Rick Steves’ Europe: Feeling the pulse of Madrid

Rick Steves’ Europe: Feeling the pulse of Madrid

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Although we've had to postpone trips to Europe because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's one of my favorite places--a reminder of what's waiting for us at the other end of this crisis.

The hub of Spain, Madrid is upbeat and vibrant--and a work in progress: Massive urban-improvement projects — new parks, pedestrianized streets, and revamped transit — are transforming the city. Fortunately, the historic core remains intact.

It’s worth taking two days and three nights on even the fastest trip to dive headlong into the grandeur and charm of Madrid. Here's how I'd spend my time. Start with the grandeur: The Palacio Real, Spain’s Royal Palace, is Europe’s third greatest palace. Its 2,800 rooms are packed with sumptuous furnishings, a king’s ransom of chandeliers, frescoes, and royal antiques. The Throne Room, the grand finale of your visit, holds many of the oldest and most precious things in the palace.

Next, trade gold leaf for green leaves — head to Retiro Park for a festive outdoor escape with rental rowboats and great people-watching. Once the private domain of royalty, this majestic park has been a favorite of Madrid’s commoners since King Charles III decided to share it with his subjects in the late 18th century. Enjoy a shady siesta or picnic in Madrid’s much-loved “Central Park,” and if you’re there on a weekend you’ll see a carnival of fun around the lake with jugglers, puppeteers, and lots of local color. Another lush, green oasis near Retiro Park is the Royal Botanical Garden. Wander through this museum of plants with a collection of trees from around the world, also established by King Charles III.

When you’re ready to head indoors and escape the heat, feed your soul by visiting Madrid’s art museums. The Prado Museum holds my favorite collection of paintings by European masters. Mainly, the Prado is the place to enjoy the holy trinity of Spanish painters — El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya — including Velázquez’s Las Meninas, considered by many to be the world’s finest painting, period.

With more than 3,000 canvases, including entire rooms of masterpieces by superstar painters, the Prado can be overwhelming. It's wise to save pace yourself if you plan to go to the two other great museums nearby: the Thyssen Bornemisza, which sweeps through European art from old masters to moderns (art lovers will appreciate the way the collections complement the Prado’s); and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, starring Picasso’s famous Guernica.

For maximum fun, keep walking and go mobile for dinner: Do the tapeo, going from one bar to the next, munching, drinking, and socializing. You can find tapas bars almost everywhere in Madrid, but areas in the city center are particularly rewarding for a bar-crawl meal: The two-block stretch on Calle de Jesús (near the Prado) is the easiest, with several wonderful and diverse places. I never tire of this edible scavenger hunt, where I collect small portions of seafood, salads, meat-filled pastries, and deep-fried tasties, and piece them together for a light evening meal.

Another opportunity to eat adventurously — and an authentic, affordable way to try local dishes — is to visit the Mercado de San Miguel. At this century-old market hall, you can sample your way along an appetizing stroll from cod, artisan cheese, olives, and the famous and pricey jamón iberico (made from free-range acorn-fed pigs — life is too short to eat cheap ham!), to torrijas (a dense version of French toast) for dessert. I like to wash it down with a taste of sherry.

Spain has a reputation for partying very late, but even if you’re not a party animal after midnight, make a point to be out with the happy masses, luxuriating in the cool evening air. Just walking car-free streets seems to be the way the Madrileños spend their evenings. The paseo is an integral and unforgettable part of the culture. Wander from the lively central square Puerta del Sol to the historic cobbled square Plaza Mayor, or along the Calle de las Huertas, the pedestrianized street leading to the Prado. Even past midnight on a hot summer night, entire families are strolling, licking ice cream, greeting their neighbors, and enjoying little beers and tapas.

After every trip to this exciting city, the impression I take home is that of a thriving people with an enduring culture, and the focus of today seems to be on living well. What a pleasure it is to join in.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

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