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.

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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.

The Prado, Madrid, Spain

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.)

The Prado, Madrid, Spain
El Prado is free to visit Monday – Saturday from 6pm-8pm, and from 5pm-8pm on Sundays. La Reina Sofia is free every day it’s open from 7pm-9pm. On Sundays, it’s free from 1:30pm-7pm.
The streets of Madrid

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.

Palacio de Cristal, Parcque del Retiro

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?

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (33)

  1. January 27, 2015 at 8:09 am
    Jan. 27, '15

    People told us the unfriendly people were because of the crisis. I think things are looking better in Spain now, so perhaps people are more cheery. So glad you liked it!

    I totally agree about it being better coming in with low expectations and finding out the opposite. That’s so much nicer than coming in with high hopes only to have them dashed!
    Talon recently posted..Jawbone Up vs Jawbone Up24

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:35 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      I don’t doubt as well that one’s perception of friendliness would be influenced by where you were coming from—compared to Rome or Paris, Madrid certainly didn’t seem any less friendly (or any more, for what it’s worth). I’m sure it also helped that we had a great AirBnB rental while in the city with really friendly hosts who helped us feel really at home and always gave us some friendly faces to return home to every day too!

  2. January 27, 2015 at 8:59 am
    Jan. 27, '15

    I think you made the right choice. Barcelona was my first stop in Spain and I was planning on staying there for a year, but I just didn’t like the city all that much. I ended up leaving for Madrid after a few days and spent the year there instead. I just felt much more at home in the capital. I even went back to Barcelona 8 months later to give it another chance. Still didn’t like it. I don’t really know why either. It’s a beautiful city.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Transportation Problems in India: Why Can’t I Leave Goa?

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:38 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      Well, beauty isn’t everything, is it? To be honest, when people told us that they found Madrid more boring and said it was because they felt it was more “liveable” than Barcelona, that’s what really appealed to us. We realized we would only have the time for one major city in Spain, and decided we’d rather see one that didn’t seem to be particularly interested in courting tourists and I’m glad we made that choice. I’m sure we’ll visit Barcelona someday, and I’m sure it does have its charms, but I think it probably hints at a very different kind of Spain (and Catalonia!) than other parts of the country do.

  3. January 27, 2015 at 1:23 pm
    Jan. 27, '15

    YES. I am so glad to hear some positive stuff about Madrid in the blogging community. As you know, it is my #1 love, and I hate that other people hate it… But maybe you hit it on the head with this pearl “my kind of boring”… if it really is boring, then it’s on my wavelength of boring. 😀 …. which really isn’t boring at all…. charming and elegant, such a great city!!!
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Hot Noodles: A Reykjavik Treat

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:43 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      After visiting, it seemed like fellow Madrid-lovers came out of the woodwork and I have seen a few positive posts about the city since (including on your blog, obviously!), but it really does seem that most would choose Barcelona over it in a heartbeat. I do think that’s a shame and that Madrid isn’t getting a fair shake, but then again, maybe it’s better to keep others away! I suppose it’s not a city for everyone, but maybe it makes it all the more the special for those of us for whom it does work.

  4. January 27, 2015 at 3:04 pm
    Jan. 27, '15

    This place’s absolutely adventurous and worth exploring. Can’t wait to make it there perhaps this year. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:44 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      I definitely hope you get the chance to make it Madrid, and hopefully some other parts of Spain too! We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and I am definitely excited to get back so that we can explore other parts of the country.

  5. January 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm
    Jan. 27, '15

    Sounds like the lack of attractions in Madrid made it exactly the place you needed to visit to relax. I haven’t been and have never felt compelled to do so but it is my best friend’s favourite Spanish City (think it helped that he was dating a local). Barcelona is beautiful but Granada is far and away my favourite Spanish city
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Cape Town Highlights: This is why it is one of the best cities in the world!

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:46 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      We have heard really wonderful things about Granada, and it was on our long-list of places we wanted to (and still do!) visit while in Spain. It didn’t work out this time, but we’ll absolutely be back and are keen to see much more of the country.

