Three Perfect Days: Madrid
hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Madrid

By The Hub team , January 12, 2017

Story by Chris Wright| Hemispheres, April 2015

Madrileños have a saying: De Madrid al cielo—From Madrid to heaven. What they mean is, here on Earth, this city is as good as it gets. That might sound like a bit of a stretch. Madrid doesn't lead the world in any single aspect—architecture, the arts, nightlife, food, fashion, music, the friendliness of its people or the purity of its air—but bundle all these things together and there are few places to rival it. Its appeal creeps up on you, and once you're bitten, that's it. “I was born here and you landed here," one local told me, “but you belong to this city as much as I do." I really do hope that's true.

Day 1 graphic

In which Chris takes a stroll with an Almodóvar actor and purchases cookies from an invisible nun

Tucking into a breakfast of Iberian ham and rustic bread in the café at Hotel Orfila, located in a 19th-century mansion just north of the city center, I cannot help but be charmed by the hotel's old-school approach to refinement and comfort: heavy curtains, carved columns, antique vases, formal chairs. The waiters wear bow ties. The rooms have actual keys, with red tassels. I eat under the gaze of a parrot in a gilded frame.

Such traditionalism is not a rarity in this city. As the local actor and musician Leonor Watling tells me, “Madrid does change, but at its own pace." We're taking a post-breakfast stroll along a side street off Gran Vía, Madrid's main shopping drag, which slices across the city's bewildering gnarl of alleys and byways—a labyrinth that can flummox the most seasoned Madrileño. “I lived in one neighborhood for six years," Leonor says with a laugh, “before I realized I was walking in circles to go less than a block."

The lead singer of the rock band Marlango and an actor whose credits include Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her (“It wasn't a difficult role: I was in a coma"), Leonor was raised in the working-class district of Prosperidad, “the kind of neighborhood where you know the guy who sells bread." But this, again, is not rare here. Madrid is known as being a big city with a small-town feel—the sophisticates of Barcelona sniff at what they see as its provincialism.

Leonor Watling, Actor and MusicianLeonor Watling, Actor and Musician | Photo by: Mariano Herrera

Leonor is having none of this. She cites hip barrios like La Latina, Malasaña and Chueca (“Madrid as I'd like it to be") as evidence that the city is catching up with buzzier capitals like London and Berlin. The cultural upgrade she describes is evident in two of the city's relatively new art institutions—Matadero Madrid, located in a renovated slaughterhouse, and La Tabacalera, which is in an 18th-century tobacco factory. I decide to visit the latter, in part because the short walk south will take me through chic La Latina and the scruffy bohemian neighborhood of Lavapiés—possibly the only part of town where you can order dim sum with zebra meat (Gau&Café).

First, I have to run the gauntlet of human statues and Bart Simpson balloon sellers at Puerta del Sol, Madrid's biggest, rowdiest square. “Psst!" hisses a raggedy woman holding out a sprig of something, presumably in the belief that I'd be interested in buying it. The rustle of 10,000 tourist maps drowns out the afternoon traffic. I hurry through the crowds, dodging the selfie sticks as I go.

“No one here feels that the city belongs to them. It's hard to fit in with Parisians, next to impossible with Londoners—if such a thing exists—but in Madrid, you'll never feel like an outsider." —Leonor Watling

Finally, after a primer in colorful local language at a Lavapiés sports bar (Ronaldo, Real Madrid's star player, has been sent off for slapping an opponent), I arrive at La Tabacalera, an imposing, block-size building that doesn't get any cheerier on the inside. The entry hall is filled with dangling, red-splattered bunches of cloth. Farther in, a giant eyeball stares out from a gloomy antechamber. I stop and rub my chin in front of a case with a fire hose coiled inside, mainly for the benefit of a serious-looking couple passing by.

I've got another kind of aesthetic experience in store at my next stop, the Museo del Prado, part of Madrid's troika of superstar art institutions (along with the Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums). The Prado is located east of the city center, amid a parade of monumental structures, the most impressive of which is Palacio de Cibeles, a huge wedding cake of a building that doubles as a cultural center and the city's town hall, and which has a viewing deck and a fine-dining restaurant on the upper levels.

Set in a sprawling, colonnaded building, the Prado is home to one of the world's finest collections of European art, which includes the Hieronymus Bosch triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights," whose panel depicting hell is possibly the weirdest work of art ever created. More upbeat is “Goya in Madrid," an exhibition of the Spanish master's work that provides a fly-on-the-wall look at 18th-century Madrileño life (they hunted a lot, apparently).

The Baroque entrance of the Museo de HistoriaThe Baroque entrance of the Museo de Historia | Photo by: Alamy

Outside, I cross broad Paseo del Prado and enter a warren of streets that, within minutes, has me wondering which way is up, let alone east or west. Still, if you're going to get lost, this isn't a bad place to do it. My quick pre-lunch stroll becomes an epic, leading me past a succession of A-list edificios—the glass-and-steel Mercado de San Miguel, the stately Basílica de San Francisco el Grande, the fairy-tale spires of Casa de la Villa—along with countless examples of Madrid's knack for elevating the everyday: resplendent cinemas, photogenic shoe shops, museum-quality doorknobs.

By the time I stumble into La Bola Taberna, I'm almost too hungry to eat. A red-fronted eatery dating back to 1870, it's known for its cocido Madrileño, a traditional stew with chickpeas, slow-cooked beef, cabbage and pasta. I tell Mara, my server, that I'm thinking about other options, and she gives me a look. “Right," I say, “cocido Madrileño." Good choice.

My next stop is Plaza de la Ópera, where I'm meeting Fran Hernández, a gregarious young man who works for Madrid Segway, an outfit that invites visitors to scoot around the city going “Whee!" and “Argh!" Fran immediately reveals himself to be a kind of superguide—he has a near-fanatical interest in Madrid's history and culture. As we zip along, he tells me to sniff the air. “A city of more than three million people," he says, “and it smells like a village."

