As you taxi toward your hotel, you’ll see happy, well-dressed people strolling and shopping, exceptionally clean streets, great architecture of today and past centuries, sprawling parks and well-landscaped traffic circles adorned with spectacular fountains that dazzle day and night.
With all this urban beauty, it is the people of Madrid – Madrilenos - who add a refreshing friendliness and bubbly vitality to this city. For first-time visitors, it’s a wonderful surprise to discover such large crowds of locals out every night socializing and people-watching in the dozens of handsome plazas and parks, large and small; and in the sidewalk cafes, tapas bars clubs and restaurants.
Madrid has scores of outstanding accommodations in all price ranges. We were lucky to get into the centrally located Westin Palace Hotel at 7 Plaza de las Cortes. Built in the grand old-style in 1912, it’s apparent that no expense has been spared to keep it in pristine condition; recent renovations include the finest 21st-century plumbing, electrical and IT features such as a comfortable, handsome – and free – business center off the main lobby. The spacious, beautifully appointed rooms include top-quality furniture, mattresses, linens and plump pillows; large bathrooms, ample closets and large windows with black-out draperies, and outstanding housekeeping. Its website offers special deals and a “best available rate guarantee.” www.westinpalacemadrid.com.
The Westin Palace is within a short stroll to the Grand Via, the city’s most lively upscale street for shopping, restaurants, entertainment and people watching all the way to the popular Plaza de España. And the hotel faces the Paseo del Prado, the spectacular Neptune fountain and Retiro Park. The park, a former royal property, is 350-acres of magnificently landscaped public space, including former palaces that are now art galleries, the 20-acre Royal Botanical Garden and the world-renowned Prado Museum. This central part of the city is know as the Golden Triangle that also includes the Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums and many up-scale shops and restaurants.
After checking into a hotel, it is recommended that everyone take guided tours of the old and the modern Madrid in a double-decker bus. After seeing the many districts of the city, it will be easier to pick out places to later explore leisurely. http://www.esmadrid.com/guidedtours/portal.do and www.gomadrid.com/madrid-vision.
Here’s a travel tip that is free and pays huge dividends: become an ‘honorary ambassador’ – and be treated like one – by learning to speak a few words in Spanish. Google to get the translations for ‘Hello,’ Good morning,’ Good afternoon,’ ‘Good evening,’ ‘Good night,’ “How are you.’ ‘You’re welcome,’ ‘Please,’ and ‘Thank You.’ http://wikitravel.org/en/Spanish_phrasebook.
Print and memorize these English to Spanish words, phrases and phonetic pronunciations during the flight to Madrid. Try them out on your taxi driver on the way to your hotel, and again as you smile and speak to the hotel’s door men, front desk receptionists, porters, housekeepers and other hotel employees. It’s a sign of respect for their culture and we promise that you’ll be treated as a best new friend. Most of the local people speak some English but are just as reluctant to use it as you might be using your newly learned Spanish, but once they hear your faulty Spanish they might smile and go right into English.
To get the most out of a getaway in Madrid, and the equally golden-age of Spain day-trips outside the city, start by getting with the every-day rhythm of the locals. First, know that the earliest they dine is 10 p.m., even on weekdays. Start off your evenings with a stroll through the streets and plazas, and bustling markets. Stop for a drink, tapas (small snacks, hot and cold) and have a chat with the approachable and friendly people of Madrid. And use your newly learned Spanish to win the hearts of the Madrilenos.
After experiencing the best of Madrid, keep your hotel room while you take nearby day-trips by trains, both express and local, to magnificent and romantic Toledo, Segovia, Alcala de Henares, El Escorial and the dazzling medieval-walled city of Avila. If you leave Madrid early in the day, you can enjoy any of these nearby landmarks and be back in the grand and always alive Plaza Mayor in time for tapas in the evening.
For a fascinating time-travel walking tour, start with the Plaza Mayor with it imposing ring of palaces and nine arched gates, including Arco de Cuchilleros in the southwest corner. Its stairway leads to the Madrid’s oldest quarter which retains its medieval character from the Plaza de la Villa and the fourteenth-century Gothic-style Torre de los Lujanes to its little twisting residential streets.
