Madrid on a Budget
Imagine a city not famous for something like a tower at its center or a wall that used to divide it. A city well balanced, where nothing overpowers – or gets drowned out by – anything else. A large city that isn’t massive; just the perfect size. There is lots of culture: museums, galleries. It has a vibrant food scene with restaurants dishing up more and more innovative dishes every day, but also dirt cheap street food trucks. People in this city are friendly and open, but you can be anonymous if you want. There’s a nightlife that draws you in, spins you around, and takes you safely back home. There are students; there are seniors. Artists, mothers, friends, professors, and vagabonds. Four distinct seasons and a wind of promise. In short, the kind of city that would make even the most ardent nature lover want to turn urban with heart and soul. Now, here’s the thing: if you add up all of this, the dream city that comes out is Madrid.
Short of moving there, the best thing you can do is visit. Visit as often as you can. There are, of course, logistical problems with this otherwise very attractive proposition: you may not have enough time, but most importantly, you may need to stretch your wallet. Well, we can’t help you with the carving out of time for a trip to the Spanish capital, but we certainly can help you make it less painful on your bank account. In this article, we are going to go over the main areas of interest for visitors, and give you a few tips on how to get away with the best bang for your buck.
How to Save Money on a Trip to Madrid
To start off with, Spain isn’t all that pricey. It’s not quite as inexpensive as Italy, but nowhere near as expensive as France. Both of these countries capitals have their fans, but as you are surely about to find out, there is something special about Madrid. And as luck would have it, it hasn’t reached the level of popularity with tourists that Rome or Paris have. This is quickly changing, however, so you best discover Madrid while it’s yours for the taking.
Electric energy can be felt throughout the city, coupled with a joy for life and a relaxed attitude. There is art and culture everywhere you look: Madrid is Spain, condensed. And this landlocked city even has some of the best seafood in the nation, delivered fresh as dew. Madrid may not have all the ancient history other European cities do. But everywhere around town, you can find testaments to the most beautiful era of Spanish art: the 20th century. It won’t occur to you to ask for more.
All this beauty still comes with its own pitfalls, of course: with the rise of budget air travel and online booking bargain sites, Madrid is becoming a more popular tourist destination with every passing day, which means that traps abound: soulless places living off of foreigner’s expectations of what is Spanish, which looks something like Antonio Banderas with a rose in his mouth, dressed in a toreador outfit, eating paella while playing flamenco guitar. All this bread and circus obviously results in prices climbing steadily. But you can avoid all of that; you’ve just got to know where to look. We’re here to help guide you in the right direction, so you can have the best Madrid for less. Here are our tips for enjoying Madrid on a budget.
Eat & Drink
The famous tapas in and of themselves are already a budget-conscious option and a wonderful one at that. You essentially get many different meals for the price of one. But there are also a variety of tapas bars that offer small plates free with the purchase of a drink, which is an even better deal. Some of these places include:
- El Tigre, the classic Chueca haunt that every local knows inside and out
- Bar Quevedo in the Las Letras district
- Malaspina in downtown Sol
While the practice of free-tapas-with-a-drink is not as widespread in Madrid as it is in other Spanish cities, it is gaining in popularity, and you can find quite a few options with some research.
Alternatively, you can head to one of the food markets, of which San Miguel is the perhaps best known. Stock up on cured meats, bread, olives, and other pickled items, something sweet, and you’re set to go. Since dinner is eaten very late, lunch is the heavier meal of the two in Spanish culture. So while you can nibble on an assortment of tapas long after sundown, you should really pile your plate during midday hours. And lunch in Madrid spells menu del dia, or menu of the day; a meal of two or three courses that often includes a glass of wine for an amazingly low price. By amazing we mean barely in the two-digit range. You can have a three-course lunch and wine for 10 euros.
See & Do
Walking tours are an ideal way to get to know Madrid. Many of them are free, and many cost very little. A great pedestrian city, walking around Madrid with a guide who knows historical facts, fun trivia, and comes with an innate local spirit is worth a lot more than it costs. There are themed walks, where stops are threaded through with one concept (such as traces of royalty, tapas bar crawls, or street art walks) but a general city tour might be best to cover the most in the shortest amount of time. Or, if you’re the biker type, you can rent a municipal cycle from any stand around town and drop it off at any other stand when you’re done. Similar systems operate all over Europe, though the other major Spanish bike-sharing arrangement, in Barcelona, is not available for tourists. If you’re planning on visiting both cities on your trip, it’s best to get your cycling fill in Madrid.
Depending on how much time you are going to spend in the city and how much of it you’d like to see, public transport can be a great option for getting around. Don’t let overzealous cabdrivers tell you otherwise: the Madrid metro system is fast, reliable, and very easy to navigate, along with being supremely cost-effective. Speaking of trip duration: Madrid has enough to go around for a fortnight, sure, but even three to four days can do this vibrant city justice if you pack them full of activity.
