Museums in Madrid: what to see when you’ve done the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen

Madrid is a city of museums – there are nearly 50 of them, ranging from historical to whimsical. Once you’ve hit the big three – the unreal classic art collection at the Prado, the Reina Sofia, the modernist dream and home to Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, and the extensive private collection at the Borneo-Thyssen – there are loads of lesser-known museums that are well worth the time.  

If you’re looking for things to do on a rainy day in Madrid, these museums are open to the general public on most days and offer free afternoons or days throughout the year. Madrid’s cultural, historical and empirical legacy is one display at museums great and small, but here are the five best small museums in the Spanish capital: 

Casa / Estudio Joaquín Sorolla 

A museum so well hidden in the stately buildings of the Almagro district that you’d never know it was there. Joaquín Sorolla, a celebrated Valencian impressionist, worked and lived in this mansion and its tranquil gardens, designed by the artist himself. At the request of his widow, the home was turned over to the state in 1925 and houses the largest collection of his works. 

Joaquin Sorolla museum and studio Madrid

Known for his dreamy, light-filled images of the Spanish coasts, his salmon-colored studio also showcases dozens of his paintings and sketches – as well as his paint brushes, sculptures and period furniture. If you can’t make it to the Louvre or the Art Institute of Chicago, the Sorolla is a perfect alternative. 

Plan to spend about 90 minutes wandering the gardens and contemplating the artist’s work, the living quarters and the patio andaluz. There are seven separate galleries and nearly 1300 pieces on display. 

Logisitcal information about Museo Sorolla Madrid

Museo de Arqueología Nacional  (MAN)

After a massive renovation, the National Archaeology Museum re-opened in 2014. Situated right off the Plaza de Colón in Barrio Salamanca, the museum chronicles human origins and the study of archeology, anthropology and sociology with a special focus on Spain. Ever since my first semester of college I’ve been fascinated by early hominids, housed on the first floor. As you snake up through the museum, you pass through millennia of human history and, indeed, Spain’s most important historical periods. 

Visiting the MAN Museo Nacional de Arquelogia Madrid

The building itself is a treat: in 1867, Queen Isabel II (yes, she of Madrid’s Canal) subscribed to the European trend of creating a museum heralding Spain’s legacy to humankind. Drawing from innumerable private collections, more than 13,000 items are on display today. 

In 2008, the museum was shuttered for a six-year overhaul. Seen Night at the Museum? Those dusty display cases disappeared from the museum and exhibits became interactive, modernized and more fluid. The outer courtyards became enclosed to be used for sculpture and even a reconstructed tomb. 

Of special note is the Dama de Elche, a sculpture believed to have had a funerary purpose and depicting a wealthy woman form the 4th Century BC. Found near the town of Elche, she has become a symbol of Spain (even Iberia’s Chicago-Madrid aircraft is named for her!).

Guarrazar Treasure MAN

Other highlights are the Guarrazar Treasure and a crown worn by Visigoth king Recesvinto and the Bote de Zamora, a marble case expertly crafted by artisans in Medina al Zahara. 

This museum needs 3-4 hours, depending on how much you want to read and watch. I was crunched for time and had to hurry through the Egyptian and Islamic collections. As everything was well-explained, I don’t feel an audio guide would be necessary. 

There’s a free outdoor recreation of the 35,000-year-old charcoal paintings in the Atlamira caves with an inverted mirror. Located in Cantabria near Santillana del Mar, this UNESCO-lauded archaeological site is home to some of Europe’s oldest rock paintings, which depict animals like bison and horses. 

Logistical information for the Archaeology Museum of Spain Madrid

Real Fábrica de Tápices 

I had a chance meeting with a woman who worked in patrimonial conservation at the Royal Palace of Madrid. Like me, she had neglected to check in for a flight to Brussels and we were nearly bumped off the flight. As I helped her navigate the Brussels Airport and how to claim lost luggage, she told me about one of her favorite spots in Madrid: the Real Fábrica de Tápices. 

