Top 10 experiences for families with teens & tweens to enjoy… and those to avoid.
Madrid is smack dab in the center of Spain. It’s a big city with a small town feel. The historic center is filled with beautiful old buildings, charming plazas, and lots of trees and parks. Most of the neighborhoods frequented by tourists are clean and well-maintained, and the few areas that aren’t quite as nice are easy to avoid. But if you only visit Madrid, you’ll be missing out. I strongly suggest venturing to some of the quaint towns less than an hour outside of Madrid, easily reached by train.
With fantastic transportation and a major international airport, Madrid also makes for a great stop on a multi-city tour. It’s less expensive than other European heavy hitters, but most of all, the city is family-friendly!
Here are my top picks for things to do when visiting with teens and tweens, plus what you may want to avoid in Spain’s capital city.
1/Start with a bike tour
My family and I started our trip by taking the 3-hour Madrid Highlights bike tour with Baja Bikes. What a fun way to get familiar with the city and visit several sights in a short period of time.
After getting fitted for bikes and slathering ourselves with sunscreen, we were off. There are more than ten stops on the tour including plazas, parks, and a palace. Several of the places that we visited we may never have seen had we not taken the tour, like the Miguel de Cervantes Monument in the Plaza de España. While on the tour, I made a mental list of the places that we wanted to come back to on foot. About two hours into the ride, we stopped for cold drinks (included in the tour) at a sidewalk cafe in the Literary Quarter.
Our bikes were well-maintained, comfortable, and easy to ride. You can pay about $24 extra for an electric bike, but none of us needed assistance. We only pedaled uphill two or three times and only for short distances. Our English-speaking guide was friendly and knowledgeable, though his presentation needed a little polish. He did a good job of herding our group when we got split up at traffic lights and made sure that we all made it safely across any busy intersections.
Much of the ride was on narrow streets with little or no traffic, except for pedestrians. We did ride amid light traffic on large boulevards including a stretch on Paseo del Prado. Though drivers around us were not aggressive and lanes were clearly marked, the bike lanes were in between lanes of traffic, which made my husband a little nervous. We made sure one of us was always behind our kids, keeping an eye on them just in case someone needed help. It’s something to consider if your kids aren’t used to riding in traffic and why I’d recommend this activity for kids ages 10 and up.
Helmets are required for kids under 16 and available to anyone else who asks for one. Ponchos are provided in case of bad weather or you also have the option to reschedule or cancel without penalty. Reservations must be made online; you’ll pay in person. Cost for the Madrid Highlights or Madrid with Kids 3-hour tour: Youth (under 16) about $23; Adults about $30, depending on exchange rate.
2/Attend a flamenco show
“¡Bravo!” Our favorite experience in Madrid was an evening of flamenco at Teatro Flamenco Madrid. We chose this company because we heard that it was less touristy and more authentic than other places in town, and we weren’t disappointed. Our whole family absolutely loved their appropriately named show, Emociones (which means emotions), full of passion from start to finish. It’s a great way to immerse yourselves in some uniquely-Spanish culture.
When the lights came up on the first singer, who contorted his face and hands while he sang as if he were anguished, I thought my kids may get turned off. On the contrary, they were hooked. He soon was joined by a female singer, a guitarist, and two dancers, all of whom filled the theater with energy. You could tell that they all love what they do. The male dancer expertly played the castanets and spun so fast, you could see a spray of sweat from his hair fling through the air. The female dancer manipulated a huge, fringed shawl and kicked up the heavy, ruffled train of her dress with such drama. And of course, there was a lot of clapping and intricate foot stomping. “¡Olé!”
Performances are held nightly at 6:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. and last just 60 minutes, the perfect length of time for kids. The air-conditioned, black box theater is intimate with several rows of tables and about 5 rows of raised theater seating behind them. For a VIP experience, reserve a table and arrive 30 minutes early for drinks and a platter of Iberian jamón (ham) and cheese.
