Madrid + Toledo

Four years ago, Anthony and I went to Europe for three weeks, and our last twenty-four hours happened to be a layover in Madrid. Because we were young and cheap and curious about Spain’s notoriety for staying out late, we sacrificed a hotel room and spent those twenty-four hours roaming the city. We hung out at Puerta del Sol, we saw a major accident occur (a truck backed into an awning that fell on top of a woman dining outdoors, severely injuring her), we ate jamon and spent an embarrassing amount of time eating churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, and we napped in Retiro Park. It was an odd experience, and I felt pretty ambivalent about Madrid. Since that was my only experience with Spain, I also had no real desire to return to Spain — until a couple of months ago when I found round-trip flights to Madrid for an astonishingly low price of $261.

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Madrid’s sleek airport
Most of our trip was spent in Andalucía, but we did spend a couple of days in Madrid, as well as a day-trip to Toledo. Turns out, I still don’t love Madrid, but at least I finally appreciated how livable this vibrant metropolis is.

Stay

We stayed at an Airbnb in the trendy neighborhood of Malasaña, which I’d highly recommend. It’s connected to everywhere by metro, walkable to all the touristy sights, and filled with award-winning restaurants, colorful street art covering the walls, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).

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View of Madrid rooftops from our Airbnb living room
Do

We spent our first morning doing the touristy Gran Vía stroll, starting at the elegant Palacio de Cibeles, which was once a post office, and ending at Plaza de España. It’s basically the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with interchangeable chain stores and foreign tourists moving slowly, but it’s interesting to see the phases of architecture along Gran Vía, from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. One of the more interesting stores to drop into is an H&M housed in a former theater.

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Palacio de Cibeles
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The Metropolis Building was designed by a couple of French brothers. The dome is topped by a statue of the winged goddess Victoria, which replaced the original bronze statue of Phoenix and Ganymedes when a rival insurance company purchased the building and the original owners took the statue with them.
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Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

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Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
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One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
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We loved seeing these same-sex traffic lights, put up during Pride and never taken down
Eat

Most of our diet in Madrid consisted of churros con chocolate, as we went to Chocolatería San Ginés pretty much after every meal. It’s an impressive place, open 24 hours yet retaining a classy feel. Servers run around balancing elegant mugs of thick chocolate and little plates of churros.

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Churros con chocolate
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, which is an Andalucian tapas bar just off Plaza Mayor. The gory photos of bullfighting filling every crevice of the restaurant is a bit corny, but the food is authentic and even served Granada style (a free tapa with every drink!), with a stream of regulars — perhaps Andalucian transplants? — streaming in throughout the afternoon.

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Legit!
Since it was August, a lot of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed for vacation, so one night we reluctantly went to La Barraca, a historic paella restaurant. It reminded me of Delmonico’s, a New York institution with white tablecloths and awkwardly stuffy service. However, we couldn’t deny that the paellas were very good, and the next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.

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Best paella on our trip
Afternoon Trip to Toledo

Just a half-hour train ride from Madrid is the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Toledo. Once the capital of Spain, it felt like a mix of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany and Dubrovnik in Croatia, some other favorite Medieval towns of mine. Toledo sits high up on a circular rocky hill protected on three sides by the Tajo River, like a moat. It has 2,500 years of tangled history between the Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. The city reached its peak in the 1500s, when Spain was in its Golden Age. Emperor Charles V made it his “Imperial City,” and El Greco made his home here. Cervantes’ wife came from near Toledo, and he often wrote about it. In 1561, Philip II moved the capital to a small town north of here called Madrid, beginning the slow decline of Toledo. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, remaining largely intact despite numerous violent takeovers throughout history due to the fact that it was considered the holiest city in Spain. Its ornate cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in Spain, taking over 250 years to build.

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Old winding roads of Toledo
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Cervantes is beloved here
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Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
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Mudejar touches everywhere
The impressive train station sits below the town center, so we caught a city bus into town. You can  catch #5, #11, #61, or #62 to Plaza de Zocodover. One thing we love about Spain is that buses give out change.

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Sunset views from Toledo
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Mudejar style train station
Spain claims that marzipan (“mazapán” in Spanish) was invented in Toledo by nuns of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine. There was no wheat but plenty of sugar and almonds, so nuns created a paste out of these ingredients and fed the undernourished people. Mazapán de Toledo is protected by D.O., which means it must be made in the province of Toledo and be at least 50% almonds. We tried mazapán from Santo Tomé and El Café de las Monjas, and both were much better than any marzipan I’ve had in the U.S. Each one is lovingly shaped by hand, and a box of assorted mazapán is the perfect gift.

