Madrid for the Weekend

Back in September, Norwegian Air Shuttle was offering sub-$400 roundtrip fares from Los Angeles to Madrid. The sale dates included the Martin Luther King long weekend. Having done 3 long weekend trips to Europe: London, Andorra, and Iceland, I decided to book it! I had never gone to Madrid before. I booked a flight leaving on a Friday night and returning on a Monday afternoon.

In a twist, I decided to take my girlfriend Maisie along. Due to her job, she has done many quick turnarounds in Europe and was very excited for the trip.

Day 1: The Flight Over

We arrived at the airport at 5pm after working a full day. I tried to sit next to Maisie, but the automated check-in put us in nearby rows.

Once we boarded the plane, we soon realized that the flight was nearly empty and we each got a row to ourselves. The seats were comfortable enough and the entertainment system was good. I would definitely fly Norwegian again.

Bathrooms featuring Greta Garbo who is Swedish, not Norwegian. 

Day 2: Arrival, Art, and Suckled Pig

The flight only took 9 1/2 hours and we landed on time at around 3pm.

The incredible Madrid City Hall

While there is train service to the airport, the €5 bus ride goes right to the center of town with only 2 stops. The bus dropped us off right in front of City Hall.

The weather was rainy and about 40 degrees. Normally, I would be slightly annoyed by the dreariness, but with only 48 hours in Madrid, I had no time to be distracted by the weather.

Our first stop was the Prado, Madrid’s (and Spain’s) most famous art museum. The line was long, but Maisie was able to buy tickets online and we skipped the line.

The museum’s collection was nothing short of incredible. They had works from every famous Spanish or Italian painter you could possibly want to see.  The highlights for me were the Goya black paintings and the numerous Velasquez masterpieces, but truly everything was amazing. Unlike most art museums, the Prado was very strict on not allowing photos.

One painting that really struck me was Emilio Sala Francés’ “The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain” from 1889.

Image courtesy of the Prado Museum.

The painting retells a story about how the Jews were allowed to make their case to Ferdinand and Isabella to stay in Spain. As the story goes, a leader from the Jewish community promised to make capital contributions to the Crown. As a rebuttal, the monk Tomas de Torquemada (whose ancestors were Jews) slammed a crucifix on a table and said that if the monarchs accepted the money, they would be no different than Judas betraying Christ. It is one thing to hear about the Inquisition, but it is another thing to see a visual representation of an event that resulted in the murder of some of my ancestors. Should I be upset that this painting is here or glad that the Spanish are willing to confront their dark past? I really do not know.

It took about 3 hours, but Maisie and I saw each and every piece of art on display in the Prado: 89 rooms in all. We then walked 25 minutes to check into to our hostel, the OK Hostel. A plaque out front said it was the second best large hostel in the world. Hostel experiences are heavily based on the other guests, so I don’t know if this was my favorite hostel experience as the other guests were not very social. That said, the hostel was extremely well-run. They had a cheap breakfast, dinner, bar crawl, and city tour.

Typical street in Madrid.

In order to stall before our 10pm dinner reservation, Maisie and I walked around the city center. We visited the beautiful Plaza Major, the historic center of the city. Despite the name, the plaza was largely empty.

The busiest spot was actually a nearby plaza called Puerta de Sol. This place was packed with street performers and people walking around. In the plaza, there was a plaque stating that this spot was the geographic center of Madrid. All distances in the city and national roads in Spain are measured from this spot.

The center of Madrid. All of Spain’s national roads are measured from this spot.

Since we still had time, we got dessert (before dinner) at Chocolateria San Gines, open since 1894. We snacked on incredible churros with hot chocolate.

Churros and hot chocolate. Yum!

Finally, it was time for the main event: Restaurant Botin. Open since 1725, this is the oldest restaurant in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The dining room definitely felt historic.

Botin’s English menu

The highlight of the menu is the suckling pig, which I obviously ordered. Hemmingway apparently wrote about the dish in The Sun Also Rises. If it’s been on the menu for that long, I figured it must be good. And it was.

The interior of the second floor of Botin.

After dinner, it was nearly midnight and we were both tired from the flight, so we went to bed for our big full-day in Madrid.

Day 3: The Full Day in Madrid

We woke up around 8, which is pretty early by Spanish standards but right on time if you only have one full day to explore Madrid.

Right outside our hostel was El Rastro, a famed flea market that has been around since the Middle Ages. All the guide books recommended it, but to be honest it was just a mediocre flea market. Maybe I am spoiled by the high quality flea markets in Los Angeles, but nothing was quality or really interesting. I would not recommend going to El Rastro unless you happen to walk by it like myself.

El Rastro

Our next stop was the Catedral de la Almudena. Unlike most European cathedrals, this one is actually modern. It was consecrated in 1993. The reason is twofold: the local bishop decided to stay in nearby Toledo even after the monarchy moved to Madrid. They had a nice cathedral there. Additionally, at this time the Spanish crown was spending loads of money conquering the world and building new cathedrals in their colonies. They didn’t want to allocate resources to building a cathedral in Madrid.

