Barcelona has Gaudi, Granada has the Alhambra, Santiago has its pilgrims – but if you’re looking for the perfect Spanish city break, Madrid has a bit of everything. This vibrant, energetic city has plenty of different sides – whether you’re a football fan visiting for the Champion’s League Final or just looking for a great city break. Soak up the culture in the city’s museums and galleries, or drink cocktails on a rooftop terrace and dance until dawn. Fill up on plates of tasty tapas or feast your eyes on its beautiful architecture. Spain’s a good-value destination, but city break costs can still add up. So here are my tips for making the most of Madrid on a budget.
Read more: Winter in Seville: A Spanish city break
Things to see and do
Madrid has plenty of free sights and a walk around the city’s plazas and streets will show off some of its highlights. Admire the architecture in the 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 that are dripping with gold, marble and intricate frescoes. Entry costs €11–13 (depending on the time of year), or it’s free for EU citizens (make sure to bring ID) on Monday to Thursday between 6pm and 8pm (4pm to 6pm from October to March).
Walking tours are a perfect introduction to the city, and several companies offer 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 do a 3-hour tour every day at 11am also from Puerta del Sol. Or Sandeman’s New Madrid Tours do a city highlights tour departing from the Plaza Mayor at 10am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm 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 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 antiques, books, jewellery and clothes. It starts at 7am and goes on until 2.30pm.
Museums and galleries
Many of Madrid’s museums and galleries are free at certain 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 are 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 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 arts events.
The Madrid City Pass gives you skip-the-queue access to the Prado and the Real Madrid Stadium Tour, as well as taxi transfers to and from the airport, a 24-hour Hop-On Hop-Off Bus ticket and a 20% discount on lots of other attractions. The pass costs €97 for adults (€55 for children aged for 5–14 and free for under 5s), and there’s no time limit.
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 for the lift to the 7th floor where there’s 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 Tuesdays). Entry costs €3 for adults or €1.50 for under 12s. Or for a meal with a view, the 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 up even higher, the futuristic – and slightly bizarre looking – Faro de Moncloa transmission tower rises up 110 metres high. It was built for Madrid’s year as European Capital of Culture in 1992 and from the viewing platform at 92 metres high you can see for up to 60 miles around. Entry costs €3 for adults, 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 €6 for a return trip or €4.50 one way.
Eating and drinking
Spain means tapas, small plates of food that often come free when you order a drink. One of the best-known free tapas spots in Madrid 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 Plaza Mayor. It’s more food court than traditional market, with stalls selling local ham, olives and cheeses and 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 located in the trendy Malasaña district. Or for more traditional, cheaper locals’ markets try the Mercado Antón Martin near the Retiro Park or the Mercado de Maravillas.
Central Madrid is very walkable, but if you’re travelling further afield the Metro is modern and fast, and runs from 6am to 1.30am. A single Metrobús ticket (valid on the Metro or buses) costs €1.50–€2, or you can get a 10-journey ticket for €18.30. There’s also a Abono Turístico travel card for various different durations, from €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 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?
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