Cost of show only: Youth (6-12) about $14.50; Students about $19; Adults about $30, depending on exchange rate. Cost of reserved table, plus 1 drink: Youth about $26.50; Students about $35; Adults about $46, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: If you’d like, you can stick around after the show to meet the performers. The theater staff and cast members are quite friendly and welcoming.
Photo courtesy: Teatro Flamenco Madrid
3/Tour the royal palace
The King and Queen of Spain don’t live in Madrid’s Palacio Real anymore, but it’s still their official residence, so they do use it for important occasions of state. The rest of the time, it’s open to the public. The royal palace is huge - the largest in the world - but the tour only includes a portion of the rooms. You can get through it all without feeling rushed in about two hours. We were impressed with the lavish décor, especially in the dining room where the table was set for 50 guests and the room was lit by more chandeliers than we’ve ever seen in one place.
Don’t miss the two-story armory at the far end of the courtyard, filled with swords, shields, and suits of armor. There’s even kid-sized armor that was worn by young Spanish princes who began their training at an early age. The armory is included with your admission to the palace. Cost: Children (0-5) Free; Youth (5-16) & Students about $6; Adults about $12, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: If you buy your tickets online, you’ll stand in a much shorter line to go through security before entering the palace. If you have a backpack, you’ll need to store it in a locker that rents for 1 euro coin. When you retrieve your belongings, the coin is returned. If the lockers are all taken, you’ll have to wait until one opens up. Smaller handbags are allowed inside. If you can avoid bringing a backpack, I’d recommend it.
On Saturday, we passed by the palace on our bike tour just as the Changing of the Guard ceremony was happening on Calle de Bailén. Every Wednesday and Saturday, this ceremony takes place on the hour and half hour between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (July - September, between 10 a.m. and noon). A much larger, longer, and more elaborate ceremony takes place the first Wednesday of the month (with some exceptions).
Directly across from the palace is Madrid’s Catedral de la Almudena which is open to the public every day, free of charge.
4/Enjoy a morning in the park
Our favorite park in Madrid is El Parque del Buen Retiro, an enormous city park behind the Prado Museum showcasing manicured gardens, well-maintained lawns, and a turtle pond by the Crystal Palace that’s also home to a couple of black swans. My boys sat at the water’s edge for a whole hour watching the turtles. We went on a Tuesday morning, and except for landscape crews and a few joggers and dog owners, we practically had the whole park to ourselves. It’s much busier on weekends, when Madrileños meet for picnics and take their children to puppet shows. You can rent bikes and rowboats, and there are lots of open spaces to toss a ball or Frisbee. There are a few playgrounds, too, for younger children.
KidTripster Tip: Pack or purchase something for family fun, such as a Frisbee or small ball. Taking time out from sightseeing to play is something everyone will appreciate.
5/Eat your fill of churros
Our kids loved having a breakfast of churros with rich, hot chocolate at the oldest chocolatería in Madrid, the famous Chocolatería San Gines. Serving crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside ropes of deep fried dough and thick, hot chocolate since 1894, this spot is popular with tourists and celebrities. (See if you can find any celebrities that you know on the Wall of Fame.)
Chocolatería San Gines sells nothing to eat but churros and a bigger, fatter version of churros called porras. We ordered four servings, and even though we arrived hungry, we still couldn’t finish them all! Our entire breakfast, including a cup of thick - and I mean thick - hot chocolate for dipping was only about $3/person. What a deal!
KidTripster Tip: You can get free glasses of water here. Most places in Madrid will only sell you bottled water.
Chocolatería San Gines is open 24 hours a day and is easy to find. It’s just a few minutes walk from both the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, right in the center of town. Don’t worry if you see a line to get in; it moves quickly.
KidTripster Tip: The churros and porras are dairy-free and vegan, but the chocolate is not; so if you can’t have dairy, ask for sugar packets to sprinkle on your churros instead.
