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Rick Steves Snapshot Madrid & Toledo
By Rick Steves
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 13, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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- Rick's firsthand, up-to-date advice on Madrid and Toledo's best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more, plus tips to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Visit the masterpieces of the Prado Museum, explore the Royal Palace, or admire the magnificent Toledo Cathedral. Chat with locals at lively tapas bar and sip authentic vermouth. Wander the medieval town of Ávila or take a rowboat through the lush Retiro Park
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
Exploring beyond Madrid and Toledo? Pick up Rick Steves Spain for comprehensive coverage, detailed itineraries, and essential information for planning a countrywide trip.
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves Spain, introduces you to majestic Madrid. Spain’s capital is home to some of Europe’s top art treasures (the Prado Museum’s collection, plus Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofía) and a lively selection of characteristic tapas bars, where you can assemble a memorable feast of Spanish specialties. Explore the city’s cozy-feeling historic core, tour its lavish Royal Palace, and beat the heat on a rowboat at the lush and inviting Retiro Park.
This book also covers several side-trips from Madrid. Northwest of Madrid, you’ll find Spain’s grandest palace at the Inquisition-era El Escorial, the powerful monument to victims of the Spanish Civil War at the Valley of the Fallen, and a pair of charming towns: Segovia, with its towering Roman aqueduct, and Ávila, encircled by a medieval wall. Toledo, the hill-capping onetime capital of Spain, features one of the country’s most magnificent cathedrals, a medieval vibe, and top paintings by favorite son El Greco.
To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information offices (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
• Sights, with ratings and strategies for meaningful and efficient visits
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and driving
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, hotel reservations, transportation, and other helpful hints, plus Spanish survival phrases.
To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
Buen viaje! Happy travels!
Today’s Madrid is upbeat and vibrant. You’ll feel it. Look around—just about everyone has a twinkle in their eyes.
Madrid is the hub of Spain. This modern capital—Europe’s second-highest, at more than 2,000 feet above sea level—is home to more than 3 million people, with about 6 million living in greater Madrid.
Like its population, the city is relatively young. In medieval times, it was just another village, wedged between the powerful kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. When newlyweds Ferdinand and Isabel united those kingdoms in 1469, Madrid—sitting at the center of Spain—became the focal point of a budding nation. By 1561, Spain ruled the world’s most powerful empire, and King Philip II moved his capital from cramped, medieval Toledo (and the influence of its powerful bishop) to spacious Madrid.
Successive kings transformed the city into a European capital. By 1900, Madrid had 575,000 people, concentrated within a small area. In the mid-20th century, the city exploded with migrants from the countryside, creating modern sprawl. Today Madrid is working hard to make itself more livable. Massive urban-improvement projects—pedestrianized streets, new parks, extended commuter lines, and renovated Metro stations—are transforming the city. Once-dodgy neighborhoods are turning trendy, and the traffic chaos is subsiding. Madrid feels orderly and welcoming.
Fortunately for tourists, the historic core survives intact and is easy to navigate. Dive headlong into the grandeur and intimate charm of Madrid. Feel the vibe in Puerta del Sol, the pulsing heart of modern Madrid and of Spain itself. The lavish Royal Palace, with its gilded rooms and frescoed ceilings, rivals Versailles. The Prado has Europe’s top collection of paintings, and nearby hangs Picasso’s chilling masterpiece, Guernica. Retiro Park invites you to take a shady siesta and hopscotch through a mosaic of lovers, families, skateboarders, pets walking their masters, and expert bench-sitters. On Sundays, cheer for the bull at a bullfight or bargain like mad at a megasize flea market. Swelter through the hot, hot summers or bundle up for the cold winters. Save some energy for after dark, when Madrileños pack the streets for an evening paseo and tapeo (tapas crawl) that can continue past midnight. Lively Madrid has enough street-singing, bar-hopping, and people-watching vitality to give any visitor a boost of youth.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Madrid is worth two days and three nights on even the fastest trip. Divide your time among the city’s top three attractions: the Royal Palace (worth two hours), the Prado Museum (worth a half-day or more), and the contemporary bar-hopping scene.
Here’s a two-day plan that hits Madrid’s highlights. If the weather’s iffy on Day 1, you can reverse this plan. With more time, Madrid has several days’ worth of other museums to choose from (archaeology, city history, tapestries, the cultures of the Americas, clothing, local artists, and so on). Or, for good day-trip possibilities, see the Northwest of Madrid and Toledo chapters.
Morning: Get your bearings with my self-guided city walk, which loops from Puerta del Sol to the Royal Palace and back—with a tour through the Royal Palace in the middle.
Afternoon: Your afternoon is free for other sights, shopping, or exploring—consider my self-guided walk of the glitzy Gran Vía or self-guided bus tours of the busy Paseo de la Castellana or the funky Lavapiés district. Be out at the golden hour—just before sunset—for the evening paseo, when beautifully lit people fill Madrid.
