Spring Break in the Czech Republic comes much earlier than it does in the States. My “Spring Break” fell on the last week of February, but some of my friends had as early as the first week of the month off.
Fortunately, my school told me early on about all my days off for the year, so I began to plan what I wanted to do for Spring Break back in November. My only two requirements were somewhere A) warm and B) cheap. So, for the next week, I religiously stalked SkyScanner to find possible destinations.
For those who don’t know, SkyScanner is a website that takes all the flights out there and gives you your cheapest options. They have a fun feature where you type “Everywhere” for your destination and “Whole Month” for your timeframe so that you can not only see what countries are cheapest to fly to, but also play with the dates to get your cheapest flight possible. For example, if I wanted to search for a place to go to in April right now, I could get roundtrip tickets to Denmark and Hungary for $30.
I now list “Skyscanner” as one of my favorite free time activities.
I decided to let SkyScanner decide where I would go for Spring Break and it did not fail to find me a result that fulfilled my requirements.
Not long after I booked my flight and hostel, my friends, Stevie and Bethany, decided to join me before moving on to Portugal.
Getting to Madrid went smoothly. After a 3-hour flight, we took a pubic shuttle to the city center. We then walked to our hostels (we were staying at separate ones) to drop off our bags before going on a Free Walking Tour of the city.
The hostel I stayed at, 2060 The Newton Hostel, was amazing- so far the best hostel I’ve stayed in in Europe. The hostel provided nightly activities to get backpackers talking to one another, had a spa and rooftop view, gave out free churros, coffee, and tea for breakfast, and featured a number of cool artwork and quotes throughout.
We had reserved Free Walking Tour spots with a company that asked for everyone to meet up at Plaza del Callao. Us being us, we got to the plaza extra early and watched dance and art performers as we waited.
We became so caught up in the performances that we failed to notice that the tour guide assistant had showed up to check people in for the tour. Unfortunately, one of the tour guides was sick and the company could not accept everyone. Since we were not within the first 30 people to check-in (even though we were at the plaza first), we were not able to go on the tour.
Instead, we asked the very harassed tour guide assistant- charged with the responsibility of turning away 30 annoyed people- where we should go for some sights and tapas. She suggested the Malasaña neighborhood, which was the area I had been most excited to visit in Madrid after my coworker had told me it was a must-see place.
Malasaña is the ‘hipster’ neighborhood of Madrid. It is filled with bright colors, trendy cafés and quirky street art.
It also has some good backdrops for photo ops. Just saying.
Next, we strolled on over to Calle de la Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood.
This street, filled with quintessential Spanish architecture, is quiet during the day, but comes alive at night as people eagerly come out for a wide variety of tapas.
Awwww tapas… small dishes advertising the best of what Spain has to offer. The fact that they are sometimes served for free with a drink purchase makes them all the more delicious and likely to end up in my belly. Between the three of us, we split a cheese board, bread and olives, grilled veggies, and meat skewers.
That night, we then found another tapas bar that gave us free breadsticks, slices of meat, and tortilla de patatas with our glasses of wine.
I literally spent my 3 days in Madrid munching on tapas (and churros, courtesy of my hostel).
The next day, we joined a Free Walking Tour that was organized through my hostel. For those that don’t know, a lot of European cities provide Free Walking Tours to visitors. A guide takes you to a number of sights and provides you with a brief history of each place. At the end, the guide asks for donations and you simply give what you think is appropriate. It’s a pretty nice system.
Our tour guide ended up not being Spanish, but South African. He had visited Madrid because it was the cheapest option at the time on SkyScanner (he and I share the same hobby), fell in love with the city, and moved there.
He was a very enthusiastic guide and took us to many of the sights I had researched prior. However, he was able to give more insight on each place.
First we went to the Puerta del Sol (“Sun Gate”). This is the the most famous plaza in Madrid and is literally the heart of Spain- there’s even a plaque there that you can stand on that declares it to be the dead center point of the country.
Next, we stopped by Plaza De Isabel II:
Queen Isabel II was very fond of the arts and had this theater built. If you are under 30, you can get last minute tickets for performances up to 90% off.
After, we went to Palacio Real (the Royal Palace). The inside costs money, so we just stuck to the exterior and gardens:
Right across from the palace stood the Almudena Cathedral:
This church took a very long time to construct, simply because the government kept using the allotted money for its construction elsewhere. As a result, the cathedral contains architectural elements from many different time periods.
