When I started planning my trip to Spain, I spent a lot of time asking people which cities were “must-visits”.
There seemed to be a general consensus about most cities: Barcelona, San Sebastian, Seville, and Granada. But the one city that invoked the strongest opinions? Madrid.
Every person I spoke to had something to say about Madrid. I heard everything from “skip it entirely” to “spend a week there”. I knew I couldn’t skip it after hearing all these conflicting opinions, so I decided to spend two days there over the summer. Lo and behold, I found myself back in Madrid for another few days this past winter as well.
My conclusion is this: Madrid is not a city to be skipped! It’s filled with culture and history, beautiful buildings and delicious food, and a thriving art scene. Despite spending five days in the city, I could easily return again and again and discover new places.
Since most people only plan for a few days in the city, I’ve put together this guide to budget travel in Madrid – which just so happens to include all my favorite things to do, anyway!
The Must See’s:
1. Retiro Park
This isn’t number one on the list of must sees for budget travel in Madrid by accident. Retiro Park is easily one of the best parks I’ve ever been to, seriously. It’s over 350 acres and includes several lakes, gardens, and even some small museums. My favorite part is the lake where you can rent rowboats, but this park is fun for a picnic or even just a lazy day with friends.
2. El Prado
If you’ve ever studied Spanish or European art, then you’ll recognize some of the most famous painters whose pieces decorate the walls of the Prado. You can find paintings by Goya, Velazquez, Murillo and much more. This is essentially the Louvre of Spain. I spent two hours here and only saw half the museum, so plan on spending a half-day if you want to see it all.
Tips: Free for students under 25 (save your ID!) or from 6 pm – 8 pm Mon-Sat and 5 pm -7 pm on Sunday. I never encountered much of a line here, but online tickets are always a good idea anyway.
3. The Royal Palace and Sabatini Gardens
If you enjoy absurdly gaudy architecture and interior from the last few centuries (I do!), then don’t miss the Royal Palace. The building is enormous, with almost 3000 rooms and probably just as many flower-printed walls. It’s actually really fun and interesting, and because no photos are allowed in a lot of the rooms, you can truly enjoy the décor in all its glory without being distracted. I also recommend visiting the free gardens in the back. They have a separate entrance and they’re a great place to unwind after your palace visit.
Tips: Instead of waiting in line for 45 minutes like an idiot (oops), buy your ticket online. If you want to save yourself €10 (no shame, that’s the cost of a 3-course meal here, and perfect for budget travel in Madrid), then plan to visit during the last two hours before closing: Monday – Thursday, 4 pm – 6 pm winter / 6 pm – 8 pm summer.
4. Puerta del Sol
Although Plaza Mayor was once the main square, it’s clear that this title is now owned by Sol. One of Madrid’s largest plazas, it’s packed with people day and night, and serves as the center point from which to get to anywhere in Madrid. Not only do all the metro stations connect here, but it’s also a great place for shopping, restaurants, people-watching and photos. What’s more, there are always random street peddlers, small protests, and street performers here. There’s even a funny little statue of a bear pawing a tree (a symbol of Madrid). The hustle and bustle make for a fun time, plus it’s free, so a must on any guide to budget travel in Madrid.
5. Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor used to be the city’s main square, and the history behind it ranges from the amusing to the downright bloody. Sometimes you’ll find markets set up here, but really it’s a great place for people-watching. Don’t eat here (overpriced and bad food), but relax with a drink or coffee instead.
The Must Do’s:
1. Shop on Gran Via and Calle del Arenal
I’m not much of a shopper, but Gran Via and Calle del Arenal are fun for people-watching and browsing, not just shopping. On Calle del Arenal, you’ll find a large variety of shops – everything from the massive El Corte Ingles to the street vendors peddling fake goods. Plus, there are always impressive street performers to gawk at.
On Gran Via, you’ll find all your favorite name brand stores and virtually nothing else. It has blocks and blocks of shops – everything from Mango to Primark.