Evening: End your day with a progressive tapas dinner at a series of characteristic bars.
Morning: Take a brisk good-morning-Madrid walk along Calle de las Huertas to the Prado, where you’ll enjoy some of Europe’s best art (purchase your ticket in advance). Art lovers can then head across the street to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Afternoon: Enjoy an afternoon siesta in Retiro Park. Then tackle modern art at the Reina Sofía, which displays Picasso’s Guernica (closed Tue).
Evening: Take in a flamenco or zarzuela performance.
Orientation to Madrid
While Madrid is a massive city, its historic core—which short-time visitors rarely leave—is compact and manageable. Frame it off on your map: The square called Puerta del Sol marks the center of Madrid. To the west is the Royal Palace. To the east are the great art museums: Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. North of Puerta del Sol is Gran Vía, a broad east-west boulevard bubbling with elegant shops and cinemas. Between Gran Vía and Puerta del Sol is a lively pedestrian shopping zone. And southwest of Puerta del Sol is Plaza Mayor, the center of a 17th-century, slow-down-and-smell-the-cobbles district. Everything described here (roughly the area contained in the “Central Madrid” map in this chapter) is within about a 20-minute stroll or a €10 taxi ride of Puerta del Sol.
For exploring, a wonderful chain of pedestrian streets crosses the city east to west, from the Prado to Plaza Mayor (along Calle de las Huertas) and from Puerta del Sol to the Royal Palace (on Calle del Arenal). Stretching north from Gran Vía, Calle de Fuencarral is a trendy shopping-and-strolling pedestrian street.
Madrid has city TIs run by the Madrid City Council, and regional TIs run by the privately owned Turismo Madrid. Both are helpful, but you’ll get more biased information from Turismo Madrid.
The city-run TIs share a website (www.esmadrid.com), a central phone number (+34 915 787 810), and hours (daily 9:30-20:30 or later). The best and most central city TI is on Plaza Mayor. Additional branches are scattered all over the city, often in freestanding kiosks. Look for them near the Prado (facing the Neptune fountain), in front of the Reina Sofía art museum (across the street from the Atocha train station, in the median of the busy road), along Gran Vía at Plaza del Callao, at Plaza de Colón (in the underground passage accessed from Paseo de la Castellana and Calle de Goya), inside Palacio de Cibeles (up the stairs, and to the right), and at the airport (Terminals 2 and 4).
Regional Turismo Madrid TIs share hours and a website (Mon-Sat 8:00-20:00, Sun 9:00-14:00; www.turismomadrid.es [URL inactive]). The main branch is just east of Puerta del Sol at Calle de Alcalá 31; branches are also inside the Sol Metro station (inside the underground corridor; this branch open daily 8:00-20:00), at Chamartín train station (near track 20), at Atocha train station (AVE arrivals side; this branch open Sun until 20:00), and at the airport (Terminals 1 and 4).
At most TIs, you can get the Es Madrid English-language monthly, which includes a map and event listings. Themed Madrid for You booklets on various topics (families, museums, viewpoints, gastronomy, and so on) are also available. The regional TIs hand out a handy public transportation map.
Entertainment Guides: For arts and culture listings, the TI’s printed material is good, but you can also pick up the more practical Spanish-language weekly entertainment guide Guía del Ocio (sold cheap at newsstands) or visit www.guiadelocio.com. It lists daily live music (“Conciertos”), museums (under “Arte”—with the latest times, prices, and special exhibits), restaurants (an exhaustive listing), TV schedules, and movies (“V.O.” means original version, “V.O. en inglés sub” or “V.O.S.E.” means a movie is played in English with Spanish subtitles rather than dubbed).
ARRIVAL IN MADRID
For more information on arriving at or departing from Madrid, including stations and connections, see “Madrid Connections,” at the end of this chapter.
By Train: Madrid’s two train stations, Chamartín and Atocha, are on both Metro and cercanías (suburban train) lines with easy access to downtown Madrid. Chamartín handles most international trains and the AVE (AH-vay) train to and from Segovia. Atocha generally covers southern Spain, as well as AVE trains to and from Barcelona, Córdoba, Granada, Sevilla, and Toledo. Many train tickets include a cercanías connection to or from the train station.
Traveling Between Chamartín and Atocha Stations: You can take the Metro (€2, line 1, 30-40 minutes; see “Getting Around Madrid,” later), but the cercanías trains are faster (€1.70, 6/hour, 13 minutes, Atocha-Chamartín lines C1, C3, C4, C7, C8, and C10 each connect the two stations, lines C3 and C4 also stop at Sol—Madrid’s central square). If you have a rail pass or any regular train ticket to Madrid, you can get a free transfer within three hours of your ticket times. At the Cercanías ticket machine, choose combinado cercanías, then either scan the bar code on your train ticket or punch in a code (labeled combinado cercanías), and choose your destination. These trains depart from Atocha’s track 6 and generally Chamartín’s track 1, 3, 8, or 9—check the salidas inmediatas board to be sure).
