We took Julia to Madrid and Lisbon last February (she was almost 11 months old) and it was a perfect intro to international family travel for us.
We started off the trip with 4.5 days in Madrid, which worked out well for us, particularly from a jet lag perspective. Madrilenos eat very late (they were basically still doing happy hour at 9 p.m.), so we were able to look slightly less grandparent-esque and eat around 9 because Julia wasn’t getting sleepy until at least 10 or 11 p.m. We also took full advantage of the afternoon siesta time, typically adventuring until about 1 p.m. and then retreating back to our apartment for a 2-3 hour nap before heading out for a promenade. It seemed like all the small families in Madrid took their toddlers out for a walk (much more bundled up than ours – #badmom) around 4 or 5 p.m. and used it as a good time to be together as a family. That’s a European tradition I could heartily support. The mood was happy and relaxed and since it was February, it was also a perfect time to see the sunset.
Where We Stayed
We rented a standard apartment at Prado Apartamentos (we booked through Expedia for this trip, solely based on availability and price). It wasn’t the most luxurious of apartments, but it had an elevator and a washing machine, which are like gold on a European vacation. They also loaned us a pack and play for an additional 20 euros/stay, which was well worth not having to drag one along ourselves. There was a queen size bed in the bedroom (which also had some really great room darkening curtains) as well as a pull out couch in the living room. Julia had a lot of trouble sleeping at night for the first couple of nights, so this couch was a lifesaver because one parent (usually me since I was still breastfeeding) could rest in the living area with her while the other tried to get some sleep in the bedroom. I won’t lie, getting through the first few nights and worrying about waking the neighbors with all the crying was tough. However, I would absolutely do it again. The location was convenient to the Prado museum and El Retiro park, which were two of my must visit locations during our stay.
What We Did
Adjusting to traveling with a baby was actually a nice change of pace in some ways. Pre-baby, we usually stayed in a city for 3 days max and packed a bunch of activities (with back-ups!) into each day. On this first trip, I typically chose 1 key activity to do and then had some things plotted around that area as “bonuses.”
We arrived in Madrid midday, so after a nap, we took a late afternoon stroll and ended up at El Corte Ingles to visit the top of the large department store and check out the view. There’s a large and delicious food court (and I am not usually a food court person) on the top floor where we sampled some pizza (cut by weight) and espresso.
The second day, we started off with a visit to the Mercado de San Miguel. We took the stroller and if I were to do it over again, we would have put Julia in the baby carrier because it was really busy in there and sometimes difficult to navigate her through the crowds (I also made sure to keep valuables in a safe place). However, people generally gave her a smile and politely moved to the side when they heard our Perdóns. We tasted some delicious jamon (served on a silver tray and cut to order), sampled croquettes and pinchos (basically a small crostini with varying toppings; my favorite was the bacalao, or salted cod, which was surprisingly rich and not as fishy as I expected) and indulged in a sangria. The stroller’s cup holder came in handy to hold the sangria while we juggled other plates (balanced diet for the win!). A note for breastfeeding moms – I fed Julia under a light muslin cover while holding her in the market. No one gave me any weird looks and Peter was kind enough to hand feed me croquettes while my arms were occupied.
Julia napped well in the stroller while we were there (we love the Summer Infant 3D Lite – read more here), which gave us the chance to walk towards the Palacio Real de Madrid. We didn’t go in, but the walk was really lovely and by taking back streets, we got to peek at the beautiful architecture at a relaxed pace.
Our next stop was the infamous Chocolateria San Gines. You order your thick drinking chocolate and churros at the front counter and then wait for a table, but they’re very efficient, so the wait for us was not particularly long. For those with allergies, they actually have a multi-lingual list of allergens at the front counter. The drinking chocolate has soy, so I couldn’t share it with Peter (I know, life is very difficult), but we all enjoyed the churros. Julia, in particular, flirted with all the waiters and loved feeding Peter churros.
We were starting to head back towards our apartment for the afternoon siesta when we walked past a touring Escher exhibit put on by Arthemisia at the Palacio de Gaviria. This was a magical find and an example of when not micro-planning every little activity months in advance paid off. Escher’s work is very baby friendly (cool patterns in simple colors) and the venue was gorgeous with some fun interactive exhibits, so we got a surprise peek at work that we’ve admired for a long time and would never have anticipated seeing in person.
