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! 

Photo Post: the Manchego town of Cuenca

“Just take a look at this!” Pa tossed a magazine across the room towards me, dog-eared to a photo spread of an eagle soaring over lush pine trees. I’d announced my move to Spain a few weeks before. While my grandmother wept and cursed me for leaving the country to find a foreign husband, my grandfather nudged me and told me I’d have the adventure of my life.

They were both right, but that’s not the point of this story.

The article my grandfather had saved for me was about a nature preserve in Eastern Spain, one of its largest and finest. The Serranía de Cuenca is comprised a small hills and rock reliefs and is home to wild boars, mountain goats and that eagle Pa pointed at (which is likely a vulture).

“Will you go for me one day?” he asked with a wink.

Spain Blue

The Manchega city – famous for its casa colgadas, or hanging houses – has been near the top of my list since I moved to Spain because of that promise to Pa.

He was a man of few words. But when Pa said something, he meant it. And when I made him that promise, I intended to keep it.

So when my grandpa passed away in May 2014, plunging me into that dreaded expat fear – grieving abroad – I felt a renewed need to visit Cuenca. The problem was that it lay more than 500 kilometers away from my home in Seville for nearly a decade. A move to Madrid meant I was a car trip away.

Souvenirs from Cuenca

I literally knew nothing more about Cuenca than it was easy enough to see in a day, its famous site are the 15th Century houses that look ready to topple into the Huécar, and that it’s the victim of a vulgar joke. But in an age where fellow Millennials travel for Instagram-worthy pictures, it could have had a crumbling church and a famous dish, and I would have still visited.

When Inma and I left the city on one of those bright, chill-in-your-bones Sunday mornings, fueled on coffee and gossip. As we had often done in Seville, a sunny patch of sidewalk and a cheap glass of beer sidetracked us as we walked towards the city center, built on a crest above the Huécar and Júcar rivers.

I had Camarón with me, eager to use my eye for something more than baby pictures and to capture a place that seemed to house my grandfather’s spirit. Sleepy, surprising and colorful:

Scenes of Spanish villages

Colorful facades in Cuenca Spain

beautiful house facades yellow Spain

colorful homes Cuenca Spain

Cuenca cathedral

Casas colgadas museum Spain

Great view of Cuenca's Casa Colgadas

Pretty view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Casas Colgadas of Cuenca

Inma and I traversed Cuenca’s hills and narrow streets before lunch time, legs as exhausted as our vocal chords. I can’t say that Cuenca lived up to me expectations, but I wasn’t really looking for it to. A promise is a promise is an easy Sunday trip, and I found my Pa in the strangest places.

In an old man bar, the abuelitos tight lipped, hat pulled down over his brow.

In a quiet corner with a wood carving on the door.

A whistle from a passing car.

Spanish Abuelo

It’s been three and a half years since Pa’s heart decided that enough was enough, and he slipped away from this world. It’s been more than ten since I moved to Spain. But as we drove back west, the sun setting over the hills that mark the way back to Madrid, I feel like I’d done good on my word.

Mirando pa Cuenca, indeed.

CUENCA, SPAIN

Have you ever been to Cuenca? Read my posts about other colorful cities in Europe, like Córdoba and Copenhagen.

Ten quick tips to saving money in Spain without even trying

As soon as I’d bought a house, my friends began making plans to travel to Spain. How could you beat a personal, bilingual tour guide who had crisscrossed the Iberian peninsula, a free place to stay and one of Europe’s best budget destinations?

You can’t: I pride myself on being a great tour guide, especially to Seville.

The Bridge in Ronda

Every so often, I get an influx of emails about how to travel Spain on a shoestring, or how to make euros stretch further, or even hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Long passed are my days of cheap hostels (looking at you, Santiago de Compostela) and overnight bus rides for the sake of saving 15 euros. Even keeping in mind a few quick tips can save you loads.

Saving on food

The mere fact that the Spanish mealtime is slightly later than a US or UK, with a heavy lunch eaten any time between 1.00 and 4.00 pm, means saving money on evening meals. Dinner tends to be lighter fare, in that sense, and it’s easy to grab a tapa than actually sit down to a meal.

