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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?