A Budget Guide to Madrid - Insider Tips
Madrid: Budget But Fancy
How not to miss out on the nice things on a budget in Madrid
An Insider’s Budget but Fancy Guide to Madrid
Choosing to visit Madrid out of all the beautiful cities out of Spain is definitely a must. However, Madrid is different from general Spain you know out of the movies. With an altitude of 500m, the highest Capital of Europe is likewise loved and hated by the Spaniards. Madrilenians are very proud of their heritage; the rest of Spain thinks they are posh and arrogant. In my opinion, there is some truth to both of these views. In the past few months, I have encountered lovely and helpful Madrilenians with a never-ending energy for enjoying life on the streets – day and night. But I have also screamed internally because they stopped in the middle of the street again, blocking everyone’s way, or simply did not consider people in need of a seat on the metro. Madrilenians are super cool, enjoying life, but also a little self-centered sometimes. Of course, I am playing with the stereotypes here. However, the city of Madrid is so much more diverse than its general perception. Yes, it can be expensive. Does it have to be? No! In contrast to Paris and London Madrid is actually quite affordable; you just need to know the rules. As an Erasmus exchange student currently living in Madrid you get to know the tricks, the places, and the right timings to get most of Madrid without having to pay a fortune. Therefore, I present to you the ultimate budget guide to Madrid.
Getting in and around
First, the Madrid Airport is confusing as hell. So, upon arrival don’t panic immediately. Before you try to find a tourist-information make sure you know which terminal you are at. The Airport is divided into T1, T2, T3 and a separate, much more modern T4. Both Airport buildings are quite far away from each other, which is why there are two ways to come into Madrid city center.
Coming in from T1, T2, T3
When getting off the plane head to the luggage retrieval and afterward follow the Metro signs like it was the last piece of candy in your life. Do not get distracted. As soon as you see escalators leading down to the metro entrance check your surroundings and you will find a tourist information. There you can buy a tourist ticket that will save you money getting around Madrid with the Metro. There are 3, 4, 5 and 7 day-tickets and they will also save you the 3 Euro additional airport charge that you usually have to pay when getting into and going out of the airport with the metro.
Coming in from T4
If you are landing in Terminal 4 your best and fastest way to get to Madrid’s city center is to use the regional underground trains called “Cercanías”. A ticket should cost about 2,80 Euros to go to Atocha Renfe, the central station.
Where to stay
Business as usual here. Check websites like hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com for nice hostels or if you are traveling in a group or as a couple book an Airbnb. However, Madrid has some nicer and some dodgier neighborhoods, check “Barrios Explained” to know where you want to stay. A rule of thumb for Madrid is also to go offseason. It can be cold in the winters, but the sun is usually always out (although we had a horrible pre-spring season this year). In addition, booking far in advance, about three months or so, will get you better deals. Madrid seems to be en vogue because hostels are selling out FAST.
“Barrio” means neighborhood in Spanish and follows different rules than google maps is displaying in Madrid. The locals call the neighborhoods by their closest metro stations, so don’t get confused if nobody knows what you are talking about when you say city center. These are the most important barrios de Madrid.
Argüelles: shopping, living neighborhood, good connection to everything, close to the university district
Atocha: close to the central station, very busy, nice neighborhood in the smaller streets, has to be going up north-west of the Calle de Atocha
Casa de Campo: Outskirts of Madrid, big untouched park, great for bike tours, theme parks and zoo.
Chueca: alternative gay neighborhood, great for food and shopping
Chamberí: Posh but also students, north of Madird
Embajadores: Normal living district, not fancy, adjacent to Lavapiés.
Gran Vía – Sol: Center of the center, shopping, attractions
La Latina – alternative, hipster, cool, colorful, street art
Lavapiés: alternative, immigrant hot spot, good food, can get a little sketchy at night
Río – modern, nice to chill on the Río, a little far away from everything
Malasaña (get off at Tribunal metro station) (my personal favorite): alternative, bars, night out, hipster, sometimes too cool already
Retiro – everything north of and around the Parque del Retiro, Madrid’s famous big city park
Salamanca: Fancy and posh barrio of Madrid, this is where the rich people live, great for high end shopping or just window shopping in our case
Where to eat:
Madrid’s culinary delights are endless, here is a selection of cafés, bars, and restaurants that have a great atmosphere but are not pricy.
