The Westin Palace – Madrid, Spain

The Westin Palace offered a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) “Cash & Points” rate during our weekend in Madrid.  SPG’s “Cash & Points”, which allows a combination of points and currency to be used to pay for a stay, often provides the best redemption rates on rewards.  They aren’t frequently offered, especially in Europe.  The availability of a low cost option for us to stay in Madrid at a luxurious hotel actually led us to extend our planned stay in Madrid by one night, and ultimately led to our selection of the Westin Palace.  In fact, we did not perform any of our usual hotel research for Madrid.  The Westin Palace clearly shined as a reputable hotel with a prime location adjacent to the Prado Museum.

Price. The cash rate offered during our stay was €245.  Accordingly, in our particular situation, the $90 + 4800 points “Cash & Points” option was nearly a 5% reward rate ($/points).  For SPG credit card holders, this is a great value for reward points (compare to the 1% and 2% reward options most credit card companies offer).  For those seeking to pay the cash rate for a stay at the Westin Palace, the hotel probably offers a value on par with similar international luxury brand hotels in Madrid.

Location. The Westin Palace is in a great location in the Museum District of Madrid.  The Prado is literally across the street, and lively Plaza de Santa Ana is a short 10-minute walk with plenty of excellent dining options.  Although the Museum District has plenty to offer, it’s not exactly central.  Ironically, the Royal Palace of Madrid is on the opposite side of the city center, over a 20 minute walk from the hotel.  Plaza Mayor, also west of the city center, is about 15 minutes.  Without better knowledge of the accommodation options in the center of town, however, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that the Museum District is not a good location.

Our room at The Westin Palace was modernly furnished and decorated with enjoyable prints of Spanish landscapes and people.

Room. We stayed in a recently renovated Deluxe Room.  Our SPG Gold Status earned us an upgrade from a room without renovations (at least that’s what we gathered from the reception desk).  The room was very modernly furnished, with several enjoyable prints of Spanish landscapes and people for decoration. The bathroom remodel was especially impressive, adorned with natural stone and equipped with luxury fixtures. Our room overlooked the main intersection with the hotel.  There was no balcony, but there was a small place to sit next to the window for people watching. I noticed their window here, and I’m looking for a window installation near me because I’m planning to do something like this at home. Anyway, other than the lack of an outdoor space, we had no complaints about our accommodations.

Dining.  There are several food & drink options at The Westin Palace, but all were out of our price range.  We did splurge on one round at the bar (cocktails were as much as €20!).  We managed breakfast on our own, however.  We were excited about advertisements for a terrace with drink service both on the web and in the hotel elevators.  The terrace ended-up being a complete disappointment.  Firstly, it took a confusing and circuitous journey through the hotel’s fitness center on the top floor to reach.  Then, upon arriving, there were just a few tables with practically no view and a telephone to the lobby for drink orders.  We also did not eat breakfast at The Westin Palace, as the buffet cost an excessive €45.  If you plan on staying at The Westin Palace and have a limited budget, plan on finding dining options elsewhere.

Amenities.  As a 5-star hotel, The Westin Palace offers plenty of amenities to guests.  The fitness center we walked through on the way to the disappointing terrace seems fairly complete, and can be access free-of-charge.  As SPG gold members, we were able to get free wireless internet as our “gift”.  For non-SPG members, expect to pay an exorbitant €19/day, which is sadly in line with other international hotels in Europe.  Although not inside the hotel itself, there is a Starbucks and a Vips cafe (to-go sandwiches, drinks. etc.) in the same building that are very convenient.

I suspect next time we are in Madrid, we will likely decide to stay at an independent hotel or B&B, unless a limited budget and/or a superfluous SPG account balance motivates us to return to The Westin Palace.  Although The Westin Palace worked for our situation on this trip and offered a good location for exploring Madrid, we miss the character of more local establishments and do not believe their cash rate offers guests a great value.

Orejas y Fútbol

Evenings in Madrid enthralled us.  On the warm fall nights during our visit, we discovered swarms of energetic people, spirited music, and an electrifying atmosphere.  This jubilation   apexed around Plaza de Santa Ana, the heart of Madrid’s nightlife scene.  It was here that we began our culinary adventure through Madrid’s tapas offerings.

Our first tapas stop in Madrid was a planned one.  As we do in preparation for all our trips, we repeatedly watched relevant Rick Steves episodes prior to our departure.  A scene capturing Rick eating sautéed pig ears in his Madrid episode especially intrigued us.  Accordingly, we followed his lead and ordered a ración of oreja (ears) at the Orjea de Oro bar, along with two glasses of the Galician ribeiro wine (€1 each!), and an order of patatas bravas.  The taste of the ears was recognizable–not too different from bacon–but the texture was wild.  Just like one might expect, the dish was “cartilagy” and far from tender.  The pieces of ear served already cut-up, so luckily minimal chewing was required.  

