Spain continues to be a popular destination for Americans: The architecture and art is thrilling, the music and culture is captivating, and everyone knows that Spanish food is delicious.
But of course, traveling costs money. However, you can go almost anywhere and have a great experience whether you have first-year cash or partner-track money to spend.
Madrid can end up being expensive if you don’t take the time to do a bit of research to figure out how to have fun without going broke. You can keep your travel costs reasonable by making some smart choices about where you go, how you go, and when you go.
Madrid doesn’t really have a set off season, but for those who don’t mind traveling when the weather is cold, airline prices are best in January and February. Some hotels will also offer reduced rates at this time as well. Madrid gets very hot in the summers and some businesses close during the hottest weather, so spring and fall trips are your best bet if you want to be sure to get the opportunity to eat and shop at every possible location.
Accommodations: As usual, hostels are the cheapest option. But for just a little more than average, Madrid also has newer, designer boutique hostels that give you plenty of room configuration options, including female-only. These hostels have great perks such as rooftop bars, walking tours, parties, bar crawls, and visits to flamenco shows. The Hat Hostel and Mola Hostel are two of the best. Airbnb locations have recently become restricted in Madrid due to a new law limiting them, so don’t count on many of those being available. Whatever type of accommodations you prefer, book them as far in advance as possible to not only get the best deal, but to ensure you beat the other tourists.
Transportation: Like many European cities, Madrid is made for walking. There are so many neighborhoods to explore and attractions you can walk to that you should only need to use other transportation options occasionally. The Metro is modern and gets you to your destination quickly; a 10-journey ticket for 12.20 euros (about $13.63) allows you to use both the Metro and the buses. You can also purchase an Abono Transportes Turístico for unlimited rides on the Metro and buses. The passes are sold for 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 days at Metro stations and tourist offices, and unlike the 10-journey ticket, can only be used by one person.
Taxis in Madrid are generally reasonable, and since the Metro runs until only 2am, you may end up needing one. Avoid unmetered taxis that will charge you insane prices; take only black taxis with horizontal red bands or white taxis with diagonal red bands.
Things to Do: Madrid is full of free or low-cost museums and sites, and simply people-watching at a café can be a treat.
- The Reina Sofia, a modern art museum, is free every day after 7pm (except Tuesdays.) The most famous museum in Spain, Museo del Prado, is free after 6pm every day except Sunday, when it is free after 5pm. And the Contemporary Art Museum is always free. You can see Madrid’s Cathedral for free and Basilica de San Francisco for only three euros. And that’s just a sampling of the beautiful art and architecture you can spend days visiting for very little money. Madrid’s many parks, such as Retiro Park, Casa del Campo park, and Parque del Oeste, are beautiful destinations featuring boating, sculptures, fountains, and monuments (Retiro), an amusement park and hiking routes (Campo), and even an Egyptian temple (Oeste).
- Free walking tours abound, with companies like Ogo Tours and Sandeman’s New Madrid Tours providing jaunts that only require a tip to the guide. For another way to see the city, Madrid has its own cable car. It takes 10 minutes and takes you over rivers and parkland, and is only a little under six euros roundtrip or a little over four euros one way.
- Depending on when you visit, you’ll likely have an opportunity to enjoy one of the many festivals. The Fiesta de San Isidro takes place from May 10 to May 15 and includes people in traditional dress taking to the streets to dance, play music, and eat. Some of the most important bull fights take place at this time, and there are live performances at key locations of the city. The Feria del Otoño, or Autumn Festival, takes place around the end of October to the middle of November and is considered the best music festival in Spain. It features chamber music, symphonic pieces, and orchestral works, as well as zarzuela (musical comedy).
- Madrid is known for both café culture and a wild nightlife. During the day, have a snack and people-watch; each neighborhood offers a different feel. In the evening, party like a local by starting at tapas bars—many offer reasonable beer prices and free tapas with each beer ordered, such as the ever-popular El Lacón, which has more space and seating than most tapas bars. Madrileños are night owls, so clubs tend to open around midnight. Your job is to find the coolest ones with the lowest cover charges—be warned, though, that a lower cover charge doesn’t mean cheap drinks, so you’ll have to balance the budget a bit there. One of the most elite clubs, Gabana, has no cover on Wednesday nights. One of the highest-rated clubs in Europe, Joy often advertises entrance and drink specials. No matter which club you choose, be prepared to dance all night!