By Bus: Madrid has several bus stations, each one handy to a Metro station: Estación Sur de Autobuses (for Ávila, Salamanca, and Granada; Metro: Méndez Álvaro); Plaza Elíptica (for Toledo, Metro: Plaza Elíptica); Moncloa (for El Escorial, Metro: Moncloa); and Avenida de América (for Pamplona and Burgos, Metro: Avenida de América). From any of these, just ride the Metro or a taxi to your hotel.
By Plane: Both international and domestic flights arrive at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. Options for getting into town include public bus, cercanías train, Metro, taxi, and minibus shuttle.
Sightseeing Tips: The Prado and Royal Palace are open daily. The Reina Sofía (with Picasso’s Guernica) is closed on Tuesday, and many other sights are closed on Monday, including the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a popular day trip outside of Madrid (see next chapter). If you’re here on a Sunday, consider visiting the famous El Rastro flea market (year-round) and/or a bullfight (most Sun and holidays in March-mid-Oct plus almost daily during the San Isidro festival in early May-early June).
Theft Alert: Be wary of pickpockets—anywhere, anytime, but especially in crowded areas such as Puerta del Sol, the busy street between the Puerta del Sol and the Prado (Carrera de San Jerónimo), El Rastro flea market, Gran Vía (especially the paseo zone: Plaza del Callao to Plaza de España), anywhere on the Metro (especially the Ópera station), bus #27, and at the airport. Be alert to the people around you: Someone wearing a heavy jacket in the summer is likely a pickpocket. Kids may dress like Americans and work the areas near big sights; anyone under 18 can’t be charged in any meaningful way by the police. Assume any commotion is a scam to distract people about to become victims of a pickpocket. Wear your money belt. For help if you get ripped off, see the next listing.
Tourist Emergency Aid: SATE is an assistance service for tourists who need help with anything from canceling stolen credit cards to reporting a crime (central police station, daily 9:00-24:00, near Plaza de Santo Domingo at Calle Leganitos 19). They can act as an interpreter if you have trouble communicating with the police. Or you can call in your report to the SATE line (24-hour +34 902 102 112, English spoken once you get connected to a person).
Sex Work: While it’s illegal to make money from someone else selling sex (i.e., pimping), sex workers over 18 can solicit legally. Calle de la Montera (leading from Puerta del Sol to Plaza Red de San Luis) is lined with what looks like a bunch of high-schoolers skipping school for a cigarette break. Don’t stray north of Gran Vía around Calle de la Luna and Plaza Santa María Soledad—while the streets may look inviting, this area is bad news.
One-Stop Shopping at El Corte Inglés: Madrid’s dominant department store, El Corte Inglés, fills three huge buildings in the pedestrian zone just off Puerta del Sol. From groceries and event tickets to fashion and housewares, El Corte Inglés has it all. For a building-by-building breakdown, see “Shopping in Madrid,” later.
Bookstores: For books in English, try FNAC Callao (Calle Preciados 28), Casa del Libro (English on basement floor, Gran Vía 29), and El Corte Inglés (guidebooks and some fiction, in its Building 3 Books/Librería branch kitty-corner from main store, fronting Puerta del Sol).
Laundry: For a self-service laundry, try Colada Express at Calle Campomanes 9 (free Wi-Fi, daily 9:00-22:00, mobile +34 657 876 464) or Lavandería at Calle León 6 (self-service Mon-Sat 9:00-22:00, Sun 12:00-15:00; full-service Mon-Sat 9:00-14:00 & 15:00-20:00, +34 914 299 545). For locations see the “Madrid Center Hotels” map.
GETTING AROUND MADRID
Madrid has excellent public transit. Pick up the Metro map (free at TIs or at Metro info booths in stations with staff); for buses get the fine, free Public Transport map (available at some TIs). The metropolitan Madrid transit website (www.crtm.es) covers all public transportation options (Metro, bus, and suburban rail).
By Metro: Madrid’s Metro is simple, speedy, and cheap. Distances are short, but the city’s broad streets can be hot and exhausting, so a subway trip of even a stop or two saves time and energy. The Metro runs from 6:00 to 1:30 in the morning. At all times, be alert to thieves, who thrive in crowded stations. Metro info: www.metromadrid.es.
Tickets: A single ride ticket within zone A costs €1.50-2, depending on the number of stops you travel; zone A covers most of the city, but not trains to the airport. A 10-ride ticket is €12.20 and valid on the Metro and buses; it can be shared by several travelers with the same destination (two people taking five rides should get one).