Besides mazapán, swords are another popular souvenir in Toledo, as Toledo was famous for making the very best steel during the Middle Ages. Knights considered having a Toledo-cast sword to be the highest status symbol.

Unlike on the rest of our trip, Toledo doesn’t have a thriving tapas scene. Instead, Toledo excels at game, which is hunted in the hills to the south. Typical dishes include partridge, venison, wild boar, roast suckling pig, and baby lamb. We had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurante Placido.

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Roasted baby lamb
Tips for future travelers:

  1. It’s simple enough to get from the airport into Madrid by subway, but if you have a lot of luggage or don’t want to transfer, you can also take the comfortable Exprés Aeropuerto to Atocha train station, and then getting a cab. This yellow bus departs every 15 minutes, runs 24 hours a day, and takes about 40 minutes to reach Atocha.
  2. For our few days in Madrid, buying a 10-pack of Metro tickets was perfect for us. We first had to buy a cheap refillable card, and then we were able to share the ten rides. Madrid’s Metro system is fantastic and reminded us of Paris. Lines are color-coded and numbered. You can just tap your Metro card to the yellow pad to open the turnstile — no need to take it out again to exit.
  3. The best itinerary for Toledo is to take a late afternoon train there, so you can see things just as the daytrippers are leaving for the day, and watch the sunset. Then leave the following morning, after exploring a few of the sights that had been closed when you arrived the previous day.
  4. Buy your train tickets to and from Toledo in advance, as they often sell out to commuters. (Since Toledo is so close to Madrid, it makes sense that some people live in Toledo and work in Madrid.)
  5. When on Gran Vía, take a break and head up to Gourmet Experiences (a food court in El Corte Inglés) for a spectacular view of the Schweppes Building.

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Granada

Granada was the main reason I wanted to visit Spain this summer. While I’d never had much of an interest in Barcelona, Madrid, or even Sevilla (though, clearly I had been wrong about Sevilla), Granada has everything I’m passionate about: white-washed homes spilling down hills, seductive views of the Alhambra, diversity, a significant Arab influence, and incredibly cheap food.

Due to a scheduling issue, we had to catch a later train from Córdoba to Granada and arrived at our Airbnb two hours later than we had planned. Our affectionate Airbnb host Ana, who seemed to be more anxious than us to make our time slot for the Alhambra, gently rushed us out after we dropped off our luggage and ushered us to a taxi. As we drove through our winding cobblestone neighborhood of Albayzín, Anthony and I looked at each other and knew we were going to love our few days here.

We didn’t deserve to get into Alhambra, but Anthony coaxed the guard into letting us in fifty minutes after our time slot. The initial chaos was worth it! The Alhambra is a palace, citadel, and fortress that sits on a small plateau overlooking the entire city, enhanced by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, the Moors were creating magnificent palaces like the Alhambra, with ornate stucco, plaster stalactite ceilings, ceramic tiles, scalloped windows that perfectly frame views of Granada, lush gardens, open-air courtyards, and water — a precious symbol of life back then — everywhere. It’s the last and greatest Moorish palace in the world and once housed a city of a thousand people fortified by a 1.5-mile rampart, built in the 13th century for the Nasrids (one of the ethnic groups of Spanish Muslims). In the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Moors from Granada and moved into Alhambra, and it was here that Christopher Columbus requested royal endorsement to fund his sea voyage that year. The Holy Roman Emperor eventually took over, but because he respected the Moorish palace, built his own palace using the existing Alhambra instead of destroying everything. Moorish craftsmanship of Alhambra is first-class. Lead fittings between the pre-cut section of the columns allow the structures to flex during earthquakes, preventing destruction.

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View from Alhambra
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Intricate carvings everywhere
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Patio de Arrayanes
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Patio de los Leones
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Views everywhere
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Islamic architecture
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Look at that stalactite detailing!
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Gardens
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Open-air rooms
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Geometric patterns
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One more view from above
After a rousing start to our time in Granada, we were ready for food. And what a city for food! Granada is one of the only remaining cities in Spain to offer a free tapa with every drink, which makes eating out in Granada almost ludicrously inexpensive. Most bars will cook a large pot of something and hand out a small plate of the dish with every drink. It’s a brilliant way to eat, but will sadly never exist in America. Our favorite tapas were at El Tabernáculo (a tiny tapas bar filled with kitschy religious decorations), Bar Los Diamantes (multiple locations throughout the city), Bodegas Castaneda (always crowded), and Taberna La Tana (perfect for wine snobs).

 

With our bellies full, we were finally ready to check out our Airbnb, the place I’d been most excited about staying at on this trip. Our neighborhood retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Our room was on the second floor, with a direct view of Alhambra. Our rooftop, which is where we spent siestas and had breakfast every morning, had an even better view, and we loved that we didn’t have to trek out to the crowded viewpoint nearby, where all the other tourists have to wait around for hours.