  6. January 27, 2015 at 5:24 pm
    Jan. 27, '15

    We entered Spain at Barcelona, and I was immediately entranced by the art and architecture, and architecture that is art. It is colorful and beautiful and whimsical the combination of which completely charmed me. We road the high speed train to Madrid, and spent a day there before taking the night train to Lisbon and flying home from there. My husband loved Madrid as much as Barcelona, but I had so enjoyed the color and whimsy of Barcelona (and I was so completely exhausted at 4.5 weeks into our 6 week, 9 country, European Odyssey with a 3.5 year old and 1 year old in tow) that I feel like I wasn’t able to give Madrid a fair shake. We did get the best souvenirs of our trip there – paintings by a street artist that we found in the park across from The Prado. We also enjoyed the parks in Madrid, and spent hours sitting, strolling and playing on playgrounds there. Some day I will give Madrid another chance.

    At the end of March we leave for 2 months in Andalucia, and I can’t wait to see Granada.
    Dominica recently posted..Luzern

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:48 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      Travel exhaustion gets us all at some point or another and it can definitely color our experiences of a place, so I don’t blame you for being a bit over Madrid before you even arrived! That said, I think it is a perfect place to unwind and do a whole lot of nothing since it isn’t so full of “must see” attractions that you might otherwise feel obligated to go see. I’m definitely interested to visit Barcelona one day: I suspect our love affair with Madrid is really just the tip of the iceberg!

  7. January 27, 2015 at 10:03 pm
    Jan. 27, '15

    I haven’t done all that much traveling in Europe but I had no idea that most travelers hold such a negative view of Madrid. Like you guys, I seem to really enjoy cities that other people don’t love. I have noticed that whenever I don’t know much about a city or have low expectations that I often end up being pleasantly surprised. I had the same experience in Bogota I’d heard really negative things and came so close to skipping it but I ended up falling in love with it. I think it definitely pays off to do your own thing when traveling…you just never know which places will end up clicking with you. So are you guys writing about Lisbon next? I am dying to go there, so I cannot wait to read about it 🙂
    Justine recently posted..My Love Affair with Cambodia

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:55 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      Definitely agree that while it is always nice to hear the opinions of others, in the end you must take the trip you want to take, not the one others would have you take. We’ve liked plenty of places we thought we wouldn’t, or that others haven’t; really the only way to know is to go and form your own opinion!

      As for Lisbon… yes, we will be writing a small post about it, but… it’s probably not the post you are dying to read. A combination of factors meant we really didn’t see much of the city and probably didn’t give it as fair a chance as we should have!

      • January 28, 2015 at 12:04 pm
        Jan. 28, '15

        We loved Lisbon! We pretty much just chilled out there, and took the kids to the expensive but AMAZING and unusual zoo. It’s definitely worth a visit.
        Dominica recently posted..Luzern

  8. January 28, 2015 at 1:00 am
    Jan. 28, '15

    Just found your blog, nice to see another (former) Torontonian online! It took me over a year of living in Madrid to really fall in love with it. It doesn’t have as many exciting attractions as Barcelona does, nor the magical feeling of Granada. I can understand why most people would be against it for as the sole destination on a trip to Spain. That being said, it completely depends on what the traveler is looking for. Madrid is great for really good food (from all regions of Spain), art and relaxing. It’s not a fast paced city, which can be a nice break if you’ve been traveling around for awhile.

    Glad you had a great time here!
    Estrella recently posted..Quick Getaway to the Galician Coast

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:57 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      I get the sense that Spain is, like most countries, pretty diverse and that no one city is ever going to fully encapsulate it. We didn’t go into Madrid expecting it to stand in for the rest of the country, but we hoped it might give us a taste of what we might expect on a return visit with more time and more destinations ahead of us. We definitely appreciated its laidback liveliness and the delicious food and we’re certainly excited to return to Spain some day to see more of what the country has to offer.

  9. January 28, 2015 at 8:06 am
    Jan. 28, '15

    I am so glad to hear you guys had a good time in Madrid. I have been awhile ago – in 2005 (that’s a decade!) and I remember loving all the green space in the city. That and the fountains. And I ate very well. xx
    Jenia from HTL recently posted..Hai Van Pass Trip Report

    • January 28, 2015 at 11:58 am
      Jan. 28, '15

      It’s always nice to be in cities that have so many sprawling green spaces! It’s one of the things we love about London, too.

