Madrid, Spain — from a First Time Visitor

sandra-julian-barker-travel-madrid.jpg By Sandra Julian Barker  little-madrid.jpg

Madrid, Spain seen through the eyes of a first-time visitor who shares discoveries and offers helpful tips for an enjoyable visit. First of all let me say, I loved my first visit to Madrid, Spain. It is everything I hoped it would be – and more!

Madrid has been the capital of Spain since 1561. The city is built atop a sprawling mesa 2,150 feet high, making it Europe’s highest capital, yet we did not feel we were in a hilly area. We traveled on foot during our entire three-day visit to Madrid, so we did not venture more than a couple miles in any direction from our hotel. We stayed in the center of the city at Puerta del Sol near many of the country’s finest treasures.

Madrid is in the center of the country, and the “kilometer zero” marker is set into the sidewalk along Plaza Mayor Street in the plaza called Puerta del Sol (Sun’s Gate). All distances in Spain are measured from this point. We could see the spot from the window of our room at Hotel Europa.

I was surprised at the very definite “European” feel of the city, rather than a specifically “Spanish” atmosphere. We wandered down pedestrian streets and alleyways between buildings of French and Italian design, serenaded by sounds of accordion and guitar music. Diners enjoy relaxed sidewalk dining – yet, there is an energy to the city that is exciting.


Museo del Prado (Prado Museum) is a must-see. Opened in 1819, it has a world-class collection of paintings and statuary, especially of Spanish artists. I could hardly believe I was actually gazing at Goya’s two famous paintings, “The Clothed Maja,” and “The Naked Maja,” side by side on the wall in front of me. I’ve seen them featured in books all my life, and now here they were. Seeing these, and original masterpieces by El Greco, Rubens, Velazquez, and others, is a visual treat. The museum is open most days 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 6E entry fee; Sundays offer free entry, but larger crowds. Entrance is on the left end as you face the building.

Parque del Retiro (Retiro Park) sits behind the Prado. It is a 300-acre park that was once the garden of Felipe IV. There are broad, gravel pathways, trees, flowers, a lake with boats you can rent, and statues. It seemed strange to see our American Mickey Mouse and Pluto creating balloon art for kids around the park’s fountain.

Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace) boasts a whopping 2,800 rooms, but no worries, you don’t walk through all of them. About 50 rooms of various sizes are open to the public, and they are well worth seeing. This is splendor at its finest. The palace was completed in 1764 and used as a home for kings until 1931. Exquisite crystal chandeliers are one of the highlights of the rooms, along with beautiful murals, antiques, and even authentic Stradivarius stringed instruments. The entrance is a bit hard to find – it is at the left (south) end, with a blue “Entrada” sign. Admission is around $10 for a self-guided visit.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de La Almudena is across a small plaza beside the Palace’s entrance end. The first stone was laid in 1883 and it wasn’t until 110 years later that it was finally finished! The interior is beautiful and unique – as it should be after such extensive construction. One vaulted ceiling is an exquisite deep blue with gleaming gold stars shooting from a white center.

Plaza Mayor is an attractive, sprawling square that was once a medieval market. Lampposts are encircled with bronze seatbacks engraved with pictures depicting the history of the plaza. Engravings include bullfights, a carnival with masked revelers, market day, and a person burning at a stake. These days the plaza is a great place to enjoy an outdoor dining experience, complete with strolling musicians.

La Mallorquina bakery (ca. 1894) is located at the Puerta del Sol and sports a yellow awning. It may not be in your tour books, but if you like dessert, plan to make more than one visit here. The Napolitana pastry has flaky, buttery crust, filled with a touch of custard and sprinkled with honeyed slices of almonds. It was only 1 euro in 2006, and is worth every delicious calorie!


Don’t attempt using a car in Madrid. Traffic is heavy, streets and signs are difficult, and parking is a challenge you’re better to avoid. Also, hotels charge a heavy fee for parking. Walking is the best way to see the city. There are buses, taxis, and subway, but we didn’t use them.

Stay in a hotel near the center of the city. I highly recommend the Hotel Europa on Calle Carmen. The location is perfect. It was renovated in 2006 and has 70-rooms with air conditioning, heat, private bathrooms, hair-dryers, and free internet access. At only 80 euros for a double, it is a good deal. The hotel is very close to El Corte Ingle’s, a big department store, and various eateries. By the way, I don’t get any compensation for this recommendation. We stayed there and loved it.

As in any large city, guard your cash, passport, and credit cards by keeping them in a money belt. Keep only a small amount of cash in your purse or wallet. I even kept my credit card in my money belt because it was easy to get when I needed it.

Learn some Spanish words and phrases before you leave home. Madrid is not as bi-lingual as you might think, and knowing basic words can be helpful. I found that when I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” (“lo siento, no hablo Espanol”) it created sympathy instead of resentment. Another helpful phrase is, “I need help” (“Necesito ayuda”).

Finally, browse markets and shops; step into quiet cathedrals and churches and admire the fine workmanship; greet the people you meet with a smile and an “hola.” Soak in the European atmosphere and enjoy this magnificent, historical city.

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