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Visiting Madrid on a budget

Visiting Madrid on a budget

Barcelona has Gaudi, Granada has the Alhambra, Santiago has the pilgrims – but if you’re looking for a Spanish city break then Madrid has a bit of everything. My recent Surprise Trip was my first time in Madrid and I discovered a vibrant, energetic city with more than one side to it. You can soak up the culture in the museums and galleries or drink cocktails on a rooftop terrace and dance until dawn. Fill up on tasty tapas or feast your eyes on the beautiful architecture. Spain is one of the Europe’s cheaper destinations, but city break costs can still add up. So here are my top tips for making the most of Madrid on a budget.

More budget city guides: London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, New York, Las Vegas
Templo de Debod in Madrid

The Egyptian Temple of Debod

Things to see and do

Madrid has plenty of free sights and a walk around the city’s plazas and streets will show you some of its highlights. You can admire the architecture in the grand Plaza Mayor, walk down the city’s most famous street the Gran Via, or people watch as the sun goes down in the Puerta del Sol. The ornate Palacio Real is Europe’s largest palace. It’s the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family with interiors dripping with gold, marble and intricate frescoes. Entry normally costs €11, but it’s free for EU citizens (bring your passport or ID card) on Monday to Thursday from 6pm–8pm (4pm–6pm from October to March).

Walking tours are a perfect introduction to the city, and there are several companies with free tours where you just tip your guide. Ogo Tours do a 2.5-hour tour of the historic Madrid de los Austrias neighborhood starting from Puerta del Sol at 10.45am daily. Pancho Tours also do a tour at 10.45am tour from Puerta del Sol which lasts 3 hours and ends in the Barrio de las Letras (writers’ district). Or Sandeman’s New Madrid Tours do a city highlights tour from the Plaza Mayor at 10am, 11am and 2pm every day.

Madrid’s parks make a great escape from the city streets – and some welcome shade on a hot summer’s day. Retiro Park stretches across 330 acres with a boating lake, fountains, sculptures and monuments, including the glass Palacio de Cristal which hosts free exhibitions. There’s also the huge Casa del Campo park which has an amusement park and zoo as well as hiking routes. And the Parque del Oeste where you’ll find an Egyptian temple, the Temple of Debod. It was donated by the Egyptians after Spain helped save their archaeological treasures when the Aswan Dam was built and is a great place to watch sunset.

If you’re in Madrid on a Sunday, don’t miss the El Rastro flea market. It’s one of the largest in Europe and sprawls through the streets between Plaza Mayor and Puerta de Toledo. Nearly 1000 stalls sell everything from antiques and books to jewellery and clothes. It starts at 7am and goes on until around 3pm.

Palacio Real in Madrid

Inside and outside the Palacio Real

Museums and galleries

Many of Madrid’s museums and galleries are free on certain days or times. The world-famous Prado art gallery has free entry to its permanent collections from 6pm–8pm on Monday to Saturday and 5pm–7pm on Sundays (with 50% off entry to the temporary exhibitions). Get there early though as there can be big queues. The Reina Sofia modern art museum is free from 7pm–9pm on Mondays and Wednesday to Saturday (closed on Tuesdays) and from 1.30pm–7pm on Sundays. Both museums are always free for under 18s and students aged 18–25. Over 65s get half-price entry to the Prado and free entry to the Reina Sofia.

Also free at certain times are the Museo Arqueológico Nacional archaeological museum, which is free on Saturdays from 2pm and Sunday mornings. And the Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum is free on Mondays from 12pm–4pm. Other museums are always free to enter. Like the Museo Taurino about the history of bullfighting, the Museo Arte Público outdoor sculpture gallery, the CaixaForum museum and cultural centre, and Andén O, which is a 1960s underground railway station turned museum.

Museums and galleries are usually free on 12 October (Spain’s national day), 6 December (Constitution Day) and 18 May (International Museum Day). There’s also a ‘Museum Night’ on the Saturday before or after International Museum Day, with late-night opening and special events like music, dance and films.

The Madrid Card covers entry to the museums with skip-the-queue access to some (including the Prado) as well as discounts on other attractions, shops, restaurants and flamenco shows. There are four different versions available – 24 hours (€47), 48 hours (€60), 72 hours (€67) and 120 hours (€77).

Palacio de Cristal in Madrid's Retiro Park

Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park

Top city views

One of the city’s best views is from on top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes arts and cultural centre. It costs €4 to take the lift to the 7th floor and a rooftop terrace bar overlooking the city that’s open until 1.30am (2.30am weekends). Nearby is the grand white Palacio de Cibeles. It’s home to Madrid City Council but also has a viewing platform (closed on Tuesdays). Entry costs €2 for adults or €0.50 for under 12s, and is free on the first Wednesday of the month. Or for a meal with a view, the Gourmet Experience food stalls on the 9th floor of the El Corte Inglés department store serve everything from pintxos to ice cream.

If you want to get higher, the futuristic – and slightly bizarre looking – Faro de Moncloa transmission tower rises up 110 metres. It was built for Madrid’s year as European Capital of Culture in 1992 and from its viewing platform at 92 metres high you can see up to 60 miles. Entry costs €3 euros, or €1.50 for 7–14 year olds and over 65s. Or for something a bit different, Madrid has its own cable car. The Teleférico de Madrid runs between Paseo del Pintor Rosales and the Casa del Campo park. It takes 10 minutes and crosses rivers, railway lines and parkland, costing €5.90 for a return trip or €4.20 one way.

