I never thought I’d be writing this post. In fact, I swore that I’d never write this post. 24 hour, 48 hour, even 72-hour city guides go against everything slow travel – the way I like to travel these days. But people keep asking me – what should I do if I only have a short time in the Spanish capital? What are the best cheap and free things to do in Madrid?
At first I thought, “do a Google search, duh” until I did a Google search myself. In the New York Times’ 36 Hours in Madrid, the first thing – the first! – that they mention is the Naval Museum. The Naval Museum?!?! The article went on in typically New York Timesey fashion, recommending “bunless brunches of anglerfish burgers” (no joke), and other equally repulsive and pretentious activities.
I then moved onto Huffington Post’s “Guide to a Perfect 24 Hours in Madrid,” and all was going well until they recommended El Tigre as a reasonable place to eat dinner if you’re on a budget. Quick explanation of El Tigre: it’s pretty much the place where college students and first-year foreigners eat really cheap but disgustingly greasy and bad tapas. Stay away from this place, por favor.
As we lived in Spain for several years as English language conversation assistants, we’ve created a guide to Madrid on a budget, highlighting ways to see the main “must-sees” in Madrid. One of the things we love most about Madrid is that you can do so much without having to spend virtually anything. This is a guide to the main sights, not neighborhoods. Stay tuned for a guide on our favorite neighborhoods to get lost in!
I think the easiest way to get into the city center is to take the 24-hour express bus; it costs 5 euros (in cash to the driver) and takes you to the main train station, Atocha. At the time of writing this, the metro line to the airport is closed for repairs, but that’s ok because it wasn’t very convenient anyway. If you’re arriving at Terminal 4, the commuter rail (cercanías) goes from there straight to Atocha as well, leaving about every 20-30 minutes. A taxi to the center is a flat 30 euros.
Most people staying a week or less in Madrid probably won’t use the metro much at all, especially if you’re staying in the heart of the center. Still, it’s an amazing system, quick, cheap, and user-friendly, with ticket machines at each stop. A single ride in Zone A is only €1.50 – do not get the tourist unlimited card as it is a complete rip-off at €8.40 for just one day.
Madrid on a Budget: The Sights
Free Walking Tours
I absolutely love walking tours and I always try to do one during my first few days in a new city. Tours usually last 2-3 hours and give a great first orientation to the city and main sights, with interesting and fun facts thrown in. I’ve been on the Sandeman’s free Madrid tour a couple of times and learned a lot. While the tour markets itself as “free”, this only means that you don’t pay an upfront fee. As such, you should always tip your guide! I always give around 5-10 euros, depending on how much I enjoyed the tour.
Visit a Traditional Mercado
Madrid’s covered markets are definitely worth a visit as an essential part of culture and a fun place to spend a bit of time. The mercados, of which there is usually one in each main neighborhood, are buildings with many small stalls selling their wares. Some sell groceries like produce, bread, and lots of meat and fish (be forewarned), while others sell tapas.
Some of the main centrally located mercados include:
• Mercado de San Miguel, located close to Plaza Mayor, is the most famous and most touristy, selling mostly insanely overpriced tapas and produce. It’s worth a stroll through or just a stop for admiring its beautiful architecture.
• Mercado San Antón in Chueca is also touristy and overpriced with virtually no vegan options, but there is a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a drink.
• Mercado de Antón Martín, located on the edge of the Huertas neighborhood, is much more traditional and probably my favorite mercado, with stalls and small restaurants, including the lovely all vegan Botanique, where you can get an organic menú del día for 9 euros during the week between 1 – 4 pm. There’s also a shop where you can buy veg products and the newly opened Urban Orchard for smoothies.
• Mercado de San Fernando in Lavapiés is also a more traditional market and a popular spot for tapas on the weekend. Here you can find La Alpargata which offers cheap, though not necessarily the best, vegan tapas.
Parque del Buen Retiro, literally “Park of the Pleasant Retreat” is the city’s main park and definitely a must when visiting Madrid. Originally created as a place of relaxation for the Spanish monarchy, the park is now open for all to enjoy. It’s a great and free place to take a stroll, sit and people watch, have a picnic, row on the lake, or discover the many small treasures located throughout, such as the Lucifer statue, Crystal Palace, or Rose Garden. I used to live just a short walk from El Retiro, and it holds many memories for me, including the first time I struck up and had a conversation in Spanish with a stranger in my first days in Madrid in 2013. I’ve spent many an hour exploring this park from end to end and it’s one of my favorite places in Madrid.
Templo de Debod
A short walk away from the royal palace and cathedral is the Debod temple. It’s a beautiful and popular place to watch the sunset or just rest your feet for a while.
There’s also a free (tiny) museum located within the temple that has a cool model of the valley from which the temple was taken. When I first discovered this temple, I took it as a sign that Madrid was where I was meant to be, as there is another temple from the same Egyptian river valley located in New York. In the 1960s, the U.S. and Spain (along with Italy and the Netherlands) donated money to save these temples when the building of the Aswan dam flooded the Egyptian valley in which they were located. In thanks, Egypt donated the temples to the contributing countries.
The Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a place I always return to whenever I am in New York. I can’t visit the Met without passing by the temple and throwing a penny in the surrounding reflecting pool. NYU even threw a party in the temple’s atrium when I was going to school there, so I got to nerd out in fancy dress here (ugh yes, so pretentious I know). So when I came to Madrid and saw the Debod Temple from the same valley and project, I felt right at home.
