MADRID & TOLEDO, SPAIN - Highlights & Tips

Always fun to meet up with hometown friends who happen
to have a similar travel itinerary.
We were blessed to go to Spain over the holidays  - 2016 (See travel tips near the end).   

Madrid Itinerary: Royal Palace, Plaza de Oriente, Catedral de Sta Maria de la Almudena, Jardin de Sabatini, Merry Go Round, soccer/football shirts (Real Madrid), Reina Sofia (Picasso/Guerneca, Miro, Dali), coffee with Austin friends, and tapas at, where hipsters go after work. We took the non-touristy way to the palace and got lost for about an hour and a half (but saw some cool neighborhoods). Overall, we walked about 8 miles in Madrid on day two. Had fun but experienced some crankies.

 Inside on the grand staircase of the Palacio Real. The only place in the interior where pictures are allowed. It is dubbed the third greatest palace in Europe, after Versaille and Vienna's Schonbrunn. You are only allowed to tour the first floor of the 2,800 room. The royal family now lives in a mansion a few miles away, but the palace still functions as the ceremonial palace for formal receptions. I think this was everyone's favorite tourist spot in Madrid and each room has a nice explanation. —
Mountainous view outside of Royal Palace - Madrid

Jardin de Sabatini - close to sundown. Next to Royal Palace.

Gardens approaching the Plaza Oriente by the Royal Palace.

Sometimes your daughter wants to jump in your arms - even if she is taller than you.
Carousel ride outside of the Royal Palace - Madrid

Side entrance - Catedral de Sta Maria de la Almudena/next to the Royal Palace - Madrid

Policia - preparing for the official event at the Royal Palace - Madrid.

Must purchase a soccer/futbol jersey while in Spain.  Go Royal Madid - The girls chose to put Ronaldo's name and number on the back of the jersey.

Outside Mercado de San Miguel - - The historic iron-and-glass structure from 1916 that hosts around 30 food vendors.
Inside Mercado de San Miguel/Madrid 

Always fun to run into hometown friends who are traveling as well.
Monk fish, sea urchins, and other seafood .  Monk Fish - Cute or creepy?- Mercado de San Miguel/Madrid.

Toledo, Spain. Toledo is known as the "city of three cultures", due to the coexistence of centuries of Christians, Arabs and Jews until The Spanish Inquisition when Queen Isabella I ordered the Jews and Moors/Muslims to leave Spain or convert to Catholicism. She wanted to create a "unified" Spain. (History seems to repeat itself). You can see the Moor influence in this city. The Gothic style Cathedral is considered the best in Spain and the bishop is the most powerful in the nation. We ate marzipan, venison stew, & partridge croquettes. World renowned knives and swords are made in Toledo. Swords seen in BRAVEHEART and LORD OF THE RINGS came from Toledo.

Toledo, a medieval fortress city, is protected on three sides by The Tajo River. 
Toledo Train Station. Notice the influence from the Moors. The Moors were the builders in the city.

Catedral Primada - Toledo

Catedra Primada - Toledo, Spain
Monstrance of Arfe - Toldeo. 
The Bishop's House (bigger than the city hall) to the left and the Cathedral. Known as one of the best in Spain. Spain's historic capital and region's judicial center and was once housed in Toledo but moved to Madrid, because the bishop was too powerful. The bishop is still the most powerful in Spain.

Toledo, Spain - A fortress city. Surrounded by a medieval wall and the Tajo River.

Narrow, cobblestone, hilly streets of Toledo, Spain

Travel tips:  When planning the trip, we reviewed our frequent flyer miles and hotel point availability.  We determined which hotels made the most sense when redeeming award points and what airports had the lowest fees/taxes.  If we would have connected through Heathrow, we would have had to pay exorbitant airport fees/taxes, so we had to find other options to make using our frequent flyer miles actually worth it.  DFW and Miami ended up being our connecting points. 
From the Madrid airport, it was very easy to take the the metro to our hotel, Intercontinental Madrid (highly recommend).  Once you exit immigration, be prepared for a maze of escalators. If you have kids and they are tired, you can imagine tackling these is a feat.  Our nine year-old did not sleep the entire plane ride, so there was a complaint, refusal to move, or suitcase debacle at every turn.   Once off the escalators, I would recommend finding a bathroom before exiting to transportation.  We looked for signs to the metro, found an informational booth (in case you have questions) and a dispensing machine.  A three day tourist card is easily accessible through the machine.  If you have children, make sure your look for the kid prices.  If you buy a single rider, prices are the same for kids and adults.   While in Madrid, we walked, used buses, and sometimes taxis to get around.   

