We were supposed to go to Disneyland. Just a quickflight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. No real planning or creative packing required. But when a ticket search in the wee hours of the morning turned up an incredible deal to Europe, L.A. went out the window. In one hour and the click of a mouse, my family of four was headed to Madrid, Spain.
When most people think of Madrid, they don’t think of kids. It’s one of those grown-up cities. There’s no tower to climb, no big ferris wheel. Its big ticket item is a museum, but don’t let that fool you. My girls, ages 8 and 11, go everywhere with my husband and I. We’ve gone canoeing in the Dordogne, discovered incredible playgrounds in Ireland and chased ravens in Britain. We all agree family-friendly Madrid doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
We rolled into town from Seville in the afternoon and ditched the car. The best of Madrid is easiest explored on foot. After a quick siesta, we were off and running, actually wandering. Madrid is a pretty city –lots of green space and beautiful fountains. It quickly became clear food was a necessity. Tired of tapas and paella, my kids were craving American food, so VIPS was a blessing disguised in English menus. Hidden in a bookstore, this bright and loud, chain eatery had a kids menu. After generous helpings of pasta and quesadillas, we were ready to move again.
Madrid, like most of Spain, comes alive at night. It’s when the locals come out to play, and it’s not uncommon to see a family with young children headed to dinner at 10p.m. With full stomachs we made our way to Puerto del Sol. Madrid’s central square, Puerto del Sol provides the young and old with hours of entertainment. For at least half an hour we stared at the artist using spray paints of every color to create pictures that looked like something out of Star Wars. Next we were dancing with the crowd who had surrounded a group of young musicians. The girl’s favorite.. a man who painted tiles using only his fingers. It was a little after midnight when our two tiles were finished and exhaustion forced us to call it quits.
Headed back to Puerta del Sol the next morning for breakfast, a delicious smell lead us to an open door and heaps of churros, fresh out of a greasy cauldron. As we munched, the shop owner went on with his work. The churros were done, it was time to make potato chips. A culinary education, and it was only breakfast.
A couple twists and turns later, we reached “kilometer zero”, the very center of Spain. The well-worn marker set in the sidewalk isn’t exactly breath-taking, but the coolness of being at the center point of Spain was enough to make my girls ask to have their picture taken. Down the street is the busy bakery, Salon La Mallorquina. With its racks and racks of sweet, cream filled treats, you can’t leave without buying something.
It was the perfect sugar rush to keep smiles on everyone’s faces as we headed to Plaza Mayor. The square is a great place to sit at an outside cafe and people-watch. Amongst the locals, wandered Spiderman, an Indian Chief and a woman covered in fruit. For a couple euros, fruit lady would let you wear her hat for a picture. Could be a great holiday card picture…
We had planned to tour Spain’s Royal Palace, but the hour plus line to get in was more than we were up for.So with some sandwiches and freshly fried potato chips in hand we headed to Retiro Park. A siesta in this 300 acres park will make you forget you’re in the middle of a major city. The park was packed with people out for a midday stroll. Musicians, street artists and fortune tellers made it feel like a carnival. And for those not afraid to get wet, rowboats were ready to cast off into the lake.
Rowing in Retiro Park
After half an hour of rowing, the kids were in heaven, and we saw a golden opportunity. The main road through the park, after passing a playground or two, leads you to the Prado and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
The girls were practically racing to get into the Reina Sofia. The cool, modern glass elevators called to them. The museum is famous for Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Unimpressed, my kids took the elevator back down to the cool sculpture garden.
An ice cream cone was all it took to get them ready for the Prado. It didn’t hold a candle to the rowboat, but the kids were intrigued. My 8-year old wanted to know why so many of the women were naked.
As we sat munching on roasted veggies and salad at pizzamascalzones, we wished we could have another day. There were just a few quick things we’d have time to do after dinner. Did I mention it was midnight? I guess we got our wish.
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Dana Rebmann lives north of San Francisco in Sonoma County with her husband and two girls, ages 9-11. She loves planning adventures for her family, especially when they require a passport.