Sometimes a simple walk in Madrid turns into a magical memory. Yesterday was one of those. Our plan was to stroll in nearby El Retiro Park and grab a bite on the way back. What we experienced was an almost five-mile-long sensory-rich adventure and an unexpected Sunday feast. It didn’t hurt that it was a beautiful day with brilliant blue skies framed by dramatic fluffy clouds.

El Retiro, just a couple blocks from our apartment, is a verdant oasis of calm that has served as Madrid’s green heart since 1868. This sprawling 350-acre park, a former haunt of Spanish royalty, draws Madrileños of all walks of life to unwind, socialize, and reconnect with nature.

Strolling through El Retiro is like a walk through history. Commissioned by King Philip IV in the 17th century as a spiritual retreat turned pleasure palace. Originally, the grounds were designed in the French Baroque style, with manicured gardens, geometric pathways, and ornamental ponds. Some of this royal grandeur remains – including the meticulously sculpted hedges lining the Paseo de la Argentina.

Since opened to the public in the mid-19th century, the park has evolved into an important and vibrant social space. The gardens, once exclusive, are now a hub of everyday activities like picnics, family gatherings, exercise, dog walking, and public speaking.

Street musicians of every ilk add to the soundtrack. Some performers are solidly professional while others seemed to be just practicing, hoping for a euro or two for their trouble. We toe-tapped to an amazing ragtime jazz group near one of the park entrances. Next, they enjoyed a beautiful classical duo performance at the Palacio de Cristal, a stunning glass and iron building inspired by London’s Crystal Palace.

We watched sunburned visitors maneuver their rented rowboats on the sparkling Estanque Grande, mimicking the leisurely pursuits of the Spanish court. The park’s largest lake was the entertainment center for the royals, who applauded lavish productions staged on an island in the middle of the lake. Today, the massive 1902 Monument to Alfonso XII flanks the lake’s east shore.

We got an art fix at the former Palacio de Velázque which now houses a branch of the Reina Sofia Museum. The airy, light-filled rooms were a perfect setting for a free exhibit of work by the late American sculptor James Lee Byars. Highly cerebral, it was a bit too challenging for this relaxing Sunday afternoon.

We were over 6,000 steps when we exited the park into the Salamanca neighborhood, bustling with traffic and pedestrians, many on their way to Sunday lunch. Sometimes it’s hard to choose a place to eat – there are so many options, but we knew we had to make a decision because the sidewalk cafes we passed were already filling up. We had a hankering for shrimp, remembering the sizzling gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) served at a historic tapas restaurant near the Plaza Mayor. So we Googled gambas al ajillo restaurant near me. Amazingly, one popped up with decent reviews. It was just a couple of blocks away.

La Casa del Abuelo GOYA is a time-honored taberna that has been serving up authentic Spanish cuisine since 1906. Amazingly, it was the sister restaurant of the one we loved near the plaza. Both are renowned for their delectable gambas. Luckily we arrived as an outdoor table emptied, so we could dine alfresco on this beautiful day.

Aside from their famous shrimp dish, they have other tasty tapas options, such as squid sandwiches and croquetas. To complement the meal there’s a selection of fine Spanish wines from the restaurant’s own winery. We had a glass of house red and white, both quaffable. And the pours were most generous.

With our shrimp, we enjoyed an enormous plate of padron peppers and a delicious Russian salad featuring shrimp instead of tuna. Despite the full house, our server was helpful and friendly. It was a delicious finish to our walk in the park.