My favorite thing to do in a new city is go on a walking tour. Most European cities offer them, and they’re generally “free” — meaning no upfront cost but you’re expected to tip. It’s a great way to get the layout of a city and decide which places you want to spend more time later on your own.
My hostel in Madrid recommends Sandeman’s New Madrid tours. The free daily tour begins at Plaza Mayor, which is a must-see sight on its own:
These guys are pros — the tour leaders quickly split everyone up into a few smaller groups, some speaking different languages. I’m in the English group and our tour guide is originally from Denver. He’s great.
We set off along the streets of Madrid. We’re a big group so the guide waits until we’ve all assembled in front of a particular stop before giving commentary. He provides historical context for the sites we’re seeing as well as practical info for exploring Madrid — like his top three favorite tapas restaurants.
This is Restaurante Sobrino de Botin — founded in 1725, it’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. The artist Francisco de Goya worked there as a waited while waiting to get accepted to a well-reputed fine arts academy.
That nondescript door above is home to Convento de Corpus Cristi, a convent where nuns sell cookies. (True story: I just Googled “madrid nun cookies” to find that name. And there is an article all about it called How to buy secret cookies baked by cloistered nuns.) Our guide tells us they are closed today, but normally you turn down an alley behind this building where there’s a window with a revolving tray — you use an intercom to place your order and pay, then the cookies come out on that revolving tray so that you don’t see the nuns. Crazy right? I’m sorry I don’t get to try that this trip.
This is Almudena Cathedral, a very large and impressive Catholic cathedral. We have time to explore inside if we wish.
The entrance to Palacio Real is right next door. This is the Royal Palace of Madrid — the Spanish Royal Family does not actually live here, but it is used for ceremonies. There is a long wait to get inside but I consider going back on my own later.
I nudge my camera lens through the gate for a photo:
We press onward, towards a nearby park.
The tour ends in the park, and afterwards I walk all the way back to Plaza Mayor. I’ve decided to pay for the afternoon walking tour (12 euros) called Majestic Madrid that focuses on another part of the city and is more literary focused.
Back at Plaza Mayor waiting for tour #2 to begin…
Heading out on walking tour #2…
This is Plaza Santa Ana, which is part of Barrio de las Letras — the heart of Madrid’s literary neighborhood. This is where some of the greatest poets, novelists, and playwrights once lived; prime examples are Cervantes, Hemingway, and Garcia Lorca.
Plaza Santa Ana is also home to Teatro Español, the public theater of Spain:
Cervecería Alemana was once Hemingway’s daily haunt:
The home of Cervantes (1547-1616):
Street named for Francisco de Quevedo, a Spanish nobleman, politician, and poet of the Baroque era:
Lope de Vega lived and died here — I’m going to lift this from Wikipedia since this was all new knowledge for me:
“Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio was a Spanish playwright, poet, and novelist. He was one of the key figures in the Spanish Golden Centruy of Baroque literature. His reputation in the world of Spanish literature is second only to that of Cervantes, while the sheer volume of his literary output is unequalled, making him one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature. (…) Some 3,000 sonnets, 3 novels, 4 novellas, 9 epic poems, and about 500 plays are attributed to him.” (via)
The Congress of Deputies:
The tour ends at Parque del Buen Retiro. It’s an enormous park and a great place to explore on your own and get food after walking all day.
The most visually striking part of the park is Monument to Alfonso XII, which sits in front of a pretty lake:
And here’s the Palacio de Cristal, an enormous glass and metal structure in the park:
This is Palacio de Velazquez, a museum / exhibition space. I stop inside briefly to check it out.
There’s an exhibit by a Massachusetts resident Carl Andre, a minimalist artist known for linear grid format sculptures.
I wander through the endless gardens until my feet feel like they’re about to fall off…
Believe it or not, I’m schedule for a THIRD walking tour today — a tapas experience tour at night. More on that tomorrow!