east (oriental) side of the palace.
5) Catedral de la Almudena: This enormous cathedral is facing the Palacio Real. The main entrance is not located there; it is on the other side of the cathedral. It is free to enter. The cathedral was built on the site of a medieval mosque which was destroyed by Alfonso VI after conquering Madrid. Though the plans for construction of this place were discussed as early as the 16th century, the cathedral was not completed until 1993.
6) Plaza de Espagna: It is a prominent square with two of the tallest buildings in Madrid. The square contains a large fountain and a sculpture of Cervantes and his famous Don Quixote and Sancho Panza characters. There was an enormously big indoor Christmas market in Plaza des Espagna during our visit, which had hundreds of vendors selling absolutely fantastic items. You can find home decor, kids’ stuff, kitchen items, original handmade Spanish arts and crafts at very cheap price here. I was just thrilled to be there.
7) Plaza de Cibeles: It contains a massive roundabout at the intersection of Calle de Alcala and Paseo del Prado. The roundabout houses one of the Madrid’s emblems, the Fountain of Cibeles, which portrays the Roman goddess of fertility sitting upon a chariot pulled by two lions. You will also see one of the world’s most beautiful city halls on the southeast corner of the plaza, Palacio de Cibeles. This place is crowded with jaw-dropping, impressive architectures and buildings. Bank of Spain, Spanish Royal Mail Office, and Palacio de Linares (Casa de America) are some just examples. There is a metro station right in the plaza.
8) Plaza de la Independencia: Puerta de Alcala (Alcala Gate) is an impressive monument that dominates Plaza de la Independencia. It is only 5 minute walk from Plaza de Cibeles.
9) Plaza de Isabella II: It is a pretty big public square which houses Teatro Real (Royal Theater), Madrid’s Opera House. It is very close to Plaza de Oriente and the Royal Palace. In the middle of the plaza you can see the statue dedicated to Queen Isabel II, daughter of Fernando VII.
10) Santiago Bernabeu Stadium Tour (Home of Real Madrid FC): For all the football (soccer) fans, a trip to Santiago Bernabeu Stadium is a must. Real Madrid is the most successful football club in Spain and in Europe.
When there is no match, you can take a full self-guided tour inside the stadium (you will be able to see partial of the stadium the day of any match). The ticket is 16 euros for adults and 10 euros for kids. You get to see the field, visiting team dressing rooms, Press room, players’ tunnel, benches, coaching area, and Real Madrid Museum where the trophies and other memorabilia are kept. It takes about little more than 2 hours for the whole tour. At the end buy authentic, official Real Madrid souvenirs from their store. I don’t support Real Madrid, but it was a fabulous feeling visiting these areas where you know famous players like David Beckham, Zidane, Ronaldo, and Kaka spent some golden moments of their careers. FYI, it is not stroller friendly at all for those who are traveling with small children. Here are the hours:
Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sundays & holidays 10:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (except for 25 December and 1 January)
11) Toledo Trip: Toledo once was the capital of Spain, before Madrid. It is a noted UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are some guided bus tours that go to Toledo for half a day or full day. If you have an extra day in Madrid, ask your hotel receptionist how to go to Toledo. It is worth every penny. Here you can find more information on our Toledo, Spain trip.