Our first stop is Plaza Mayor, which has been a focal point of Madrid life for centuries. The square's redbrick buildings reflect one of the city's prevailing architectural styles, one that dates back to the 16th century: Herrerian, a blend of angular austerity and Baroque grandiosity. It's a wide, beautiful space, skirted by gift shops and cafés, with decorative lampposts and the requisite statue of a royal on a horse. It's also a very good spot to show off my extreme Segway skills. “Come," Fran says, rolling his eyes.

A fishmonger at the Marisquería El 79 marketA fishmonger at the Marisquería El 79 market | Photo by: Ana Nance

Just south of here he stops at another brick building, a former jail, which is topped by a statue of an angel. There's a warning parents use, Fran says, when their kids are misbehaving: “You want to sleep below the angel?" So it goes for the rest of the tour—my obsessively knowledgeable guide pointing out fountains and churches and arches, telling the stories that surround them. In Plaza Santa Ana, we stop at the dazzling turreted building housing the ME hotel. Manolete, Spain's greatest bullfighter, used to stay in room 406, Fran tells me. “Now everyone wants to be in that room."

A highlight of the tour is Monasterio del Corpus Christi, a 17th-century convent that supports itself by making and selling cookies—commerce that's complicated by the fact that the nuns must never be seen by non-nuns. I wander the hallways in search of a nun-run cookie shop, then come across a murky little room with a hole in the wall, inside of which stands a circular wooden contraption. The contraption spins and a box appears. I put 10 euros down and it spins again. “Receipt?" I shout into the hole. Nothing. I tell Fran this, and he rolls his eyes again.

I manage to resist ramming the cookies into my mouth, which is good, as I'm about to indulge in a dining bonanza at the Iberian-Asian eatery Sudestada. My meal includes spicy pork and shrimp dumplings; a platter of Japanese rice, egg, mushroom and eel; tandoori quail; a Thai curry with aged beef; and lots of wine. Each course, meanwhile, comes with a tableside disquisition, ranging from the provenance of the ingredients to how best to consume them (“Mix in the mouth, not on the plate"). It's a flavorful, fascinating meal—and a very long one.

I end the night with my new friend Fran at La Venencia, a onetime haunt of Hemingway's. This sounds like a hook, but the bar turns out to be wonderfully and genuinely run-down, a quality shared by most of its patrons. They serve only sherry here, and they keep tabs with chalk on the bar top.

An old black cat falls asleep in my lap. “The village I was born, there was a place just like this," Fran says. “It's like time has stopped." Right now, I kind of wish that it would.

Day 2 graphic

In which Chris has a tipple with a local celebrity DJ and samples a €150 shot of mezcal

I start the day with a classic ballast—sorry, breakfast of Spanish eggs, served in a pan with spicy tomato sauce and chorizo. Less traditional is the place serving the dish: the swish, geometrically patterned eatery at Hotel Villa Magna. Egged up, I head out onto Paseo de la Castellana, passing a guy unloading a van singing “If You Don't Know Me By Now" in the local language.

I walk between the legs of a large bronze frog and cut right into Chueca, a once-shoddy, now-gentrified area just north of Gran Vía that's become a hotbed of fashion, food, music and gay culture. I twist and turn in the direction (I hope) of Plaza de Chueca, where I'm meeting the musician and DJ Miguel Barros—a.k.a. Pional—a local boy and one of European electronica's rising stars.

Pional, Musician and DJPional, Musician and DJ / Photo by Mariano Herrera

It's a lovely day, so we sit at an outdoor table and order a beer. “Not long ago, this area wasn't 100 percent safe," Miguel says. “Now it's very chic, very expensive." To prove his point, he nods in the direction of a middle-age woman sitting at the next table: “She's a TV actress." Seconds later, a willowy fashion designer approaches Miguel to say hello.

Miguel, like Leonor Watling, says Madrid is defined by its youthful, transient population. “I'm from here," he says, “but almost everyone I know came from somewhere else." And, like Leonor, he believes that this fact has lent the city an air of inclusiveness. “I was born here and you landed here," she had told me, “but you belong to this city as much as I do." Miguel puts it a little more plainly: “It's a very welcoming town."

I ask him to recommend a local nightspot, expecting a flickering techno club. “Toni 2," he says. “It's a weird piano bar with 20-year-old kids sitting next to 70-year-old women." We make our way out of Chueca, pausing to look at the disco balls in the quirky electronics shop Lámparas Especiales. “I love this area," Miguel says. “I feel at home."

“Once, Chueca wasn't a place you wanted to spend time. You'd run out of the station into a bar, then run out of the bar into the station when it was time to go home. Now it's my favorite part of town." —Pional

From here, it's a few blocks northeast into the funky Malasaña district, a jumble of streets jammed with dive bars, organic cafés, pop-up art spaces and shops selling Sex Pistols throw pillows. It's not as fastidiously fashionable as Chueca or La Latina, but the grunginess is part of the appeal.

This is where I'll be having lunch, at La Bicicleta Café, a popular morning-after spot that combines raw, Brooklyny design with rustic cuisine. My Ploughman's Brunch comes on a cutting board and involves pastrami, Spanish omelet, cheeses, pickles and bread. It's a good, hearty meal, nicely (if incongruously) rounded off with a gin and tonic. I linger for a while, eavesdropping on two women sitting across the workbench, one of whom is trying to teach the other English. She walks to the shops … She werkess doo-a chops … Etc.

Next I'm off to neighboring Tribunal, another slightly grungy but increasingly trendy area. I'm here to see Museo de Historia, a former hospice that now serves as a city museum, and which has Madrid's most outlandishly ornate entryway—an explosion of Baroque detailing that hardly seems real. Inside, Madrid's story is told via architectural models of its landmarks, portraits of its erstwhile citizens and various household items. “Ooh," says an Englishwoman, eyeing a case of decorative fans. “We'll go shopping later," her husband says. “Pick up a few."