If you happen to be visiting the south, they’re particularly generous with the tapas (well, in most places outside of Sevilla – though you can find free munchies if you look). These little dishes are cheaper to begin with, and if you order a beer or drink you’ll get a sizable plate of food with each one. Even when the Novio and I head out for a few beers before dinner, I find that I snack on enough free aperitivos – typically canned seafood, potato chips or banderillas at our favorite bar – to skip dinner and head straight to a yoghurt or piece of fruit.

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Look for a menú del día if you’re out exploring. These three-course, choose-your-own meals were pioneered when Spain experienced a touristic boom in the 1970’s and resorts fed their works as part of their salaries. Nowadays, you can get a full meal and dessert (plus bread and a drink!) for a reasonable price of 7-12€.

And there’s nothing that beats a crunchy bocadillo. This sandwich as long as your forearm will only cost you a few euros and is perhaps the most Spanish lunch ever. They’re also great for long bus or train rides.

Saving on monuments and touristic sites

sagrada familia barcelona 6
Culture is a serious thing in Spain, and large concessions are made to offer it to the masses. Street festivals abound, there’s often live music in bars and plazas, and there is no shortage of cultural offerings by way of casa-palacios, museums or monuments, no matter where you travel.

If you’re under 31 and residing in Europe, you can grab a carnet joven or European Youth Card for under 10€ , allowing you savings on more than just museums – included is transportation, hostels and even courses.

In a country chock-full of museums, there is often free entry to many – including some of the most famous. Take Madrid, for instance: Entry to the Prado is free between 6.00 pm and 8.00 pm Mondays to Saturdays; on Mondays, and Wednesdays to Saturdays, admission into the Reina Sofía is free between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm, and on Sundays from 1.30 pm to 7.00 pm. The Sorolla is free on Saturday mornings.

In Alicante, you can enjoy free entry to the Museum of the City of Alicante, housed in a 17th century baroque house and home to more than 800 pieces to art. And in Seville, each museum has a free day, often Tuesdays. It’s worth stopping by the tourism office to find out or ask about discount tickets.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Parks and seafronts are a stellar way to see open air art and Spanish culture, and definitely merit a stroll. Madrid’s most well-known park is the Buen Retiro. It costs nothing to stroll around the park’s elegant gardens, where you’ll see patrons rowing on the Retiro Park lake, a favored activity in the park, and are also likely to see a musician or two strumming away on a guitar, providing some free entertainment. You’ve also got traces of the 1929 Iberoamerican Expo in Seville’s María Luisa park, crowned by the Plaza de España, and Santiago’s Alameda park is a lush green lung amongst the sandstone buildings.

And don’t skimp on a free walking tour just because you’re that off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler. I often take a free tour to get some cultural and historical context and a lay of the land, spending only a tip for a guide. I’m usually available for the price of a menú del día, by the way.

Saving on transportation

One of the biggest benefits of Spain travel is how easy it can be to get from punto a punto: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure works, is relatively on time and is not expensive. Given that I now travel for work, I’ve been shocked at how much a high-speed, less comfortable train costs between Paris and Brussels, and how a short taxi ride in Switzerland can break my budget (bonjour, sandwiches for a week!).

Buses are without a doubt the cheapest way to travel between cities, but you can also try the popular rideshare, Bla Bla Car. You can search routes and find a driver that suits your timetable, and you pay a fraction of the cost. I’ve hitched rides to Valladolid or Madrid and have also driven in my own car.

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

If you choose to go by Spain’s phenomenal train system, book round-trip where possible, as this can save you 30%, and purchasing at least 60 days before means cheaper fare. You can also book a four-person table on the high-speed trains or find a group looking for extra travelers and save hugely. Search Tarifa Mesa AVE on Facebook or Movelia for secondhand tickets.

Within a city, walking is definitely the best (and cheapest!) way to get around in most cases, but check out 10-ride passes or unlimited travel cards for 1, 3 or 5 days – the local tourism office can help orient you on your options and how to purchase tickets or passes.

When my parents last came to visit, my sister remarked that it was their cheapest Eurotrip ever. Apart from having my house, my kitchen and my car at their disposition, we took saving seriously but also kept these simple trips in mind and planned our excursions to Mérida and Lisbon around them. Saving money on travel in Spain is intrinsic when you follow a few tips – save those euros for a great meal or show instead!

saving-money

Have you had any great travel discounts while in Spain? This list is in no way exhaustive, so please share 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!

 

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.

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