Madrid was never really on my list. It was a point of entry and exit. A doorway. An introduction to the story, where you meet the main character, establish interest, and gear up for things to happen. In many ways, it was all that – but it was more than that, too.
I arrived in Madrid fresh from 30 hours of travel between four airports across roughly 14,000 kilometers. In my new pleather jacket, with backpack and shoulder bag in tow, I journeyed from airport to metro station to metro station to hostel, and quickly learned four things that would guide me through the rest of my travels:
- Be ready for all kinds of weather. Just because it was cold when you first stepped out on the street doesn’t mean it’ll still be so an hour later. And vice versa.
- No matter how light your backpack weighs on that scale, it’ll soon weigh double – or triple – as much on your shoulders.
- Never mind how heavy your bag is. You always have space for snacks. If you don’t, then make space.
- Questions ease the quest. To be specific, the Tourist Information desk is a traveler’s friend.
The sun glared past my shades, beating through my jacket as I walked down stone-lined streets. People went by, striding past buildings that belonged to the pages of architecture magazines. And there I was – a little lost and messy, a lot tired and hungry, and so, so amazed.
I’d made it. After years of dreaming and saying I would, there I was. In Spain.
I wondered how the world could be normal for everyone around me but so sparkly and new and promising for myself – a sentiment I felt over and over again throughout my trip. My heart beat fast with nearly equal parts anxiety and anticipation. I bounced from worries about the unknown to excitement about the possibilities. Back and forth, from what if? to what if!
Madrid reminded me of London. Dignified and cultured, with outstanding museums, shops for miles, and fancy, timeless buildings in muted tones. It was busy yet laid-back, big yet cozy, high-class yet surprisingly affordable.
The beauty of its streets was echoed in its people. Women and men alike, they were beautiful – their features finely sculpted, their eyes so expressive. And they were warm. Many of them didn’t speak English, but they weren’t snobbish about it. In fact, they made me feel sorry that I couldn’t speak Spanish.
In Madrid, I met me. A girl who’d happily walk for miles on end if it meant soaking in more of the city’s graceful architecture and peaceful gardens and loud storefronts. Who’d pinch pennies when it comes to food but shell out cash for another cup of café bombón (to keep her warm, she reasoned). Who’d eat in parks or her hostel bed because she was too shy to make small talk with strangers.
There, too, I met Míriam, a Brazilian girl studying law in Granada. She was my first roommate in the all-female 4-bed dorm I was upgraded to. Both tired from our travels, we took a nap that first afternoon in Madrid, then woke up to explore the city. We walked from our hostel down to Puerto del Sol on to Plaza Mayor. From there, we found the Catedral de la Almudena and Palacio Real and hiked up to the Temple of Debod to watch the sun setting over the city.
Later, over a glass of beer and my first taste of local paella, Míriam told me about the places she’d visited in between her classes and I shared my itinerary for the next few weeks. And as we hurried down the unexpectedly chilly Calle Gran Vía, ducking into random souvenir shops for warmth, I marveled at how a stranger could so quickly turn into a friend.
Prior to my trip, I’d been told that I could skip Madrid. I realized, though, that it was the perfect way to start my journey – and end it, too. But that’s a story for another day. 😉
Recommended things to do in Madrid:
- Go on a free walking tour. Most major cities in Europe offer these, and they’re a great way to get introduced to the city. I did the Sandemans tour with Jovan as my guide, who was both entertaining and educational.
- Explore the city on foot! From Calle Gran Vía, you can head toward the Royal Palace on the route I described above, or go to the opposite direction to Retiro, where you’ll find the Museum Triangle.
- Visit a museum. The Museo del Prado, Reina Sofía National Museum and Art Center, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art are the most popular, but there are many others still. All three major museums have free visiting hours on specific days, so you won’t have to spend to get your art fix.
- Shop. This isn’t usually part of my itinerary, but trust me when I say that Madrid makes for great shopping. You’ll find the major fashion brands there, including Mango, Zara, Stradivarius, and H&M – plus my newly discovered Lefties and Primark. If only my budget allowed for shopping!