Our oreja ración at Oreja de Oro

To our chagrin, instead of a colorful local, we found ourselves sitting next to a fellow Rick Steves aficionado.  He was similarly following Rick’s trail through Madrid’s tapas offerings, but could not muster the courage to order the orjeas.  He had no shame communicating with the English-speaking bartender in Spanish that was nothing short of abysmal.  Despite the lack of local flavor and toughness of the orejas, we do not our regret our experience.

Anxious to find an authentic local experience, we sought out a tapas bar playing that night’s Real Madrid fútbol match.  After surveying several options, we found a spot called La Venta de Farracas just a few blocks away with plenty of buzz and an open table.  We ordered traditional tapas, all of which we had sampled in other Spanish cities–croquettes, fried calamari, and more patatas bravas.  I ordered a couple of Spanish beers to accompany the food.  The food itself was decent, but the real highlight was the fútbol game.  All eyes were fixed on a large big screen television in the back of the establishment.  Unlike the modern American sports bar, with dozens of digitial high definition televisions, this spot had one television, with a noisy analog signal.  This did not distract the crowd, however. They chanted, cheered, and groaned just as they would at the stadium.   To their dismay, the game resulted in a loss for Real Madrid to underdog Sevilla.

That same night, we also visited a pintxos bar called Txakolina for  and and one additional Rick Steves recommendation in Casa Toni to completely satiate our appetite.  We ended the night with a strong sense of accomplishment at successfully completing a 4-stop tapas crawl.   

The Best Things in Madrid are Free

Well, at least some of the best things are free!  Two of my favorite sites in Madrid were the Prado museum and Retiro Park.  The art featured at the Prado was fun to learn about and beautiful to admire and Retiro Park was a much-needed break from the bustling streets of Madrid.  Before going into detail, I do want to mention that the Prado is not always free, only during certain times.  So, plan well and you can save quite a bit of money!

We stayed at the Westin Palace in Madrid, which was conveniently located a few minutes from the Prado.  This was perfect because the Prado was on the top of our list for places to visit while in Madrid, and since I was under the weather at the end of our trip, traveling too far was not appealing.  We made our way over to the entrance around 17:00 on our first day only to find that the cost was an exorbitant 12 euros per person (22 with the official guide!).  Willing to pay, we almost continued on.  However, we then saw a sign saying that the Prado entrance would be free starting at 18:00! [For more information on pricing and when the museum is free, check the Prices page on the Prado website.  The short answer: Monday through Saturday, 18:00-20:00 (closing) and Sundays, 17:00-19:00 (closing)].

The official guides are not available during the free entry hours, but the information desk has brochures in several languages that map out the popular paintings throughout the museum.  In addition, the Prado website has information about 15 masterpieces found at the museum.  We used our Rick Steves’ Spain guidebook to help us focus on particular paintings and learn additional information about each one, but we did find that most paintings had some sort of description in Spanish and English.  

Since the line didn’t take long to get through and the crowds were manageable during the free time, the only real downside is that the time is limited to the last two hours that the museum is open each day.  We were able to see plenty in those two hours, but there is so much to see in the Prado, so for many, a full (or at least longer) day might be more practical than waiting for the free time to start.

Close to the Prado, Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro) sits on over 300 acres of land…in the middle of Madrid!  It’s hard to believe that the beautiful and peaceful gardens are located in the middle of such a lively city.  Throughout the park there are trees to provide shade and, in several instances, we noticed people laying around, either sleeping or reading a book.  If relaxing in the park fits your agenda, think about bringing a towel or blanket to really enjoy the park like a local.  

Retiro Park was nice and relaxing, but also lively with tourists and locals alike – especially around the lake.  We visited on a Saturday afternoon, so the area around the lake was packed with families and couples.  We sat on the ledge by the lake (seen in the picture to the right) and watched as people purchased food and souvenirs or just hurried by, chatting away.  We enjoyed watching the people having fun on the lake, rowing in the rented boats.  I was considering renting one, but it was very hot out (around 90° or so) and the lake was completely unprotected from the blazing sun.  So, we sat instead, shaded by the trees surrounding the lake and enjoyed our time people-watching.    

