As I mentioned in my other post, Why Spain is Great for Kids, I highly recommend Spain as a first trip to Europe with kids. Madrid is a great place to start in Spain.
HISTORY OF MADRID
Madrid, the Capital of Spain, is a city full of rich culture and history for all to enjoy. Madrid has long been a relevant trading post in the center of the Iberian peninsula. At the end of the 9th century, Madrid, then called Mayrit, was founded by the emir Mohamed. The city was named Mayrit from the root word, "mayra" which describes the subterranean water channels Mohamed built throughout the city. The mayra helped develop and water the fields to improve agricultural practices and produce better crops. During the medieval period, Madrid changed hands between the Arabs and Christians several times. Then in 1086, the Christians Led by Alfonso VI conquered Mayrit. Finally, in 1561, King Phillip II moved his court from Toledo to Madrid and declared Madrid the Capital of Spain. The establishment of Madrid as the Capital spurred growth and development. Many wealthy nobles followed and began building palaces, churches, and other infrastructure over the years. Today, Madrid is a large welcoming metropolitan city of over 3 million people.
EXPLORING THE CITY
1. CHECK OUT THE SQUARES
The old city center of Madrid is composed of many medieval narrow maze-like streets that surround city squares like Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor. Puerto del Sol is at the center of old town Madrid and is point zero for the six national roads that run through Spain. The square is home to the famous statue of a bear nuzzling a strawberry tree, which is the official symbol of Madrid. Look for the Tio Pepe neon sign when you are there. It has become a sort of modern landmark as well and offers an exciting contrast to the history of the square. Tio Pepe has been lighting up the square since 1936. It was only removed for a few years for refurbishment. It remained in place without harm during the Spanish Civil War, as well.
Plaza Mayor is a beautiful square we found accidentally one night. We were waiting for our table at Botin when we decided to walk up a random set of stairs that seemed to lead to a sort of shopping area. We could see vendors at the top of the stairs. When we arrived at the top, we were pleasantly surprised by a beautiful square. Plaza Mayor was once the center of old Madrid. Philip III, a Habsburg, began construction of the square near the beginning of the 17th century. In King Philips's honor, a bronze statue of Philip III on horseback was placed in the center in 1616. The Plaza Mayor is full of history. It has been the site of soccer games, bullfights, and even executions. The square is rectangular and now stands surrounded by three-story buildings on all sides with balconies looking in. If you visit during the holidays, check out the Plaza Mayor Christmas market. It's a great place to relax with a drink, see the fountain in the middle of the square and let the kids run around a bit.
Kids will especially love Plaza de Olavide and Plaza de Santa Ana. Both squares offer playgrounds and a place for adults to sit and enjoy a drink while their kids play. We did not make it to Plaza de Olavide, but it does have playground equipment, benches, and restaurants around the perimeter of the square, which is round. The plaza was the home of a crowded octagonal market from 1934 to 1974. In 1974, the market was demolished, and the square became an open space. We did get a chance to enjoy Plaza de Santa Ana and loved it. (For more information on why Spain is Great for kids click here to read our post 5 Reasons Why Spain is Great for Kids)
We found this small playground on our last night when we wanted to give our boys a place to run around. I looked up playgrounds on yelp, and it happened to be the closest one. We could not have been more pleased when we found it. It was perfect! The playground is installed in a large square surrounded by restaurants, which all have tables with umbrellas looking on. It was perfect for the kids and parents! We enjoyed cold drinks and a plate of complimentary olives at a restaurant right next to the playground while we watched our boys play with Spanish and other visiting American children.
As you explore Madrid, take time to enjoy the many squares of varying importance and fame; these neighborhood social centers have long shaped the culture of Spaniards. The squares have held, markets, protests, sporting events, executions, been meeting spots, and more. They are all unique and full of history.
2. Explore El Retiro Park
Madrid's El Retiro Park is a sprawling heavily wooded 350-acre park full of gardens, monuments, a lake, and playgrounds. El Retiro translates to "Park of the Pleasant Retreat," and it lives up to its name. The park was formerly the property of the Count-Duke of Olivares. In 1632, the Count-Duke gifted the property to King Philip IV and planned to build a garden and Palace there for the King's retreat. From 1632 to 1868, the park was an escape for royalty solely. Royalty frequently enjoyed operas in the park and strolled through the French and Renaissance-style gardens. Spanish kings filed the garden with sculptures and fountains. When Queen Isabella was forced to abdicate the throne because she was a woman and not the preferred sex for holding such a powerful position, the park was opened to the public.
Today locals and visitors alike enjoy the sprawling beauty of the park. The park is heavily wooded and full of monuments from as far back as the Renaissance period. When you are there, check out some of the park highlights and enjoy roaming through the expansive grounds. There are trails cut through the trees, which are excellent for a shaded walk or run. You will also find playground equipment, sculptures, and more tucked away in the natural setting.
