After many delays, postponements, and threats to outright cancel, our trip to Europe finally arrived. We were on the plane and were number 25 for takeoff at JFK International. As the plane eventually rotated and began the climb to cruise altitude, the trip became real; we would land in Madrid in seven-ish hours. We were greeted in Madrid by a glorious day with clear skies and abundant sunshine. The metro system brought us from the airport to a stop less than a block from our hotel, so we didn’t have to drag our luggage too far. As we climbed the steps from the metro station to the street level, we saw many people already well into their daily routine, some beautiful old buildings, and a Five Guys. Yes, the first piece of European culture we saw on our trip was a US burger chain. Don’t get me wrong, I like Five Guys, but it’s not really what I expected my first impression of the streets of Madrid to be.
Our hotel was super accommodating and had our room ready very early; we only had to wait 15 minutes. A few days before our arrival, I emailed them explaining that we would get there several hours before the standard check-in time to confirm they had luggage storage and put in an “ask” for early check-in. I don’t know if that helped our situation, but I can’t think it hurt our cause. Having the chance to unpack and freshen up before we went out and about in the city was a huge relief and made the day much better.
Our first stop was a small tapas restaurant the front desk recommended, Madame. It was a little bizarre to be in a French-themed tapas restaurant in Madrid and trying to figure out two languages with no sleep and jet lag, but we did it. Then we wandered down Gran Via towards the Parque de El Retiro. The park is enormous and was fascinating to walk through. Even though it was hot, it was still lovely to see the fountains, statues, “crystal palace,” and the fantastic variety of birds and plant life. It was a warm day, and many Madrileños were using the park as a shady refuge to relax or have a picnic, while others were taking advantage of the sun by sunbathing in their bathing suits or, in some cases, a little less clothing.
The sun and beautiful cityscape were doing a lot to keep us going after the long travel day, but by 9 PM, we were pretty much done. I almost fell asleep at the table and ended up with a face full of croquettes at one point, so we retired to the hotel for some much-needed rest. Thankfully, our hotel had excellent blackout curtains because the sun was still quite bright at 9:30 PM when we finally went to sleep.
Our first event in Madrid was a food tour I arranged through Devour Tours. I can’t think of a better way to begin a tour of a new city than having a local guide you through their cuisine. We spent half the day exploring some residential neighborhoods of Madrid with our guide, Paula. Breakfast was one of the best Churros in Madrid, complete with the delicious Spanish hot chocolate that you dip the churros in and then drink. I could start the day with that meal for the rest of my life and be happy (although my cholesterol level would probably make that life a short one). If, when I say churro, you immediately think of a county fair or something from Disneyland, please banish those images from your mind because those snacks are distant cousins to Spanish Churros and Porras. These are not covered in sugar, are less greasy, and when made fresh, are fantastic. As Paula told us if you don’t see a churro machine in the restaurant, don’t order them, they are probably frozen.
One of the tour’s best stops was a hidden neighborhood market where we sampled terrific olive oil, a Spanish delicacy of ham (Serrano and the gold standard Iberico), and olives. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil globally, so olives are a big deal. Next up was Madrid’s traditional fast food snack, a fried calamari sandwich, eaten on the go as we walked through Plaza Mayor. We finished the tour with some sweets and a coffee at El Riojano, a bakery and cafe that has been in continual operation for over 160 years.
On the advice of Paula, we walked to the Royal Palace to watch the sunset. She was correct; it is a beautiful area to watch the sun cover Madrid in golden light as it sets behind Casa de Campo and the distant mountains; beautiful.
We began the morning by walking to the Real Basilica de San Francisco to see what the fuss was about. The church is free to enter, and thankfully for us, it was nice and cool inside. The outside looks terrible; many parts of the building look like they are falling apart, but the inside is quite impressive. It is still used as a cathedral, and therefore no photos were allowed inside. The cathedral dome is the largest in Spain and the fourth largest in Europe. The church seems much older than it is since it was built around 1776, but it’s still an interesting stop to check out.
After exploring the cathedral, we found our way into a nearby neighborhood and discovered another hidden market for breakfast. I had a traditional Spanish breakfast, toast with a tomato spread and Serrano ham with olive oil; simple and delicious. Paired with some coffee, it was the perfect thing to fuel us for the rest of the day.
We walked toward the Royal Palace from the market to tour the Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Almudena. The inside of this cathedral was surprising in its vibrant colors and uniquely designed ceiling. There weren’t a lot of traditional frescos, but these striking designs, almost like coats of arms, were long and thin panels. The stained glass windows were also amazingly vibrant and full of color, really spectacular. We walked around the whole place to take in the sights; it was pretty impressive.
We had a guided tour of the Royal Palace organized through Get Your Guide. This was a great purchase as there is so much history to absorb in the palace. Without a knowledgeable guide, you will miss a bunch of stuff. The castle is quite impressive, with over 3,000 rooms; we could explore only 23 of them, but still worth the trip. Our guide, Rocia, was fantastic, and her knowledge, paired with her sense of humor and sarcasm, made for an educational and entertaining time.
It was off to try a restaurant recommended by Paula, La Musa, for dinner. On the way, we checked out the Cathedral of San Isidro, which was different from any church I’d seen before. The decor was very earthy and not gilded; it was a refreshing change. Since our visit to Madrid happened to occur during the annual Feast of San Isidro, it felt appropriate to visit this particular church. A dinner of several tapas and a few glasses of Sangria outside in a quaint square was a fun and delicious way to enjoy the local vibe. Then it was back to the hotel for a cocktail on the rooftop patio to watch the sunset before turning in for the day.
These first few days in Madrid were everything we hoped for, and I know the trip will only get better as we settle into our travel rhythm and fully adjust to living the Spanish way. Seriously, who can argue with chocolate and churros for breakfast, an afternoon siesta, and socializing over cocktails and tapas well into the evening?