Madrid's Royal Palace stands as a testament to inordinate wealth, limitless power and blinding interior designMadrid's Royal Palace stands as a testament to inordinate wealth, limitless power and blinding interior design / Photo by Jose Manuel Azcona

From here, I spend a while crisscrossing the bustling lanes of Malasaña, buying a few essentials along the way: a poster depicting a crudely drawn carton of leche (milk), an arty T-shirt bearing the cracked outline of a bull. Malasaña, as one local put it to me earlier, is “the multicolored heart of the city," and there's no doubting the place has character. And yet, when it comes to falling in love with a place, character will only go so far. Looks are always going to be important.

I head back down to Gran Vía, the city's main architectural catwalk, a parade of Art Deco/Beaux-Arts/Moorish Revival masterpieces that incorporates some of Madrid's most recognizable landmarks: the black dome of the Metropolis building, the Manhattan-esque facade of Edificio Telefónica. If you can ignore the fact that many of these buildings are occupied by fashion franchises, the spectacle approaches the sublime.

Near the western tip of Gran Vía is Parque del Oeste, where I wheezingly climb a hill to take a look at the Temple of Debod, a transplanted 2nd-century Egyptian relic featuring blocky stone arches and a squat, pillared sanctuary. This is also a great place to look out over the city, especially when, as now, the sun is going down, lending the buildings a shimmering violet hue. But man cannot live on sightseeing alone. It's dinnertime.

I descend the hill and catch a cab to Punto MX, the first Mexican restaurant in Europe, I'm told, with a Michelin star. I enter the narrow, understated dining room and brace myself. My meal will consist of a five-course taster, and each course will be paired with a mezcal. In the upstairs bar (the “Mezcal Lab") they stock 30 varieties of the drink, including one—God's Eye—that goes for 150 euros a shot.

Working-the-fields cuisine meets beardy-Brooklyn decor at the fashionable brunch joint La Bicicleta CaféWorking-the-fields cuisine meets beardy-Brooklyn decor at the fashionable brunch joint La Bicicleta Café / Photo by Mariano Herrera

“Just leave the bottle on my table," I quip.

“Ha ha," the waiter responds, as though he hasn't heard that one before.

Things get off to a promising start with the guacamole, which is prepared at the table and is the best I've ever had. The rest of the meal, too, is eye-wateringly good: sole and shrimp in a chili broth; a braised duck and green salsa enchilada; “bullock tacos, northern style"; charbroiled sea bream with pineapple pico de gallo; charred marrow, served in the bone. Finally—drumroll—I am invited to sample the God's Eye. I'm no expert, but I can tell this is a quality drink, smooth but with a bite, a warm buzz that starts in your stomach and spreads through the veins.

“You like it?" the waiter asks.

I do.

“Welcome to Mexico!"

Day 3 graphic

In which Chris meets up with a local artisan and experiences flamenco just as Pablo Picasso once did

I wake up in the second hotel of my stay, the boutique-y Hotel Urban, bang in the center of town. Not far from my bed there's a small sandstone bust, an 11th-century Khmer depiction of Buddha. (I have a vision of the departing pilferer: shampoo, bathrobe, vanity kit, priceless cultural artifact…). The hotel continues in a similar vein in the lobby, an achingly modern space with an illuminated white spine running up the atrium and a bunch of large New Guinean tribal sculptures placed throughout. The bar, closed right now, will later on buzz with Madrid's beautiful people.

In order to avoid exploding, I'm skipping breakfast. Instead, I take a brisk 10-minute walk to Parque del Retiro, a 17th-century royal retreat that ranks among the world's great urban parks. I enter via the northwest gate, near the ceremonial arch called the Puerta de Alcalá, and join a stream of strollers on the promenade. Then, having paused for a while to ogle the massive, elaborate monument to Alfonso XII, I cut down one of the pathways to Palacio de Cristal, a hothouse-like 19th-century structure that serves as an art exhibition hall. Before leaving the park, I have an alfresco coffee overlooking a statue of Satan. The garden of earthly delights.

Belén Fernández-Vega, JewelerBelén Fernández-Vega, Jeweler / Photo by Mariano Herrera

Next, I take a cab to the district of Chamberi, just north of the park, where I find the creatively cluttered apartment of Belén Fernández-Vega. A local artist who transforms discarded objects—cuff links, belt buckles—into an elegant line of jewelry, Belén is part of the thriving creative community in the city. “There are lots of artistic people in Madrid," she says. “It's the light that attracts them, I think."

There's a place near Belén's home that she wants me to see. A few minutes later we're in a small herb garden, looking up at the brick Residencia Estudiantes, a building that hosts art exhibitions and literary events, and which once served as a salon for the likes of Salvador Dalí, Igor Stravinsky and H.G. Wells. “This is a very powerful place for me," she says. “I feel very well when I come here." She picks a sprig of rosemary and hands it to me. “Put it in your pocket."

I say goodbye to Belén and head down to Restaurante Taberneros, a hole-in-the-wall eatery known for its selection of wines. I start the meal with salmorejo cordobés, the Córdoba take on gazpacho, topped with ham and eggs. A flurry of courses and paired wines later, the final dish arrives: callos, or tripe stew with crayfish, which is far better than a bowl of stomach and intestines has any right to be. I wash it down with another glass of very agreeable wine and head out into the afternoon sunshine.

“The best thing about Madrid is the light. The painter Joaquín Sorolla found the light in Madrid very good. Look at the sky; the sky is changing all the time." —Belén Fernández-Vega

I walk a few blocks west, aiming for the Royal Palace. Built in the heady days of the 18th century, the former royal residence is a glorious expression of imperial power, a blend of solemn bulk and manic detailing—but that doesn't quite explain the huddled masses outside. “We are waiting for the king to come out," explains an old lady. Oh.