2. Gawk at El Rastro Flea Market
You’re pretty much guaranteed a fun time when you visit Europe’s biggest flea market. Flea markets are perfect for budget travel in Madrid, or any city for that matter. Every Sunday from 9 am – 3 pm you’re treated with stall after stall of the most eclectic collection of items. I mean, I saw everything from obscure painted skulls to skinny jeans to old CD’s. I purchased absolutely nothing from here, but it was really amusing to people-watch and explore the old stalls. This is pickpocket heaven though, so be super careful with your stuff!
3. Go on a free walking tour
There are lots of free walking tours in cities across the world and Madrid is no exception. I chose a Sandeman’s Tour, which was really comprehensive and fun. Free tours are always an excellent way to familiarize yourself with a new city and get some insider tips, so a must for budget travel in Madrid. All you have to do is tip the guide at the end and, of course, have fun!
4. Eat your way through the city with Madrid Food Tours
First, let me say that although I enjoyed my Madrid Food Tour, it was definitely a splurge birthday gift from my parents, so not a usual suspect in most guides to budget travel in Madrid. However, if you’re willing to #treatyoself, then I highly recommend this tour. It was an excellent mix of history and food, and a great introduction to some of Madrid’s most delicious eats. If you’re all about that budget life, then check out my restaurant recommendations below instead!
5. Wander around trendy La Latina
La Latina is the oldest part of Madrid, and has a distinctly artsy and local vibe. It’s quite popular for a night out, and understandably so, but if you take the time to explore, you’ll find the fusion of old and new in places such as Mercado de la Cebada. Plus, if you’re around here on a national holiday, you’ll find people celebrating and dancing in the streets…who doesn’t love a good street party?
6. Explore alternative Malasaña
Some people call this neighborhood “hipster,” but I would actually call it more “alternative”. It has a funky and rebellious style that’s evidenced in its cafes and buildings and perpetuated by the people that live here. If you’re looking for “weird” Madrid, then Malasaña is where it’s at. I stayed in this neighborhood over the summer at an Airbnb where my host worked from home as an artisinal feather artist. #KeepMalasañaWeird
The Must Eat’s:
1. San Gines
This is Madrid’s most famous chocolate and churro shop, and with good reason. They’re exquisite. The line is always out the door here, but they’re pretty efficient and everything moves quickly.
For those of you who like tons of options, then visit the Mercado – here you’ll find everything from cooked paella to gourmet goods in market-style stands. It isn’t the best food in Madrid, but it definitely satisfies the indecisive palate.
3. Bodegas Ricla:
Bodgegas Ricla is a mom and pop tapas bar, known for its extensive wine collection. Come here for boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), tostas de cabrales (toast with cooked blue cheese), and from the secret menu: albondigas (meatballs). If you’re like me and don’t drink, they also make a mean mosto.
Yes, it is 100% worth it to spend 6 euros on a plate of mushrooms because they are the best mushrooms you’ll ever eat in your life. I know you think this is out of place on a guide to budget travel in Madrid. You’re wrong. You can also get other tapas here, but…it’s all about the mushrooms.
5. El Abuelo:
If you like shrimp and you like garlic then the sizzling gambónes al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) are a must-try. Bursting with flavor and delicious goodness, you might find yourself wiping your bowl clean with the complementary bread.
Traveler tips for budget travel in Madrid:
-Be wary of pickpockets – anywhere, anytime. If you look like a foreigner, your chances of being targeted are quite high.
-Walk! Central Madrid isn’t really that large, and a lot of the neighborhoods are quirky and better explored on foot. If you don’t want to walk, buy a Metro card. The 10-ride pass is €12.20 and saves you a little money and the hassle of buying a ticket every time.
I only have a capacity for 1-2 museums per city, but honorable mentions go out to the Reina Sofia and Thyssen Museum. They’re both really popular amongst the art lovers out there.
There you have it. With a few days, you can easily (and leisurely!) get a taste of budget travel in Madrid; and trust me – you’ll leave Madrid a little more in love with Spain.
WIN a self-guided City Walks app for your next trip! [ENDED]
For those of you that know me, you know I have a terrible sense of direction. I’m sure plenty of my readers do too, which is why I’ve partnered with GPSMyCity to give away 20 promo codes for a FREE download of a City Walks App of your choice! To see a full list of which cities are included, go to http://www.gpsmycity.com/user/
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