Monthly Archives: March 2014

Must See Places in Madrid

As Spain’s capital city, Madrid mixes cultural and culinary influences with politics, commerce and royalty. I got to spend a few days there recently, wandering along streets and plazas and visiting museums, landmarks and districts. Here are some of the places I went that I definitely recommend checking out.

With museums, Madrid has a good standing. In the city center, there is a section known as the Golden Triangle of Art, which consists of three important art museums located along the street, Paseo del Prado.

DSCN1463 DSCN1486First, the most recognized art museum in Madrid is Museo Nacional del Prado. In comparison in size to the Lourve Museum in Paris, the Prado contains a massive collection: around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. It’s one of the best collections of European art. Pieces date from the 12th to early 19th century, a number made by artists who were assigned to create works specifically for the Spanish royal crown.

DSCN1470DSCN1473It can feel a bit daunting to try get through a lot of the Prado in one visit. I got there on a Monday afternoon, still recovering a bit from my early-morning flight, and, due to my jet lag, I decided to stick to about two floors. Or perhaps focus on a certain artist or join in a tour. Francisco de Goya has a high representation, as well as Diego Velázquez, Titian, and El Greco, among others. Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and French masterpieces are also well featured. If all else fails, one painting I recommend seeing is Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

For those who like modern art, the second museum is this “triangle” is also worth a visit. Across from the train station, Estación de Atocha, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is located in a former hospital and holds works by 20th century masters.

DSCN1399 DSCN1398It’s similar to what you would see at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of its most significant pieces is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which Picasso painted in protest of the Spanish Civil War. Major works by fellow Spanish artists, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, are also here. The museum is also open late on Friday nights, with free admission.

In addition to these museums, consider checking out the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, once a baron’s private collection, and a great navy museum called Museo Naval, run by the Spanish Navy. (Bring your passport with you for this one, as it’s in a government building. An ID is required for admission).

Along with public buses and the Metro, Madrid can be great to explore on foot. In fact, there are different squares you can walk through to reach landmarks as well as stop for a meal or people watching.

DSCN1423-sol DSCN1421Plaza Mayor is cobblestone-lined section is literally squared away, and its remote feeling is like stepping back into a different era. Buildings with beautiful balconies line this square and its different arches open out different streets. Yet, Plaza Mayor has an interesting history. Trials by the Spanish Inquisition took place here, but the location also has been a setting for bull fighting. Nowadays, there are cafes, restaurants and shops here.

DSCN1678 DSCN1676 DSCN1682 DSCN1681Plaza del Sol is a well-trafficked pedestrian area, quite lively in both day and particularly at night. Likewise there are shops and restaurants, in this older section of Madrid. On New Year’s Eve, people gather here to conduct the tradition of eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight for good luck for the incoming year.

DSCN1456-SolDSCN1576 DSCN1581 DSCN1582With dining, if you want to try a mix of everything, from tapas to seafood and even something sweeter, pay a visit to The Mercado de San Miguel. Located near Calle Mayor, this older building houses a nice mixture of delicatessens, restaurants and bars. For a few Euros, you can purchase different small plates and appetizers to try. During my visit, I dined on everything from stuffed olives to croquettes to fried calamari and even sampled a few pastries. My entire bill for the evening averaged out at most to 15 Euros.

DSCN1563 DSCN1545 DSCN1546 DSCN1547DSCN1556 DSCN1553Traditionally, the Spanish eat dinner late, so it’s possible you might have to wait until 8 p.m. or so for your restaurant reservation. One place I went to Reservante Botin, a restaurant that has been in existence for almost 300 years (it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records). Down the street from the Mercado, and in existence since 1725, Botin’s specialty dish is a roast suckling pig that is quite tasty.

One final place that might be of interest to you ties into Spain’s royal history. Palacio Royal is Madrid’s royal palace is built upon an old fortress and is now mostly used for ceremonial occasions. You can check out the views on the patio area, but definitely take a tour of its lavish interior and exquisite rooms!

DSCN1426 DSCN1430 DSCN1434

Hope my suggestions get you started!

How to Choose A Guided Tour

Going on a guided or escorted tour can be a good thing. If you need a confident boost about being alone abroad or nervous about handling your airfare or other arrangements, a guided tour can help you feel a bit more at ease while getting you closer to seeing your destination.

While many tours often include stops at major attractions in the country you’ve heading to, these companies can differ in many ways. Based on my experiences with them, here is my advice on what to keep in mind while choosing a tour company.

155911_4615225371361_22542242_n1)  See Who’s Going
Group tours can have quite a mix of travelers in age and background: older, younger, couples, families and solo. Depending on how you feel or your approach to travel, and if it makes you feel better about fitting in, check out what types of travelers often go on the tour company you might be interested in.

For example, Contiki is more ideal for college-age/twenty somethings while Trafalgar often attracts retirees and many from the UK and Australia as well as the U.S. Tour companies also center on different travel styles. G Adventures is suited to outdoor types and offers locally-owned accommodations and physical activities. More general tour companies like Gate1Travel cover key points and often have a broad spectrum of customers.