King Felipe VI doesn't come out, so I go in. Whoa. I move between rooms (there are 3,418 of them) trying to process the froth of gold, the frenzy of frescoes. Everything is either gilded or bejeweled or carved into the shape of a mythical beast. Were we allowed to visit the royal restrooms, I'd fully expect to find a golden sphinx hand sanitizer with emeralds for eyes. “We're rich!" the place says. “Rich!"

Speaking of the high life, from here I'm off to nearby Parque del Oeste, and the terminal for Teleférico cable cars. Riding this 50-year-old system requires that I climb into a small box, which dangle-trundles for two miles into an expanse of urban countryside called Casa de Campo. At one point, I pass so close to an apartment building I could high-five the tenants. At the other side, I stand on a viewing deck for a bit, then take another box back, a speaker emitting the easy listening hits of Phil Collins.

Madrid's winding streets are perfect for a confusing strollMadrid's winding streets are perfect for a confusing stroll / Photo by Julia Davila-Lampe

Back on terra firma, I catch a cab to tony Serrano, where I'll be experiencing one of Madrid's more unusual dining locations. Set in a refurbished cinema, Platea amounts to the world's fanciest food court (or at least the only one with six Michelin stars to its name), its swank eateries serving all manner of regional and international cuisine. I have six fantastically fresh oysters, gorgeously marbled lomo Ibérico ham, and the addictive cod fritters known as buñuelos de bacalao, along with several glasses of sweet vermouth.

This sets me up nicely for my visit to Corral de la Morería, a tiny flamenco club tucked away on a side street on the west side of town, whose previous guests have included everyone from Pablo Picasso to Jennifer Aniston. To the ululations of a backing group and a couple of furious guitars, a duo of dancers strut, bicker, flirt, stomp, clap and twirl. At times, the show becomes a frenzy, but there are also moments of tenderness, the mournful solos from the lady at the back. The only downside is that it has to end.

Outside, unable to find a cab, I jump onto a bus. In broken English, the driver explains that he can't take me where I want to go, but this might not be a problem. “You can get off here," he says, “or come with me and see Madrid." So, I spend my last moments in town moving slowly along its narrow streets, the driver pointing at this and that, the rest of the passengers hardly paying attention, as if this sort of thing happens every day.

Wouldn't that be something?


Teaming up with the Chicago Urban League to bring students to China

By The Hub team , July 20, 2018

For many, a visit to China is a once-in-a-lifetime trip that often falls on one's bucket list of destinations. But through a partnership with the Chicago Urban League, some Chicago high school students are checking this dream destination off their lists early.

The Chicago Urban League's annual Student Mission to China brought a group of high school students from Chicago-area schools, including Lindblom Math and Science, Urban Prep and Kenwood academies, to Beijing and Shanghai for an immersive, two-week trip. An extensive application and interview process helped the organization choose the students who would benefit most from the trip. While the trip is not directly tied to the students' school curriculum, the Chicago Urban League teaches prep courses leading up to the trip, and some of the students are independently studying Asian languages.

"Many of the students are hoping to share their experience with family and friends from their communities that aren't able to participate in opportunities such as this one," said corporate and community affairs associate Marissa Warren. "Students are also excited about the chance to be submerged in a different culture for an extensive amount of time."

With one look at the students' itinerary, it's clear that the program truly does offer a complete immersion in Chinese culture. The itinerary includes a mix of landmarks, seminars and cultural activities. Students attend a tea art performance, learn how to make dumplings, practice Chinese calligraphy, painting, paper-cutting, and even play ping pong with local students. Seminar topics range from Chinese language to China's international policy. And no visit to China would be complete without trips to the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Warren said that sponsoring the annual trip is a huge part of United's relationship with the Chicago Urban League. One of the pillars of the company's shared purpose is breaking down barriers and promoting inclusion, and through this trip, students are able to step out of their comfort zones and engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

United and Special Olympics

Taking inclusion to new heights

Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.

Learn more
Featured

Watch the new Big Metal Bird: Island Hopper

By The Hub team , July 20, 2018

Five magnificent stops between Honolulu and Guam filled with spectacular scenery along the way, and then back again. Join Big Metal Bird host, Phil Torres, as he explores our unique Island Hopper route, and discovers what the route means to the people of Micronesia.

Hemispheres

The Hemispheres guide to family vacations

By The Hub team

Illustrations by Stacey Lamb | Hemispheres June 2018

Whether your kids dream of being superheroes, star athletes, or, yes, wizards, we've got the perfect family vacation — for them and for you.

If your kid wants to be Iron Man

Have a kid who thinks he can fly? Who shoots repulsor rays from his hands and jumps off the couch into pits of lava to save strangers (i.e., his stuffed animals) from danger? The new Marvel Day at Sea Cruise was designed for him.

Launched in late 2017, this five-day trip offers everything that's normally on a Disney Magic cruise—incredible stage shows, interactive dinners, a stop on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay—with a special all-Marvel day that will leave your kiddo shouting “Avengers assemble!" before passing out on his sleeper-sofa.

Aside from superhero meet-and-greets (smartly, tickets for the most popular characters are timed to avoid lines wrapping around the ship; also, moms, know this: Thor is very attractive), Marvel activities abound. Kids can head to the Oceaneer Club for tutorials with Thor, who teaches them how to wield their own Mjolnir for good, and Spider-Man, who shows how quick reflexes are the key to capturing bad guys. Artists offer budding comic-book illustrators Bob Ross–style lessons in how to draw Iron Man and his pals, and afterward, families can head to one of the movie theaters (plural) to catch a screening of the latest Marvel Studios flick (this year it was Black Panther; next year, maybe Captain Marvel?)

It all culminates in a grand live spectacular on the top deck that sees basically all the Avengers—yes, even Black Widow and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy—battling Loki, Red Skull, and the Hydra agents to secure Stark Industries' new (and dangerous) power source. It's a clever, high-action show with acrobatics, choreographed fight scenes, and fireworks that will have you cheering louder than your kid. —Ellen Carpenter

The Digs:
Book a deluxe oceanview stateroom with a verandah—because verandah. Being able to sit outside and watch the whitecaps crash while recapping the day with a glass of wine (each adult is allowed to bring two bottles aboard—money saver!) is key once your little ones conk out.