In addition to Madrid being one of Europe’s most beautiful and friendly old-world capitols it’s also a major restaurant destination because the Spanish are passionate about high-quality fresh foods. Although the city sprawls graciously across a large plateau in the center of the country, it has easy access to locally sourced foods and wines as well as fresh-caught seafood. In this age of high-speed trains, planes and space-age refrigeration, impeccably fresh fish is always available. Tokyo has the world’s largest fish market, but Madrid’s Mercamadrid is the second largest on the planet.
A rare treat for anyone’s culinary senses is a tour of the city’s old-world-style fresh- and specialty-food markets. At San Anton Market you can pick items from the stalls and have them prepared to your liking and delivered to your table at La Cocina, a tavern/wine bar high atop the market. Tapas plates are a recommended specialty. It’s centrally located at Calle Augusto Figueroa, 2 in the Chueca neighborhood. www.mercadosananton.com.
The San Miguel Market is one of the finest examples of cast-iron architecture in town and a gourmet’s paradise. It’s a poplar place to relax and enjoy superb tapas and wine. The market is on Plaza de San Miguel, Calle Augusto Figueroa 24, in the center of Old Madrid. www.mercadodesanmiguel.es.
We’re emphasizing tapas for both lunch and dinner because it gives visitors a taste of the seemingly endless variety of Spain’s regional foods and preparations. By the time you’re back home, you will have eaten a bit of every dish with influences from today’s Spanish back to the Romans, Moors and other settlers of the Iberian peninsula. A movable feast, if ever there ever was one.
We have sampled many tapas plates in the following restaurants, taverns and cafes. They all share common traits: fresh high-quality ingredients, expert preparation, warm hospitality, professional owners, well-selected and trained staff; and attractive ambience from the charmingly rustic to unpretentious elegance. Here are our top choices: Vadebaco, Calle Prado 4; La Kitchen Restaurant, Calle Prim 5; Mercado de la Reina Restaurant, Calle Gran Via, 12; Paris-Tokyo Restaurant (Oscar Hotel), Plaza Vazquez de Mella 2 ; Estado Puro, Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Canovas del Castillo 4; La Gastrocroqueteria, Calle Segovia 17, www.gastrocroqueteria.com; Cien Llaves, Paseo de Recoletos 2, www.cienllaves.com
Shopping in Madrid is right up there with the world’s other great fashion cities. There are plenty of streets and neighborhoods that will thrill and delight true fashionistas. Any reader who is one will appreciate what Madonna is credited with saying on that subject: “Manolo’s shoes are better than sex and they last longer.” Two of Madrid’s finest shopping areas are the shops on Calle Serrano – “one giant fashion catwalk,” or on Jorge Juan, in the vibrant up-market Salamanca district. For detailed shopping opportunities in Madrid, take a virtual tour on www.esmadrid.com/en/shopping-madrid
For savvy scavenger shoppers there is El Rastro Market, Madrid's largest and most-popular flea market with a thousand vendors around the Plaza de Cascorro and the nearby streets. It’s open on Sundays and public holidays from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. You might find an irresistible treasure or some delightful trash and have a rejuvenating drink and snack at the many bars and cafes along the way. www.esmadrid.com/en/rastro-flea-market.
To save money and time, get a Madrid Card - free entry to more than 50 museums and monuments in Madrid, plus all guided tours in the Discover Madrid program, discounts at major stores, restaurants, flamenco shows, a tourist guide with information about museums, services, and participating establishments, available in 5 languages; and a map of the city showing locations of participating establishments offering a free drink with traditional tapas. www.madridcard.com.
It was a wise person who said, “You only live once, if you do it right, once is enough.” And in our book, ‘right' is a trip like no other to visit Madrid and its fun-loving people.
For more about Madrid - and how it won an international competition to host World Pride 2017, click on the ‘Subscribe” icon below this story’s headline. You’ll receive Out and Travelin’ travel stories - free – by email.
Written by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’