Where do I begin?!
MuseosFirst tip for travelers to Madrid - check the hours for free entry to the museums. Reina Sofia is free on Sundays and the Prado is in free 2 hours in the evening.We also went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, which did not offer free entry.
For Reina Sofia, we spent about 3 hours there and saw about 90% of what was open. I loved modern art, so this was like a feast for me! Unfortunately, we missed getting the audio guides and relied only on the description on the placards. My daughter liked the abstract work and we had fun guessing different things. However, some of the surreal films were too graphic and we had to usher her out. This was the first museum that I've seen that had an extensive collection of films for specific artistic movements. What impressed me the most were the variety of Spanish artists. I hadn't known about some of these, and made some notes to research them further.
We went to the Museo de Prado on 2 evenings. Just because it's centrally located, it wasn't hard to find ourselves in that area. Now that I mentioned how I love modern art, I was extremely turned off in the Prado. How many portraits of Spanish royalty do you need to see? On the other hand, my sister loved the portraits and the color. I did fall for El Greco though - maybe because he has the non-comformist edge to his work. This online image is quite weak. In person, this painting (Adoracion Pastores) is electric! He just takes the red cloth on Mary and then dabs pure white on top. Also, this painting is quite large so it's also very commanding in that sense.
Where to EatYeah, you really can't stay hungry for long in Madrid. There's a tapas cafe or bar every few feet.
Public - behind our hotel on Gran Via. This was absolutely fabulous and delightful. The ambiance is chic, the staff was accomodating and the food was divine. The ravioli was paper thin, and felt like comfort food.Tuna with rosemary was heavenly and people liked the beef carpaccio. We went there twice. The most exciting part was the price on the entrees.
La Gloria de Montera - this the same owner as Public and we had received recommendations for this restaurant for being affordable and chic. The starters were wonderful - gazpacho, pumpkin soup, calamari. However, the entrees were a bit off. I had a giltfish out of sense of adventure and it was a bony mess.The paella was fishy. Dessert made up for it though. And, yes, if you ask they will give you a plate for your bread; otherwise it is is placed directly on the table.
The owner also has Ginger, La Finca de Susana and Bazaar, which we did not try.
100 Montaditas - we found this chain and loved it for its casual atmosphere and cheap eats. A salad for 4 euros? A sangria for 3 euros? My only problem was that the descriptions sound wonderful, but they're all little sandwiches - carb overload alert!
After a while, you're done with the jamon and the manchego cheese. We found a little India neighborhood (mostly run by Bangladeshis) and a random Indian restaurant behind our hotel. We also found a Chinese restaurant that was fairly decent, though everything tasted the same. We had some great pizza and some bad pizza depending on the restaurant.
For First Timers1. Go to the Plaza Mayor Tourist office and sign up for the walking tour. We took one that started at 6pm and were worried it might be too dark. Yes it was dark, but who knew this city lit up so beautifully! All of the old buildings and fountains were hauntingly beautiful. We all got headphones and the guide had a microphone. So, if you fell behind a bit, you didn't miss out on the discussion. We took the tour on Day 3 in Spain (Day 2 in Madrid), and it helped so much. We understood the culture and history so much better. I took some notes, so we were able to see a painting at the Prado and understand which royal dynasty it represented.
2. Pick up art work in Plaza Mayor - bull fighters and flamenco dancers are most popular, so you have choices and see which one calls to you.
3. Take the metro and enjoy the musicians. Just be careful on the elevators - they move very quickly!
4. Street performers in Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol. Take photos, but watch your wallet.
5. Be ready to walk a lot, have plenty of foot lotion, powder and socks for end of the day massages.
6. Bring extra film cards for your camera.You may end up taking videos of old men with accordions, birds nibbling at a cafe or the general strike demonstrations happening outside your hotel balcony.
7. Get a pocket Spanish guide. I wished I had one because not many people spoke English as I expected. So ordering a coffee or looking for directions was challenging.
Best Part of Madrid is Getting Out of MadridSegovia
We took a day trip to Segovia - a 10:30 bus from Atocha Renfe for about 13 Euros. The trick is that train and bus tickets are booked to a specific timeslot so you may not assume you are welcomed onboard when you show up.
From the bus stop, we took a map from the Info stand there,but did not get much info from the attendant since obviously a busload of tourists just showed up. Instead, the tourist office by the Aqueduct had a more agreeable representative. He pointed how we could go off the beaten path - if the tourists are headed to the main sites, we should go through the quieter backstreets and get to the same place.
The three big things in Segovia are the Roman Aqueduct, the Alcazar (castle) and the Cathedral.
- The Alcazar was beautiful from the outside and it started to rain, so we dived inside for a quick cafe. We had the audio guide, which was helpful since there weren't descriptions inside.
- The cathedral looks like a buttercream cake! It was gorgeous and you could almost hear music from its outdoor architecture, when you see it from any angle in the city. Inside it's huge and beautiful as well.
- The Roman aqueduct was mindblowing when you realize they're perfectly cut stones on top of each other without mortar. There is a point you can walk to where the aqueduct ends so you could touch the top of the arch!
If we had more time, we definitely would've visited the other museums and churches. It has a wonderful, ancient, small town feel.
This is another UNESCO World Heritage site and it's a must see. It's larger than Segovia so the one day - actually 7 hours - we had set aside for this was not enough. Our original intention was to stay 1 night here, and that option is still open for the future.
We took the AVE train from Madrid for 12 Euros and it's about 30 minute ride. From the train station, we took one of the tour buses. We had option to book tickets and tour from the Madrid office, but chose to try our luck there. We did well. For 20 Euros, we got a tour bus, a (good looking) Spanish guide who translated into English and Spanish on the bus and walking tour through the city and the Cathedral. I thought Segovia was tough on the cobblestones, but this town has a lot of uphill and downhill paths. There's a river surrounding the city, so the view is outstanding.
The architecture in this city is delightful and you could always find small alleyways that need to be photographed. The Cathedral is beautiful and the guide explained a lot of the history and motivation. The beauty of Toledo was the history of Arabs, Christians and Jews living together in one tiny town, and it was the capital of Spain at one time. The main square was called Plaza de Zocodover, which comes from the Arab word "sook" for market. As you walk through the Jewish quarter, there are small 3" tiles in blue and white with either Hebrew letters or Menorah embedded into the cobblestones.
The guide had suggested we take a quick bus back to the train station. However, he neglected to tell us to ring the buzzer or tell the driver where we wanted to get off. The driver kept going passed the station and we got a tour of the local streets. We panicked and harassed him to get us back to the station to get our 7:20 train (remember, we're all reserved now!). We made the train with barely 7 minutes to spare.