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Traveling for the Holidays

As an American, it’s difficult to consider spending Christmas and New Year’s anywhere but with your family… in America.  But what if one year you choose not to spend your holidays in America?   What if you could go anywhere in the world?

Would you still choose to stay in home?  Would you still do the same thing you do every year? Would you look at other options and ask yourself if your holiday routine really contributes to your wellness?

I asked myself all these questions and then decided… “I’m not spending the money to go to California from Maryland to spend the holidays with my family.” 

I might be a horrible person for that decision, but I really was thinking more about the return on my investment.  The trade-off.  What am I giving up that I don’t even know about?  Yes, I’m missing memories with my family.  But what if I didn’t feel guilty about that?

Would I choose to go across the world for the week between Christmas and New Year’s instead?  I did it for you, so now you can sit back read all about spending Christmas and ringing in the New Year in Madrid, Spain.

European Vacation for the Holidays

I think everyone who’s seen Home Alone 2 dreams of a holiday vacation in Europe.   I never knew that Europeans took the holiday season very seriously until I visited Amsterdam just after the New Year celebration in 2006.  The lights were still up everywhere.  Clear signs of partying in the streets remained 6 days after the new year was rung in.  I missed it.

I vowed to myself in 2006 that I would discover what it means to spend the holiday season in Europe one day. 

Madrid at Christmas Time

When Monika and I embarked on our great destination search, we literally had nowhere in particular in mind.  The dates where the key to our trip.   We had to be back before Monika had to teach again in the beginning of the year.  That meant our holiday HAD to be over the holidays!

We had to pick somewhere that was worth going to see over the holiday break.  For us at first, that meant warm weather! Beaches, sunshine, the Southern Hemisphere!

Then we quickly realized that the prices prohibited us from a Southern Hemisphere holiday extravaganza unless we wanted to break the bank.  Each of us set a goal to keep the trip under $2,000 per person.  We felt this was a generous budget to plan for, realizing that we would probably splurge on day trips and other items to buy as Christmas gifts for our family and friends instead of presents purchased online.

The great destination search

As I mentioned in my first blog about our 10 days in Malta and Madrid, the search phase was chaos.  We literally sat on couches for an entire night looking for places to go.  We searched by date, price, location, and weather.  We got stuck on questions like “But it’s 10 days, what would we do for 10 days in___ location?” 

The search went nowhere for a good 2 hours.  Then we realized, we just needed a launching place for more travel.  After we reached that epiphany, we were on a different tangent with our searches.

How did we pick Madrid for the holidays?

Streets of Madrid at night during the holidays.
Streets of Madrid at night during the holidays.

Google Flights.  That’s how we decided on Madrid.  We looked at so many options of flight patterns, destinations, connections, and dates.  When we booked Madrid, we didn’t know where we would be going for our 2nd European destination, we only knew that we didn’t need/want to stay in Madrid for 10 days.  It just didn’t make sense.

We did know that Madrid was a decent price within our Google Flights search.   Of all the other options to all the other parts of the world, we knew that pairing our main itinerary with our side itinerary of seeing a second destination would save us money and we’d get see two countries.  We also knew we didn’t want to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Madrid.  So we made a key decision to add a second destination in between, enter Malta.

Christmas in Madrid

Madrid is beautiful and magical during the holiday season.  The city is adorned with lights, decorations, and the holiday scenes.  I’ve never seen a group of people more into the holiday spirit than the people occupying Madrid over the Christmas break.

When Monika and I walked down the streets of Madrid, we realized that we were very much under-festive.  People had on holiday sweatshirts and headbands with holiday décor all day long.  Two days before Christmas, if you didn’t have some sort of holiday bling on, you looked weird.

Pins at the Plaza Mayor Christmas Market
Pins at the Plaza Mayor Christmas Market

I was shocked by how many adults had headbands, lights, and holiday shirts on.  It was like everyone knew, when you come to Madrid before the holidays you wear your holiday spirt on your sleeve.

You should always go out touristing with your most festive holiday garb when you visit Madrid before Christmas.  Do not question your sanity. 

Top things to see and do in Madrid the week between Christmas and New Year

1.     Walk the Festive Streets of Madrid

As Americans, we rarely see public displays of holiday spirit that are not Christmas trees.  I honestly can’t recall seeing a real Christmas tree the entire time I was in Madrid.

Instead in Madrid, every plaza has a Christmas tree made with lights and every street has a different color and themed Christmas light display.  Walking the streets of Madrid during Christmas time makes it hard to imagine all the plazas and streets not being adorned with lights every night of the year.