The Feast:
In general, the food is great—crab legs and shrimp at the lunch buffet; beef Wellington at the Animator's Palate; even Hulk green bread on the Marvel day—but definitely do an adults-only dinner at Palo, a northern Italian restaurant offering superb antipasti, lobster pappardelle, Dover sole, and more. And be sure to get the Palo cocktail, made with pear vodka, limoncello, grappa, and prosecco.

Illustration of platform 9 3/4 from the beloved Harry Potter movie

If your kid wants to be Harry Potter

Have a kid who keeps a wand in his bookbag so he can keep trying the Accio spell? Who introduces himself by saying which house he's in? (Gryffindor, obviously.) Fly to London—preferably on Hagrid's motorcycle—where a surfeit of Harry Potter–themed activities await.

Your first task is to visit Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden (20 miles outside London), where all eight of the Harry Potter films were made. Reservations are required, but once you're there, a docent leads you into the Great Hall, where you'll have hours to roam two sound stages and a back lot full of sets (Diagon Alley!), costumes (Hermione's Yule Ball gown!), props (the intricate 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts castle used for wide shots!), and interactive exhibits that reveal the films' secrets. You can also get your picture taken while riding a broomstick and sample the infamous butterbeer.

Back in the city, visit Platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross Station and other locations depicted in the films with Tours for Muggles, a two-and-a-half-hour walk that starts near London Bridge tube station. By night, head to the West End to take in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part stage play based on an original story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany. Finally, book a visit to Enigma Quests' School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, where adults and kids work in teams to solve puzzles and riddles to escape their rooms. “Graduates" don Hogwarts-style robes and receive calligraphy diplomas. —Kathryn Jessup

The Digs:
You'll want to book a Wizard Chamber at the Georgian House Hotel to form the foundation of your experience. These cozy suites are hidden behind bookcases and replicate Hogwarts dormitories in detail (cauldrons in the fireplaces, four-poster beds). Also magical: the full English breakfast, which will keep you fueled for hours.

The Feast:
You'll think you've walked into the Leaky Cauldron itself when you descend to Fleet Street's Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a family-friendly pub dating to 1667 that played host to Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. Kids will love the fish and chips—with mushy peas, of course—and you'll love having a proper pint.

Illustration of skier going down a mountain slope

If your kid wants to be Mikaela Shiffrin

Have a kid who collects trail maps and sleeps in her speed suit the night before every trip to the slopes? Who watches the weather incessantly for storm advisories and sets up gates in your backyard, planning her fastest lines?

Wax those skis and head to Colorado, home of Olympic gold medalist and World Cup Champion Mikaela Shiffrin. Earlier this year, the Centennial State native became an investor in Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company, which owns 12 year-round mountain destinations, including one of the best places for kids to learn and race: Steamboat.

Besides having terrain perfectly suited to kids—and the Steamboat Snowsports School to help them master it—the resort operates one of the largest recreational race facilities in the world. The Bashor Race Arena offers daily NASTAR (National Standard Race) events, which give kids of any age an opportunity to compete and compare scores. Top competitors are invited to the annual NASTAR National Championships, where winners earn medals like real Olympians. If that's not enough, racers here also have access to historic Howelsen Hill, the home of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which has been helping Steamboat Springs produce the most Olympians of any town in the U.S. for more than 100 years. Better clear some shelf space for all those future medals… —Amiee White Beazley

The Digs:
One Steamboat Place, at the base of the Steamboat gondola, is made for families. A heated outdoor pool, three hot tubs, and a game room equipped with flatscreen TVs, pool tables, and shuffleboard courts ensure that the kids will be able to work off any energy left over from the slopes. Book your stay at the private residence club through Moving Mountains, which offers a hand-picked collection of spacious places.

The Feast:
Before hitting the slopes, fuel up at the Creekside Café in historic downtown Steamboat Springs. Try the Barn Burner—bacon, cheddar cheese, and scrambled eggs on a homemade biscuit smothered in sausage gravy—and pair it with a freshly pressed organic juice. Après-ski, head to Rex's American Bar & Grill, which serves “2 Handed" sand-wiches, brick oven pizzas, and some of the best fish tacos north of the border.

Illustration of surfer hitting the waves

If your kid wants to be Kelly Slater

Have a kid who watches The Endless Summer weekly? Who practices popping up on the coffee table? Take your aspiring surfer where the mountains meet the sea, along the American Riviera.

In spite of recent wildfires and mudslides, the surf scene in Santa Barbara is thriving, and this city with a small-town feel is the perfect place to travel with a teen in search of waves.

“Surf schools and camps are the norm here, just like soccer and baseball," says Heather Hudson, a local surfer and director of the documentary series The Women and the Waves. The best is the Santa Barbara Surf School, which will outfit your kid with a wetsuit and board and select a beach tailored to his level of ability (Leadbetter Beach and Mondos are great for beginners). The school's guides could not be more prudent or more devoted to getting your youngster up on his board and having fun in the Pacific. One-on-one classes are $85, and though they last just an hour and a half, they will leave the kid exhausted. Afterward, let him catch his breath at Rincon Point, “the queen of the coast," and watch the pros catch waves that seem to never end.

Picking out his dream board is next. Head to the Funk Zone, a neighborhood packed with surf shops like Channel Islands, J7, and Beach House, to ogle boards crafted locally by some of the world's most famed shapers and, maybe best of all, share wipeout stories with the righteously tanned store clerks. —KJ

The Digs:
Check in to the new Hotel Californian, where a classic Santa Barbara Spanish exterior gives way to a modern Moorish interior with just a touch of youthful edge. Borrow the complimentary bicycles to explore the Waterfront district and then cool off in the rooftop pool.

