Our first stop in Europe was Madrid, and considering how woefully unprepared my mom and I were to wander around alone in a foreign country, it went pretty well. Neither of us was pickpocketed or murdered, so I’d call it a success, although our aimless rambling and quizzical scrutiny of maps probably made us look like easy targets.
Let me just start by saying that I am not a master traveler. I’ve never had to navigate a new city without the help of a GPS. My mother has been everywhere and back, but she speaks very little Spanish. So, conveniently, the person who can (kind of) speak the language had no idea where she was going, and the one who knows how to get around couldn’t really read anything or talk to anyone. We were an interesting pair, to put it nicely.
Due to a late flight, we didn’t end up getting to the hotel until around 11:30AM, so we didn’t have as much time to prepare as we anticipated. We basically left with a general idea of what we wanted to see and fingers crossed that we wouldn’t end up stranded in some deserted Hooverville (whatever their equivalent is in Spain) with unreliable phone service and limited communication skills. The woman at the front desk of the hotel gave us a map of how to get to the train station that goes to the main areas in the city, but neglected to mention that it included going through a bunch of sketchy back roads and crossing a busy interstate on foot. Once that lovely adventure was over, the actual train system was pretty easy to use and we made it to the southeast corner of the Parque de Retiro without any problems.
The feeling of triumph faded when we realized we had no idea how to get anywhere, so there was a lot of the aforementioned map scrutiny when we got off the train before we decided to just head in the general direction of the Palacio Cibeles and the Palacio de Cristal. We stopped for a light lunch and lattes at a little tapas restaurant called La Tapería, where we got a plate of assorted meats and cheeses, along with an order of artichokes and baked eggs.
After lunch, we stumbled upon the Real Jardín Botanico de Madrid (Royal Botanical Gardens of Madrid) and wandered around in there for awhile. Unfortunately, it looked like a lot of the flowers were past their prime and they seemed to be in the process of planting new ones, but there were a couple beds of flowers in the front that were in bloom, and there were plenty of fountains, trees, and perfectly trimmed hedging that made it really look like a royal garden. The area was huge and it was surprisingly very quiet and peaceful considering that it is in the middle of a huge city.
Next, we ventured deeper into the Parque de Retiro to find the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). We underestimated how huge the park is and ended up having to walk about 20 minutes before we could find it, but the weather was perfect and the lush trees and hedges made it feel like you were walking through a fairytale forest, so there were no complaints from me. (My mom, on the other hand, was not happy about the fact that we had no idea where we were going.)
The Palacio de Cristal is a huge building made of glass and metal, and the architecture beyond amazing. I believe its main purpose is to house art exhibitions, which is fitting considering the place itself is a work of art. The sidewalk outside of the building has multiple vendors selling homemade jewelry and a manmade pond with a fountain and a waterfall.
Afterward, we continued walking and found a small lake covered with people in cute paddleboats. The sidewalk was lined with street musicians and people selling homemade jewelry. Across from the lake was the Longest Line of Hedging in the Entire World. I believe its actual title is el Paseo de las Estatuas; it’s lined with various statues of Spanish monarchs from as far back as around 600AD.
We made our way to the Palacio Cibeles with a little help from a friendly security guard, but unfortunately the ticketing office was closed so we couldn’t have a tour. The Palacio Cibeles was built in the early 1900s and acts as Madrid’s City Hall. Right across from this was El Fuente de Cibeles, which depicts the Roman goddess Cibele being pulled in a chariot by two lions.
Since we weren’t sure how to use the bus system and didn’t want to walk all the way back to the train station, we got a taxi to take us to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). When we got there, they were doing some sort of ceremony in the front courtyard involving horses and military men and women. We went inside and walked around the palace for about an hour. It had all the opulence you would expect from a royal palace and was so huge that I imagine it took the monarchs who did live there ages to get around, even when they weren’t meandering and stopping to admire everything. Every ceiling had some beautiful fresco (a type of painting) surrounded with gold plating and sculptures carved into the columns. A chandelier hung in the middle of every room, all of them with different arrangements of bronze and crystal. There were multiple tapestries throughout the palace depicting various historical events; some of them were even woven with gold threads. The walls were not simply painted, but lined with velvet emblems, porcelain figurines, or simply silk. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow pictures after the grand staircase, but that ceiling gives you the gist of the rest of them. Side note: the royal family does not actually live here nowadays; it is used for state dinners and ceremonies.
The chapel was what really took my breath away. This huge room was gold on gold in every possible design you could imagine, with a high domed ceiling (below) that is topped with a cross. I had to try and sneak a picture because this is one of those things you just have to remember. In case you were wondering, yes, they did catch me, and yes, I did get yelled at for it. (Worth it, even if it turned out blurry).
After the palace, we made our way to the Calle Mayor and into an indoor marketplace called the Mercado de San Miguel. The place was packed, and it had about fifteen different stands with cute little display cases boasting the best seafood/churros/coffee/etc. We kept walking and found another tapas restaurant (basically every restaurant we could find was tapas), and we had some grilled vegetables, sirloin, and ham croquettes. I had sangria, which was amazing, but I didn’t get to finish it all because it was tragically spilled all over my legs by a very embarrassed waiter. Thankfully my ninja reflexes prevented it from getting all over my clothes and shoes, too.
The waiter also recommended the nearby Chocolatería San Ginés to get churros con chocolate, which were SO GOOD. The churros were airy and not super sweet, and they went perfectly with the side of warm chocolate. Apparently this place was specifically known for the churros con chocolate, because that’s all anyone seemed to be eating.
I still wanted to see the Nebraska Cafe for obvious reasons, so we headed in that direction past the Plaza del Sol, which is basically the center of a giant outdoor shopping district. There were a ton of people and more street performers, including these men playing some variation of a xylophone that I have never seen in my life, but it was really cool to watch them play.
Sadly, the Nebraska Cafe was closed. I did get a picture, albeit an awkward one because people in Madrid stare a little when you’re trying to take a picture with a random restaurant.
Overall, I was really impressed with Madrid. The architecture was absolutely beautiful and even though we only had one day to explore, I was pretty happy with what we got to see. We might have been a little lost most of the time, but in my opinion, not knowing what was waiting around every corner was part of the fun.