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Wondering why we even deserve this rooftop
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Breakfast every morning
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Casual rooftop views
To get to the rest of the touristy sites, we had an entertaining downhill walk through Albayzín’s winding tight alleys. We never took the same path twice because it’s so easy to get slightly lost. But Albayzín is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost want to get lost in it, like you do in Venice.

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Typical street in our neighborhood
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Watch out for the tree!
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View of Alhambra from every corner
One of the most interesting things to do in Granada is to visit Alcaicería for Granada’s Great Bazaar, especially if you haven’t been to a Muslim country before. Like the souks we visited in Marrakech, Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul, you can find spices, precious goods, and other souvenirs. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century and survived until the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it. A replica was built, but only half the size of the original labyrinth. Nearby is Corral del Carbón, a caravanserai (protected place for merchants to rest their animals, spend the night and eat). This is the only surviving caravanserai of Granada’s original 14. Granada was a stop on the Silk Road, as silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside.

While you obviously come to Granada for the Alhambra, we fell in love with this city for its views and its soul. We spent hours sitting on our balcony and aimlessly wandered the streets. It’s impossible not to be enchanted here.

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re sick of tapas, have a fancier meal. Make reservations at Mirador de Morayma and request a table with a view of Alhambra. For piononos (a small, sweet cylindrical pastry from Granada), try Casa Ysla, which offers piononos in various flavors.

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View during our dinner at Mirador de Morayma
Our default drinks to order at any bar in Andalucia were tinto (house red), tinto de verano (house red with carbonated water or lemonade, served with ice), vermút (fortified white wine we know as vermouth, sometimes served with soda), or a cerveza (beer).

Take in the views of the city at Mirador de la Churra. While we didn’t have to go to the crowded Mirador San Nicolas because the view from our apartment was basically the same thing, we did go to Mirador de la Churra for an incredible view of Albayzín. Most tourists don’t know about this viewpoint, as it was completely empty when we were there.

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Peeking through someone’s gate
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View of our neighborhood. Can you spot our Airbnb?
As soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada, book your tickets to Alhambra because tickets sell out months in advance. You must enter within 30 minutes of your selected time.

Sintra

A day-trip to Sintra was actually my favorite thing we did during our time in Lisbon. Located 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, Sintra is just a 44-minute train ride away. Portugal’s aristocracy considered it the perfect place to escape from city life, and while it’s filled with tourists now, it still feels like an escape — from Portugal, at least. We visited two castles here, the Castle of the Moors, which looks like the Great Wall of China, and Pena Palace, which looked like a German storybook castle.

The Castle of the Moors was built by the Moors (indigenous Muslims during the Middle Ages) in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista. In 1147 it was taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon. Situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains, this former military outpost follows meanders over the granite terrain of a mountainous cliff.

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Doesn’t it remind you of the Great Wall?
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Obligatory

After the Castle of the Moors, we hopped on a bus to the next castle, Pena Palace, which is what I really came to Sintra for. If it reminds you of Neuschwanstein, there’s good reason — in the 19th century, German-born Prince Ferdinand (cousin of Neuschwanstein’s King Ludwig) hired a German architect to build his fantasy castle, mixing elements of German and Portuguese style. It’s the most flamboyant castle I’ve ever seen, filled with Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish minarets, and Manueline carvings in bright yellow, dusty red, and azulejos. We bought tickets for the interior but ended up not using them because we were so intrigued by the exterior as we followed the walls surrounding the castle. We probably spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the courtyard, which was once the cloister of a monastery.

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So flamboyant!
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Those colors!
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Former cloisters

Tips on how to do Sintra:

Since we went on a weekday in November, the train station in Lisbon wasn’t too crowded, but if you’re here in the summer, especially over the weekend, avoid the lines by purchasing tickets or refilling your Viva Viagem the night before.

Check the times for the trains to Sintra. You don’t have to book in advance, but you don’t want to just miss it, and you want to get there early enough to you can claim a seat on the train.

Once you exit the train station at Sintra, make a right and hop onto the #434 bus. Someone should be there selling all-day tickets as you board the bus. You can hop on and hop off at any castle, and then it brings you back to the train station.

Purchase your castle tickets in advance so you don’t have to waste time standing in line.

We did Sintra in about half a day (left Lisbon after a leisurely breakfast, and returned to Lisbon in the late afternoon), but we easily could have stayed a couple of hours more if we were interested in the other castles or wanted to wander around Sintra town for lunch.

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