The Crystal Palace- this large beautiful metal and glass structure is positioned next to a small lake. It was built in 1887 to display flora and fauna from the Philippians. Today the Crystal Palace holds art exhibits that are changed out periodically.
The Lake- Between 1634 and 1636, the sizable beautiful lake was built. It once held plays, concerts, and mock naval battles. Today it is an excellent spot to rent a rowboat and enjoy the scenery and is surrounded on one the side by an impressive monument to Alfonso XII.
3. Palace Gardens-Jardin de Sabatini
If you aren't sure about dragging your kids through the Palace, be sure to check out the palace gardens. The well-manicured gardens are free and open to the public. The gardens were opened to the public in 1978 by King Juan Carlos I. They are designed in the Neoclassical style, which is very symmetrical. The grounds contain well-manicured shrubbery, plants, a reflection pool, and sculpture.
The gardens are lovely and offer a great place to let kids run around for a few minutes. While we were there, our kids enjoyed seeing the guards on horseback who were patrolling the gardens. The Palace and gardens are situated at the top of a hill and offer an impressive view. The current Palace was built after the original Palace burned down in 1734 four years later construction began and continued for 17 years. The Palace Royal was inspired by Bernini's sketches of the Lourve in Paris.
4. Find Desert!
Madrid is full of pastry shops and chocolaterias with hot dipping chocolate and churros. I think finding dessert is my advice for any city you might visit with or without children. Food is a big part of why we travel, and we always enjoy experiencing a regional specialty. Stopping to sit down and enjoy dessert together is an excellent way to take a break and has been used to bribe our kids through a tour of another cathedral, popular site or museum.
We tried two of the most popular spots for Churros in Madrid. Our boys especially enjoyed the churros and chocolate!
1. Chocolateria San Gines- This delicious chocolate shop has been serving this much sought after desert in Madrid since 1894. It is located close to the Puerta del Sol, which is in the heart of Madrid. Many visitors and Spaniards enjoy this treat for breakfast on weekends or for special occasions. We visited at night, and though it was busy, we were quickly served and did not have to deal with any long lines. Be aware of touristy spots selling churros around the city to make sure you are getting a quality product. We heard a few warnings that the chocolate at some places is powdered and not melted chocolate bars.
2. El Riojano- We loved El Riojano as well, which was established even earlier in 1855. It is also located close to Puerta del Sol. We thought the chocolate here was better than at San Gines. Instead of a churro, El Riojano serves its chocolate with a ladyfinger biscuit-like cookie. We liked the cookie but would have preferred a churro for the crunch.
When you are in Madrid, I encourage you to try both shops and see which you prefer. I, for one, cannot pick a favorite. In the perfect world, I would have the chocolate from El Riojano with a churro from San Gines.
5. Find a Tour or Activity with a Local
Wherever we travel, we find the most value in hiring local guides. We experience each location more fully with a guide. In Madrid, we hired two different guides/locals. We enjoyed a tasting tour of local foods through withlocals.com, which I highly recommend and had an enjoyable experience with Anna from Foodiesinthecity.com, making traditional paella as a family in her Madrid apartment. She instructed us on the process, and all four of us worked together to create a seafood paella. Our boys, Maddox and Henry, especially enjoyed being included in the process and learning about making the dish.
Our boys helped chop ingredients, make a virgin sangria (we got the real thing), and learned about the process. Anna was an excellent host, and we enjoyed learning about Spanish culture from her. Check out her website here to enjoy this experience while you are in Madrid. I highly recommend it!
6. Eat at the Oldest Restaurant in the World- Sobrino Botin
Sobrino Botin is in very close proximity to the Plaza Mayor, which holds great historical significance. There is no doubt that Sabotin Botin must have been an important meeting place for many historical figures. We were very fortunate enough to get into Botin without a reservation and only an hour wait. Sobrino Botin holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest restaurant in the world. It has been serving food since 1725 and has been either a lodging place or restaurant since 1590. Inside you will find a tavern-style restaurant famous for roasted suckling pig and roasted lamb.
It is believed that the original ground floor of the restaurant was once a primitive cellar of a private residence. The stone fireplace was exceptionally well built and historically an essential and vital part of a home, which explains how it still exists and functions to produce the high quality roasted sucking pig and lamb. The meat is roasted using evergreen oak, which gives the meat the unique flavor it is known for. We very much enjoyed our meal at Sabrino Botin. The food was delicious and prepared with the precision of nearly 300 years of tradition. Near the end of our dining experience, a traditional band of Spanish musicians played in the dining room.
It was a memorable experience, and we all enjoyed it. The experience was unique and thoroughly enjoyed soaking up the history and culture of the entire experience.
Take a walk and look around. Madrid is a beautiful city full of rich history. The architecture is gorgeous, and it is interesting to see how it changes over time. Contrast the winding narrow medieval streets from the wide newer boulevards. Look for statues of past leaders in squares and enjoy all that the beautiful city has to offer.
When you are ready to explore, make sure you have the best.