With so many expensive attractions in large cities, it’s always nice when there is a little something for free.  In addition to the free hours at the Prado and the always-free Retiro Park, the Reina Sofía (a great modern art museum in Madrid) offers free hours and Plaza Mayor, always bustling, is free (and not too expensive for a sit-down meal and drink).  

However your time is spent in Madrid, do not forget to enjoy some of the greatest sites the city has to offer – for free!

City Overview: Madrid, Spain

City. Madrid, Spain

When? Friday, September 14 – Sunday, September 16 (2 nights).  The 2 nights were a little rushed.  We visited all of our top priority sites (Prado, Palace, etc.), but another night would have allowed us to consider a day trip to Toledo.

Where? We stayed at the Westin Palace Madrid in a Junior Suite.  The hotel has an excellent location, directly opposite the Prado and a short walk from Plaza de Santa Ana, which is one of Madrid’s liveliest nightlife scenes.  We only paid $90 + 4800 SPG points per night.  The same room usually costs €399.  Without our Starwood points, we likely would not have found the hotel to be a good value.

Transportation. Central Madrid is very walkable, although there are busses and an underground subway to get around.  The only time we hired a cab was for travelling from the train station to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport.

Food. Madrid had an excellent tapas scene, especially around Plaza de Santa Ana.  We had no problem finding a variety of options to piece together a tapas crawl.  In addition to ordering the patatas bravas that are available everywhere, we also tried orejas (pig ears – pictured below), visited a pintxos bar, and sampled champiñones (sauteed mushrooms).  We had one lunch on Plaza Mayor, which has a unique ambiance, but unremarkable food.  Unfortunately, Kristin wasn’t feeling well during our stay in Madrid, so we weren’t able to pursue the cuisine options as aggressively as we’d hoped.  Our impression was that Madrid had more to offer than any of the other Spanish cities we visited on our trip, perhaps only rivaled by Sevilla.

Day Trips. None.  We would have likely visited Toledo if we had more time though.

Attractions. The highlight for us was the Prado.  We aren’t art lovers, but we found our visit to the Prado very enjoyable.  The Prado is our new favorite art museum in Europe, far surpassing the Louvre and the Uffizi.  Also, it is nice that the Prado is free in the evenings, and we found the crowds to be very bearable.  We also enjoyed our visit to the Madrid Palace.  All of the important rooms are open to the public at the Madrid Palace, and visitors really gain an appreciation for the grandeur of Spanish royalty.  We also visited the Reina Sofia (modern art museum), Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and Retiro Park.

Language Barrier. Almost everyone spoke English.  We had some minor communication difficulties at a pharmacy and one of the less busy tapas bars, but overall the language barrier was very manageable.

Cost. The cost of food seemed comprable to other places in Spain.  As could be expected, our meal on the Plaza Mayor was probably overpriced considering the quality of the food.

Advice.  Dedicate at least one night to a tapas crawl.  Wonder along some of the smaller streets around Plaza de Santa Ana, to avoid some of the more crowded and touristy options.  Although the Prado and the Madrid Palace are worth a visit, the cuisine scene is what really impressed us.

Closing comments.  Madrid is often a focus of many travel itineraries in Spain.  Appropriately so, considering its status as the nation’s capital.  However, it is a relatively young city and lacks some of the history and tradition found in other European cities.  We would prioritize a stop in Andalucía above Madrid if time is limited, but still believe Madrid is worth at least two nights if time permits.


Discovering Pintxos

Tapas, tapas, tapas. That’s what was on our minds as we landed in Barcelona and ventured out into our first night of food frenzy in Spain. And, our first taste of Spanish cuisine was several varieties of tapas, including some now-favorites patatas bravas and fried baby squid. However, as we wandered the streets of the gothic neighborhood after our first round of tapas, looking for something to keep the night going, we stumbled across a pintxos bar.

Pintxos (or pinchos) are more popular in the basque region of Spain, but are also served in northern Spain (we had them in both Barcelona and Madrid, but did not run into a pintxos bar in Sevilla nor Granada). They are a type of tapas, but have a slice of bread on the bottom, and a toothpick through the entire thing.  The picture to the right shows a pintxo with sausage and a pepper on top.  At the pintxos bar we frequented in Barcelona, we were given plates and then we were able to fill them up with whichever pintxos we wished to try. Ordering the drinks was through the “bartenders,” but all of the food was chosen by us, at our pace. It was similar to the sushi bars with the conveyer belt – take what you want, and pay at the end based on the number of plates. However, unlike at a sushi bar, the pintxos were paid for based on the number of toothpicks you had on your plate. Also, each pintxo was worth the same amount – a couple of euros a piece. Continue reading