When the hustle and bustle starts to get too much, you should know that Madrid is famous for its parks. Whether this is because they are trying to make up for the lack of a beach by spreading greenery all over town is not for us to say. What we do know, though, is that there’s nothing quite like sipping a chilled Spanish beer in the shade of a tree at Retiro park. Follow this up with a meal of the things you picked up at the market we mentioned above.
In other good news: just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you have to skip the big museums. Quite the opposite, actually: you can visit them for free. The Prado, for instance, comes at no charge from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and the last two hours of operation on Sunday. Instead of trying to cram too much in during this time, we say pick your favorite artist, whether that be Velázquez, Goya, or anyone else, and focus your attention on their parts of the museum
The Reina Sofia is free from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weeknights and from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. The cornerstone of this museum is the Guernica, so if you come just before closing time, head straight for that and marvel until the last bell rings.
The royal palace is free of charge for citizens of the European Union Monday through Thursday, but it costs 11 euros for all other foreigners. While entry is free every day from 6 p.m. until closing time, we don’t recommend you brave the hourlong queue for such a short run in this monolithic palace.
If you’ve got nothing to do on a Monday afternoon, head to the Thyssen-Bornemisza where entry is free from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Entry is either free or at least half price at either museum if you are a teenager, a student, or a senior. In addition to the above, there are public holidays, such as April 18 and Dec. 6th, among others, when entry is free all day. Check respective museum websites to find out more.
If you’d rather not stand in line for hours, you can visit one of the places that are free every single day, such as the bullfighting museum, Museo Taurino. Not entirely free but almost, the Archeological museum more than makes up for its rather reasonable entry charge. Culture sometimes comes cheap in Madrid.
At the end of the day, such a sprawling, architecturally seminal city is worth just looking at. And thankfully, there are a number of places from which the view onto the Spanish capital is particularly breathtaking. So wonderful are the views, in fact, that you could spend the afternoon waiting for the sun to dip under the city, a drink in hand, and good company by your side.
The best place to do this at Azotea for the low-low price of four euros. If you throw in an extra euro, you can view the collection of art on the levels below, which includes works by Picasso. If you’re willing to sacrifice the drink and the gallery viewing, you can use the money you saved on the Madrid cable car, a vastly underrated marvel, especially for families with children.
The shopping in Spain is famously amazing. The country is home to two of the three largest international clothing franchises, Zara and Mango. You are never more than a stone’s throw away from a department store with such a large stock that something or other is bound to be on sale. Then there is a flea market for almost every day of the week, too. While saving on everything else may be a breeze, we can’t promise that the shopping won’t tempt you to loosen the budget a bit.
What you should do is walk down Calle Serrano without buying anything. Walk straight down the road, down all the way across Plaza de Chamberi and on to the district of Malasana, where the real shopping is – where you can find an item no one else you know will have found. Something people will ask you about. Something that won’t break the bank, but would break your heart if you left it in that shop window. That’s how proper shopping is done.
You must know, there is a big tradition of handcrafted items in Madrid. Especially leather goods such as shoes, bags, and belts, as well as everything from the softest fabrics to the most delicate lace. You can find items made by local craftsmen with prices you can scarcely believe.
Madrid is divided into many different districts with many different neighborhoods within them. These neighborhoods give the city an entirely different character from one street to the other. Depending on your personality, travel needs, and budget, of course, you are sure to find somewhere suitable to stay.
As in any major city, things get cheaper as you head further out of town. You can compromise on size and luxury and stay right in the middle of the action. Or, you can find something more fancy and airy a little further from the beating heart of the city. Either way, Madrid’s layout guarantees that you’ll never be really far from downtown.
All districts offer exciting things to do. Staying where everyone stays might be nice, especially for first-timers, but if you’ve visited Madrid before, it can be exciting to be able to say you’ve know of a nice local vermouth or tapas bar that no tourist besides you has ever set foot in.
If you’re set on staying in the downtown area, just remember the word “hostel” should no longer conjure dingy party pads with unbathed students on a break to “find themselves.” Hostels in Spain today are often luxurious, sharply designed spaces with private rooms and state-of-the-art amenities. Alternatively, what can make this experience even more authentic is eschewing hotels and hostels altogether and going for a rental. You can find all manner of apartments all over the city on sites like Airbnb: bohemian, classic, Bauhaus, or art deco.
Like everywhere else on this glorious earth, the best things are free in Madrid, too. You can stroll along the Gran Via or enjoy the sun setting over one of the liveliest squares in Europe – Plaza Mayor or Puerta del Sol – or marvel at the manmade light hitting the central post office, one solid contender for the most beautiful building in Madrid despite ample competition. One deliciously ironic things about life, as that one famous credit card commercial so succinctly pointed out, is that the very best things in life just cannot be bought. That rings truer in Madrid than any other place we can think of.