Madrid is often ignored by tourists. They prefer little coastal towns or big metropolises with access to the sea like Barcelona, Valencia or Malága. The country’s capital is often left in the shadow of many other popular destinations.
Why is it like this?
I had never really considered travelling to Madrid before my 3-week backpacking trip through the south of Spain. We were heading from Valencia to Cadíz and then up north to Madrid. We didn’t know a lot about the city and I think until now tourism strategies for Madrid are still relatively rare. I totally don’t get it as the city has so much to offer and it do not have to be costly. Madrid was my biggest surprise during this three week trip and I’d recommend it to everyone planning a trip through Spain.
Today I want to increase your Madrid wanderlust by showing you free and activities and food advice.
Enjoy Madrid’s architecture
I really loved walking through the streets as the architecture was glamorous in a very unique way. There were ornaments on so many old-style buildings that I would suggest you to simply walk your way around the city centre whether with or without a map, get lost in Madrid’s beautiful architecture.
The gorgeous former king’s palace. The palace can be visited for free by EU citizens, people who have a work visa for Spain and Ibero-Americans from Monday to Thursday from 4 to 6 pm (October to March) respectively from 6 to 8 pm (April to September). It is a really impressive and prestigious building with a nicely set up garden. If you do not belong to any of the above mentioned groups of people, it is already worth to check it out from the outside.
Opposite the palace, you can find a Roman-Catholic Cathedral which is called Catedral de la Almudena. The cathedral is also free for visitors.
Parque de Retiro
The most popular park in the city is Retiro. And it doesn’t promise too much. The park offers lots of opportunities for a day with good weather. There is a lake where you are able to rent paddle boats and a Crystal Palace with pieces of art in it. There is lots of space to bring your own stuff like balls, frisbies, badminton racquets or whatever you want and have a good time.
Puerta del sol
The Puerta del Sol is a building on a huge square which is called Puerta del Sol as well. It represents the centre of Spain’s mainland. The building hosts a huge clock which bells 12 times on midnight of New Year’s Eve. Spanish people traditionally eat one grape per chime. If they achieve to eat all 12 grapes they’ll have good luck in the following year.
The square is also a good place for people watching at night. If the weather is good a lot of people meet around the fountain in the middle of the square to chat.
There is a great deal for visiting museums in Madrid. The city offers free visits, among others for the two main museums of the city: The Prado which is the biggest art museum within Europe and Reina Sofia which hosts several exhibitions during the year.
A free visit to the Museo del Prado is possible from Monday to Saturday from 6 to 8 pm and on Sundays and public holidays from 5 to 7 pm.
Enter the Reina Sofia on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7 to 9 pm and on Sunday from 3 to 7 pm for free.
Plaza Mayor is another big square in the centre of the city. It reminded me a lot of Brussel’s main square. The walls of the buildings around it are decorated with unique paintings. Walk along the arcades and have a look at a few local stalls.
Stroll along El Rastro
El Rastro is one of the biggest markets in Europe. It’s immense, you cannot see it all. There is so much to see (and to buy if you want). From different food stalls, clothes to antiques and decorational stuff. You can get everything and bargain for a good deal. That’s definitely a must-do in Madrid when you’re there during the weekend.
The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said the following and I can only agree with him:
El Rastro is the final border between Europe and Africa, comprising diverse peoples from different countries and of differing ethnicities all searching for curiosities or bargains, sightseeing, sampling the gastronomic delights of Madrid or simply soaking up the atmosphere
Sunset at Circulo de Bellas Artes
You can take the elevator up to the terrace of the Circulo de Bellas Artes. It is not totally for free, but it only costs you 3 €. From there you have a great view of the city and are proably able to admire some pieces of art as well. When we were there, there was an exhibition of photographies. The entrance is valid for the whole day, so you can have a great view in the morning to see everything properly and can come back in the evening to enjoy the sunset above the roofs of Madrid.
If you want to go out and do not want to spend a lot of money on that, head to Plaza del Sol. There will be a lot of promoters of clubs offering you free drinks or entries for free.
Museo de Jamón
If you want to save money on food but still eat locally, definitely head to the Museo de Jamón. You can get a ham or Cheese sandwich for about 1-2 Euros and it’s really good! If you aren’t a vegetarian, you should try the ham sandwich at least once. It’s the best way to have a fast and cheap snack for lunch.
In many Spanish bars and restaurants when ordering a beer, you’ll get some free tapas. If you aren’t too hungry, it’s an awesome option to skip dinner.
Now it’s your turn. Have you already been to Madrid and have some budget tips? Share them in the comments.
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