Food: Some of the most delicious food in Europe is found in Madrid—and it doesn’t have to be expensive if you approach eating strategically.
- Eat like a local and have a light breakfast at a café.
- Have your most substantial meal for lunch, or just graze throughout the day. You can find a bocadillo (a fresh baguette stuffed with various fillings) for anywhere from one to three euros. Spaniards also love a big midday meal called the “menu del dia,” a two or three-course meal that may even include a drink, all for only 10 to 15 euros.
- Drink Mahou, the local beer, to spend the least. You’ll also find drinks like a tinto de verano (a red wine and lemonade mix that is Madrid’s version of sangria) at a very low price.
- If you indulge in a big lunch, have tapas for dinner. Many bars will give you free tapas with each beer you order, so it’s easy to have a light, yet satisfying evening meal for very little money.
If you can spend whatever you want to for your vacation—let’s say your received a more-generous-than-usual bonus because you killed it in court this year—Spain is a great place to do it. But don’t neglect some of the best things to do in Madrid that are free or low-cost; people watching at a café or simply exploring neighborhoods on foot will always give you the best feel for a place.
Accommodations: Madrid’s hotels know the meaning of the word “luxury.” The famed Ritz is known for treating guests like royalty—which makes sense, considering the dignitaries and celebrities that have stayed here. The Ritz does old-school glamour right: glittering chandeliers, hand-woven tapestries, and exquisite breakfasts. The Gran Melia Palacio de los Duques is known for its rooftop pool bar, excellent restaurant, and fantastic amenities. If a boutique hotel is more your speed, the AC Santo Mauro, Autograph Collection has marble staircases and an Old-World aesthetic, as any former residence of a duke should.
Transportation: Madrid is quite a walkable city with a great metro system. But if you want a unique day-trip experience to close-by cities like Toledo and Segovia, hire a car and driver. Enjoy the countryside and stop at excellent restaurants along the way.
Things to Do: Luxurious experiences aren’t hard to come by in such a vibrant city.
- See art at the Prado or the Thyssen Museum in the fanciest way possible: With a private guide for your group alone. The Prado even offers a catered dinner and entertainment with your viewing.
- Spain may not be the first place you think of when wine comes to mind, but that just means their fabulous local wine is a well-kept secret. Experience a private wine tasting and vineyard visit, including a meal of all the best Spanish delicacies.
- Madrid is a fun place to shop, but imagine how much more fun it could be with a personal shopper? You will feel like a VIP as you go from store to store where pieces are pre-selected for you, and each place offers you snacks and champagne.
Food: Madrid is a great place for foodies—there’s something for everyone! And there’s even more for you if price is no object…
- Through Madrid Experience, you can enjoy food and wine tours, Michelin-star cooking demonstrations, and even a gourmet honey experience! And of course, in a walking city, walking tapas tours are easy to find at every price point.
- If you simply want to spend a lot on drinking, dance clubs are where the drinks cost the most. But we’re going for quality and location here, so try Macera TallerBar, an industrial-chic bar that specializes in homemade spirits and is considered an artisanal cocktail pioneer. Or try Albora, an elegant bar/restaurant for drinks and food made with high-quality ingredients.
- The most exclusive restaurants in Madrid require planning far, far in advance to get a reservation. Diverxo serves only tasting menus, called “canvases,” and nothing is served a la carte. Zalacain introduced new-style Basque cuisine in the 1970s and is still known for using the freshest seasonal ingredients. Or try Horcher, a study in hospitality with German influences, and known for their treatment of wild game. The list of expensive, delicious restaurants in Madrid is long, so you’ll find no shortage of yummy places to spend your money.
You can’t go wrong no matter how much you’re able to spend on your Madrid experience. Have fun!