Due to its modern construction, the gigantic cathedral looked a little different than most (but nowhere as strange as Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia). The artwork, including the ceiling artwork, was modern. The altars were noticeably simpler in design. The cathedral also had WiFi.

Interior of the Cathedral.

We didn’t have time, but the cathedral also has a beautiful crypt that functions as a museum and has a separate entrance.

Next to the cathedral is Madrid’s premier attraction: the Royal Palace. The line was long, but luckily we bought tickets online and skipped the hour wait.

The Royal Palace has been the home of the Spanish Royal Family since the early 1700’s although the current King lives in a much simpler – but still nice- home. Today, the palace is used for official events such as welcoming foreign heads of state.

Exterior of the Royal Palace

Photos are not allowed in every room in the palace. Take it from me, the rooms are among the most elaborate and ornate that I have ever seen. I have seen fancy rooms, but nothing prepared me for what I saw here in the Royal Palace. In addition to the rooms themselves, there were some artifacts in one room including the crown and scepter.

In addition to the palace itself, there are also tours of the royal stables (which now contains an armor collection) and the kitchen.

After a long morning of gawking at architecture, we had worked up an appetite. About a half-mile from the palace is Spain’s most famous food hall: the Mercado de San Miguel. This is very similar to a US food hall (think Grand Central Market, Chelsea Market, etc) but with every store selling tapas.

Mercado de San Miguel

After nabbing the best sangria of my life for €3, we visited a cheese stand followed by a traditional tapas stand followed by a squid sandwich stand followed by a smoked salmon stand followed by an Iberian ham stand followed by a coffee stand. Nothing in the entire market cost more than €10  The whole experience cost us about €20 per person.

Burrata with Iberian ham.
Iberian ham (jamon)

After lunch, we left the city center using Madrid’s sleek subway system to reach the Museo de America. Even though we were only a mile or two from the Royal Palace, the atmosphere was quite different and more spread out.

The Museum of the Americas ended up being different than I was expecting. I was expecting to see loads of plunder from over 400 years of Spanish occupation of the New World. Instead, I got to see an accurate and thoughtful historical account of the history of the Americas. The museum also had anthropological displays of indigenous cultures from all parts of the Americas – not just places colonized by the Spanish. Most of the displays are in Spanish, but I still learned a lot as a non-Spanish speaker.

Old map that shows California as an island.

Across the street from the Museum of the Americas is the Museo de Traje (Museum of Clothing). Since Maisie is a fashion designer, I figured this would be a fun spot to see. The museum chronicled about 800 years of Spanish clothing history. While they have about 160,000 items, only a small fraction was on display.

It was now about 3pm and the sun was still out. We decided to soak in the nice weather by taking a long stroll back to the center of town through the Parque del Oeste. The park was beautiful yet empty.

Our stroll ended at the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain as thanks for Spain’s help in saving ancient temples from the flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam. Many guides consider this a top sight in Madrid, but I was sorely disappointed. The temple was not that large and the as-advertised reflecting pond was drained. Supposedly this is an awesome spot to watch the sunset reflect off the water, but I wasn’t impressed at all.

The disappointment that was the Temple of Debod.

There was still time left to see things, so we headed over to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This huge private collection includes art from the middle ages all the way up to today. It is truly shocking how one family can own such a large and comprehensive art collection. Unlike the Prado, you can take pictures here.

While we had walked almost a half-marathon by dinner time. Based on the recommendation of numerous friends, we ended up at a bar called El Tigre Sidra. This taxidermy-filled bar happens to be home to the greatest bar special of all time. With the purchase of any drink- even a €2.50 beer, you get a gigantic plate of tapas for free. After the beer, I ordered a gigantic mojito. They then gave me a second giant plate of food with the mojito. I have no idea how this place makes money or can stay in business, but at the same time I’m not going to complain.

All this and the two beers were 5 Euros.

Having walked well over a half-marathon, we earned our rest and can say with certainty that we made the most of the day.

Day 4: Homeward Bound

While I have done this routine before, it was hard to believe that the trip was ending today.

Most museums in Madrid were closed on Monday, so there weren’t too many attractions left. After getting a lovely breakfast, we decided to stroll through Retiro Park, the premier city park. Retiro Park was stunning and ranks up there with the best city parks in the world.

My favorite part of the park was the Crystal Palace – a replica of the London building. Inside there was a cool art exhibit.

Palacio Crystal

From the park, it was time to head home on our 3pm flight. We took the subway to the airport and got on our 13 hour flight.

All things considered, 48 hours was a perfect amount of time to see Madrid and I have zero regrets from this trip. Sure, I would have liked another day or two, but I truly feel like I saw most of the sights in the center part of the city. On my next trip to Spain (there will be a next), I hope to explore more of the smaller towns surrounding Madrid such as Toledo and Segovia. Then beyond!

 

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