One of only two functioning tapestry factories in the world and in operation since the beginning of the 18th Century, the artisans – who train for 14 years! – generally make rugs and a few tapestries for royal families around the world nowadays. Moved in the late 19th Century to a building on the then-outskirts of Atocha, tapestries, primitive instruments still used today and gigantic looms fill a brick building. 

 

What my mom and I loved best was that you actually see the artisans at work. An exposed attic is filled with threads and wool of every color stands over a room dedicated to restoration and tapestries. The (mostly) women and apprentices work simultaneously on an enormous loom, a roadmap of markings and colors to which they tie tiny knots for 8 hours a day. Their hands and knuckles reveal tick marks and rope burn from the threads. Another long nave sees about a dozen younger workers who learn the trade on commissioned rugs. 

If you’re looking for a museum dedicated solely to tapestries, head out of the city to La Granja de San Ildefonso and pay for the museum entrance. The majority of the Spanish crown’s tapestries are located here. 

Information about the Tapestry Museum Madrid

Museo del Traje 

While names like Balenciaga or Blahnik are household names, Spanish fashion extends though centuries. Located off of the A-6 highway, the Museo del Traje chronicles popular fashion from the medieval ages through today’s top Spanish designers, leading fashion icons – and even a new exhibit on fast fashion and Inditex (don’t miss it if you’re a slave to Zara!). Stemming from an exhibition nearly a century ago that exhibited regional dress, the museum moved from an exhibit in the Folk Art Museum to its own site bajo los focos. 

Museo del Traje exhibit Madrid

With low lights and attention to detail, the permanent exhibit tells a story through fabric and textiles in a avant-garde building and a modern touch. The most extensive exhibit is of fashion from the 20th Century, with a special nod to Fortuny. Ever the nostalgic, I loved seeing iconic dresses from big names in entertainment like the La, La, La and the post-Guerra Civil fashions. 

Your visit should last 90 minutes or so, with a visit to the interesting offers that the temporary exhibits – with many loans from large fashion houses – bring. 

Information about the National Costume Museum Madrid

Andén 0 

The Metro de Madrid, considered one of the best in the world, celebrates a century of operation in 2019. 

If you’re ever traveled on Line 1, the system’s metro oldest line that slices right through Sol and connects the Atocha and Chamartín rail stations, you’ll notice there’s a slow down between the Bilbao and Iglesia stops. Channeling the creepy tunnel from Charlie and Chocolate Factory, this “ghost station” has been turned into a museum called Anden 0, or Platform 0. 

Interior of Ghost Station Chamberí

When work was done to make the metro cars wider, the city decided it couldn’t widen the station at Chamberí because it was on a curve. So, they shuttered the entrances in 1966 and removed Chamberí from the metro map. The station, still operated under the Metro de Madrid as a centro de interpretación, offers a glimpse into Madrid’s radical growth in the 20th Century and was opened a decade ago. 

There’s a short film (in Spanish with English subtitles) about the construction and boom of urban transportation in Madrid. What I loved is that it addresses how day-to-day operations underground went, which you can also view as you pass through old ticket lines and past old Línea 1 maps. While it’s not a long visit (45 minutes is sufficient), it’s cool to see preserved advertisements on the tiled walls and watch subway cars thunder past every few minutes. 

Information for visiting Anden 0 Museum

When do museums close in Madrid and Spain? 

Many – though not all – museums in Spain close on Mondays. Be sure to check a museum’s website or a local tourism office for precise opening days and times. 

Are there free museums in Madrid? 

Yes! Apart from free days (be prepared for lines at the popular museums) and the Metro de Madrid exhibition spaces, there are several museums to visit in Madid without paying: 

If you’re into history, the Museo de la Historia de Madrid in centrally located Malasaña, or the Museo de San Isidro are must-sees. Check out the Casa de la Moneda to see how money and currency has influenced trade and commerce in the New World and Europe. 

facade of university of alcala de henares

Literature lovers can visit the national library, the La Biblioteca Nacional, free of charge, in addition to the Casa Museo Lope de Vega (previous reservation required) 

Both the Museo del Ejército del Aire and the Museo de la Armada are free of charge, though a 3 voluntary donation is suggested. 