Festive streets of Madrid
Festive streets of Madrid

Take a walk around Madrid at night after dinner to enjoy the lights in the various plazas and hanging from side streets.  The lights and people dressed in Christmas attire makes Madrid one of the most festive places to spend your holiday season while traveling in Europe.

2.     See the Model Bethlehem Scenes around the city

Around Christmas time, Madrid is adorned with artistic scenes of the town of Bethlehem depicted at time of Jesus.  These scenes called a “Belin”, or Bethlehem in Spanish, are a common occurrence everywhere.  Every municipal building, major attraction, and Christmas market has their own Belin scene.

I had no idea having a model-sized Bethlehem scene was a “thing” until I arrived in Plaza Mayor two days before Christmas and realized all I was going to see at the Christmas market were Belin scenes.  Once I got over that fact, I actually began to appreciate them more. There are so many different scenes and artistic styles.   As a tourist, it’s overwhelming to see so many small figurines for sale all over the plaza.

The most ornate Belin was the scene inside Palacio Real and had a fairly significant line to view it.  The Belin scene was located in a room prior to the actual tour of the palace.  Therefore, pictures are allowed.  After this point in the tour, there is a strict no-photo policy.

3.     Buy your grapes and Cava to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Plaza del Sol

Eating 12 grapes and drinking Cava at midnight is a tradition in Spain.  This tradition can be celebrated at home with family, or out in the streets of Madrid with thousands of your friends.  If you plan to be in Madrid, Spain for New Year’s Eve, here are a few tips to help you organize your celebration.

Step 1: Acquire Grapes and Cava

Cava & Uvas
Cava & Uvas

If you are out walking around the city the on New Year’s Eve you have several options to find grapes and cava in Madrid.  There are small and large grocery stores that have displays of grapes.  There are even vendors who sell personal sized cava and grapes for a high price while you wait in line for Plaza del Sol. 

If you do not find a place to buy grapes and cava, it’s possible that a stranger will offer you some at midnight.  If you find that you have too much, you can share your cava and grapes with your neighbors.  However, since many people bring their own, you might not find many takers.

Step 2: Eat Dinner Early

Many of Madrid’s restaurants closed early for dinner service on New Year’s Eve so staff can celebrate with their families.  Word to the wise- eat early and look for a dinner location near Puerta del Sol.  The restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve will be crowded so be sure to arrive early and expect delays.

Step 3: Line up to enter Plaza del Sol

The lines to enter Plaza del Sol start early in the evening, before 9 pm.  If you plan to be in the Plaza, get in line and hang out for a few hours until Midnight.  You can try to find a local bar or place to go to the bathroom and have a drink before getting into line.  However, if you line up too late, you may not make it inside the Plaza for New Year’s eve.

Step 4: Celebrate where ever you end up

If the Spanish police turn you away from the plaza before midnight, don’t worry.  The party will continue on the streets with everyone else who didn’t get into the plaza.  You can drink your cava and eat your grapes right on the street in Madrid, just outside the plaza.

We were very apprehensive about being able to drink on the street during the New Year’s Eve celebration.  When we saw the number of people who were drinking and eating grapes out on the street in front of the police, we realize that culturally it was acceptable on that evening.

Final Thoughts on celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Madrid

As I explained in the last post, Monika and I didn’t feel a strong connection with Madrid as a destination.  However, the enchantment of Christmas lights across the city, festive decorations, and people wearing their holiday cheer made Madrid a unique experience for the holidays. 

Wendie looking at the light tree in Madrid
Wendie looking at the light tree in Madrid

The amount of effort put into decorating the entire city with lights is amazing and to be commended.  As is the artistry that goes into creating the thousands of figurines made for the Bethlehem scenes displayed across the city.

A few tips for traveling in Madrid during the holidays:

If you are planning to vacation in Madrid again during the week between Christmas and New Year you should:

  • Make sure to stay close to Plaza Mayor or Puerta del Sol.
  • Consider an Air BnB or hostel vs. a hotel- more location options, and possibly a cheaper price.
  • Book any shows or attractions you plan to visit at least a day in advance.
  • Plan dinner in advance on both holidays or plan to cook in your Air BnB.
  • Buy grapes and cava in advance at a small store rather than on the street.
  • Buy or bring holiday gear! Headbands with festive Christmas decorations or fancy sparkly glasses for New Year’s Eve.  No matter what you intend to do, bring the spirit and the bling!

Travel is one of the best ways to take a break and focus on your wellness. Madrid is a walkable destination with many attractions located within walking distance from each other. During the holidays, the large crowds make driving on small narrow streets a difficult task. Walking can be easier but might take more time. Plan your day accordingly.

Comment below with your ideas about other destinations to visit during the winter holidays! For more Madrid travel tips, check this post!