The next day was my favorite in terms of activities – I have been looking forward to visiting the Prado art museum since I took AP Art History in high school, and I was not disappointed. We arrived right when they opened at 10 a.m. (we had ventured by he previous evening during the free hours from 6-8 p.m., but the line was terrifyingly long) and had to wait awhile, but it was manageable even for a baby. We opted for the Paseo del Arte card so that we would have admission to the Prado, the Museo Reina Sofía and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. In hindsight, this was a bit over ambitious of us, but it was a nice idea. The Prado is one of the best organized and best labeled art museums I’ve ever been to. The map provided at the entrance (available in multiple languages) shows you the highlights of each room, so you can make a beeline right for the Garden of Earthly Delights or any other artworks you might be passionate about. I even found a new favorite – the Birth of the Milky Way. We had no trouble pushing Julia through the museum in her stroller (she even napped for a good chunk of it) and she enjoyed a bit of crawling in some of the larger rooms. The cafe was downright reasonable for a museum and we took a break midway through our visit for croissants and coffee. We ended up spending close to 4 hours here. That won’t be for everyone, but the museum’s excellent layout made it easy to see highlights, take a break, and then return for more. There were also changing facilities and convenient benches when I needed to feed Julia.
After so much time indoors, we were ready to venture out to El Retiro Park to visit the Crystal Palace (very walk-able from the Prado). We had pretty gray and rainy weather during our visit (not dissimilar from where we live in Seattle), but it was a nice enough day for a stroll through the park. The Crystal Palace has free admission and seemed to be a spot for tourists and locals alike to go and hang out. There was plenty of room for Julia to crawl around, too. We weren’t there particularly long, but it was a lovely break in the day.
On our last day, we visited the Museo Reina Sofia in the morning. If we had gone here first, I think I would have enjoyed it more. It’s a beautiful location and has some early Picassos, but having been blown away by the Prado the day before, the modern art here just wasn’t as captivating for me. There was also a really large multi-class school group visiting on the same day. It seemed like a great program for them with 5-10 minute talks in front of some of the major artworks (like Picasso’s Guernica), but it meant that we couldn’t usually get close to anything.
That evening, we said goodbye to Madrid by taking a particularly long stroll from our apartment to the Templo de Debod in the Parque del Oeste. When the Aswan Dam was under construction (which we had visited pre-baby 2 years prior), the Egyptian government donated this ancient temple to Spain to try to preserve it. It’s at the top of a long hill with beautiful views over the city, which made it a perfect spot to wave goodbye to Spain.
Where We Ate
I’ll be honest, while we had some great food in Madrid, there weren’t any life changing meals on this trip. I didn’t make any specific reservations because we didn’t have a babysitter and I wasn’t sure how Julia would perform at nicer restaurants. People also eat very late in Madrid, so while we stretched her bedtime by several hours, it still wasn’t really late enough to eat with the “cool kids.” We did enjoy the following places, however:
- Taberna Sanlucar – little hole in the wall in La Latina (cash only) where we ate on our first night. They had an excellent shrimp pancake, good olives, and inexpensive wine. The seating would be uncomfortable for children that want to sit on their own (basically short backless barstools), but we were able to stick our small stroller against the wall so Julia could sit in it or on my lap.
- La Castela – I should have made reservations here. We tried to go for dinner on our second evening (it’s on the far side of El Retiro park, so at least it was a lovely evening walk) and it was packed. We were, however, able to convince people to let us perch in a little bar area and had some fantastic pinchos and wine.
- Taberna del Buendi – this place had a good size crowd when we walked by it on our way to La Castela, so we headed back after we struck out on dinner there. They were able to seat us quickly and the staff was so incredibly nice to Julia (they even found a little pumpkin toy in the back room for her to play with). We weren’t starving since we had already eaten half a meal up the street, so we shared shrimp, more pinchos and a plate of jamon.
Madrid was a great spot to kick off our first international trip with a baby. We slowed down our usual travel place and found that allowed us to better deal with jet lag and see some things that weren’t in the original plan. Everyone was very friendly and kind to Julia, and while eating in busier places with her was challenging, we never felt unwelcome or like we were inconveniencing anyone by bringing her along. Eating in markets (like Mercado de San Miguel or El Corte Ingles; we didn’t love Mercado de San Anton) allowed some greater flexibility in meal times that we appreciated. It also helped that we picked one “can’t miss” activity (the Prado museum) and focused on getting the most out of it.
If you’re flying out of the Madrid airport (we were connecting to Lisbon), you’ll also appreciate that they have small play areas interspersed throughout the airport. This seems to be pretty rare in the U.S. (the Seattle Airport is one of the few I’ve seen with a dedicated play space) and we were all happy to see it. It’s pretty amazing that language barriers don’t bother children at all, nor do age gaps to a large extent. Kids as old as 5 or 6 were happy to share the play equipment with Julia.
Have you been to Madrid with a young child and, if so, what were your favorite stops?