Although the Museo del Ferrocarril, a nod to the railway system, isn’t free, you can visit the trains and the old Delicias station free during the Mercado de Motores. 

Other interesting offers are the Museo ABC, which houses collections of comics, drawings and news items; the Museo Africano, a space dedicated to the African continent in Arturo Soria; the fossils and minerals in a gorgeous neoclassical building at the Museo Ginominero and the Museo Tiflológico for the vision impaired. 

Sorolla painting on display in Madrid

 

Don’t forget that Centro Cultural Conde Duque near Plaza de España, the Canal Isabel II Centro de Arte in Chamartín, the Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park, Fundación Telefónica on Gran Vía and the Caixa Forum on Paseo del Prado often open their doors to free exhibits, mainly of art and photography 

You can also overdose on museums on free days throughout the year. These are typically on April 18, International Day for Monuments and Sites; International Museum Day in mid-May; October 12 for the National Holiday and December 6, Spanish Constitution Day. 

Is there a city saver pass for Madrid museums? 

Yes. If you plan to go museum hopping in Madrid, you could consider the state museums pass, which allows for unlimited visits to state-run museums in Madrid during consecutive days (including 10 options in the capital). Choose four, five or eight museums and purchase your pass, called the Abono de Museos Estatales, at participating museums. 

You can also opt for an annual pass for 36,06€, giving you access to museums in Toledo, Valladolid, Cartagena, Valencia, Mérida and Santillana del Mar as well. Remember that general admission to Madrid museums is 3€.

the best small museums in madrid

Where can I find a list of museums in Madrid? 

The Oficina de Tourismo, located in Plaza Mayor, has a list of museums with updated hours, free days and entrance costs. You can also consult the Museos de Madrid web. 

Do you have any favorite museums in Madrid? I’m always up for suggestions – please comment below! 

A Tale of Two Sunday Markets: Madrid’s Rastro and Mercado de los Motores

Madrileños take Sunday Funday to a whole new level.

madrid-sunset-from-the-roof

It seems like no one stays home on a Sunday afternoon, particularly when the weather behaves; one of the most beloved eventos domingueros is market browsing.

I’ve long been a fan of how Madrid’s most castizo markets provide the freshest, cheapest produce, and the modern food halls are an easy way to introduce guests – who often eat with their eyes first – to madrileño cuisine.

On any given Sunday the city pulses: morning flea markets are the start to a day plan that will end in a long lunch, countless cañas and some indie rock band in some rincón of the center of town.

madrid-markets

Madrid, me matas. But mostly because I’m not cool enough for you.

In trying to get to know the city before the baby comes, I’ve drug myself out of bed the last few Sundays for some browsing, starting with the granddaddy of them all, El Rastro. Starting in Plaza del Cascorro and permeating the side streets in La Latina, the flea market operates every Sunday and local holidays from about 9am to 3pm. Believed to have begun 500 years ago when Calle Ribera de Curtidores was home to the city’s tanneries, the mercadillo bustles with everything from antiques to birds, clothing to flamenco dresses. It’s a bigger, more curious version of Seville’s El Jueves market.

view-of-the-rastro-market-madrid

I took my best friend recently, meeting up with a friend who lived in Plaza del Cascorro before the Sunday morning ruckus forced him to move. We weaved in between stalls, looking for souvenirs for her to bring back to her family in Chicago – an apron for her mom, a t-shirt for her dad.

