Two Days Exploring Madrid, Spain With Young Kids
Madrid holds a special place in my heart. I spent a year there studying as an undergraduate. I quickly fell in love with the city, learned her winding streets, met each morning with a delicious café con leche, ate tapas offered throughout its unique bars and restaurants, learned Spanish, and discovered the work of the many artists who called Madrid home. In my mind, I decided to never leave, but my year quickly came to an end and I returned to the United States.
My love continues for Madrid, and Spain in general. When the opportunity arose to go with my family, I started planning away. Our first stop was Madrid. We had 2 days in Madrid. I wanted to show our kids the sights, the history, the art, and the food.
When our trip finally started, we arrived to Madrid in the late morning. My plans for the day were grand, as I proudly announced that I knew the city like the back of my hand–or so I thought. Actually, I had forgotten how to get anywhere. All of my memories of the winding streets and my ability to navigate the metro system had dissolved. I immediately got my family lost after checking into the hotel and heading to see the Palacio Real.
For a moment, sadness washed over me, as realized that in the city I had come to love so much, I had also forgotten so much. But the moment was short lived as I considered all the new memories we would make as a family. With GPS and a good, old-fashioned map in hand, we headed out to show the kids an amazing city and to re-acquaint myself with a city that gave me so much.
Arriving on the red-eye at around 10:00 am, we promptly dropped our bags at our hotel and made our way out the door for a visit to Palacio Real (The Royal Palace). The visit is easy, with the palace welcoming guests by a grand staircase up to the main floors. The rooms are ornate and plenty and the kids were dumbstruck by the sheer size of the palace. However, a visit to the Palacio Royal in the summer means lots of tourists. Navigate all the palace’s rooms can be a bit hectic among the foot traffic. Make sure to buy tickets in advance.
You can also add a ticket to the Royal Kitchen, which we did not do. If you want to go in a smaller group or get more background on the history of the royal family, you could book a private tour. Truthfully, a bit of reading in advance and going on your own makes for a more spontaneous and kid-friendly experience. Make sure not to miss the royal armory during the visit. It is one of the largest armor collection in Spain.
The Plaza Mayor is a large, typically European plaza. It’s filled with pigeons, tourists, and sidewalk cafes. About a ten minute walk from the Palacio Real, it’s also a perfect spot to take the kids to let off steam and grab lunch. We ate at a canopied table at Mercado de San Miguel, and had a pleasant and serviceable meal. After filling our tanks and the kids chasing some pigeons, we walked back to the hotel for a proper Spanish siesta. Taking frequent breaks with the kids is always a good idea; doing so on the afternoon after a transatlantic flight might be a sacrament.
After our traditional Spanish Siesta (woohoo! that was good), we spent the evening walking through the Retiro Park before a late dinner of tapas. After entering the 125-hectacre park, located in the heart of Madrid, we bought the kids an ice-cream from one of the many vendors dotted throughout the park. As we strolled through, we came right up to the lake in the park’s center.
Our kids quickly discovered that dropping a piece of ice-cream cone into the lake will attract hundreds of fish all vying for the small crumb dropped their way. Also discoverig the plentitude of ducks floating by, they realized they had a menagerie to feed. The Retiro instantly became one of their favorite places.
We rented a boat and all the kids plus dad went for a paddle around the lake. It was a great way to spend the hot, early, evening before dining out at a reasonable hour in Spain. After the boat ride, we strolled a bit longer stopping at the Crystal Palace before heading out. The Retiro quickly became a favorite and we headed back on during our two days in Madrid for a stroll and to feed the ducks.
The Prado is widely considered one of the best art museums in the world. I’ll strongly recommend that you buy tickets in advance, on the Prado website. Schedule for morning open. The lines are minimal and the crowds are small. We strolled straight into the usually-mobbed Goya exhibit and found that we were the only ones there.
It was a memorable and intimate moment to gives the kids a crash course on Goya and what his art represented. From Goya, we moved on to Valsqeuz and Greco, and then the Dutch and Flemish Masters. You can get a reasonable kid-appropriate overview of the works above in approximately 3 hours, getting you out for well-earned lunch. If you are on a budget, you can go to the Prado for free from 6:00PM-10:00PM Monday-Saturday and 5:00PM-7:00PM on Sundays.
Madrid has two other excellent and impressive museums, The Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. In general, we try to be cognizant that younger kids can get overloaded with too many museums, and try to hone in on just a few for each city. Note that the Thyssen has masterpieces by van Eyck, Van Gogh, Rubens, Caravaggio, among others; while Reina Sofia has the iconic Picasso piece Guernica.
