Traveling with girlfriends is a great way to reconnect. To relive your youth and enjoy a much-needed break from the demands of work and family life. And although all-inclusive Caribbean vacations are wonderful, there’s something special about jetting off to Europe and immersing yourself in all that culture and history. Indulgent TMOM Andrea Traynor helps you plan a long weekend in Madrid — without the kids.
I visited Spain’s capital city this past autumn. And although I can tell you that I probably won’t be bringing my six and eight year olds there anytime soon, I would return in a heartbeat with my girlfriends. Even if you can’t get away for a week or more, plan a long weekend in Madrid. It’s fabulous and totally doable.
How To Plan a Long Weekend in Madrid
First, choose girlfriends who can push through jet lag. I don’t care how they do it: melatonin, an IV caffeine drip, advanced visualization techniques. For North Americans to make the most of a long weekend in Europe, you’ve got to take a red-eye and hit the ground running.
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That red-eye sucks, but it’s a must. And what you lose in restful sleep you gain in money since you don’t need to book an extra night’s hotel stay.
Where to Stay in Madrid
Speaking of hotel stays, I suggest one of two things: (1) Stay within walking distance of the Atocha Renfe train station. You can get on and off the Airport Express shuttle bus really easily here — and it’s only five euros to or from the Madrid airport! Or, (2) find a fabulous hotel on the Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s most famous thoroughfares.
I stayed at both the NH Atocha and the IBEROSTAR Las Letras Gran Vía during my visit to Madrid.
The NH Atocha offers budget-friendly accommodations that are located directly across from the Atocha Renfe station. It takes less than a minute to get there, so hopping on or off the Airport Express is a breeze. The downside is that the rooms are tiny. The “double beds” are European, and much smaller than our doubles in North America. Let me be clear: it’s a glorified single bed.
On the other hand, if you want to have a more indulgent long weekend in Madrid, there’s the beautiful IBEROSTAR Las Letras. I suggest splurging on a taxi to get you to and from the airport (around 30 euros each way). It’s far less complicated than trying to figure out transit, or taking the Airport Express to Atocha Renfe only to need a cab to get to the Gran Vía anyway.
How to Get Around in Madrid
If you’ve lived in a city like Seoul or London, a complex underground transit system will come easy to you. Every hotel’s front desk staff throughout the city can offer you a subway map. There are stops everywhere.
But if you’re from the suburbs or a small town where the only public transit with which you’re familiar are buses of the yellow variety, taxis are your friend. I found them very efficient and remarkably inexpensive. Few drivers spoke really good English, but I’d pull up the address I wanted on my smartphone and just show them.
Madrid is such a walkable city that you can do a lot on foot, so be sure to pack comfortable shoes! I did a couple of walking tours to get my bearings, always had a city map handy (again, available at every hotel) and found that locals were always willing to help steer me in the right direction.
What to do in Madrid
Since the city has so many attractions and activities, you can cover a lot in a long weekend. There’s something for die-hard shopaholics, foodies and architect-hunters alike. Here are the things I consider Madrid musts:
- Eat churros for breakfast. If you’re staying at the IBEROSTAR Las Letras, your breakfast is usually included and it’s delicious. Especially the freshly baked churros. But there are also kiosks and shops all over Madrid selling everything from chocolate-dipped churros to foot-long churros.
- Visit the Thyssen. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, that is. Perhaps not as world-renowned as The Prado, I loved the story behind the Thyssen — about a baroness, how she and her husband ended up in Spain and the government’s part in making their collection available to the public. It’s one of the most impressive examples of a private art collection I’ve ever seen, with works dating back to the 13th century. There are even times when it’s free to get in.
- Look up. Everywhere you walk — and I mean everywhere, even down alleyways — Madrid has the most incredible architecture, steeped in centuries of history. There are buildings from the 1500s nestled beside 20th-century architecture that will blow your mind.
- Find free tapas. Unless you’re in the heavy tourist areas of Madrid, tapas is free. Buy a drink, get free food. It’s really that straightforward.
- Eat roasted suckling pig in the world’s oldest restaurant. Or just have the gazpacho if you’re a vegetarian. Either way, Guinness World Recorde-holder Restaurante Botin is a very cool experience. Be sure to ask them to see the old wine cellar.
- Have the ox beef tartare and Ibérico ham at Atico 11. Open when the weather’s nice, this rooftop terrace restaurant offers the perfect setting for a night of girlfriend giggles and chit-chat among shared plates and to-die-for sangria. If it gets chilly, just ask for a fleece blanket.
- Indulge at Macera Taller Bar. A gin-friendly bar that features bartenders who artfully craft expensive cocktails by hand. They earned bonus points for making us feel like the most beautiful, interesting women in the room.
- See a flamenco show. There are several shows throughout Madrid, but the most famous is Cardamomo. Don’t bother with the dinner option when buying your tickets, and don’t expect much of your free drink, but be prepared for outstanding talent. It left me breathless, speechless and covered in goosebumps.
- Go shopping (even if it’s just window shopping) in Salamanca. Get yourselves to Calle de Serrano — “calle,” pronounced KYE-YAY, just means “street” — where all of the world’s luxury brands live. It’s basically Madrid’s answer to Rodeo Drive. Get up close and personal with Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna and Spain’s own Loewe. If you’re feeling extra-luxe and decide to buy something, don’t forget to have your passport on-hand so you can complete a tax-free form with the cashier. You can get all of the local taxes back, less a processing fee, at the airport.
- Bring home some Spanish EVOO. With olive groves dotting much of Spain, it should come as no surprise that the extra-virgin olive oil is drool-worthy. You can even get good-quality EVOO at the airport if you don’t manage to get some during your trek around the city.
Now all you need to do is co-ordinate schedules with your chosen girlfriends. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?