Since one of the entrances faces the Royal Palace, it was purposely made to be less magnificent than the other sides so that it wouldn’t upstage the beauty of the Royal Palace (I still thought it was pretty though…)
Our tour guide also took us to look at what is certifiably “the oldest restaurant in the world still continuously open”- Restaurante Sobrino de Botín
A man is posted out front to prevent anyone without a reservation from even walking inside.
The Walking Tour then ended at Plaza Mayor- known for its history of bloody executions and past bullfights:
Side story- the statue of the horse once had a firecracker accidentally blown at it. It created a hole and out came a bunch of old bones.
People speculated that they might be the bones of people once executed at the Plaza- until they realized that they were bird bones. Apparently, there was a little hole in the horse’s mouth that birds kept flying down and then getting stuck in. The horse’s stomach had literally become a bird graveyard. Obviously, they sealed the horse’s mouth as they made repairs to its stomach.
By the end of the tour, we were hungry and asked our tour guide for a recommendation of a paella place to eat at. He did one better and actually took us right to a place that made fresh and custom-made paella (usually paella is made for everyone and then just reheated over and over till it’s gone). Our tour guide then decided to join us for lunch and we all talked travel destinations and politics (it’s okay to discuss politics at the table when you’re not in America) as we ate through our tapas and paella.
Before leaving, our tour guide also gave us one last recommendation- to head over to the rooftop bar of Círculo de Bellas Artes for some of the best views of Madrid. I was a bit surprised that he recommended this view as it was listed everywhere on the internet as a must-do in Madrid. I had just figured that this was an overrated place.
But, I was proven very wrong.
The entrance fee and drinks were reasonably priced too. We spent the rest of the day soaking in some much-needed vitamin D.
As the sun started to descend, we then made it a mission to get to Cuartel de la Montaña Park for sunset. This park has an Egyptian temple in it.
Yes, you read that right.
The Templo de Debod was originally constructed by the Nile in Egypt. It was dismantled and donated to Madrid in order to save it from floods following the construction of a dam.
The temple consists of 2 archways and a small main building. It’s all laid-out over a pond of water, creating a beautiful reflection at sundown.
Unfortunately, when we went, the pond had been completely drained.
Aww well. It was still nice to see and just gives me another excuse of why I need to make it back to Madrid someday.
Instead, we walked to the park’s edge that overlooks a whole area of Madrid. There were people everywhere just plopped down and enjoying the view and warm weather. So, we decided to sit down and join them.
Finally, we ended the night with a trip to Chocolatería San Ginés. This is a 24/7 café that primarily sells churros with thick melted chocolate. It’s a very popular place to go and is the oldest Chocolatería in Madrid. Stevie, Bethany, and I split 6 churros between us and a cup of melted chocolate. However, I saw a lot of people splitting churros and getting a cup of chocolate for each person at the table. They would then just drink the leftover chocolate. Perhaps a bit unnecessary.
However, I really can’t talk too much on the topic as I’m a chocoholic myself and did not let our remaining chocolate go to waste.
I would love to say that the next day I “started fresh” and had a healthy and nutritious breakfast. But really, we visited La Mallorquina– the oldest bakery in Madrid (yes, another oldie place).
The place was crowded with people, claustrophoblically-so. However, the smells were tantalizing and everything was super cheap.
I got a chocolate pastry for breakfast and was promptly placed on a sugar high for the next few hours.
Luckily, the rest of the day was a lot more relaxed. We walked to El Retiro Park, where we passed La Puerta da Alcalá:
We then spent a fair amount of time relaxing by the park’s large lake. People were rowing boats, but we preferred our view from the monument’s steps.
We also went to the Palacio da Cristal (the Glass Palace):
It was an absolute beautiful and breathing structure to gaze at and walk in. It even had some quirkiness to it as well:
After some shopping on the Gran Via, we then headed over to Mercado de San Miguel. While not the Glass Palace, this indoor food vendor market had a pretty exterior that allowed you to glimpse all the tapas and goodies from within.
Mercado de San Miguel offered all the tapas that Madrid (as well as other parts of Spain) is known for. You can pick and choose as you go at a cheap cost.
It was the perfect dinner as Stevie and Bethany’s flight to Portugal took off later that night and they wanted something light to go.
Unfortunately for me, my flight back to Prague took off very early the next morning. Good thing the shuttle to the airport runs at all hours! And as an extra bonus, I got to walk through Madrid at the “dead of night,” which turns out is not so dead as Madrid is known for a wild night life. Guess that’s another excuse as to why I need to go back to Madrid 😉