Compiled by Charlotte Coleman-Smith
Madrid is nothing if not green. The city has the highest number of trees per inhabitant in Europe and there are acres of landscaped parks for little ones to let off steam. The art is awesome (the Prado alone could swallow you up for days), much of the architecture is grand and historic, but there’s also another side: a city buzzing with colour and energy, where cobbled backstreets reveal little boutique shops and tiny tapas bars bursting with character. The food is a joy for families. In fact, tapas – small plates, plenty of choice, no strict timetable – is tailor-made for fussy eaters and unscheduled hunger pangs. Central to Madrid’s appeal is the fact that family life is treasured and children are adored, not merely tolerated. For football-crazy boys, a tour of the legendary Santiago de Bernabéu stadium is the icing on the cake.
If you’re clinging to your love of style (sometimes not easy with small children in tow), try this funky chain of hotels (Alicia, Laura, Oscar and Marco). The concept is a winner – cutting-edge design as eye-poppingly bright and bold as an Almodóvar film, central location and affordability. Room Mate Laura has 36 apartments with kitchenette facilities, and is in a fantastic location off a pretty square near the Plaza Mayor.
(Family room on two floors with kitchenette, from around £135, including breakfast)
This chain is aimed at families, and has 33 design hotels in historic buildings throughout the city. The three-star Petit Palace Ducal on Calle Hortaleza is in an excellent location off the Gran Vía, close to trendy Chueca (HQ of gay Madrid during Gay Pride week). Family rooms have ensuite showers and bunk beds; a self-service, healthy breakfast can be had in the adjoining café. Don’t expect oodles of charm, but this is a practical and wallet-friendly base if you want to be central.
(Family room from around £85, including breakfast)
If money is no object, the landmark Westin Palace hotel is as central as you can get and an easy walk to the ‘art triangle’ of the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen Bornemisza. Rooms are classic and comfortable and the service is excellent. Under 12s go free, and extra beds and cots are available for a fee. When the children are tucked up in bed (there’s a baby-listening service) you can sip pricey cocktails at the famous Palace bar, beloved of Ernest Hemingway.
(Junior suite from around £410)
This small chain of stylish, minimalist restaurants serves a wide range of consistently good tapas and raciones with efficient good cheer. A great way to expose the children to lots of different flavours, without breaking the bank. Simple dishes such as ham croquetas are bound to appeal.
This fun, family restaurant has a local vibe and is near the Bernabéu stadium; combine a visit here with a tour or a Réal Madrid match. Each time you order a one-metre slice of their delicious homemade pizza, the numbers on the digital display move on. There’s a small playground across a quiet road if children get restless.
This is the place to come if you love ham; hundreds hang from the ceiling. It’s ideal for a round of sandwiches for the family (try tortilla or Serrano ham in French bread). The basic menu is cheap and cheerful but you can spend more if you fancy some really special jamón. Picnic menu from 2 Euros including drink. Branches across the city.
A traditional restaurant with a lovely, tiled interior. Known for its cocido (Madrid’s famed chickpea and meat stew) which the whole table must order, there are plenty of other delicious options from the extensive menu. Book ahead if possible. Three locations in central Madrid.
Don’t miss this legendary café, where the quintessentially Spanish treat of chocolate and churros (elongated doughnuts) is served up all day and well into the night. After the families have left, the clubbers move in for their late-night chocolate fix. Run off the sugar high at the Plaza Mayor, where hawkers light up the night sky with illuminated toys.
El Retiro Park
These gardens are the elegant heart of old Madrid, where locals of all ages take time out from the busy streets and stroll among the manicured flower beds and fountains. Hire a boat on the lake, watch the street entertainers, visit the cactus house (but don’t touch!) and take in a free puppet show (Puerta de Alcalá entrance, summer weekends only).
By contrast, or if you just want to cool off and let the kids run wild, the futuristic Río park has an ‘urban beach’ of water jets, timber climbing frames, funky tunnel slides, groomed bike paths, BMX tracks, climbing walls and decent cafés. The park stretches for 10 kilometres along the river: try the section at the Parque Arganzuela (metro Pirámides).
Casa de Campo Park and Teleférico cable car
Enjoy the view of Hapsburg Madrid and the Royal Palace as your cable car swings gently towards the Casa de Campo park (home to a funfair, aquarium and zoo). If you’re prepared to walk – around half an hour – ignore the touristy café at the cable car’s end and stroll through the woods to the lakeside. Locals and their entire extended families head here on sunny Sundays for long, lingering lunches at one of the many waterside restaurants: there’s ample space for the kids to run around while you sip your rioja. The nearby metro (Lago) will whizz you back to the city centre.
This ancient market has recently been revamped and is more for show now than actual trading. It’s a vibrant, theatrical space, and you can graze and gaze at your leisure, taking in the sounds, sights and smells, before perching at one of the counters for tapas. If your children love food, this is an education. And if they don’t, here’s your chance to broaden their palate.
This original museum houses a great collection of model railways, with a quirky café in one of the old carriages. The fleamarket on the first Sunday of every month sells scale models, photographs, badges and postcards. The Tren de la Fresa takes passengers in an old train out to the pretty town of Aranjuez (May, June, September, October) and serves strawberries en route. A great day trip.
After admiring the gleaming trophies and magic boots worn by soccer stars of the past, check out the players’ changing rooms and walk through the tunnel to the dugout. If your little ones can stay awake long enough, catch a Réal Madrid game (kick off can be as late as ten o’clock). The raw passion of the local crowd is something else, but seeing Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in the flesh will give your kids bragging points for years to come.
You don’t have to steer clear of the art galleries if your children are tiny. Free entrance to the big three (Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen Bornemisza) at certain times of the day means that with a little research, you can be in and out like an SAS swat team. Young ones will be intrigued by artists like Velázaquez, Picasso and Dalí and (Velazquez’s Las Meninas is a brain-teaser of a painting; for older children try using Picasso’s Guernica to spark a debate about the horrors of war). The more manageable Museo Sorolla displays Sorolla’s impressionistic paintings in his former home. Park the sleepy toddler and spouse in the shady Andalucian courtyard garden and steal some quiet time contemplating his luminous seascapes. Lovely postcards, too.
Founded by three mums, this lovely organic café is a great place to come and relax if you’ve very young children. There are playgroups and children’s activities, and a shop selling natural and handcrafted homeware, toys and games, and gifts.
Calle de Fuencarril
This busy, pedestrianised zone between the funky neighourhoods of Malasaña and Chueca is a great starting point for loads of fun and fashionable shops. Off the main drag, among quieter streets lined with trees in blossom and little wrought-iron balconies, you’ll find one-off designer and vintage boutiques. Try the streets off the Plaza del Dos de Mayo: after shopping, children can play on the square while you sip coffee.
In the chic neighbourhood of Salamanca, within spitting distance of Prada, MaxMara and Sandro, is Zara’s flagship store, where six floors of affordable fashion for women, men and children await and just around the corner there is a Zara Home Kids. Well worth a visit if you’re a fan.
LIKE A LOCAL
Taxis only carry four people by law: some drivers are flexible, but larger families are better off taking the excellent metro system. Otherwise, flip a coin for who walks …
WHEN TO GO
Madrid suffers from extremes of temperature, so you should avoid the scorching height of summer and the freezing winter, when nights can be especially cold. The city is best seen in springtime (April to June) or autumn (September and October).
Know Madrid like the back of your hand? Disagree with any of our picks? Head to the comments below and let us know where you would go in Madrid.