I was far more interested in the treasures to be found on the side streets, from antique glass bottles to old books to vintage Spanish products, like Cola Cao tins or siphones with the plastic crumbling off. We stopped into the pet stores on Calle de San Cayetano and the antique shops tucked into old corrales de vecinos before snaking through the hilly alleyways of La Latina, stopping in the shade of the stalls to browse literally everything and anything. El Rastro has a life of its own come Sunday mornings.

rastro-market-madrid-finds

madrids-rastro-market

vintage-posters-in-the-rastro

A trip to the Rastro means that every bar is spilling with people. We bounded from bar to bar, eventually taking turns eating a slice of tortilla and balancing our purchases in one hand with a drink in the other. Try Bar Santurce on Calle Amazonas for a cheap bite – they’re popular for their fried sardines and Padrón peppers – or the immensely popular Txirimuri for pintxos at the bar.

mercado-de-motores-exhibitors

The following Sunday, I again pulled myself out of bed for the modern Mercado de Motores, housed in the railway museum a stone’s throw from El Rastro. Having grown through word of mouth, Motores is mucho más vintage – jazz bands plays catchy versions of Rihanna songs, a pop-up bakery pedals out treats to market-goers and second hand clothes vendors sidle up to artisans making jewelry from precious gems or bookshelves from salvaged wood.

vintage-clothes-market-mercado-de-los-motores-madrid

mercado-de-motores-vintage-finds

ferrocarril-museum-in-madrid

I arrived at 11:25am and was shocked to find the place packed with more than just hipster looking to pick up a silk bowtie or new pair of kicks. There were German tourists pushing past groups of teenagers snapping photos next to trains and families sharing a warm cookie.

By far the most interesting part of the market is the building itself, a romantic, wrought-iron and glass nod to train travel in the late 19th Century, which houses eight vintage trains and a number of rotating exhibits. There’s even a coquettish steam train outfitted with a small cafeteria.

mercado-de-motores-cafe-on-a-train

I couldn’t leave empty-handed – whether it was some cool piece for my house or at least a wedge of artisan cheese or a jug of artisan vermouth for the Novio – so I picked up a Blues Brothers movie poster for our room makeover and salvaged letters from an advertisement in Cubby blue that spell ‘Chicago’ from the bonafide flea market outside of the museum installations. Chill out music and the scent of burgers and papas arrugás from a circle of food trucks wafted from the back of the museum.

Thirty minutes later, I met the Novio for a Sunday afternoon aperitivo where he reminded me how careless I can be with money, even at a seemingly free event. But Sundays are for cañas and second hand stuff and meals outdoors! Maybe next weekend we’ll stay in?

El Rastro is held each Sunday and on public holidays from 9am until 3pm,  weather permitting. The closest Metro stops are Embajadores, Lavapiés, La Latina and Puerta de Toledo. Free. Mercado de Motores is held the second weekend of each month from April to October, from 11am until 10pm at the Museo Ferrocarril, Paseo de las Delicias, 61. Closest Metro stop is Delicias. Free, though there’s often a line to get in.

Interested in other Sunday markets in Madrid? The Matadero Cultural Space sometimes runs their Mercado de Diseño, featuring young designers, food trucks and a 2€ entrance fee with drink.

I’m on the lookout for cool things to do before Baby Micro arrives! Any cool ideas? Share, por favor!

 

Moving to Madrid: My first month in La Capi

As soon as I’d said the word, I clasped my hand over my mouth.

“Gracias.” 

Not an aspirated graciaaaaaaahhhhh, the final syllable lingering like an afterthought. A full pronounced grah-cee-us. With an S at the end.

The man handed my to-go cup of coffee and wished me a nice day, and I walked away, wide-eyed and concerned about how quickly I’d dropped my andalú. What was next, calling people maja or – worse – asking for a caña?

metro of Madrid

It’s already been a month since my abrupt adiós to Sevilla and moved to Madrid. I dropped into life in La Capital like I’d walked its streets forever, like I knew where all of the old man bars were to be found, like I could close my eyes when stepping off the Metro and still make a transfer correctly.

Our aterrizaje in Madrid can only be described as a soft one, one in which there was just a quick bounce, and we had landed.

