Trip dates: 2017 Jan. 18 to 22
Life in Budapest can’t be all work and no play, of course. So, after my first semester of grad school was complete, we decided to take a short hop over to Spain. Our first stop is Madrid.
A large capital city, Madrid has a substantial international feel; it doesn’t feel nearly as Spanish, if that makes sense, as we would have thought.
It is gorgeous, though. Our holiday apartment in the Lavapiés neighborhood is set amid undulating cobblestone streets that curve past colorful buildings set hard against the sidewalks. Cafes, shops and street markets are everywhere, and people are a constant presence.
Here are some things we discovered that are great to do with kids in Madrid:
Museo Nacional del Prado
The other night, we went out to the Museo Nacional del Prado, which is Spain’s national art museum and is packed with incredible work from Goya, Velázquez, Rafael, El Greco, Rubens and many more. It’s one of the best museums of European art in the world, and it didn’t disappoint. We stood in line with hundreds of others who, in what I can only assume is a sort of communal cultural tradition, waited patiently in the cold to get in for free. For the last two hours that the museum is open, entrance is gratis. All you have to do is wait in line for your ticket, pass through the security gate and go enjoy the art. Our toddler has been pretty fussy around this time for the whole trip, and by the time we got into the museum, he was about done with the baby carrier and desperately desirous of a chance to run around — which, in an art museum, is not exactly a great idea. He yelled and screamed a little, but Brittany was able to keep him mostly quiet, while I held the hands of two older boys, and we walked for an hour or so among the incredible works of art. Much of the art present reflected Spain’s rich Christian history, so the boys recognized a lot of the events depicted, such as the boarding of Noah’s ark and the crucifixion of Christ. Despite the long lines to get in, the museum itself didn’t actually seem crowded. It’s huge and spacious inside, and it was easy enough to enjoy the art without feeling jostled or rushed. The Museo Nacional del Prado is definitely a must-visit, especially during the gracious free hours, which obviate the need to feel guilty that your loud kids are ruining someone else’s (paid) experience.
Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande
Speaking of art, while in Madrid we had to make a stop at the Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande. The church was being set up for a wedding when we arrived, so we didn’t have to pay to get in, but typically there’s a small fee of a couple euros per person. The outside of the church is incredible, but the inside is simply stunning. The massive central dome was painted by Spanish legend Francisco de Goya. This was, again, one of those situations in which the toddler enjoyed testing his ability to create echoes, so we didn’t stay as long as we would have liked. It’s absolutely worth a visit, though, if only to ponder the time, dedication and talent it took to create such a masterpiece.
If you visit only one park in Madrid with your children, make it this one. It’s a long walk from the city center, but by bus the trip takes only around 7 to 10 minutes. At least in the dead of winter, the Río Manzaneres isn’t an impressive river. Making up for it, though, is the humongous park that stretches along both sides of the water. Numerous bridges connect the halves of the park. The Puente de Toledo was built in the early 1700s, and the nearby Pasarela de la Arganzuela is a much more modern bridge that’s all curves and angles. Both bridges offer lovely views of the river and its attendant flock of seagulls. The boys enjoyed crossing the river, but even more they loved clambering all over a giant log structure obviously made for climbing, and a miniature mountain featuring three tube slides that cut through the rock and a few others that curve around the outside.
The Parque de El Retiro is a massive, beautifully landscaped park in central Madrid. Despite the park’s — and the entire city’s, for that matter — conspicuous lack of playground facilities, it’s a good-enough destination for rambunctious children whose parents need them to run off a lot of steam. The Palacio de Cristal and its adjacent pond with ducks and a waterfall were lovely. We would have liked to enter the palace, which holds multi-discipline art exhibitions, but a notice on the door said something about the current exhibition being silent … and that was our keep-out sign.
Tips for traveling with kids in Madrid:
- Hire a taxi from the Madrid airport. We struggled to navigate at every junction from the moment we stepped off the plane until we collapsed in our hotel. Was the problem poor signage or just us? Who knows, but there’s no question the Madrid metro system (not to mention the airport itself) is massive and convoluted. Next time we’ll opt for a taxi.
- There is a sizeable kids play area in the Madrid airport. We weren’t in the mood to stop when we arrived, but it’d be worth seeking out when flying out of Madrid.
- Many sidewalks in the city are single-file. Living in Budapest, we’ve gotten in the habit of holding the kids’ hands anytime we’re out walking, but that’s impractical here without someone in the lane of traffic. It only gets worse if you factor in multiple children, luggage or a stroller … or, you know, other people who might be using the sidewalk.
- Madrid’s playground offerings are paltry. We did eventually stumble upon a few small playgrounds, but more often we’d encounter large empty squares where we’d comment to each other, “If this were Budapest, they’d have put a great big playground in here, or three.” To be fair, we didn’t exactly see a lot of young kids in Madrid, so maybe they aren’t as needed here as in Budapest.
- Highchairs are also noticeably absent, so plan to bring your own portable version (or try our luggage strap solution).
- Be aware – and prepared – for Spain’s unique mealtimes. See this article. We’ve gotten in the habit of always packing enough snacks to allow us to cobble together a first meal in a new city if need be. If it’s not unusual dining hours that keep you from dinner, it could be the day of the week, a holiday or simply uncontrollable tantrums (of the child or parent variety; let’s be real here). Better over-prepared than hungry.
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