We were all exhausted by the time we arrived at our hotel around 10am.  When checking in, they asked if we would like to upgrade to the club level for 55 euros a day.  We did and received a large room with a sitting area and access to light snacks and drinks in the club lounge, plus a hearty breakfast buffet every morning. I have always heard it is good to stay up the first day, but we all took a nap. At 4pm, I aroused everyone  (to their dismay), we stopped for a snack in the club lounge, and then walked to the Prado Museum to take advantage of their free entry from 6pm-8pm.  Because the Prado is so large and we had less than two hours after waiting in line, we rented the children's audio tour and off we went to see some highlights (a few in this link were on the tour).  I would recommend picking up an "adult" map as the children's map was not well marked. (Other museums have free evening hours as well.  Check their websites).   Because we were all exhausted due to jet lag, we took the bus back to our hotel instead of walking, stopped into the club lounge for more food, and prepared for bed.

On day two, we slept in and ventured out to the Royal Palace.  Unfortunately or fortunately, my husband decided to take us on the alternative walking route (via Google maps), so we were lost for over an hour and a half but walked through some interesting neighborhoods. We were all a little mad at "dad" and were starving after all the walking, so we stopped for some pizza, back tracked to an Adidas store on the Gran Via for an official futbol jersey, and eventually headed to the Royal Palace.  We got a little lost again, and when we arrived it was closed due to an official event (Should have checked the website).   However, we made the best of it, took some pictures of the exterior, rode the carousel, watched the police unload their horses, and then, took the metro to the Reina Sofia Museum were we viewed some contemporary artwork from Dali, Miro, Picasso/Guernica, Gris and others.  However, everyone was cranky from all of the walking (8 miles this day), so I'm not sure how much anyone besides myself appreciated the art...but my mom thought, "It's about the exposure." Then, we met up with some friends for hot chocolate at Starbucks.  I know "not local", but when everyone is on the edge, a taste from home is comforting.  Afterwords, we went for tapas at a hip restaurant near our hotel.  

On the third day we took the, train to a medieval fortress town where Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived in harmony until Queen Isabella ordered everyone to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.  Luckily, there are preserved mosques and temples.  Toledo is only a 30 minute train ride from Madrid.  Because we knew we were pressed for time and wanted to make the trip interesting for the kids, we hired a private guide, Juanjo, as recommended by Rick Steves.  The fortressed walls of the city, cobblestone streets, cathedral and Grecos in the cathedral's museum area were amazing, and the Artesania Morales knife/sword store and Santo Tome marzapan shop  were highlights for the kids.  Booking a train ride via Spain's official train website,, was glitchy.  We were able to book our train ride to Valencia via the website, but gave up on others (to Toledo & Barcelona) and used Be aware of travel change and cancellation policies.  Traveling "Tourista" class is perfectly comfortable and felt safe. 

On day three, we went to Mercado de San Miguel, toured the interior of the Royal Palace, grabbed our bags from the hotel, and took a taxi to the train station for our next stop, Valencia. The Royal Palace was everyone's favorite in Madrid. 

More tips:  When traveling in the winter, a light foldable down jacket and medium to heavy fleece or sweater is recommended. All layers are typically needed in the mornings and late afternoons/evenings.  We were all fine in tennis shoes and for the most part did not need our gloves, hats or scarves.  Temperatures ranged from 60-30 degrees.

Notify your bank (ATM) and credit card company(s) before you leave.  Determine which credit card has the best or no exchange rate fee. 

Many people speak English, so don't let the fear of not knowing Spanish stop you from traveling to Spain, but if you are willing, having a little knowledge before you go is helpful.  Our library had a free online resource/language learning app and some CDs/books to loan.  Does yours?

Check with your phone company. Ours has an international pass for $10 a day.   Easier and more reliable than switching and searching for a sim card when you enter a country.  We dedicated one phone for this and turned data off on the others. However, we did activate it on another phone for two days when we were not all together.

During high peak travel, allow extra time for security in the train station.  If you buy an artisan knife or sword in Toledo, alert security before you pass your bag through the scanner and the knife/sword must be wrapped (ours was wrapped in paper like a present), and you must have your receipt.  

Request VAT receipts at stores  - usually you have to spend close to or at least $100 for a store to be willing. Some stores will ask for your passport number.   Don't forget to process your receipts at the airport, and allow extra time for the paperwork at the airport VAT office and to retrieve your money at the "global bank/exchange."  I sorted the qualified receipts (only three) the night before we left, so whole process was really pretty easy.  

Upon leaving Spain, also budget time for immigration.  Security was typical, but the immigration line at the entrance to our airport gate area was unexpectedly long.  We felt pressed for time but made it before the plane started boarding.


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