It had been so long since I’d left a place that I call home and jumped into the unknown – I’ve lived in Sevilla longer simultaneously than any other place (and I moved four times before age 12, so I’m used to being the new kid in class). But, Madrid wasn’t really the unknown. The Novio has tons of family in Madrid, and a week after we arrived, all 10 of the primos were crowded around a table, sharing a meal of pasta and endless embutidos. And I already knew the transportation system, had battled extranjería and didn’t trip over every other word in Spanish.

Gran Via Madrid

My biggest battles, so far, have been adjusting to some language differences (who calls a loaf of bread a pistola?! The madrileños do!) and training my body to get up early and work in the mornings. Between getting settled and starting a new job, I’ve become a creature of the barrio, barely leaving my little bubble in Chamberí.

Hogar Dulce Hogar: Looking for a flat in Madrid

Our first order of business was finding a place to live. Madrid, in case you didn’t know, is large. Like, huge. And every district has smaller pockets of neighborhood, or locals will refer to them as by their nearest metro line. “Qué tal en Metro Cuzco?” I don’t know, how is it?

pamplona houses

So, we began narrowing down the neighborhoods and set a firm price since we’ve decided to not rent our place in Seville just yet. Chamberí was the top pick for areas, and our budget would stretch just far enough for two bedrooms and around 50 square meter of living quarters. After living for six years in a house with the Novio, I was used to space and modern appliances. Plus, nearly every place we saw on Idealista was for students only (with mommy and daddy’s aval bancario) or meant going through an agency and paying extra fees and tax. But I was optimistic, even in the dead of summer.

I became an Idealista junkie, browsing on my phone every time I picked up free wi-fi or waited to cross the street at a stoplight. I called up agents and people offering up places meeting our criteria from 9am until well after siesta time, using the time between tours to take note of the nearest market or churrería.

Every hole-in-the-wall student apartment we saw had something off about it. Too small, too dark, wall-to-wall with Cuéntame-Cómo-Pasó kitchen tiles and heavy wooden furniture. It had been nine years since I’d looked for a place to live in Spain, and nothing seemed “just right.” And this, from someone who wrote an ebook about moving to Spain.

The fifth place we saw is owned by a man named Jesús, sevillano by birth but very much madrileño from many years in the capital city. The place didn’t tick off all of the boxes, but it would work nicely (and no Cuéntame-era tiles to scrub!), particularly for walking to work and saving more than 50€ in a monthly transportation pass.

Best Old Man Bars in Madrid

The area of Chamberí we live in – Rios Rosas – is within 30 minutes walking of Tribunal, right up the street from Nuevos Ministerios and seven stops from Sol while being well-connected on three metro lines. Better yet? It’s quiet yet lively, and the proximity to Old Man Bars is killer.

The Novio has even toyed around the idea of writing a blog about the quality of the Old Man Bars around here.

Baby Steps and an Introduction to the Comunidad de Madrid’s Health System

Jesús handed us the keys and we killed a few cockroaches as we moved in. We settled in, walking around the neighborhood and stopping to eat our way through free munchies at all of the Old Man Bars we discovered. The Novio got us empadronados the following day, and then it was up to me to get us registered at our nearest ambulatorio.

I have seen the error of my ways, people: I can never, ever complain about the Sistema Andaluz de Salud. It was extremely easy to change my records from Andalucía to the Comunidad de Madrid and ask for a new health card, which arrived to my mailbox in three weeks. Everyone was pleasant and signed me up for a doctor and nurse they assured me were great resources for foreigners, and they weren’t wrong. Plus, you don’t have to go through your GP to get an appointment with specialists.

hospital care in Spain

I left smugly, thinking that my move to Madrid would be even easier and called to make an appointment with the lady doctor.