6/To Prado or not to Prado
To Prado! My husband and kids don’t particularly love museums, but I do, and Museo Nacional del Prado is one that I didn’t want to miss. It houses one of the finest collections of European art anywhere. The museum is open until 8 p.m. most days, so while my husband and boys enjoyed a late afternoon siesta at our apartment, I visited the Prado by myself.
Admission is free during the last two hours of each day, but you’ll likely have to wait in a long line to get in. It stood in line for about 45 minutes, but I made the most of it by chatting with the people around me. We shared about places that we’d been and things we’d done, and pretty soon, we were going through the security checkpoint and racing to the masterpiece that everyone comes to see - Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. No matter how many times you see a famous painting in a book, it just doesn’t compare to standing in front of the original. In one hour and 15 minutes, I was able to see all the highlights of the museum, plus a few other pieces before the guards started shooing people out. Cost outside of free hours: Youth (0-17) Free; Students (18-25) Free; Adults about $18, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t be afraid to split up on vacation like we did. I had a wonderful few hours by myself doing something I love without anyone asking, “are we done yet?,” and everyone else was happy to relax.
7/Take the train to Toledo
Holy Toledo! Our family loved this charming hilltop town, once known as “The City of Three Cultures” for its centuries-long history of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim peaceful coexistence. Madrileños also call it “The Leg Breaker,” and once you’ve spent a day walking up and down the hilly streets, you’ll understand why.
KidTripster Tip: Save your legs by taking a taxi from the train station to the Mirador de Valle viewpoint. Ask your driver to wait for you, as there are no taxis here to take you back. When you’re done taking in the view, have your driver continue to Plaza Zocodover. From there, it’s a nice walk downhill to most every sight. When you get to the river at the bottom of town, taxi back to the train station for your return to Madrid. Total cost for both taxis: about $20, depending on exchange rate.
You could visit the Alcazar, an old fortress-turned-military museum, but since we’d just seen the armory at Madrid’s Royal Palace, we headed straight to Catedral Primada. Admission to the cathedral includes a wonderful audio tour. Each audio device has its own touch screen display; my kids took on the role of making sure each member of the family started the next chapter in sync - “one, two, three, and go.” The tour is so interesting, and the cathedral is filled with such wonderful treasurers - including paintings by Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco - that it kept my family engaged for almost two hours. Afterwards, we enjoyed lunch at the dining area in the back of the gift shop, right next to a suit of armor. Tour cost with bell tower: about $15/person. Tour cost without bell tower: about $12/person, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Pay a bit extra to climb to the top of the bell tower, which is included as a stop on the audio tour.
Next, we wandered the darling little cobbled streets of Toledo, stopping to visit the shop of Mariano Zamorano (Calle Ciudad 19) where swords and other blades are still crafted by hand. Three men, including Mr. Zamorano, were hard at work with blowtorches and anvils. It was interesting to watch, but there was no one to explain what they were doing, so we lost interest after a few minutes. Right next door is Artesanía El Pasadizo (Calle Ciudad 17), a Damascene jewelry shop run by five brothers. One of them gave us a private demonstration (in Spanish), enthusiastically sharing how he inlays gold and silver threads to make the jewelry designs. Prices are reasonable, so I took home a few pairs of earrings.
Before taking the train back to Madrid, we treated ourselves to a little thrill: ziplining across the Tagus River with Fly Toledo. It’s just one 22-second flight, but it’s a nice change of pace from sightseeing, and what a view! The instructors spoke English and made us feel safe and comfortable. After flying across the gorge, you’ll walk back over a beautiful bridge called the Puente de San Martín. Cost: about $12/person. No reservations; just show up.
KidTripster Tip: Everything is uphill from here, so save ziplining (or visiting the Puente de San Martín) for the end of your trip. When you check in, ask one of the staff members to call a cab to take you back to the train station when you’re ready.
My whole family thought that Toledo was beautiful and delightfully quiet. At just 35 minutes by train from Madrid, we spent 5 hours exploring and still made it back in time for our afternoon siesta. Cost for round-trip train ticket: about $24/person. The tickets are easy to purchase online in advance from Renfe.