      And the food? Definitely some of our favorite meals we had while in Europe!

  10. January 28, 2015 at 2:42 pm
    Jan. 28, '15

    Barcelona was absolutely breathtaking architecturally, but I thought the true beauty of Madrid was on the inside–inside restaurants, museums, and buildings, inside the parks, and yummy food inside my stomach. I’m glad you had a great time there too! It’s definitely a “living” city, though, so if you get the chance to go back, I’d recommend Couchsurfing. I had a blast doing that when I visited.

    Oh, and bring me. 🙂

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:02 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      I love your thoughts on how the beauty of Madrid is on the inside! You are so right! (Especially the part about it being inside your stomach! As we discuss in great lengths in our next post, the food there was SO GOOD!)

      We didn’t CouchSurf, but we had a great AirBnB rental where the owners were really hands on and interested in us, so it felt very much like a CS experience for us. Would love to officially Surf the next time we visit as things are always better with locals!

  11. January 28, 2015 at 2:51 pm
    Jan. 28, '15

    I love Barcelona but have never been to Madrid to compare. It certainly looks very beautiful, the parks especially look like places I’d love to spend time!

    Totally agree that it’s great arriving somewhere with low expectations and being pleasantly surprised, can we all say Vietnam!
    Maddie recently posted..The time the U.S Government tried to ruin our holiday

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:08 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      I suspect the best way to deal with Madrid and Barcelona is to just not compare them to one another as they seem to be quite different (and comparisons generally are always a losing proposition!). It was nice to go into Spain with absolutely no idea of what we would find… I’m not sure that we had exceedingly low expectations for the country in general since so many people do seem to love it, but we really were surprised to see all the antipathy towards Madrid, especially once we got there and it was so lovely!

      And yes, Vietnam is another perfect example of this! Haters gonna hate, but we sure do love that country!

  12. January 28, 2015 at 4:59 pm
    Jan. 28, '15

    I did like Barcelona better but it also had the advantage of being the first city we visited while Spain was the last in a 2 week trip. We enjoyed the Prado, the Palace, and many of the squares and parks. I loved the Mercado and had the best churros and chocolate. But we also were there during some pretty nasty protests so we weren’t able to get out and explore as much as we wanted in the evening.
    Tamara @ We3Travel recently posted..Iron Chef Philadelphia: Tale of Two Chefs

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      There was one day of protests while we were in the city, but I don’t think it was anything major and it certainly didn’t seem dangerous or impede our ability to see the sights. I could certainly see how that, in combination with it being your last stop on a whirlwind trip through Spain, would perhaps diminish Madrid in your eyes in comparison to some other places, but I’m glad to hear that you still found much to enjoy!

  13. January 29, 2015 at 11:30 am
    Jan. 29, '15

    I love when going with low expectations ends up being a good thing! I’ve never been to Spain, but hopefully one day I will see both and be able to compare. How did the food end up being? I agree from your photos that the city is very photogenic! P.S. I am totally stalking all of your Philippines posts lately, I will be there next month! 😀
    Katie recently posted..Mexican Food: Must Try Foods in the Yucatan Peninsula

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:28 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      We wound up LOVING the food in Spain.. it’s certainly worth a trip based on that alone! You can check out our most recent post to see a thorough run down of all the insanely wonderful things we tried during our visit: http://www.20yearshence.com/madrid-food/

      Also, jealous that you are heading to the Philippines! It is one of our favorite countries, so I hope you have a blast. Feel free to send any questions you may have that our posts don’t cover!