No, no le podemos atender en este centro.” I winced over the phone and asked why not. The woman on the other end curtly told me that they would call me whenever an appointment was available. I explained my situation and the urgency, but she wouldn’t budge. It seemed I was caught in some bureaucratic no-man’s-land, privy to a funcionario who may have been sensitive to my case, or maybe not.

When I did get an appointment, the doctor sent me for a routine blood test at a hospital near my new job. I agreed, thinking I could head in a little early so as not to miss my third day on the job. I waited for over TWO hours and, having not eaten, dug into my granola bar before even having the nurse applied pressure on the stab mark. The sugar put a spring in my step as I showed up for work an hour late, and I secretly missed all of the old ladies in my clinic back in Seville who would say, “Oh, I’m not sick, I’m just wasting time by waiting in line to see the doctor. Haven’t got anywhere to be.”

And when I asked my centro de salud for a follow-up for the results? I was told there are no specialists during the entire month of August, so I’ve been sent to the other side of the city three weeks later.

En fin, I’m learning as I go and being that person on Facebook groups.

A new job in a new sector

The biggest reason we moved to Madrid in the first place was for professional reasons. As much as I loved teaching English in Spain, I couldn’t see myself doing it forever because of the lack of mobility. I was director of studies, and I couldn’t aspire to much more.

As a child who ran before she walked, slowing down to a trot is never something I’ve been good at.

cat gaa sunshine and siestas

I’m nearly a month into a new position as an admissions counselor at an American university with a free-standing campus in Madrid. Myself a product of the system and an experienced teacher in Spain, I can easily point out the benefits of a liberal arts education, a student life office and a multicultural campus – just in my office, it’s normal to hear French and Arabic in addition to English and Spanish. And it’s making me nostalgic for my own co-ed years at the University of Iowa.

More than anything, I’m happy to feel the mental and pshyical exhaustion at the end of the day. The learning curve at my job has been the steepest, between acronyms and academic policies and learning the names of everyone on campus. But I’m feeling fulfilled and that the job is a great blend of skills for me – I’ve got one foot in the education field while the other in the PR and communications camp.

La Vida Madrileña

Pero cómo es que tienes planes? my cousin Irene asked when I turned down her invitation to go to the pool one afternoon when the A/C and reruns of Big Bang Theory were no longer appealing. Part of landing in Madrid was being able to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in some time, have them show me their city instead of the other way around, and meet so many people who I’ve only ever been connected to through social media.

When I’m asked how Madrid is, I can only reply that, it’s muy bien with a raised eyebrow.

More than anything, it’s been the small adjustments. I was reminded by two neighbors that it’s a fineable offense to take out your garbage in the morning, and that the bins for plastic only come on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. That drinks and breakfast are more expensive, despite my salary staying the same as it was in Seville. That you can get coffee to go or head to the market at 8pm for groceries. I’ve eaten Belgian, Korean and killer Mexican food – and my excuse has always been that I don’t have an over.

I often feel like I’m in Chicago, just conducting my business in Spanish.

Madrid vs. Sevilla: the Ultimate Smackdown

Do I miss Seville? Te-la. Like, me duele en el alma. Walking over the Triana bridge to meet friends last weekend, the Novio and I took stock on the past month. Are we happy in Madrid? I’d say so. We’re together, like our neighborhood and are enjoying our jobs. Madrid has everything that Seville didn’t have for us.

But it’s not Seville, nor could it ever aspire to be Seville.

I have been wondering if people who live in Madrid could ever make as easy of a transition from the capital to Seville. It’s a city where you can’t sit down to most restaurants unless you’re in the hora franja, or 1-5 or 8-midnight. Where there’s only one pharmacy open on Sunday per neighborhood and not a single supermarket. It’s smaller, public transportation is almost mystifying and the whole pace of life is… different. And don’t expect free tapas with your caña.

seville guadalquivir river

But Seville is easy to fall in love with on first glance and romantic in a way that the Metro de Madrid and the long avenues could never be. We’re not so stuck in our neighborhoods and often crisscross the city for tapas or concert venues. We stop for a beer with friends because time moves at a different speed, and that beer is far cheaper, anyway.