2)  Judge Your Free Time
A planned out itinerary can be nice but pay attention to what’s included – and particularly what’s not. Tours may cover brief visits to major museums and monuments (perhaps hour-two hours) where you have to make quick choices about what to see. Or just a quick stop for a photo opp. Some areas may be seen only through your tour bus window, often while in route from one location to another.

I often go with tours that include a reasonable amount of free time. It’s good because you can check out maybe a place not included on your schedule. In the case of a change of plans or have some solo time, you still have the opportunity to see something quickly.


3) Judge the schedule.
Like No. 2, see about the schedule. As common as tours are to stop at must-see attractions, it’s also important to look at overall what’s included on your itinerary. I get leery of tours that seem to push places where there is a lot of shopping to do but some people might like that.

It might be good to first read up on the destination you’re looking at going first, and then do a comparison against the itinerary of a tour company you’re interested. Also, some tours will make stops and/or stays all at major cities in Italy but maybe one or two might also include time in a town like San Gimignano – which is beautiful – that is along your route.


4) Look at Features
Tours are now offering a lot of optional side choices or experiential activities. While you don’t have to necessarily do all of them, see which ones stand out to you. I like doing ones that seem to replicate the area (like musical locations in Nashville) or may get you to a place that is off your route but definitely will get to (like a stop at a famous beach side hotel in Coronado, California).

Also consider getting airfare through your tour company. Some offer this choice, others leave getting there entirely up to you. If I’m maybe traveling in the U.S. — where I live — I might be opted more to book my own fare if I find a lower rate. If you’re going overseas, and a bit nervous about getting from the airport to the hotel on your own, in most cases your tour company can take care of that transfer for you. Or you can book your airfare through them instead of having to do it yourself.


5) Read Their Reviews
From review sites like TripAdvisor to even Facebook, checking up on personal reviews can firm up your decision. Some may have had snags in their trip while others just have their own good things to say or general gripes about trips, but the more opinions you need can give you a better sense about what you might be getting into.

Also, consider signing up for e-newsletters, as tour companies from time to time offer special discounts or price breaks. Some even may give you a discount for everything from early booking (six months in advance). Unfortunately, solo travelers can get stuck with a single person fee (due to hotel rooms) but some companies might have a room-sharing program where if you can be paired with another single passenger then that fee is waived.

In all, enjoy your tour.

A Recap of The 2014 New York Times Travel Show

For my recap on The 2014 New York Times Travel Show, here is a mix of information from sessions I attended as well as my time on the show floor.


While passing along the 1,000 plus booths, it was good to see some mix-ups. Sections for technology, LGBT, adventure, and health/wellness travel had good placement on the floor, along with traditional interests relating to cruises and countries.

While Europe, the U.S. and the Caribbean continued to have a good amount of space, it was nice to see a strong representation of Asian and South, Central and Latin American countries. Indonesia and Taiwan stood out in my mind.

Costa Rica had a nice informational booth, with tasty samples of iced coffee, a creamy, sweetened rice drink, and a shrimp dish. Cuisine aside, Costa Rica is an affordable getaway, and its natural scenery makes it enticing to both budget and adventure travelers. I attended a press seminar held by Costa Rica’s tourism board, who unveiled a new marketing campaign: Essential Costa Rica, focusing on a strong commitment to conservation (with goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2021) and its growth in technical innovation.

DSCN1312 DSCN1311 DSCN1322 DSCN1326

For the United States, Atlantic City, New Jersey of course had a glitzy booth, complete with a DJ and spin wheel giveaways (got a wine cozy from a game of roulette). On Friday and Saturday, I got to watch “Sand Master” Matt Long from Wildwood Crest, NJ, at work. He kept fine-tuning his sandcastle sculpture, and it was to neat to look on as he combined each part. Wildwood Crest must have some great sand.

DSCN1301 DSCN1291


Saturday and Sunday’s portion of the show is more consumer driven. Leading experts in this field often come back year and after year. The father and daughter team of Arthur Frommer and Pauline Frommer of the Frommer’s talked about how major developments in accommodations are changing where we can stay: in vacation homes and short-rental apartments in place of hotel rooms.

DSCN1365These options have been providing more comfortable stays for much less of a price tag. Companies such as Airbnb, HomeAway, Roomorama, VRBO and FlipKey have been leading in connecting homeowners/renters with visitors (in some states such as New York, it’s illegal to rent to a transient person unless the renter has to stay there during the visitor’s time).

Arthur and Pauline tried out Airbnb for their visits to Portland, Oregon and Seattle and for each time stayed in the upstairs level of a two-family house with “modest furnishings” and stocked with grocery staples. They saved a bundle! If you’re weary about staying a stranger’s home, be assured you can check up on previous references left by past guests on these sites.

Apps have become a traveler’s best bud.  During her presentation, Conde Nast Traveler’s Wendy Perrin named a number of apps that help with everything from flight tracking to getting directions to even finding out what’s happening in your destination. Perrin’s picks included: FlightStats, MyTSA, GateGuru, HotelNight, City Maps 2 Go, and Peek.

In all, I was able to leave with new insights and a couple of brochures of places I hope to go to soon!