  14. January 30, 2015 at 9:12 am
    Jan. 30, '15

    I LOVE Madrid! Seriously, it’s one of my favorite cities in Europe. And what’s NOT to love? It has a perfect jewel-box Royal Palace, world-class museums, sprawling parks, gorgeous architecture and delicious food. Does it represent the epitome of Spanish culture? I have no idea. But it’s definitely a fun place to visit! Granted, I have yet to visit Barcelona, but I much preferred Madrid to Seville. I know it all comes down to personal preferences and travel styles, but it drives me bonkers when people tell you not to visit a place because it’s boring or ugly or whatever. Good on you for going anyway and making your own informed opinion!
    Heather recently posted..40 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Istanbul in Winter

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:35 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      I always remind myself that not every destination will work for every traveler and one man’s trash is another’s treasure and all that, but sometimes I am mystified by why certain destinations are dismissed. I also think it’s possible to like both Madrid AND Barcelona, but it seems most people treat it as an either/or type decision.

      Also, we love when people give us suggestions and advice on things to do (and respect that everyone has their own preferences), but I would never discount a place without visiting myself! Far better to go and make up your own mind, as you say!

      • February 25, 2015 at 7:21 am
        Feb. 25, '15

        Good on you for not listening to people who tell you to give Madrid a miss! I’d been to Barcelona a couple of times before finally getting an introduction to Madrid recently, and although I love Barcelona, the two cities are apples and oranges.

        I’m a Canadian living in Portugal, so I have greater exposure to Spanish culture in general because the border is close by. I consider Spain, like most countries in the world, to be very regional (much like Portugal, only on a larger scale). It would be like comparing Quebec City to Montreal, or Toronto to Ottawa. But I don’t really like to make comparisons, I think Barcelona and Madrid have their own merits, just like Porto and Lisbon have their own merits — although being a foreigner, it’s much easier for me to be neutral.

        There’s plenty to like about Madrid. That said, I stayed at a friend’s place in a very central location, a native of the city who’s a journalist and really knows the city well, including where to eat and drink, and this makes a difference. As well, he lived with me in Toronto for six months in 2012 and he’s been an expat several times over, so he can also see it from a foreigner’s point of view, which I feel also makes a difference when acting as a tour guide for friends. There are so many places in Madrid to eat and drink, it helps to have a friend who could narrow it down for me.

        Maybe it’s my age talking, but I find people with short stays want everything to jump out at them, located in a small radius, and be entirely obvious as an attraction. When I lived in Scotland, everyone went to Edinburgh and avoided Glasgow. After 18 months in Edinburgh, I moved to Glasgow because it was a side of Scotland I really appreciated. It may not be as tourist-friendly as Edinburgh, but I feel it is just as deserving of a visit as Edinburgh — you just have to know where to go.

  15. January 30, 2015 at 10:17 am
    Jan. 30, '15

    Looks like you had a lovely time in Madrid! I really enjoyed both Barcelona and Madrid – which surprised me because I had no desire to visit Spain at all. (Nothing against Spain, but it just didn’t particularly interest me.) So of course I loved it! Maybe it was a situation similar to your sentiment about going to Madrid – sometimes when a place isn’t built up in your head, you approach it differently and don’t have unreasonable expectations.

    For me, I loved Barcelona for its architecture. Gaudi’s work was just amazing to see! Though in comparing both, I personally ate better in Madrid. And all that to say that so far my favorite city in Spain is Sevilla – i just absolutely loved me time there! I would love to see more of the country, especially Grenada.
    Sara @ Simply Sara Travel recently posted..Day Trip from Krakow #2: Auschwitz-Birkenau

    • January 30, 2015 at 12:55 pm
      Jan. 30, '15

      I really have found consistently (the only exception being Sri Lanka) that it’s the places I’m most dubious of to begin with that I wind up loving the most. I was really excited to visit Spain this time as it was one place in Western Europe that was entirely new to me, but I didn’t really have any concrete expectations for it.

      I definitely do want to visit Barcelona and Sevilla too when we’re next back in Spain. I know that Madrid was just the amuse bouche and there is plenty more there for us to discover!

      (Also, ironically, Sevilla is another very divisive city! Some people adore it and say it’s their favorite, whereas others don’t care for it at all!)

  16. January 27, 2016 at 11:38 am
    Jan. 27, '16

    I’ve never actually met an unfriendly Spaniard, however weird it may seem. I’ve traveled to Spain sever times and there are a lot of Spanish people at my university, both exchange students and professors, and they are actually the only people that are always cheerful (as compared to locals, we Latvians are rather grumpy ppl 😀 )

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