The Feast:
Refuel after the lesson with salmon, ahi, or yellowtail poke bowls at Big Eye Raw Bar downtown, and have dinner at the hotel's fine-dining spot, Blackbird. End your meal with a dessert of goat cheese, blood orange sorbet, crispy quinoa, basil, and fennel pollen. It's gnarly—in the best way possible.

Illustration of storybook character, Robin Hood

If your kid wants to be Robin Hood

Have a kid who's slick with a plastic sword? Who hits the bull's-eye on her Nerf archery set 9 out of 10 shots? Who's always surrounded by merry compatriots? Time to pay a visit to the home of “the world's first superhero."

Nottingham, a midsize city 110 miles north of London, is known for being the former haunt—possibly, maybe—of the world's most famous outlaw (who may or may not have existed). What is undeniably real is the moral at the heart of the mythology: It's OK to steal, as long as you take from the rich and give to the poor. Kids who challenge this premise are quickly corrected: “The laws he was fighting were unjust!" the men in tights will tell you.

At Nottingham Castle, see where the evil Sheriff once—possibly, maybe—imprisoned Robin. Just across the way is The Robin Hood Experience, a quirky attraction run by a faux Robin named Adam Greenwood. Wander a labyrinth of tiny rooms inhabited by various characters who tell tales of yore. On the way out, buy a mini longbow and a green outfit.

Next, take Ade Andrews's Robin Hood Town Tour—as much a theatrical performance as a historical overview. While tracing the line from bloodthirsty medieval ballads to the sanitized Hollywood version, Andrews is apt to twirl his sword in the air or toot his cow-horn trumpet.

Finally, take up bows and arrows—Robin's weapon of choice—at a lesson with the archery club Wilford Bowmen, where seasoned archers will show your tiny outlaw how to hit a (not very distant) target. Be sure to take a turn yourself, so she can laugh at your failure. —Chris Wright

The Digs:
Not only is the boutique Hart's Hotel within arrow's range of Nottingham Castle, part of it is built on the ramparts. Book one of the two suites so you have room to spread out and don your finest for a meal at the hotel's restaurant, one of the best spots in town.

The Feast:
If fine dining doesn't grab you, head to The Alchemist, which recently opened an outpost in a glorious Victorian building in downtown Nottingham. The food ranges from beet risotto to Moroccan lamb rump, neither of which was likely on the menu in Sherwood Forest.

Illustration of child and mother walking through the National Mall in D.C.

If your kid wants to be Michelle Obama

Have a kid who spends her weekends volunteering at the Salvation Army? Who follows notable figures instead of her friends on Instagram? For a dose of history and hope, head to Washington, D.C.

Make your first stop the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 and has been the hottest ticket in town ever since. The lower three floors are dedicated to History, from the slave trade to #BlackLivesMatter. It's a painful but necessary exhibit that displays slave shackles so small they must have been for a child, as well as murdered teen Emmett Till's coffin. Before heading upstairs to the more celebratory exhibitions in the Culture gallery, stop in the Contemplative Court, where a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. adorns the wall behind a waterfall fountain: “We are determined … to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The Washington Monument stands mere yards from the museum, so afterward saunter over to the National Mall and think about how 200,000 people gathered there in 1963 to hear MLK speak about a new future. Next, catch a glimpse of that imagined future at the National Portrait Gallery, which unveiled the Obamas in February. The power of Kehinde Wiley's floral-encased depiction of Barack is impossible to deny. Finally, cab to another depiction of the Obamas that's a must-see for any aspiring Civil Rights leader: the mural at Ben's Chili Bowl, which also features Muhammad Ali, Harriet Tubman, and even Taraji P. Henson. Anyone, after all, can make a difference.—EC

The Digs:
The Hay-Adams is the stay for a kid who wants to be right in the action. (Sasha and Malia Obama slept here before calling the White House home.) From free cookies at check-in to loaner wellies on rainy days, the hotel puts its youngest guests first.

The Feast:
NMAAHC's Sweet Home Café
invokes the African diaspora in foods like black-eyed-pea-and-corn empanadas. Later, head to the InterContintental at The Wharf's Kith/Kin, where chef Kwame Onwuachi mixes flavors from Nigeria, Jamaica, and New Orleans.

Illustration of baseball park

If your kid wants to be Willie Mays

Have a kid who asked for a subscription to MLB.TV as a birthday present? Who cracked every fence slat in your yard pitching imaginary games? Get your little seamhead close to the action without breaking the bank by heading to the Cactus League.

Each year, from late February through late March, 15 MLB teams prepare for the season at facilities located within a 47-mile radius of Phoenix. Here, there's no such thing as nosebleed seats, and a box of Cracker Jack won't set you back $10. The outfield lawn seats at Scottsdale Stadium offer a perfect vantage point for the game while also allowing younger kids to run around. Starting at only $10 a ticket, you'll pay a fraction of the admission at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Games often sell out, so get tickets in advance, and look for family packages. There are also kid-themed days, such as at Peoria Sports Complex where on Sundays, kids 12 and under can stand with a player during the national anthem or announce who's stepping up to bat. At Sloan Park kids get “First-Timer Certificates" to memorialize their first Cactus League.

The Digs:
The Phoenician, a five-star resort in Scottsdale, offers six swimming pools, I.Fly trapeze lessons, and s'mores and stargazing at night. The Funicians Club gives parents a chance to hit the spa while kids explore the on-site cactus garden and play video games.

The Feast:
For great Mexican food, head to La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval, at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The kids' menu will keep your little ones happy, while a custom tequila flight (there's a Tequila Goddess on staff) and guacamole made tableside will do the trick for you.

United Journey

How traveling changed the course of our future

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…Mark Twain knew this, and anyone who travels and gets out of their comfort zone understands this same concept.

This is one of the reasons we love to travel — our perceptions and stereotypes are constantly being challenged. This is also probably why we've built a business that requires us to travel regularly — we create street art pieces in cities around the world.