On my last trip, I was exhausted by the time my train rolled into Santa Justa just past 11pm. The contrast of sweltering air after two hours on a refrigerated train car was strangely welcoming, and I perked up as I told the taxi driver to take me to a bar where friends were waiting. Esto, sí. This is home to me.

Ana asked me how things were going, grazing my knee every chance she got, just in case I wasn’t really there. When I told her that things were flowing and jiving, she just replied, “Tía, you could make a home anywhere.” It’s the truth.

We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but three years is the minimum. We could stay a lot longer – or maybe try going abroad for a few years. Pase lo que pase, I wanted to live in a big city once in my life, and Madrid feels manageable and willing to let me get to know it.

And we’ll always have Sevilla, thankfully.

Moving to Madrid

Have you ever moved to a new, bigger city? What were your steps to coping and coming out alive? I’d love to hear your take in the comments!

What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

Five Things to Do in Madrid with Kids

It’s no secret that Madrid is one of my favorite cities to visit – I love the energy, the options and the closest a Spanish city can come to my native Chicago. But it can get overwhelming as a capital city (and one of the largest in Europe!), and even more so for children.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

The good news is that the Spanish child is rey in La Capi, and there are plenty of ways to keep them busy. What’s more, the activities, accommodations and even transportation deals, like flights from Expedia, can be cheap with minors, such as with Discountrue coupon deals. Once you’ve taken care of your finances, take a look at a few things that are niño-friendly in Madrid – or just perfect for your kid-at-heart self!

Zoo Aquarium (M: Casa del Campo, Lines 5 and 10)

This is not your ordinary zoo or aquarium, and your children will love to see animals roaming about without any chains or wiring. Those who are planning to visit the amusement park located in Casa de Campo – a wonderful green lung not too far from the Royal Palace – will be happy to learn that the Zoo Aquarium is located within the city limits and on public transportation lines. The animals are kept separate from the public by moats filled with water (and some that are not).

There are more than 500 different species of animals who call the Zoo home, including many animals native to the Iberian peninsula. The Zoo is making efforts at conservation to build populations of animals like the Iberian Lynx and Iberian Hawk.

Parque Warner (Cercanías C-3 to Pinto and bus 413 to the park)

What’s a summer vacation without an amusement park? Parque Warner is a wonderful destination for the child who loves cartoons, as all of their favorite Looney Tunes characters will be roaming around and signing autographs. If your kid is more of daredevil type, they will have six different roller coasters to choose from. Water rides are available too, and of course, there are a multitude of gift shops. Theaters and workshops provide visitors with a number of different shows to choose from as well.

The park is located 25 kilometers south of Madrid and package deals are the best way to save money.

Natural Science Museum (M: Gregorio Marañón, Lines 7 and 10)

Natural History Museum

A great destination for children and adults alike, given Spain’s long history. Kids are bound to enjoy all of the dinosaur fossils, while parents tend to take in the extinct animal specimens – there are 6,000! There are three separate zones to choose from and a plethora of activities that are geared specifically toward children. Parents can bring their little ones to educational workshops and have some free time to enjoy the remainder of the museum, a great rainy day activity.

Note that the museum is closed on Mondays. Children under 16 also have reduced ticket prices.

El Retiro and Madrid’s expansive parks (M: Retiro, Line 2)

Looking to have fun outdoors? In this case El Retiro, Madrid’s most famous park, is the perfect. The possibilities for children are endless, as they can choose from a variety of fun activities. They can bring their bicycles and roller blades that have started to collect dust in some forgotten corner of the house or take a relaxing boat ride on El Retiro’s pond, conveniently located in the center of the gardens.

The city has many other green areas near the city center, like Parque del Oeste and the free Egyptian temple, Templo del Debob.

