What destinations are on your 2017 family travel list? Europe perhaps?
Let’s face it – if you were thinking about taking your kids to just “one spot” in Europe for a vacation, you’d probably think of London, Paris, or a few other cities before considering Madrid. It would have been the same for me a few years ago.
After more than a dozen trips to Spain for business in 2 years, the top of my list was sharing the highlights of Madrid with my kids – and they were beyond thrilled to let dad show them around my “second home.”
We had an awesome time exploring Madrid, and while it’s tough to choose, here are the top 3 things to do when you take your kids to the heart of Spain:
Toss Your Oars in the Water at Retiro Park
El Parque de Retiro is the closest thing in Madrid to New York’s Central Park (although nowhere near as large). We arrived in Madrid around 9 am local time and dragged ourselves from the airport to our Apart/Hotel for a nap. In the early afternoon (despite some lagging and mild complaining from kids recovering from an overnight flight), we grabbed a quick bite to eat at VIPs and headed over to Retiro Park both to get our bodies moving and get some sunshine to help adjust to the nine-hour time difference. The whole family – older teen, younger teen, pre-teen and parents – enjoyed the manicured parks and gardens, the tranquility of the park, and people-watching.
We returned to the park a few times during our stay, and made sure to stop by one afternoon to rent rowboats to glide across the lake in front of the huge monument to King Alfonso XII. Nothing beats photos in a rowboat, on a lake, in a park, in Madrid! Cost was about 6 euro per person for a one-hour boat rental. We easily were able to row around the entire lake, take some scenic shots and selfies, and return to shore within the hour rental period. (There were only a few other boats out that day, and it didn’t look like anyone in charge was watching the clock.)
Relish Madrid on Foot – Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Gran Via, Churros y Chocolate
Madrid is an exceptionally walkable and family-friendly city, and many historic, compelling, and photogenic spots are right in the city center. (Many residents speak English in case your Spanish is a little on the rusty side.) The Madrid city center is Puerta del Sol – the Gate of the Sun. This is the geographic center of Madrid’s network of streets and the location of Madrid’s famous New Year’s Eve celebration where throngs of Madrileños quickly gulp twelve juicy uvas (grapes) as the clock strikes midnight to welcome the New Year. Nothing like grape juice kisses in Madrid!
Just a five-minute stroll from Puerta del Sol puts you in Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s city square, paved with cobblestone and enclosed on all sides by what are today converted apartment buildings. Plaza Mayor is the site of major historic events (some famous and some rather infamous – think bullfights and executions), and is filled with performers, artists, music, lights, and open air dining courtesy of any number of restaurants lining its inner courtyard.
In a city of fabulous and picturesque boulevards, the Gran Via is arguably Madrid’s most famous street and one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares. Starting on the eastern side just a stone’s throw from the famous Plaza Cibeles and the historic Palacio de Comunicaciones (Madrid City Hall since 2007) and extending to the west to Plaza España (with its monument to Cervantes), you could easily spend the better part of a day strolling along the Gran Via, taking pictures, grabbing a bite to eat, and plain old people-watching. Plus, with global brand name stores, theaters, restaurants, apartments, and commercial office buildings, the sidewalks can be pretty packed.
Finally, when you are ready for the best churros y chocolate in town, head to the Chocolateria San Ginés – for lack of a better term, a local delicatessen specializing in thick, creamy, Spanish hot chocolate – that you should NOT miss. Place your order at the counter and then find an open marble table to relax while waiting for your plate of tasty churros and its signature hot chocolate. Beware – it can be crowded and finding a place for five of us to sit together was a bit of a challenge. And a hint – you will likely want some water to wash down the remnants of the churros and chocolate so be sure to order it when you get there.
Grasp Guernica – See the Picassos at the Reina Sofia Museum
Whether your older kids are budding art majors or could care less about anything other than pop culture, Picasso fits the bill. Madrid boasts several world-class art museums, including the famous Prado and the lesser-known Thyssen-Bornemisza. But it’s the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia near Atocha Train Station that gets bragging rights to a fantastic collection of Picasso’s art, including the famous Guernica, the artist’s 1937 wall-size reaction to the Nazis taking bombing practice upon the town of Guernica in Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War.
The Reina Sofia is reasonably priced, but admission is free several evenings a week and on Sunday afternoon (expect crowds during free admission periods). Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, and I wouldn’t recommend this site for anyone under 10 years old. Plan on waiting to see the Picasso Guernica exhibit, as it is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Not surprisingly, no photos are allowed of the exhibits, but Guernica is so huge and so striking that it will be imprinted on your mind after only a few minutes.
TRAVELING DAD HINTS:
- Retiro Park can be crowded, especially on weekends, and almost every time I’ve been there I’ve been approached for money (so just keep your hands in your pockets, say no, and keep walking). Snacks are available in the park but are a little more expensive than outside the park, and there are plenty of benches available for sitting down to rest. The boat rentals are on one side of the lake.
- Plaza Mayor can be reached from any direction although many of the streets in the area can be confusing for the newcomer – it is pretty easy to walk right on past without knowing it was there without a keen eye.
- The guide books will warn you about pickpockets and roustabouts in Puerta del Sol. I’ve been there dozens of times, with and without family, and while attention is warranted, there’s no need to freak out. When the plaza is crowded and bustling, be cautious, put your wallet in your front pocket, hold onto your kids, etc., just like you would in any big city.
- The Chocolateria San Ginés is off the beaten path, on a narrow street west of Puerta del Sol and north of Plaza Mayor. Your handheld GPS should get you there if you have wandered a bit too far and too long to find it, as we did.