So you want to hang out in one of the coolest cities in Europe, but happen to be a bit strapped for cash? No problem. Madrid is relatively affordable compared to places such as Paris and London, and it’s possible to have a great trip there without spending more than a few euros. Here are some tips for exploring Madrid on the cheap.
Madrid is packed full of cheap hotels and hostels right in the city, meaning that you don’t have to stay out in the sticks in order to get a good deal. There are dozens lining Gran Vía alone, some with rooms from as little as 15 euros a night. Recommendations include the United World Hostel on the corner of Gran Vía and Plaza de España, the Duermo on Calle de San Bernardo, and the Eden Paraíso Neptuno, just off Sol. These are just examples: if you do your homework comparing prices you’re bound to find an excellent bargain.
The first step for many a tourist is to buy a ticket for the big red tourist bus that patrols the city, then sit on it for a few hours dutifully snapping pictures of what are deemed to be the highlights of the city. While this can be a good way of getting to know the layout of the city, it does instantly wipe out around 20 euros, which could be far better spent on other things (food, drink, more food). Instead, try acquainting yourself with the regular bus system, which is cheap, easy to use, and heavily air-conditioned during summer. A single journey costs just one euro, or you can use a ten-trip ticket purchased from any metro station. This allows you to design your own bus tour of the city according to what you want to see, for a fraction of the price. The Madrid Transport Authority has produced a handy map showing which routes stop by popular locations: particular recommendations include the 2 route, which takes in the Plaza de Cibeles, Gran Vía, and the Plaza de España; the 74, which takes you from the Ventas bullring in the east to the Parque del Oeste in the west; and the C route, a circular tour of the city showing you sites that you might otherwise miss.
Madrid is also a very walkable city. It’s easy to stroll from the Plaza Mayor to Sol, and then onto Gran Via or the Prado. Not only do you save the metro fare, but walking allows you to explore some of the beautiful winding side streets and architecture of the older parts of town.
Most hotels and hostels now offer free wifi (pronounced “wiffy” here), but if you’re in need while you’re out and about, the number of cafes, bars, and restaurants that offer it are growing almost daily. International chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks usually offer internet, but if you’re looking for a coffee a little different than what you get at home, try the Faborit chain, which offers free internet (often with a computer terminal or two) along with excellent juices or coffees. A local blog has also produced a useful map with dozens of locations. To check availability in any cafe, ask “Hay wifi?” at the counter, and look for the contraseña (password), which is usually printed on your receipt.
The great thing about Madrid is that its architecture, stunning boulevards, and fantastic gardens are all attractions on their own, and it doesn’t cost a penny to wander around and admire. The Retiro park deserves a lot of time devoted to it, not just for the central lake and its surrounding monuments, but also for the number of interesting sights that many miss out on: the Rosaleda rose garden with its famous statue of the Fallen Angel, said to be the only statue of the devil in existence, and the Casón del Buen Retiro and the Museo del Ejercito, which house museum collections, while the Casa de Velazquez and the stunning Palacio de Cristal, based on London’s Crystal Palace, house temporary collections by contemporary artists.
The three most popular museums in Madrid offer a number of discounted and even free tickets, particularly for students and young people. For the Prado, the most famous and grandest of them all, you’d actually be hard-pressed to pay full price for a ticket. Large families, international students, and youth-card holders pay four euros, while under 18s, over 65s, and EU students go free. What’s more, all entrance is free after 6 p.m. each day. With free access and such a large area to cover, it’s best to attempt the Prado a little bit at a time, focusing just on one artist or floor each time you visit. The Reina Sofia also offers half-price tickets for three euros and a number of free tickets at certain hours, as does the Thyssen-Bornemisza for 5.50.
For a more unusual free attraction, try visiting the Congreso de los Diputados, home of the Spanish Parliament. It’s open every Saturday morning from 10:30 until 12:30, and offers a fantastic chance to see this beautiful neoclassical building. Bear in mind that this may not be available during August, and remember to bring photo ID (always handy to carry around Spain in any case).
Eating on the Cheap
Unfortunately, visitors who’ve heard tell of the Spanish custom of giving out free tapas with every drink will be disappointed when coming to Madrid. Most bars tend to limit their freebies to a small bowl of olives, crisps, or peanuts, while real tapas must be paid for. There are a few exceptions. El Tigre is famous for its generous portions of tapas given out with every drink, and as such is packed every lunchtime; try going at a more unusual hour if you want a bit of elbow room. Los Aros II also comes recommended, while the Museo del Jamón chain and its equivalents are good for quick, cheap dishes eaten standing at the bar.
For something more filling, do as the locals do and make lunch your main meal of the day. The menu del día is a Spanish institution that you’ll see advertised at virtually every café and restaurant. Nine to 11 euros will get you two filling courses plus a drink, dessert, and often other extras such as bread and coffee. This is a great way to try traditional Spanish cooking, particularly Madrid specialities such as cocido stew in winter and gazpacho in summer, served with an assortment of extras allowing you to make it however you want. Once you’ve filled up on lunch, all you need in the evening is a little jamón (delicious cured Spanish ham) and bread or a few bites of tapas to keep you going well into the night.
Nightlife in general is a good deal cheaper in Madrid than many other large cities. If you stick to areas frequented by locals, such as Malasaña just north of Gran Vía, you’ll rarely have to pay for entry to clubs and bars, and drinks are extremely reasonably priced. However, if you want to go even cheaper, it is possible—as long as you don’t mind a bit of negotiating. Get yourself down to Calle de las Huertas, a huge street filled with different kinds of bars and clubs, and talk to the bar promoters who’ll accost you every few minutes. They’ll try to tempt you into their bar by offering a free chupito (shot) or consumación (drink); you can try negotiating for a better deal, and when you’ve come to an agreement they’ll lead you inside, make sure the barmen gives you what you’ve been offered and then dash back onto the street to reel in the next lot of punters. There’s no obligation to stay once you’ve finished, so just drink, leave, and repeat. Keep it up, and you can manage a whole night out without spending a euro. You might even have some cash left over for a last taster of jamón…