Search flights

But we weren't always like this. Our love of travel first began when our Mom took us backpacking through Europe for a month. At the time, we were both young teenagers who had never been out of the country. We carefully planned our outfits and fit them into one backpack each. Mom carried our Rick Steve's travel guide and off we went. We stayed in shabby hotels across the United Kingdom, France and Spain, visiting every museum we could find, eating every baguette, croissant and paella dish we could get our hands on, and loving every second of it.

We've been addicted to travel ever since.

Kelsey sketches at a street cafe in Paris Kelsey sketches at a street cafe in Paris

I (Kelsey) fell so in love with London on that trip that I grew determined to study there. Fast forward to years later when I graduated from Richmond University in London. That trip changed the course of my life because I learned about and experienced street art during my studies in London. Courtney fell so in love with Paris that she learned French and graduated with a degree in comparative literature from the American University of Paris. That first trip changed the course of our lives forever and opened our eyes to how massive the world was. I don't think our Mom could have given us a better gift than that first trip abroad.

As adults who travel constantly we feel like a MileagePlus® membership is another important piece of the equation and something we've benefitted from tremendously over the years. The various United Club℠ locations are little refuges we escape to in busy and overwhelming airports. Being able to board early, getting upgraded and having nice flight attendants on long haul flights really can mean the difference between arriving well rested and having a good trip, or arriving tired and having a rough trip.

At the end of the day a company is all about the people in it and the kindness we have experienced on United flights has been wonderful. I remember once on a flight, one of our captains wrote a personal note thanking each passenger flying in United First® class for traveling on United. On another, a flight the attendant saw I was not feeling well and hunted down an Airborne (vitamin pack) for me. Still another flight attendant asked about my art (I was sketching on the plane) and when I explained what I do they committed to buying my coloring book. It's these connections that really make flying United so memorable for myself and my sister.

So if you're looking to give your child a gift, take them traveling. And if you're looking for a present for yourself, sign up to enjoy the benefits of a MileagePlus Membership. You won't regret either.

Join MileagePlus to start earning miles from the world's most rewarding loyalty program℠ and share your story with #UnitedJourney.

Search flights

Welcome day brings employees and Special Olympics athletes together

By Matt Adams , July 13, 2018

As part of the weekend's festivities, our CEO, Oscar Munoz, joined a group of employees and retirees in greeting nearly 700 arriving athletes, coaches and volunteers at Seattle's Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA), as well as hundreds more at local light rail stations, all of which were decorated with our Special Olympics superhero campaign banners.

Oscar also had the honor of giving Special Olympics athlete Nikki Jones her first in person look at her superhero alter ego Lane Lightning, a moment that was captured on the video below.

Introducing a more personalized experience on united.com

By Gladys Roman , July 13, 2018

Our united.com homepage is getting some big enhancements. Yesterday, we announced the launch of the new site, which will offer a more modern, user-friendly design, allowing users a more personalized digital experience.

Each one of our customers is unique and has different needs for his or her travel, and personalizing our digital offerings is just another step toward giving our customers the experience and the products that they ask for, said Digital Products and Analytics VP Praveen Sharma. "Our goal with this new homepage is to provide customers with a more seamless experience."

The new website will provide personalized content based on a customer's MileagePlus® status as well as upcoming, current or prior trips. It will also include a new display that will be fully responsive for optimal viewing on desktop and mobile devices. Later this year, the site will include a travel section that will provide customers with curated content from destinations United serves.

We began rolling out the new homepage in April and continued expanding it to more users while we added more functionality throughout the phased rollout. The site will be live to all customers in early August.

These efforts are part of our commitment to improve our customers' travel experience through every step of their journey. Earlier this year, we updated our mobile website, adding a more optimized display, additional flexibility to adjust flights throughout the site, Japanese language translations and more.

Our new homepage will also appear on our mobile website, creating a more seamless experience when customers are managing travel and bookings across multiple devices.

United Journey

Transcending borders and languages in Tanzania

By The Hub team

Story and photos by Davis Paul

I have been very fortunate to travel the world telling stories with a camera for the last decade. Being a United MileagePlus® member for many of those years has absolutely opened the world and eased my ability to get around. And, it enabled me to authentically document the way in which different people and cultures do life, which has now become an obsession. How can you make someone feel what you witnessed despite not being there?

Dirt road in Tanzania

The world is full of amazing stories and incredible lessons that can transcend borders and languages. I believe every location is uniquely beautiful on it's own, we just need to see it for what it is and not in comparison to others. Bangladesh can be just as beautiful as Tahiti if we remove expectation and appreciate the uniqueness each location has to offer.

However, of all the trips I have ever taken, out of every project I have embarked on, from X Games to Real Madrid, there is one that hit me in a very different way. That was my trip to Tanzania to work on the border of Burundi out of two Refugee Camps. I was contracted to help train and build soccer programs within the camp as well as create content that would provide impactful insight into the circumstances taking place throughout the region as well as to connect the outside world with these amazing people fighting for their lives. I had zero preparation for the trip, having only booked my flight a week in advance. I had never traveled to Africa, let alone a refugee camp that couldn't be more difficult to get to. In fact, it was roughly 38 hours of travel by myself including having an 8 hour drive on something that barely resembled a road. Because it was so last minute, I actually wasn't able to secure a driver to take me to the town of Kibondo which meant once I landed, I had to find any local with a car who would be willing to take me the distance. Luckily, I found a man named Frankie who had a Toyota Corolla which consequently broke down within the first hour of our journey.

Group of kids in Burundi, Tanzania

Once I arrived, I had never witnessed life in this manner. Hundreds of thousands of refugees all piled together within 2 square miles. Mud huts, tarps, tents, anything and everything to sustain life was being used. Almost everyone in this camp had lost a loved one to violence yet I had never seen so much hope and joy. It completely changed my perspective on life to live amongst these people for 3 weeks. I ate with them everyday in the camp, eating the local food with my hands. To hear their stories, to see how they live and to dream with them on the brighter future they all hope exists was truly humbling. I'll never forget the lessons I learned within this camp and from these people — their love and optimism despite having experienced unimaginable tragedy was uplifting. When I asked if there was one message I could bring back to the United States, they simply would say, "we just want people to know we exist". I hope that my time and efforts there at least provided that. Although I tried to make the biggest impact I could while there, it is safe to say I was the one impacted the most and I will be forever grateful for that. I just hope I can help in half of the way they helped me.

