I just spent a week in Madrid, working on the next edition of our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. And, as always, I snapped lots of photos and took careful notes. Enjoy these “postcards” from my trip — and please share your own Madrid travel stories in the comments below or over on Facebook. Happy travels! —Cameron
Spain’s bustling capital has a surprisingly compact and manageable historical core. It almost feels like a big village. But just a short walk away, you know you’re in a European metropolis. The main boulevard — Gran Vía — is undergoing an extensive renovation that will widen the sidewalks and reduce traffic congestion.
Most hotels in Spain don’t include breakfast in their rates…and some don’t even offer it at all. No hay problema. That just creates a great excuse to head to a neighborhood bar and dig into a Spanish-style breakfast: hearty wedge of tortilla española (potato omelet), crusty roll, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and café con leche. At around €5, this almuerzo de campeones keeps me going through a late lunch.
Madrid is home to the magnificent Prado (arguably Europe’s best museum of Old Masters). I toured the museum at a fairly busy time — late morning, just before lunch — and for the most part, I could see all of the paintings I wanted to, despite the crowds. But the one bottleneck was Hieronymus Bosch’s detail-packed The Garden of Earthly Delights. Art lovers camp out here for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch, unpacking the many details. Who can blame them? If I were on vacation, rather than working, I might bring a folding chair and binoculars and really settle in.
I appreciate how the streets in Madrid’s historical center are all marked with colorful illustrations. In this case, Calle del Arenal is named for the sand (arena) that was stockpiled along here during the construction of the city.
In Madrid’s high-traffic, touristy areas, you’ll see hucksters dressed up in cut-rate costumes of Mickey Mouse, paunchy Spider-Man, and off-brand Minions. They prey on little kids — approaching them with a hug, then forcing the parents to pay for a photo. A local explained to me that these are down-on-their-luck people who have been left unemployed by the recent economic crisis (which Spain has been very slow to recover from). While I have sympathy, taking advantage of visiting children seems sleazy to me. I came to think of these characters as “Mickey Meths.”
Foodie tourists are attracted to Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, just outside of the Plaza Mayor, like a bug zapper. This old market hall was recently renovated and filled with quality eateries. It sounds great…and it is. But it’s also extraordinarily crowded (especially on a holiday weekend, as when I was in town). I kept circling back to try to find a quiet time to graze, but it was always jammed. Oh, well. Next time…
I was in Spain to scout out additions and updates to our Rick Steves Spain guidebook.
If you’re more interested in the culinary side of Spain, here’s a rundown of my favorite Madrid tapas experiences from this trip.