We did choose to go to the Archeological Museum, a museum dedicated to the cultures that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula at different times in history. It’s a very large and detailed museum. The kids started with interest, but quickly lost interest as there was so much to take in and most exhibits were artifacts neither interactive nor immersive. Unless you or your family has a focused interest on archeology, you may consider whether the time would be better spent.
Where to eat
To really experience Madrid food, take the time to go tapas hoping. Tapas are small, savory, bite size snacks that can be shared among friends and family. While the Spanish eat these are bar snacks, they are a natural way to put together fun, varied, and informal meals for kids. Another advantage is that tapas bars are usually open in the early evening, while formal dining for dinner generally doesn’t start until 10:00 pm or so. Here are a few that were good experiences with our kids:
Fatigas del Querer
Located in Las Letras neighborhood, this tapas bar welcomes guests with an ornate front entrance. Friendly staff and wonderful atmosphere. We ordered a bunch of tapas including grilled seafood, chicken, chorizo, Jamon Iberico, manchego, patatas bravas and much more. The food was delicious and the wait was short. Highly recommend if you are traveling with kids as there are many options for them and it is a loud, fun location.
Although a tiny space, especially for a family of five, the service, food and wines by the glass were wonderful. We all shared some creative small plates as well as diving into their tapas offerings. They were very accommodating with our children and recommended fantastic wine tastings for the parents. If you plan to bring kids, make sure to book ahead to secure a table or else your kids will have standing room only. Located in La Latina Neighborhood near Plaza Mayor.
We dined here twice, outdoors with our kids. There was something for everyone to enjoy and the kids loved the different pinchos. They were able to to explore more than one offering and loved the al fresco dining while watching the flow of people throughout the Plaza Santa Ana. Service was attentive and friendly and prices were very reasonable.
After a long evening of the kids playing and exploring the Retiro, we walked through the Salaanca neighborhood, looking for a place to eat. In August, we found a large number of recommended restaurants closed for holiday.
As it got later, the kid got hungrier, and we got crankier, we came across a restaurant with a welcoming sidewalk terrace. We asked if a table was available and were seated with a smile. A team of smiling, Old World waiters in white tuxedo jackets fawned over our kids as they told us of the day’s specials. The restaurant specializes in top quality seafood. It ended up being a crazy splurge. But also one of our most memorable meals.
We ate our way through some of the best seafood of the Iberian peninsula. Red Prawns are also known as carabineros. They are immense in size, rich in flavor, and ruby red. I’d read about Goose Neck Barnacles, and this was my first time trying them.
The waiters patiently showed us all how to push the flesh of the barnacle through its shell and into our mouths. The Grilled Octopus was larger than I have seen and perfectly tender. We were transported into 1950s service, up to the moment we were presented with finger bowls. The kids thought this was a course of lemon soup, until we showed them how they’re used.
Rafa is a long and expensive meal. The younger ones won’t enjoy it. But for us, including our six-year old, eating top-quality seafood on immaculate tablecloths, being doted upon by tuxedo-clad waiters, and sitting under the warm summer sky was a great night.
Where to Stay
Traveling to Europe with a family of five can be a bit tricky as most hotels only accommodate 2 adults per room. So, unless you are staying in an Airbnb, most families will have to get up to two rooms in most hotels.
I had originally booked in an apart-hotel. An apart-hotel is a mini apartment, but with the amenities of a hotel. They have a front desk for check-in/out, are willing to help with city plans and ideas, and most will include breakfast.
Two days before we were to leave, the apart-hotel emailed telling us there was a problem at the location, but would move us to their other location. The “other” location was not where we wanted to be, so we canceled and scrambled to find a new place. We managed to get a room with a connecting room at NH Madrid Suecia. The adjoining rooms were perfect for the five of us (breakfast was included). The hotel was walking distance to a great amount of the important cultural and historical sites Madrid has to offer.
Madrid is also an easy starting point for day trips to nearby smaller towns. We did do a trip to Toledo,Spain from Madrid. Woke up early, and grabbed a train from Atocha Train Station conveniently located in Central Madrid. I do recommend buying tickets ahead of time for this journey especially during peak travel times, like summer so you can guarantee your travel times. Especially return times. There were plenty of travelers stuck in Toledo trying to make their way back to Madrid, late afternoon, only to find they had to wait until late evening or even next morning.
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