As a teacher and traveler in Spain I’ve had the opportunity to explore almost every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, but none holds such a special place in my heart as Madrid. Madrid is the capital city and cultural and economic center of Spain. This vibrant metropolis is home to some of the world’s most famous art museums and some of Europe’s oldest buildings, but what I love most about Madrid is the vibrant, energetic neighborhoods.
Throughout my many visits to Madrid, I’ve found that it is the perfect place to travel while on a budget. Although Madrid may be one of the most expensive cities to visit in Spain, compared to other cities of its size and reputation in Europe and around the world, Madrid is one of the most affordable travel destinations today. I’ve learned that in Madrid, many of the most interesting attractions and most beautiful sights are 100% free. Here are some tips on what to see, where to sleep, and how to eat, to save money in Madrid.
There is a lot to see in Madrid and many of the most popular attractions, including museums and public squares, are free. During my visits to Madrid I skipped shopping and visiting expensive attractions and instead chose to visit some of these free and almost-free places:
Plazas, parks, and streets
- Plaza Mayor: Madrid’s “Main Square” is full of history from when bullfights, public executions and Inquisition trials took place there. My favorite thing to do in Plaza Mayor is sit down at a café with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and watch the city pass by.
- El Parque del Buen Retiro: The city’s massive park offers plenty of sights including a lake, gardens, ponds, waterfalls, and many famous and historic sculptures and art installations, but of course, I always enjoy just laying in the grass with a good book or visiting the Palacio de Cristal a glass palace located inside the park for free.
- Gran Via: Madrid and Spain’s most famous street is lined with world famous shops, historic buildings, buzzing plazas, and restaurants. This is a great spot just to stroll and see the sights.
- Puerta del Sol: The most popular city square in Madrid is also considered the heart and exact center of Madrid and the entire country and it has definitely won my heart as one of my favorite places in all of Spain. It’s also a great free destination for people watching, window shopping, and viewing the famous statues and fountains.
- El Rastro: If I’m in Madrid, I never miss a Sunday morning at Europe’s largest flea market in the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid. You can shop or just browse the stalls for free.
- Atocha Train Station: Inside the main train station you’ll find a tropical garden, historical architecture, and a memorial to the 2004 terrorist attack.
- Royal Palace: If you’re interested in history or architecture go for a walk around the exterior for free or go on a guided tour with free admission to EU citizens Monday through Thursday for 2 hours per day.
- City Walls: Head to the oldest part of town to visit these original walls of the city. I went to check them out one day while visiting the Cathedral nearby, in the Park of Emir Mohamed I.
- Museo de Reina Sofia: One of Madrid’s three famous art museums has free entry Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 to 9, Saturday after 2:30, and Sunday until 2:30.
- Museo del Prado: After siesta, which is an important part of everyday in Spain, you should head to the most visited attraction in Spain, this modern and classic art museum, which is now free from 6 to 8 pm Monday through Saturday and 5 to 8 on Sunday.
- Museo de Thyssen-Bornemisza: The third museum of the “Golden Art Triangle” is free on Monday from 12 to 4 and features a collection of classic and modern Spanish art.
- Museo Taurino: No trip to Spain is complete without learning about bullfighting, even if you’re like me and can’t handle seeing the actual event. The bullfighting museum features artifacts, exhibits, and even bulls’ heads and matador costumes with always free admission.
Food is the one thing you can’t do without while traveling, but in Madrid, you can still save money by choosing the right places to dine. For breakfast, most cafes will offer coffee and a pastry for about 2€, or I like to save a few pennies and look for accommodation that provides free breakfast with your stay.
Lunch, or the mid-day meal, is the biggest meal in Spain and it’s also the best time to save money. Look for the “Menu del Dia,” or menu of the day, which offers the most food at the best price, usually a three to five-course meal for between 7€ and 12€. Sometimes when I’m on a tight budget, I head to a market near my hostel in Madrid to buy and make my own meals, which is a great way to save money and learn more about Spanish cuisine.
After a big mid-day meal, just a small evening meal is enough, so I always eat like the Spanish and find a tapas bar, where small portions of food are served with drinks. Many tapas are as cheap as 2€ and you’ll find that beer and wine are the cheapest beverages sometimes just to 2€ or 3€ per glass, an amazing savings compared to drinking wine in other countries. The tapas you absolutely must try, in my opinion, are Tortilla Espanola which is a potato and egg omelet, Pinchitos which we might call meat skewers or shish kebabs, and of course Jamon Serrano, the famous cured Spanish ham.
For all of your meals, I highly recommend that you ask your hotel or hostel where to find the best prices and stay away from tourist traps, restaurants near major tourist destinations where the menu may be in English, but the price could be double what you’d pay around the corner. You’ll find that not only will the local hotel and hostel staff have great recommendations, but you might just make a new friend to travel with.
When I’m in Madrid and pretty much anywhere in Spain, I usually stay in hostels because they can’t be beat for affordability and friendliness, but you’ll find a huge variety of accommodations in Madrid, with something to suit every budget.
Hotels, guest houses, and similar accommodations are moderately priced and may be cheaper if located further from the center of the city.
For the cheapest accommodations, I recommend that look for backpacker-style hostels, where you could find a bed as cheap as 12€, or for a little more, you could have your choice of accommodations including a private room. Hostels are also the perfect setting for meeting other travelers and getting advice about what to see and where to eat.
Throughout my many trips to Madrid I’ve had the opportunity to stay at some of the cheapest, cleanest, weirdest, and most party-central hostels in the city but my all-time favorite is No Name City Hostel, perfectly located within 10 minutes of all the main attractions and offering almost brand new rooms and lots of extras for a decent price, plus when I stayed there last October, they organized an awesome Halloween “whodunit mystery” to celebrate.
If you’re looking for rock bottom prices and opportunities to meet tons of travelers, check out Mad Hostel and Cats Hostel where things might be cozier, but that’s because these are some of the most visited hostels in the city. These two are also notorious for offering great tours from tapas tasting to club hopping. Finally, if it’s all about location and a good price, RC Miguel Angel hostel is one of my favorite places to stay when I want to maximize my travel time because it is steps from Puerta del Sol and keeps prices low by offering simple rooms and no frills service.
Jane Hudson is a passionate traveler and English teacher. She loves Spain and went to many places from Madrid, Torresmolinos and Ceuta.