KidTripster Tip: If you arrive at Toledo’s train station with time to kill, there’s a mini market across the street that sells licorice and various types of sweet and sour gummy candy in bulk bins. We all got cold drinks here, and my youngest son bought enough candy to last a week, which, of course, was gone by the time we got back to Madrid.
8/Live like a local & take a siesta
As a family of four, it’s hard to feel comfortable crammed into one small hotel room, so whenever possible, we like to rent a house or flat where we have room to stretch out and make ourselves at home. For about the same price as a single hotel room, we had a living area, full kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and laundry facilities. I’m willing to give up daily maid service anytime for the extra space and amenities.
In Spain, as in other Mediterranean countries, the traditional afternoon siesta is still alive and well. We didn’t sleep during our daily siestas, but it was lovely to come back to an air-conditioned hideaway where everyone could kick off their shoes and relax after spending half the day touring the city. We’d make a late lunch or early dinner and get re-energized for the evening.
That’s another bonus of renting a flat: the ability to cook your own meals. My family manages multiple food allergies, which makes eating out difficult. But even if we could eat out every meal, I think that we’d still prefer cooking at “home” in the kitchen of our rental. We enjoy walking to the neighborhood market to stock up on ingredients for dinner and then cooking healthy, family favorites that we know everyone likes. It’s more relaxing, less expensive than eating out, and forces us to interact with the locals in the markets.
In Spain, we used Airbnb, Homeaway, and Veo Apartments and had great experiences with all three companies. Click here to see the charming and spacious apartment that we stayed at in Madrid.
Photo courtesy: Homeaway
9/What about bullfights?
Bullfights are a part of Spanish culture, though a controversial one, and they still take place weekly in Madrid at the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas from mid-March through mid-October. Here’s a few things you should know if your family is interested in attending one of these traditional spectacles.
First, bullfights are bloody. Six bulls are fought in the course of a few hours, and they are almost never spared. Second, it’s not a fair fight. The matadors and banderilleros have wooden partitions to hide behind if they feel that they are in danger, and before the bull ever faces off against the matador’s red cape and sword, he is tired out, confused, and stabbed in the back repeatedly, drawing a lot of blood. The bulls may outweigh the men who fight them by several hundred pounds, but they’re not intelligent enough to figure out the inevitable. Click here to learn more about what happens in a bullfight. Despite the gore, our KidTripster Teens thought the bullfight was exciting - an adrenaline rush unlike anything they’d ever seen.
If you’re still interested in attending, it’s easy to buy tickets in person an hour before the fight. Let the agent at the window know what your budget is, and whether you’d like to sit in the shade (sombra), sun (sol) or a combination (sombra/sol), and he or she will pick out the best available seats for you. Cost: varies from about $9 to $122/person, depending on the type of fight, where you sit, and the exchange rate.
10/Skip some sights
Puerta del Sol is a very busy plaza with a smaller, classier, yet still touristy Times Square-like vibe. Street performers dressed in knock-off Mickey Mouse costumes walk around looking for anyone who appears interested in taking their photo. (We also saw the Mario Brothers and a blood-spattered Chuckie.) These people work entirely for tips and can be a bit annoying though not overly aggressive. You may want to come here to see the famous El Oso y El Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree) statue, which is the symbol of Madrid. Other than that, I’d avoid Puerta del Sol.
El Rastro is a Sunday morning flea market in the Latina neighborhood that sounded romantic but was disappointing. Stalls selling blue jeans, painted fans, and soccer jerseys lined the streets. Our boys were unimpressed. Also certain parts of La Latina felt a bit gritty, like the area around the Tirso de Molina metro stop, so be aware.
Elizabeth Ely Moreno is married with two teenaged sons and lives in Portland, Oregon. She and her oldest took a tour of Italy before meeting her husband and younger son in Madrid, the starting point of their two-week tour of Spain. She ended up liking Spain even better than Italy!
This writer received some complimentary admissions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.