Circulo de Bellas Artes rooftop bar Madrid

The view from the Circulo de Bellas Artes

Eating and drinking

Spain means tapas, small plates of food that often come free when you order a drink, so you can get dinner for the price of a few drinks. One of the best-known free tapas spots is El Tigre, where a €5 beer or sangria will get you a plate piled with tapas. Dishes vary with each round but include patatas bravas, tortilla and serrano ham. It’s a popular place, so if it’s full try El Respiro next door. Other tapas bargains include Copas Rotas and Indalo Tapas, a small chain with several branches across Madrid.

For a budget lunch, pick up picnic supplies from one of Madrid’s food markets. Most famous is the Mercado de San Miguel, in a beautiful building next to the Plaza Mayor. It’s more food court than traditional market, with stalls selling local ham, olives and cheeses as well as tapas dishes. There are tables if you want to eat in, or grab a bottle of wine from a supermarket and head to the park. There’s also the Mercado San Ildefonso, which is a street food market in the trendy Malasaña district. Or for more traditional, cheaper locals markets try the Mercado Antón Martin near Retiro Park or the Mercado de Maravillas.

Tapas at Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel

Tapas in the Mercado de San Miguel

Travelling around

The centre of Madrid is very walkable, but if you’re travelling further afield the Metro is modern and fast, and runs across the city from 6am to 1.30am. A single Metrobús ticket (which you can use on the Metro or buses) costs €1.50, or you can get a 10-journey ticket for €12.20. There’s also a Abono Turístico tourist travel card for various different durations, costing €8.40 for one day up to €35.40 for a week.

You can get to the airport by Metro, train or bus – each takes around 30–40 minutes. If you take the Metro you need to pay a €3 supplement on top of the usual ticket price. The Exprés Aeropuerto (Airport Express) bus costs €5 single or there are various cheaper local buses. Cercanías overland trains run from Terminal 4 (which you can reach from other terminals by shuttle bus) and cost €2,60. Whether you’re catching a train or not, it’s worth calling in at Madrid’s Atocha Station. The entrance hall has 4000 square metres of tropical botanic garden to wander around, with ponds full of turtles and 700 different plant species.

Madrid cafe

Madrid tapas bar

So those are my tips for seeing Madrid on a budget – do you know of any more Madrid bargains or have any money-saving tips?

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How to save money on sightseeing, museums and galleries, food and drink, city views and transport – showing you can see Madrid on a budget.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Sharon
    September 15, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Great guide! I’m hoping to do a Surprise Trip next year.But how do you plan what to do…or is that part of the fun? Did you buy a guide book at the airport.;)

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 15, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      I am such a planner I don’t think I could totally wing it, so I did buy a guidebook before we got on the plane, and did a bit of Googling to find out where the hotel was and how to get from the airport. After that it was a case of picking some highlights we definitely wanted to see and seeing what we found for the rest of time. It was really fun though!

  • Reply
    raastha
    September 16, 2016 at 4:50 am

    Spain, has always on my bucket list. Good you got me this!!!! Thank you!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 18, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Hope it comes in useful!

  • Reply
    lexklein
    September 16, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Surely you didn’t do all this in a few days’ city break?! I think I spent the four months I lived there and then a second and third trip fitting all this in! But you did cover many of my favorite things!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 18, 2016 at 9:32 pm

      Haha no I didn’t do it all! I’ve still got a big list to go back and do next time (and probably a third and fourth trip too).

  • Reply
    Ella - Wide-Eyed Wanderer
    September 17, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Sounds like there’s quite a lot to do in Madrid. I’ll be there in a few weeks, but only for a nighttime layover and I probably won’t be able to explore the city at all. Oh well… I’ll just have to go back at some point 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 18, 2016 at 9:29 pm

      Good excuse for a return trip definitely!

  • Reply
    Culture Passport
    September 17, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    There is so much to do in Madrid! I went for 8 days this summer and found it wasn’t nearly enough! 🙂
    Victoria

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 18, 2016 at 9:14 pm

      We only just have time for a taster but there was so much more I’d like to see!

  • Reply
    atravelingb
    September 21, 2016 at 1:59 am

    Madrid has so much offer! I always forget about it when I think about the top places I want to return to, but your post has reminded me a) how much there is to do there and b) how much I loved it the first time around. Glad your first Surprise Trip was a success!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      September 21, 2016 at 7:48 pm

      I was really pleasantly surprised by Madrid, we had a great weekend and I’m a real convert to the city now!

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    October 2, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Would love to go to Madrid. I have a plan to do lots of Spanish cities as I barely seem to have seen any apart from Granada and a bit of Barcelona in the rain.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 3, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Spain’s been such an oversight in my travels for ages so I have a lot of catching up to do (Granada looks lovely so that’s possibly next).

  • Reply
    Kara // Heels In My Backpack
    October 4, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    Madrid looks lovely, it’s on my list! Love your photos!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 5, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      Thanks so much, it’s a great city, hope you get to make the trip someday!

  • Reply
    Gina
    October 7, 2016 at 1:20 am

    Madrid is one of the most sought after destinations and I love the city after just one visit! Great guide on squeezing a cheap budget to have a full experience of Madrid.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 7, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      Thanks so much, Madrid’s a great place!

  • Reply
    Fie
    October 14, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Madrid looks incredible on your photos! I want to travel to a warmer place soon, and somewhere that isn’t too expensive. Working for an events promotion company in London where travel and trips is a quite popular category, I am sometimes overwhelmed about all the possibilities in traveling and where to go next! You definitely made me consider Madrid!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 16, 2016 at 9:17 pm

      It’s always hard to narrow it down! Madrid is really good value though so would be a great place for a not too expensive weekend.

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