Spanish people usually have a coffee and a tostada (toasted bred with crushed tomatoes and oil) for breakfast, maybe a croissant or something else that is sweet. Try the infamous café con leche, not a cappuccino. They charge you 50ct more for the Italian version of almost the same beverage.
- La China Mandarina, La Latina:
Pick a Tostada and a famous Café con Leche for around 4 Euros and enjoy the ambiance.
- Panaría: Chain with good prices: Tostada with café con leche for 2, 50 Euros
- Cool vibe with a Terrace in Malasaña: Las Vacaciones
All over Madrid, they offer a Menú del dia, which is a great opportunity to taste different meals in one, it usually contains an entrada and a postre (dessert) and a drink. You can get this menu during the week for around 10 Euros. Try one in Malasaña at the Ojalá terrace, but be prepared to wait in line.
For Lunch Tapas try the fancy chain Lateral, even though they seem crazy expensive, their great tapas (I especially recommend the croquetas de jamón, a traditional Spanish dish) are affordable and the atmosphere is amazing!
If you want to go really budget order un pincho de tortilla, the typical thick potato omelet. Generally, they will fill you up fast and cost around 3 Euros.
Try out El Tigre for a real cheap fill up. In the Chueca traditional bar, you can order a beer or two and receive food for free. Yes, you have heard correctly. For free. Even though it must be said that it is not a culinary five-star menú if you are on a budget and don't have high expectations this will do the trick.
Stay away from Food Markets to save your wallet
Ordering a few food market tapas can add up to more than 20 bucks. Stay away from planning a lunch in the famous food markets of Madrid. Even though they are exciting and pretty, in my opinion, they are overpriced and of low quality. Looking and ordering one or two small dishes cannot hurt. But, trust me, these overcrowded places usually don’t make you full. If you still want to go to a food market, avoid the famous San Miguel Mercardo and pick the Mercardo de San Antón instead (visit the Mercardo de San Miguel right when it opens to check out the vibe instead of planning to eat there).
Madrid offers endless bars and restaurants to try out. The locals eat around 10 pm, super late for my German standards. If you want to eat earlier it is easier to get a table. Still, kitchens usually open at around 8 or 8:30 pm. So far, I have picked out some favorites that give a great atmosphere and great food for good value.
- Lola 09, great food to share, try the pechuga de pollo with couscous and the croquetas de jamón; turns into a bar vibe on the weekends from about 11 pm.
- Have a coffee and watch a silent movie in the impressive interior of Sala Equis!
Food and Drink Checklist – Things you should try
- Tinto de Verano (the light version of Sangria)
- Croquetas de Jamón
- Tortilla de Patatas
- Jamón Ibérico
- Montaditos (small toasts with various toppings)
- Patatas Bravas (Potatoes with a special hot sauce)
- Churros con chocolate at the Chocolatería San Gines
Madrid is not the Paella capitol and there is a lot of bad paellas out there, try it in Valencia.
In Madrid, nightlife starts late. Spanish people go to bars usually at around 11:30/11pm and start going to clubs at around 2:30 or 3. However, this does not have to stop you from going earlier. If you manage to get on guest lists via Facebook events or even if you simply go before 1:30 am, entry usually costs around 17/18 euros with two drinks included. Therefore, the clubs are usually already packed by 2 am. To save money always order a glass of wine. Usually, it costs as much or just a little more than a soft drink.
- Habanera, fancy and posh bar/restaurant with a dance floor from 12 am on the weekend. Worth a visit if you like interior-design because it is amazing. Entry is free and great for a pre-dance before you go to a club, drinks are not as pricey as it seems. You can get a decent glass of wine for 3,50 Euros.
