It’s 9.30pm and I’m sat outside a lively little bar in the Plaza del Dos de Mayo with a glass of red wine. My two-year-old is conked out in her pram while across from me in the playground my five-year-old and six-year-old are shrieking with laughter from either side of a substantial seesaw. I needn’t have worried about how I would manage Madrid with three children in tow. They have slipped into the rhythm of the city with little fuss. Waking later and revelling in the post-dinner trips to the playgrounds in the squares while I soak up that intoxicating mix of vino tinto and bonhomie that’s to be found in every corner of this dynamic capital.
I’ve been visiting a friend in Madrid regularly for over decade and until now all of my trips have been done alone giving me the freedom to roam at leisure by day and socialise late into the night. Having children with me made me, for the first time, sit down and see what Madrid offered by way of attractions and distractions. Of course I knew about the green oasis of the Retiro Park, but I didn’t know it boasted at least three playgrounds, each with different equipment and atmosphere. I knew of the world famous Prado gallery, but I didn’t know Madrid had a zoo with pandas. I was also aware that the city had a palace, but it had never occurred to me to visit it.
With children I abandoned the flaneur approach to my city visit and instead engaged with Madrid in a more orderly and equally rewarding way. From discovering bright-coloured 1970s children’s clothes in the secondhand Humana stores, to scoffing chocolate and churros, my three children delighted in Madrid as much as me.
If you are planning a family visit to Madrid here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Enjoying the penguins. Photo: Antonia Windsor
Situated in the Casa di Campo, about a €10 taxi ride from the centre of town, this is a full day out and made the perfect “treat day” in our one-week stay. The shows, which include dancing dolphins, each run once in the morning and once in the afternoon so you have time to space them out with time spent watching the pandas munching bamboo, or the rhinos rolling in mud. At 20-hectares it’s a large site, but you can hire a cart to push the children in if that makes it easier and there are also lockers to store heavy bags. The kids delighted in watching the chimpanzees and also exploring the petting zoo where they fed the goats and sheep. The shows are in Spanish but there is lots to look at and the language barrier didn’t seem to bother the kids.
Kids love playgrounds and the Retiro Park has quite a few. Photo: Antonia Windsor
This wonderful oasis in the middle of the city is a great spot for the kids to let off steam and find shade on a hot day. You can take four people out in a little wooden rowing boat on the lake for just €6 in the week and €8 at weekends. The largest playground is right by the metro at Retiro and has a sandy section for toddlers and a large adventure playground for older children. There is also a smaller playground by Ibiza metro near a grassy wooded area and toilets, making it a perfect spot for picnics. Another playground can be found near the Gate of Spain on the West side, which is easily reachable from the Prado, so good option for a post-gallery play.
A traditional Carousel adds extra fun at the Royal Palace in Madrid. Photo: Fiona Govan
The queues can get long to visit the official residence of the Spanish royal family, particularly if you are trying to visit at weekend. If you are two adults then one can take the children off to the playground opposite the entrance while the other waits in line, otherwise aim to get there when it opens at 10am. Children will delight in the sheer grandeur of the rooms; particularly the throne room with its chandeliers and ornate thrones guarded by lion statues. For kids with their heads in Disney it is a revelation to them that kings and queens really do exist and really do live in palaces.
What child (and parent) wouldn’t love Chocolate con Churros, Spain’s ultimate sweet indulgence?
The chocolate is rich, thick and more like a chocolate sauce that the hot milky drink my children are used to and they love dipping the long sticks of dough into the cup before messily smearing it over their faces on the way to their mouths.
The calorific treat is best eaten in the morning – Spaniards consider it a breakfast option – and you may struggle to find it being served after midday.
The famous place to go is the classic Madrid establishment, Café San Gines off Calle Mayor, where you will be likely met with queues out the door. The atmosphere in the charming establishment which opened in 1890 is something special, but the kids won’t really care.
If you want to avoid the queues just head to any decent Chocolatería, such as Valor, which can be found dotted across the city.