Cuarta Pared, Teatro Sanpol and Other Children’s Theaters

Madrid’s multitude of children’s theaters provide a wonderful entertainment for the child who enjoys plays and musicals – and the city is famous for theatre. The shows are typically put on during weekend mornings and tickets cost far less than most adult activities. Teatro del Arte and La Escalera de Jacob also stage their own shows for children and you’ll have a wide range of magic shows, funny stories and puppet based performances to select from!

You can find shows and workshops on Teatro a Teatro‘s interactive guide.

Bonus: three ways to save euros if you have kids and are traveling in Spain

metro of Madrid

If Madrid is only one stop on your travel itinerary, check out Renfe’s table option. You can get a discount on a bundle of four tickets by choosing a tarifa mesa.

Museums have free or reduced prices days, as do some attractions. Stop by the Tourism Office in Plaza Mayor for free maps, discount cards and hints at saving money.

Hotels in Madrid typically offer discounted rates for families with children of a certain age (typically 4-16), and AirBnB properties will give you the freedom to cook your own meals and relax. You can also try its European-specific equivalent, Wimdu.

Five Things to do in

What do you do with kids in Madrid? I’ve also got a post on what to do with kids in Seville.

Málaga: Spain’s Sleeping Giant of Tourism

There’s a lot of buzz around Málaga these days. With a newly christened port, a thriving arts scene and enough Spanish charm to bring native son Antonio Banderas back yearly, my neighbor city to the southeast is being touted as one of Spain’s up-and-coming tourist destinations.

Why Visit Malaga

As one of the most interesting destinations in southern Spain and a true Mediterranean getaway, Málaga deserves mention among Spain’s best spots for international travelers. It’s not a bursting metropolis like Madrid or a renowned party spot like Barcelona—but it’s full of the kind of visual delights and general comforts that make the south of Spain a desirable location in the first place.

Perhaps the best thing about Málaga is that it’s situated closer to the sea than most might guess given that it’s a fairly large city. There are actually Mediterranean beaches within the city limits, though most tourists seeking beautiful coastline will likely opt to venture 15 or 20 miles beyond Málaga to some of the truly amazing beaches of Costa del Sol. Visit Costa Del Sol has a comprehensive guide to the beaches of the entire southern Spanish coastline, including options like La Malagueta, La Caleta, and San Andreas—all within very reasonable driving distance of the capital of the Costa.

It’s also worth noting that Málaga is particularly accessible as Mediterranean cities go. The drive from Madrid only takes about five hours (and from Seville, just over two!), and coastal highways make it easy to reach Málaga from just about any Spanish city near the water—or from Portugal, for that matter.

archidona malaga pueblo

The city is also large enough to merit an international airport and sometimes attracts very favorable travel deals from outside of Spain. Getting around is also easy once you’re in the city—a rental car gives you access to all of the beautiful surrounding areas and beaches with ease – as well as mountain towns and activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

But so far we’ve only covered Málaga’s surrounding beaches and how easy it can be to get there. The actually city itself is also filled with interesting perks for tourists. It’s one of the most fascinating visual and architectural areas in the whole country, thanks to its links to Moorish, medieval, and Roman culture. The Alcazaba palatial fortress is absolutely a must-visit attraction, and the Roman theater at city-center is also pretty fascinating. Really, Malaga is an interesting city to just look at, which might be one reason that there are multiple hiking trails in the hills and areas surrounding the city.

a cooking day food collage
And finally, there’s the food! I’ve written about a day of culinary preparation in Malaga, and while that was a great experience, it only touches on the vibrant culinary culture that has sprung up in the city, revolving around all the traditional elements of Spanish cuisine: tapas, fresh fish, olives, citrus fruits and of course, fine Spanish wine!

Sardine month is approaching and I can’t get enough sweet vino de pasas, so between defying death on the Caminito del Rey and the beckon of the beach, I may be finding myself close to home, savoring the city’s renewed experiences for a traveler.

Have you ever been to Málaga? What do you like or recommend visiting in the capital of the Costa del Sol?

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