- Kapital - 7 story club, with an international crowd, expensive drinks but has a deal with a QR-code: 17 euros including two drinks
Cool Open Air/Rooftop Bars for day and night:
- Dear Hotel - for an amazing view over Casa de Campo and the city, ask the desk if there is a vacancy, in summer the limit how many people can go up and restrict the highest area for hotel guests, a glass of wine is 4,50 Euros, worth the view!
- El Viajero – often crowded, a line-up is the norm; cool and relaxed vibe, expensive food, but ok-priced drinks
- La Casa Encendida – in summer a bar with served drinks and concert events, from November until June community hang out center, but not bar; check the website for events
10 things you can do in Madrid FOR FREE
1. Visit the Retiro
The Retiro has been Madrid's lung and relaxation oasis since 1868. The life of Madrilenians is often shaped around a nice nap in the grass or a coffee in this green park full of hills. But the park has more to offer than some leaves and grass.
- Wander around the Glass Palace! Built in 1887 it was meant for an exhibition of exotic plants from the Philippines. Going inside costs an entrance fee, but walking around it is, of course, free!
- The Fountain of the Fallen Angel is acknowledged as the only monument for the devil himself. Lucifer is depicted on its way down to earth surrounded by demons. A little creepy but quite cool to look at knowing Spain's Catholic history.
- The Monumento a Alfonso XII de España crowns the small artificial lake in the heart of the Retiro. Finished in 1922 after 20 years of construction it features statues by more than 20 artists. Sit on the steps while enjoying the view and the daily splendor.
- The Palacio de Velázquez is a free art museum that houses changing expositions
2. Watch the sunset at Templo de Debod
Originally erected in Egypt in the early 2nd century BC in 1960 UNESCO made a call to save the monument from a dam that was being built. Egypt donated the Temple to Spain as a sign of gratitude in helping to save the Abu Simpel Temples. Now it reigns on a hill, kissed by orange sunlight at every sunset surrounded by grass patches for a picknick! Romance on, people!
3. Walk the streets of La Latina and search for street art
La Latina is an alternative neighborhood with street art wherever you look. Roam the streets during the day to discover its secrets. La Latina is also home to the alternative community center Tabacalera that is home to graffiti art in the cellar and amazing but changing exhibitions!
4. Breathe in the buzz at El Rastro
This famous flea market gets as busy as it gets every Sunday from around 11 am. Instead of getting off at La Latina Metro station, chose Tirso de Molina instead to avoid the heavy crowds on your Sunday morning.
5. Visit the Almudena Cathedral and its crypta
The Almudena cathedral is the imposing neo-classic church right next to the Real Palace. In contrast to the palace the entrance is free (1 Euro donation). Take a closer look at the ceilings of the cathedral, as this neo-gothic interior is uniquely modern and colorful.
6. Visit the Prado Museum after 6 pm
The famous Prado Museum is huge and you probably won't see a lot, but the two hours from 6-8 pm will give you the opportunity to get a sniff of your favorite artists that you should research beforehand!
7. Visit the Reina Sofia Museum
When exploring this modern art museum from Wednesday to Saturday from 7 pm to 9 pm or on Sundays from 1:30 pm to 7 pm it's free: YAY!
7. Go window-shopping and people watching in Salamanca
Salamanca might be the most expensive neighborhood in Madrid, but it is also one of the most walkable ones. Window shopping and people watching are totally for free. I also discovered a beautiful hidden garden at the Brownie Store in Salamanca, therefore take a closer look at all the entrances, you might be missing a treasure!
8. Go Hiking at Casa de Campo
For 4 Euros a cable car takes you from close to Templo de Debod into Casa de Campo, the largest public and very naturally kept park in Madrid. With amazing views over the Real Palace, the cable car is worth the charge, however, hiking there is of course free!
9. Read a book in the Reina Sofia library (or just check it out)
This library is situated at the entrance of the new part of the Reina Sofia Museum. Not only is the architecture a looker, but the library is one of the best I have ever seen. I used to study for Uni there and write this blog! One of my favorite üplaces in Madrid.
10. Relax in the Rose Garden at Parque del Oeste
The Rose Garden at Parque del Oeste is only another way of enjoying Madrid's green and in this case wildly colorful spaces!
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