To buy either a single ride or 10-ride ticket, you’ll first buy a rechargeable red Multi Card (tarjeta) for €2.50 (nonrefundable—consider it a souvenir). The first Metro ticket you buy will cost at least €4 and be issued on the card; thereafter, you can reload the card with additional rides (viajes). Ticket machines ask you to punch in your destination from the alphabetized list (follow the simple prompts) to load up the correct fare. You can also buy or reload Multi Cards at newspaper stands and Estanco tobacco shops.
I’d skip the tourist ticket (billete túristico) you may see advertised, which covers all Metro and bus rides for a designated time period; unless you’re riding transit like crazy, it’s unlikely to save you money over the 10-ride ticket.
Riding the Metro: Study your Metro map—the simplified “Madrid Metro” map in this chapter can get you started. Lines are color-coded and numbered; use end-of-the-line station names to choose your direction of travel. When entering the Metro system, touch your Multi Card against the yellow pad to open the turnstile (no need to touch it again to exit). Once in the Metro station, signs direct you to the train line and direction (e.g., Linea 1, Valdecarros). To transfer, follow signs in the station leading to connecting lines. Once you reach your final stop, look for the green salida signs pointing to the exits. Use the helpful neighborhood maps to choose the right salida and save yourself lots of walking.
By Bus: City buses, though not as easy as the Metro, can be useful. You can use a Multi Card loaded with a 10-ride ticket (see details earlier). But for single rides, you’ll buy a ticket on the bus, paying the driver in cash (€1.50; bus maps at TI or info booth on Puerta del Sol, poster-size maps usually posted at bus stops, buses run 6:00-24:00, much less frequent Buho buses run all night). The EMT Madrid app finds the closest stops and lines and gives accurate wait times (there’s a version in English). Bus info: www.emtmadrid.es.
By Taxi or Uber: Madrid’s taxis are reasonably priced and easy to hail. A green light on the roof and/or the word Libre on the windshield indicates that a taxi is available. Foursomes travel almost as cheaply by taxi as by Metro; for example, a ride from the Royal Palace to the Prado costs about €10. After the drop charge (about €3), the per-kilometer rate depends on the time: Tarifa 1 (€1.05/kilometer) is charged Mon-Fri 6:00-21:00; Tarifa 2 (€1.20/kilometer) is valid after 21:00 and on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. If your cabbie uses anything other than Tarifa 1 on weekdays (shown as an isolated “1” on the meter), you’re being cheated.
Rates can be higher outside Madrid. There’s a flat rate of €30 between the city center and any one of the airport terminals. Other legitimate charges include a €3 supplement for leaving any train or bus station, €20 per hour for waiting, and €5 if you call to have the taxi come to you. Make sure the meter is turned on as soon as you get into the cab so the driver can’t tack anything onto the official rate. If the driver starts adding up “extras,” look for the sticker detailing all legitimate surcharges (it should be on the passenger window).
Uber works in Madrid pretty much like it does at home. Outside of peak times, an Uber ride can be slightly cheaper than a taxi.
Tours in Madrid
To sightsee on your own, download my free Madrid City Walk audio tour.
Across Madrid is run by Almudena Cros, a well-traveled art history professor. She offers several specialized tours, including one on the Spanish Civil War that draws on her family’s history (generally €70/person, maximum 8 people, book well in advance, also gives good tours for children, mobile +34 652 576 423, www.acrossmadrid.com).
Stephen Drake-Jones, an eccentric British expat, has led walks of historic old Madrid almost daily for decades. A historian with a passion for the Duke of Wellington (the general who stopped Napoleon), Stephen loves to teach history. For €95 you get a 3.5-hour tour with three stops for drinks and tapas—call it lunch (daily at 11:00, maximum 8 people). He also offers a private version (€190/2 people) and themed tours covering the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s Madrid, and more (mobile +34 609 143 202, www.wellsoc.org).
Assemble your own group to share the cost of these tours.
Federico and his team of licensed guides lead city walks and museum tours in Madrid and nearby towns. They specialize in family tours and engaging kids and teens in museums, and size their city tours like cups of hot chocolate (small-€150/2 hours, medium-€200/4 hours, large-€250/6 hours, extra large-€300/8 hours, mobile +34 649 936 222, www.spainfred.com).
Letango Tours offers private tours, packages, and stays all over Spain with a focus on families and groups. Carlos Galvin, a Spaniard who led tours for my groups for more than a decade, his wife Jennifer from Seattle, and their team of guides in Madrid offer a kid-friendly “Madrid Discoveries” tour that mixes a market walk and history with a culinary-and-tapas introduction (€295/group of up to 5, kids free, 3-plus hours). They also lead tours to Barcelona, whitewashed villages, wine country, and more (www.letango.com, email@example.com).
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- On Sale
- Dec 13, 2022
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Rick Steves