Everyone we asked before our trip was pretty unanimous in their assessment of Madrid: it’s nice, but you don’t need to spend too much time there. It’s nice, but Barcelona is better. It’s nice, but don’t expect to be wowed.
They could not have been more wrong.
Maybe it was all the forewarning about how much we weren’t going to like Madrid that made us love it so much. Lower anyone’s expectations enough and you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised. But I think it was much more than that. Madrid is vibrant, bustling, delightful, beautiful, and still retains the distinctly quaint character of individual neighborhoods (a reason I love my own city so much).
Madrid wowed us right off the bat, the moment we stepped out of the taxi from the airport (which took the most circuitous route imaginable to our hotel on Gran Via, thanks to the Madrid Marathon that morning). The sun was shining, the air was crisp, everyone was friendly, and Madrid was, well, gorgeous. It had all the charms of a big city, but still felt neighborhoody and manageable. On our first day, just orienting ourselves with the city, we ended up with cricks in our necks from looking straight up at all the stunning architecture.
We went to El Rastro, the largest weekly flea market on the continent, the first morning we were there. It was a sprawling, winding, jam-packed market filled to the brim with antiques and cheap clothes and knick-knacks. The Rick Steves guidebook we bought last year said that pickpockets were rampant, and the police didn’t even bother trying to stop it, so you were better off not even bringing a wallet. Our taxi driver, in his best broken English, told us the same thing: don’t bring a bag, don’t bring a wallet, be extra vigilant. We spent over two hours wandering and weaving our way through that thing, and let me tell you, we couldn’t have felt safer. I swear, one dumb tourist from Muncie, Indiana who’s never left the suburbs gets pick-pocketed and the whole city gets a bad rap.
We went to the Museo del Prado, a museum you’d need more than one visit to take in. Thanks to buying tickets online in advance, we were the first people in the door on our second morning. We marveled over the immense collection of Goya, and both agreed the man went off the deep end later in life. There’s a room devoted to just his “Black Paintings,” or images he painted of his nightmares, which made us both deeply uncomfortable.
We ate incredibly well, but tapas’d ourselves out early on in the trip unfortunately. There was a 24-hour sandwich shop down the street from our hotel called Oink, which served nothing but jamon iberico sandwiches for €2.50. If heaven is a place on earth, I’m pretty sure there’s an Oink there.
Next up, rowing a boat in Retiro Park!