Mad about Madrid #DIYAdventure

As readers may know, our family is an international affair–we have now hosted eight exchange students in our home, and they have become part of our family.  Three of the eight are from Spain, and in 2018 we reunited with everyone in Madrid for a family adventure.  During our stay in Spain that summer (my 10th, but family’s first) we did a Vuelta de España of our own, starting in Barcelona, going down the coast to Valencia, on to Jaén, up through Segovia to País Vasco, and then back to Madrid & Toledo–all DIY planning and mostly driving/train.  Recently I’ve been asked for some travel recommendations for people planning their own trips, so though Barcelona remains my most favorite, here are some of my highlights for travelers basing their adventures from Madrid.

  • While we wanted to have an adventure of a lifetime, budget mattered too–especially for a group of 2 adults + 6 high school/college students.  We stayed in an AirBnb near Atocha that was near bus/train stations, grocery stores, and had a kitchen.  We grocery shopped and went to the local bakeries for breakfast, ate lunch out and about, and then cooked dinner at home late at night.
  • Interested in art and history?  The museums are top notch. My favorites are the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bournemisza.  There’s a pass that you can buy that allows admission to all, and other passes that allow you to access other museums around the city as well.  While the temptation may be to take advantage of the free days, the lines are long and the rooms are crowded on those days.  The pass was well worth it to bypass the lines and crowds.  My husband and son really enjoyed the Archeological Museum, which can be included on one of the museum passes.  We also found that we didn’t need a pass for each person.  Since not everyone wanted to do ALL the museums, we bought a few and shared them.
  • Take a walking tour of the city with a local guide from SpainFred.  They were fantastic!  While it was hard to choose just one, we did the Medieval Madrid tour in English to accommodate the interests of the people in our group.
  • I finally made it to the Royal Palace, and they offer a teacher’s discount for admission.  They don’t, however, allow hardly any photography inside 😦
  • Sports fans–be sure to take the tours at Bernabéu & Wanda Metropolitano–depending on your allegiances.  I wasn’t able to go, but several of the kids went and raved about it.
  • The Casa de Ratoncito Pérez is adorable!  It’s easy to miss–it’s on Arenal street in a nondescript multi office building.  If you have little kids who speak Spanish, you don’t want to miss this stop.
  • Take the Teleférico for an exquisite view of the Royal Palace and watch the sunset at Templo de Debod.  If you are a fan of Mi Vida Loca, you will nerd out about this leg of the journey.
    • Here’s a mistake we made:  we took the Metro out to Casa de Campo and thought we’d take a stroll to the teleférico station.  Not a good idea in July.  It was hot, not well marked, a looooooong walk, and we had to climb the hill to the station.  A BIG hill.  This is the one time on the trip where we nearly had a mutiny.
    • Here’s how to make it better:  take the round trip from the station near Templo de Debod.  Bring snacks for the sightseeing/people watching at Debod upon your return.  Find a spot among the locals and wait for the sun to set.  It’s gorgeous! Then go get dinner 🙂
  • A picnic &/or bike ride through Parque Retiro is pretty cool.  Great spot for some family photos too!
  • Speaking of eating (keeping in mind we ate at “home” most days):
    • 100 Montaditos is Spain’s answer to fast-ish food.  Montaditos are like mini sub sandwiches, but with Spanish flavors.  Everyone can find something that makes them happy here–a plus when traveling with kids.  Plus every Sunday and Wednesday are 1€ days–each montadito or tinto de verano is only 1€.  Again, when traveling with hungry kids, this was a budget-friendly, happy family find.  (They also have gluten free options)
    • Five Guys was a hoot too!  Our Euro kids fell in love with it while in the US, and were thrilled to have it again while in Madrid.  The line out the door was insane!  Plus, no leg of our trip was immune from being turned into an activity for class, and this didn’t disappoint.  🙂
  • Day trips
    • Toledo.  Hands down my second favorite city in Spain.  It’s only about a 40 minute train trip from Atocha, but there’s so much to see and do that I recommend renting another apartment in Toledo and staying there for a few nights.  It can get crushingly busy with day trip tourists, especially during the summer, but in the evening it can be sublime when they are all gone.  Somehow it seems that the whole city is uphill. How this is possible, I just don’t know, but be prepared to hike.  Accommodations were significantly less in Toledo than in Madrid as well.  Things to see & do:
      • the El Greco Museum, which is right across the street from…
      • El Museo Sefardí
      • La Sinagoga de Santa María
      • the cathedral that puts the “holy” in “Holy Toledo”.  The kids strongly recommended the trip up the bell tower. I skipped it in favor of soaking in every ounce of the Spanish audio tour commentary.
      • take the little tourist train (our Spanish girls referred to it as the “tren chu chu”) from Plaza Zacodover to get an easy ride up to the vistas above the old city.  Another great place for family photos
      • Santo Tomé church to see El Greco’s masterpiece of El entierro del Conde Orgaz
    • Valle de los Caídos & El Escorial–it’s been several years since I’ve been to these locations, but history fans may love them.  For some contemporary context to Valle de los Caídos, consider this film.
    • Segovia & Ávila are pretty easy day trips from Madrid and are cool to wander. However, if I had to choose between a longer stay in Toledo v. a quick trip out to these two cities, I’d go with Toledo.  Segovia has the aqueduct, Ávila has the walled city + Santa Teresa, but Toledo still wins.
    • Salamanca is pretty cool too–that’s another post though 🙂
  • The daily daily–logistical stuff that made extended stay more pleasant:
    • Grocery shopping
      • Neighborhood Mercadonas and Carrefours are my most favorites, but it was easier to find familiar ingredients in El Corte Inglés.  Our Euro kids wanted me to make some of their favorite US meals while we were there, and Corte Inglés had the widest options–but also the highest prices.
    • Carrefour and Target are twins that have never met.  Anything that would be on the Target list here at home was on the Carrefour list in Spain.
    • 10 ride metro tickets are less expensive than 10 individual tickets and can be shared. Scan the pass, go through the gate, hand it back to the family member behind you, repeat.  Have it handy to scan again when you exit.
    • Re-read is a sweet used bookstore chain!  Carrefour and La Casa del Libro also have good selections of books and classroom treasures.
    • Bring back lots of postcards to send to students with encouraging notes over the course of the year!


I hope this helps!  Airfare is very low from some cities right now, so we are considering going again in a few months.  I’ll update when/if we do.  What are your favorite hidden gems in the city?

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