Madrid’s river is not known internationally like that of other European cities, such as London, Budapest, or Paris, so Madrid Río (actually called the Manzanares but everyone just calls it the río) might not be on everyone’s list. It’s also not directly in the middle of the tourist action, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. But Madrid recently spent millions on a renovation of the riverside, and it is now a great place to have a laid-back stroll and embrace your inner child playing on giant swings, slides, and a zip line.
Also at the river is the open arts space El Matadero, which is a renovated old slaughterhouse complex that has been turned into a cultural center including a free art exhibition space, café, cinema, and restaurant. There are frequently weekend festivals and markets here so check out the website to see what’s on. In the summer (July 1 – September 15) there are free guided visits in English and Spanish.
Rooftop terrace at Círculo de Bellas Artes
The rooftop terrace of this art space is perfect for an unbeatable view of the city, incredible when you consider that the rooftop is only on the seventh floor! It does cost 4 euros to go up, but it’s a great spot for panoramic views and to hang and chill out. There’s a bar up there too, so you can get a drink while relaxing and watching the sunset, though of course the drink prices are a bit high! You can also get a free view of the city from the top of El Corte Inglés at metro Callao on Gran Vía, but I personally think the views at Circulo de Bellas Artes are better.
Free Things to Do in Madrid: Visiting Main Squares
Puerta del Sol is like Madrid’s Time Square, just scaled down to Madrid size. You’ll find people dressed up in costumes of various characters, people-statues, and of course, hordes of tourists. Unlike Times Square though, Sol is still an important meeting place for people that actually live here. It’s an easy spot to get to via various metro lines and people often meet at the statue of the Bear and the Madroño tree – the symbol of Madrid.
If you do the walking tour then you’ll meet at Plaza Mayor and get an explanation of Madrid’s main plaza, where many important events in the city’s history took place. Of course free to visit! Just don’t eat at one of the restaurants here – overpriced and just bad.
Honestly, if you’ve been to other spectacular palaces in Europe, I say skip Madrid’s palace. It’s still used for administrative purposes (the king doesn’t live here), and most of it is not open to the public. However, if you like armor and swords, the armory is worth a visit, though it’s small. You can pop into the cathedral for free (though donations appreciated).
Free Madrid Hacks: Visiting Main Museums for Free!
Madrid is known for its world-class museums all located within a short distance from each other in the “Golden Art Triangle.” Whenever I go elsewhere and come across high ticket prices for museums, I appreciate Madrid’s museums even more because they offer free admission on a weekly basis at certain times (of course be prepared for lines). I love how Madrid makes art accessible to the general public, not just the wealthy or tourists that can drop lots of cash.
Even if you can’t make it to the free times, you can buy a Paseo del Arte card for 28 euros – it gives you free entry into the first three museums listed here, and it’s not like those obnoxious 72-hour museum cards where you have to run around like a chicken with your head cut off to visit everything within the time frame. You can use it to visit the museums once any time within a year after purchasing.
The most famous museums in Madrid are:
The Reina Sofia, located directly across from Atocha and housed in an old hospital, is dedicated to modern and contemporary art. If you’re going to visit one of Madrid’s museums, I’d say it should be this one as it’s home to one of the most important art pieces about Spain, Guernica, Picasso’s famous mural that comments on the tragic bombing and destruction of the Basque village during the Spanish Civil War. German and Italian forces annihilated the village of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalist government in 1937, and Picasso’s outrage led him to create the mural. It is finally at home in Spain after years spent at the MoMa in New York, as Picasso did not allow the mural to return to Spain until there was a democracy. The painting returned to Spain in 1981 (though not before MoMa gave up a fight, those pricks).
Free entry: Monday, Wednesday – Saturday, 7-9 pm; Sunday, 1:30 – 7 pm
I love the Thyssen because it is small, manageable, and well-curated. Here you’ll find 14th and 15th century Flemish and Dutch works, a sizable collection if Italian Renaissance and Impressionist paintings, Expressionists, and European and American 20th-century art.
Free entry: Monday, 12-4 pm
The Prado is probably the most famous of Madrid’s museums, but it’s not my favorite. I’m just not into classical Spanish art, though I do love Francisco de Goya’s weird and morbid style in Los Caprichos, a series of etchings in which he critiques the aristocratic society around him. Probably the most famous work at the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego de Velasquéz, a court-commissioned painting with such a complex composition that many people consider it one of the most important paintings in Western art.
Free entry: Monday – Saturday 6 – 8 pm; Sunday 5 – 7 pm
National Archaeology Museum
Ok, this one might not be on everyone’s list, but as a former archaeologist, I have to give a shout out to this amazing museum. When I first lived here in 2013-2014, the National Archaeology Museum was undergoing a major renovation, and being the huge nerd that I am, I visited on the day it first reopened to the public. Out of the renovation was born an incredibly well-thought out museum with interactive exhibits. Everything is in both English and Spanish, giving a thorough history of Spain through archaeology, starting through the prehistoric age up to present. There’s also classical Roman sections, Egyptian, and other sections. Anyone that’s interested in history should definitely check this one out!
Free entry: Saturdays after 2 pm, Sunday mornings (even without free entry the ticket price is only 3 euros!!! Crazy.)
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