12 Hours in Madrid with Rick Steves
A little over a month ago I had the chance to spend a fun-filled, 12-hour day with Rick Steves, who was in town updating the Madrid chapter of his 2017 Spain guidebook. Rick likes to meet up with local guides in each city when doing guidebook research in order to hit the ground running.
We met up on a Saturday morning at 10am, and started with a quick pastry and café con leche at La Mallorquina in Puerta del Sol, still going strong since it opened in 1894. We then set off on his “Puerta del Sol to Royal Palace Loop”, which includes a good part of the historic Austrias neighborhood.
Heading up calle postas (which now has way too many tacky tourist shops we both agreed), we walked into Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, where Rick was amazed by the dramatic facelift carried out since he last visited two years ago. In preparation for Plaza Mayor’s 400th birthday, city hall launched a major cleaning-up project, with the most visible part being the newly painted facades and sparkling-white wooden shutters seen in the photo above.
Current mayor Manuela Carmena wants to go even further, turning Plaza Mayor into an open-air cultural center with an annual agenda of events whose themes would change each month. What a great turn around for the city’s main square, which only a few years ago brought constant criticism for its shabby worn-down nature (see below).
Next we stopped in at the Plaza Mayor branch of Mistura for a quick ice cream sample and another coffee. While it’s well known that Mistura offers some of the city’s best ice cream, their incredible coffee is equally worthy of a stop when strolling the Plaza Mayor.
However, if you’re nowhere near Plaza Mayor but happen to be close to the Gran Vía avenue – another walk included in Rick’s book – Mistura recently opened their 3rd branch there. It’s located inside the enormous New Balance store, where you can load up on caffeine and ice cream before running out the door in a new pair of sneakers.
From Mistura, we walked over to the Mercado de San Miguel, which as you can see from the video below, was jam-packed with lots of great energy. The historic St. Michael’s covered food market – built exactly 100 years ago – is one of the city’s great success stories of the last decade.
After a beautiful multi-year restoration, the market reopened in 2009. Since then, it has triumphed as a culinary cultural center, combining traditional market stands with top quality tapas bars, and offering a new economic model for struggling covered markets across the city.
From there we made our way down towards Madrid’s Royal Palace, where I mentioned the joke that we say here in Spain about making yourself the Swede in order to get away with something. Rick cracked up and had me repeat the story on video.
After a short lunch break, we decided to jump on the #27 bus to head up the Paseo de la Castellana avenue. This wonderful 40 minute bus ride, takes you from the bottom of the Paseo del Prado avenue, up through the Paseo de Recoletos and into modern Madrid along the Paseo de la Castellana. This self-guided bus tour in Rick’s book will now have a sizeable chunk of great new information in the 2017 edition.
Having reached the end of the line, we taxied back to the delightful Joaquín Sorolla museum in the Chamberí neighborhood, which Rick liked so much he added a triangle to the description. This museum is dedicated to the works of Spain’s most famous luminist painter. Apart from the fantastic collection found throughout Sorolla’s turn-of-the-century house, the museum’s peaceful garden is equally enjoyable. On a sunny day it’s an oasis of calm, with shady pergolas, tile-lined benches, and the sounds of trickling water.
After the museum, we headed to Madrid’s old literary quarter, known as El Barrio de Las Letras, where we tackled part of the Eating in Madrid chapter. Unfortunately, due to how late it was, I wasn’t able to show Rick one of my favorite new finds of the year, Juan D’Alessandro’s wonderful artisan pastry shop Motteau. We did however pay a visit to my favorite wine bar Casa Gonzalez, among a host of other bars and restaurants.
Rick commented more than once how dynamic the Madrid restaurant scene was, and I could tell he was excited by the new material for 2017. It reminded me that Rick is the only one who updates his guidebooks annually, with other publishers putting out new editions every 2-3 years, which is an eternity for a big city like Madrid.
In the end, we finished up a little after 10pm, tired but energized by how much we’d covered. On a personal note, I was constantly impressed by how generous Rick was with his time when stopped over and over again in the streets. I doubt anyone realized how much he needed to get done that day, yet he never hesitated to chat with travelers.
He even interrupted a family who had their heads buried in the 2016 edition. Walking up to them, he asked, “is that book any good?” How many other guidebook companies could claim that their CEO is out doing the same?
After the family’s initial surprise, we found out that their son had in fact gone to high school and university with Rick’s daughter Jackie. It just goes to show how wonderfully vast and yet how wonderfully small the world can be, only made possibly when we continue to travel.
Last update: June 10, 2016