Davis Paul pictured in Tanzania

I'm never sure where the next story will exist, but I can guarantee you'll find me on the ground, always laughing with a camera in hand. Traveling is a gift that allows us insight into both our differences and similarities, and the more you travel, the more you realize we all share in the same struggles, same hopes and same dreams. I believe that despite bad things happening, the world is full of good — we just need to seek it in every situation.

Join MileagePlus to start earning miles from the world's most rewarding loyalty program℠ and share your story with #UnitedJourney.

How to experience the best of Prague in 3 days

By Nick Harper

Every bit as historic, as beautiful and as culturally enriching as the European heavyweights of Paris, London or Rome, Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic has emerged over recent decades to be a jewel in the continent's crown.

The city escaped significant bomb damage during World War II and its historic center remains magnificently intact, with a maze of cobbled lanes, quiet courtyards, chic cafés and ancient chapels just waiting to be discovered. To see enough of the city, we suggest visiting for at least three days.

Search flights

Getting into the city

Upon arrival, regular and reliable buses and trains will get you into the center of the city within 20 minutes. Unless you're heading outside of Prague, you shouldn't need to rent a car. The center of Prague is compact and easily to explore on foot, with excellent and cheap trams, buses and the subway if you don't want to walk.

Where to stay

Central Prague is broken down into 10 districts, with most visitors staying in Prague 1, the heart of the city. Here you have two good options: The Old Town or the Lesser Town – linked by Prague's most celebrated landmark, the Charles Bridge. The Old Town is at the heart of everything, full of historical sites, bars and restaurants but can be overpriced and often considered 'touristy' as a result. The Lesser Town is still close to the heart of everything but with a more tranquil atmosphere that's particularly good for families.

Old Town in Prague

What to see

There's too much to see in a single visit, however, one of the absolute essentials has to be Prague Castle, which is literally unmissable. The largest castle complex in the world, it dates back to the 9th century and is also home to the presidential palace, the vast St. Vitus Cathedral and Golden Lane — an original 16th-century street of tiny cottages that was home to Franz Kafka. The lookout tower of St. Vitus Cathedral gives you a bird's eye view of the city, as does Petrin Lookout Tower at the top of Petrin Hill, which climbs 206 feet to look down on the city.

From there head to the Old Town Square, which is the medieval center of Prague, surrounded by cobbled streets awash with cafes and restaurants. It's home to the Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock, the Rococo Kinsky Palace and the stunning Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. If you visit in December, it also hosts the city's largest Christmas market.

Also close by, Klementinum is a series of historic buildings worth visiting just to see what is arguably the most beautiful library in the world. If you're looking for a world-class collection of historical artifacts, minerals and zoological specimens, the National Museum ticks all of the boxes. It's located at the top of Wenceslas Square, which is not actually a square but a boulevard – and one of Prague's most popular shopping streets.

Kampa Island is a great alternative to the National Museum. Literally an island located beneath Charles Bridge, you'll find the museum of modern art, The John Lennon Wall and giant, slightly unnerving sculptures of crawling babies. Speaking of Charles Bridge, it is one of Prague's most popular and photographed sites for good reason. You'll no doubt use it to cross the Vltava River, but for the best photographs, visit at dawn, before the crowds arrive.

And if all this walking gets to be too much, see the city from a different perspective, floating gently down the Vltava on a river cruise.

River Vltava in Prague

Where to eat

Restaurants to suit every taste and budget dot the center of Prague. Great breakfast options include Coffee Room, Mezi Srnky and the always-popular Café Savoy, which is also great for lunch or dinner.

In a city full of carnivores, the Real Meat Society's porchetta sandwich is a lunchtime highlight, Dish is a stylish little burger joint full of fashionable people, while Lokál Dlouhááá offers a beer hall feel and Czech classics of pork, sauerkraut and dumplings washed down with beer.

The city's only two Michelin-starred restaurants are Field and La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, the latter creating modern takes on old Czech recipes using the highest quality local produce. Both restaurants require a reservation. Highly recommended 'Bib Gourmand' restaurants within easy reach of Charles Bridge include Sansho, Divinis and Maso A Kobliha, where the salty caramel pie may elicit happy tears.

Prague skyline at sunrise

Where to drink

In the number one beer-drinking nation on the planet, the locals refer to it as 'Liquid bread.' Prague is home to many of the nation's finest bars and ale houses, many of which brew their own beers. Two of the most historic are U Zlateho Tygra, which President Clinton visited in 1994, and U Cerneho Vola, which stands in the shadow of the castle. Letná Beer Garden offers an outdoor setting where you can enjoy a beer and views of the Old Town below.

And keep an eye out for 'tankovna' – tank pubs – where the beer is not pasteurized, as most beers have to be to be transported around the globe. In tank pubs such as U Pinkasu, the beer is probably the freshest you'll ever taste. But if pilsner is not your preference, head to Hemingway Bar, one of the world's finest cocktail bars. You may have to wait in line as it is a popular with both locals and tourists alike, but it's well worth the wait.

When to go

Prague is the warmest and busiest during the summer months, from April until October and peak season starts in July through August. The longer nights of spring and summer will give you more time to explore, while the celebrated Beer Festival fills the city's Letná Park in May. Spring and autumn are generally quieter and can be less costly than the summer months. If you can cope with the colder temperatures and darker days, winter is a magical time to be in the city.

Getting there

United, together with many of its Star Alliance partner airlines, offers service from multiple cities in the U.S. to Prague. To explore all that Prague has to offer and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app.

Search flights
Scroll to top