Upon announcing that we would be visiting Madrid instead of Barcelona when heading to Spain, we were warned many times over that we were making a huge mistake: It had no sights or attractions of any real interest and was boring; the people were unfriendly; the food wasn’t great; it was more of a “living” city rather than a “visiting” one; and—perhaps most ironically—the capital city was the least Spanish city in Spain. If there are any certainties in this life, it seemed the absolute inferiority of Madrid to the cultural capital, Barcelona, was one of them, and we were utter fools for heading to the one place in Spain that apparently no one seemed to like.
But we had to be pragmatic—with our time winding down in Europe and our exit flights back to Canada already purchased out of Lisbon, we needed to limit our time in Spain to a part of the country that would allow us to easily (and affordably) make our way to our final stop on this phase of our trip. As appealing as Barcelona sounded, from a practical standpoint, Madrid just made more sense. In a perfect world, we would have visited both, but with the high speed train between the two cities costing what it does (hint: high speeds come at high prices) and the bus journey still costing a fair amount and eating up the good portion of a day, a choice had to be made and so we chose to ignore group wisdom and booked five nights in Madrid. After all, we reasoned, if we hated it, it was close enough to cities like Toledo and Segovia that we could easily eat up our time with day trips elsewhere.
Of course, if you’ve been keeping track of how these things tend to go for us, it won’t be any surprise to hear that yet again, expectations led us astray. As much as I hate to say that arriving somewhere expecting the worst is a desirable way to approach travel, we’ve found it tends to work out far better for us than the alternative. I know how useful a positive outlook can be, but it always seems that when we show up absolutely certain that a place will be incredible, we wind up less than impressed and eating our words. We’ve learned to tread cautiously when it comes to anticipating how we much we will or won’t like a place before actually arriving, and I like to think that everyone who warned us off of Madrid was really doing us a kindness; they had so thoroughly razed the city’s reputation that the reality simply had to be better. We went in expecting Madrid to underwhelm, and instead were thoroughly charmed by it.
It’s possible that all of the criticisms lobbed at Madrid are valid: It was our only stop in Spain, so I can’t say how well it encapsulates the rest of the country, but I still think it was a good ambassador and acquitted itself well. We weren’t robbed, nor did we find the locals unfriendly or unhelpful, we ate well (just check out our next post!), and we didn’t find ourselves ever wishing we were elsewhere. That said, I can’t truthfully say we did overly much while we were in Madrid, so perhaps it is boring. But if it is, it was our kind of boring! Supremely pretty & extremely photogenic, it hardly mattered that there weren’t many conventional tourist sights around.
About the only majorly touristy thing the city has to offer is its art museums, so we made sure to take advantage of free visiting hours in order to pop by the two big ones, el Prado and la Reina Sofia. In brief: El Prado gets two thumbs up! Filled with sculptures and paintings from the 12th-19th century, we thoroughly enjoyed our three-hour stroll through the collection housed in an equally beautiful building. La Reina Sofia, on the other hand, is Madrid’s modern art museum and we really only visited so we could take a peek at Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica. I like Picasso more than Tony does (which is to say, I like some of his stuff, whereas Tony does not.) but… we both kind of hated this museum (to the degree that we managed to take exactly zero photos in or around it). As I’ve said before, modern art just isn’t our jam.)
When we weren’t wandering around museums (read: most of the time), we were content to simply stroll the streets of Madrid taking in the lovely and impressive architecture, or sit out on our teeny tiny balcony sipping some wine or in one of the city’s many plazas alongside the locals, enjoying the sunshine and the laid back liveliness of the city.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t give some well-deserved love to Madrid’s wonderful parks, which became our favorite stomping grounds (more like lolling grounds) in the city. In particular, we whiled away several lazy afternoons reading books, playing games on our iPad, and simply watching people and the world go by in the járdin botanico and el parque de buen retiro. It seems that Madrileños are great fans of their parks and make good use of them and seeing so many people socializing and spending such large swaths of their days outdoors filled a gap we had been missing since leaving Asia. It felt nice to feel a part of the action, even if said action was rather slothful in scope.
Madrid is a beautiful, sophisticated city, and elegant too, but it feels down-to-earth and approachable and it was easy for us to feel at home there in a very short amount of time. It’s a shame it seems to get short shrift from most travelers, but I suppose Madrid can’t be everything to everyone. More importantly, it doesn’t need to be.
For us, Madrid was exactly what we needed at this point in our travels where, unaccustomed to the brisk pace of the preceding weeks, we teetered on the cusp of travel burnout. There was enough around to pique our interest and motivate us to explore, but not so much that we felt taxed or like we needed to overextend ourselves, and we never got lost in seas of fellow tourists. With our return home looming on the horizon and time feeling like it was simply melting away, our days in Madrid felt capacious and luxuriously long, no doubt influenced by the fact that the sun never set before 9pm. We reveled in our time there; of all the places we visited in Europe, Madrid was easily our favorite discovery; were it not for my beloved London (which will always come first in my heart), it would also be the place I’d most want to revisit. When we left, it was with sadness in our hearts that we didn’t have more time to see more of Spain, but with increased determination and excitement to return and visit other parts of the country. As far as introductions to a new country go, it’s hard to think of a better one than that.
Now it’s your turn: Are you a Madrid person or a Barcelona person? Or do you prefer somewhere else entirely in Spain? If you’ve never been to Madrid, does this post make you more interested in visiting?