One of the most shocking things about Madrid is how affordable it is, especially for a major Western European city. Compared with places like Paris, London, and even some of the surrounding cities in Spain, Madrid struck us as an absolute bargain.
We couldn’t have asked for a more centrally located hotel than the Art Hostal Madrid. A 15 minute walk in one direction gets you to the world-class Prado Museum. A 15 minute walk in the other takes you to the Royal Palace.
For more distant excursions, the Tirso de Molina metro stop is only a half-block away. The Number 1 line that stops there directly connects both of Madrid’s train stations. You can also use that line to go to the airport with a couple of transfers.
Our quaint and clean double room ran us only 40 Euros per night for a mid-week (and possibly off-season) rate.
There’s no better way to save a buck when traveling than to prepare your own meals. Even when your accommodations lack a kitchen, or even a refrigerator – as ours did – it’s still possible to utilize local markets.
We found two grocery stores brimming with inexpensive food just a block away from our hotel. We grabbed a €2 bottle of wine, a €0.70 baguette, €1.50 package of salami & chorizo, some fruit and had an awesome picnic dinner for two for under €6. Some yogurt, grapefruit and a bag of muesli we are still eating a week later made a delicious €1 per person breakfast.
One of our travel hang-ups is that we have high standards when it comes to restaurant meals. We want them to be healthy. We want them to be cheap. And we want them to be awesome. Basically we want everything we can get from our own kitchen. Finding any one of those things at restaurants in an unfamiliar city is difficult. Finding all three is nearly impossible.
At first we struck out completely. Following Lonely Planet’s advice we went to Madrid’s La Latina quarter where we encountered brightly lit, very fashionable, and fairly expensive tapas joints that weren’t really our speed. We had better luck in an area just south of Puerta del Sol. There we found darker taverns that seemed more at home among Madrid’s ancient streets.
We can’t say we achieved total success here either, but we did find food both cheap and awesome at Taberna Malaspina (wanting something absolutely healthy as well may be asking a bit much in the land of salted pork).
It’s at Malaspina where we discovered the caña, a small draught beer served only at the bar. The beauty of la caña is that it is often accompanied by an appetizer sized portion of food. A bite and a beverage for €1.10 is hard to beat.
We eventually graduated to wine (€1.60-€3.00 per glass, also delivered with a complementary appetizer) and were delighted by Malaspina’s healthy pours. We were similarly surprised by the size of their tapas (€3-€5), three of which easily made a dinner for two.
A better deal, though, are some of Malaspina’s meals. We had an entire half-chicken, deliciously prepared, with a side of fried potatoes for €5.50. Or some mixed paella, overflowing with shellfish and assorted meats, for €6.50. That’s about half the price we’ve seen elsewhere.
Free Nights at the Prado
Every night is a free night at one of Europe’s premier art museums. Museo del Prado’s normally steep €14 general admission fee is waived Monday through Saturday from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM and on Sundays from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM.
We arrived on a weeknight a few minutes before 6:00 and were originally dismayed by a line that stretched around the building. At the stroke of six, though, the line began to move at surprising speed. Our original dismay turned into amazement at the efficiency with which the Prado’s staff distributed tickets, screened bags, and got us into the museum maybe ten minutes past the hour.
Oh, and the art. The Prado only contains one of the world’s best Goya collections and possibly the best Spanish art collection anywhere. For that level of quality you really can’t beat the price, especially when that price is free.
Free Nights at the Reina Sofia
If Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali and other 20th century masters are more to your liking, then the Reina Sofía has got just what you’re looking for. And every night from 7:00-9:00 general admission is free (except Tuesdays when the museum is closed and Sundays when free entry is between 3:00 and 7:00).
Madrid Architecture and Street Life – Free Every Day
Just wandering the age-old streets of Madrid is an event worth savoring. We spent five days in Madrid and never tired of just walking its crooked avenues, marveling at its architecture, and enjoying its plazas.
The Buen Retiro Park
You don’t need a lot of money, or any money for that mater, to while away your days in a royal garden. That’s especially true now that the Spanish monarchy turned one of its best into Madrid’s Buen Retiro public park.
Landscaped to fit a royal palace, the park is crisscrossed with well-manicured paths and speckled with rose gardens and beds of other assorted flowers. The greenery is pretty enough to keep you occupied for an afternoon, but several structures also vie for attention.
A towering tribute to King Alfonso XII, and its spectacular colonnade, looms over an artificial pond. It’s hard to tell from ground level whether the lofty king’s expression is altogether approving of the mass of commoners rowing boats in the pond beneath him and his steed.
Another nearby pond reflects a steel and glass pavilion inspired by London’s Crystal Palace.
In between the two ponds sits our favorite building in the park, the Palacio de Valezquez. Its neoclassical, red-brick-and-tile façade belies a modern interior of pure white. Colorful contemporary artwork adorns those blazing white walls in what is yet another free museum.
It turns out that Western Europe doesn’t have to bust your budget. In Madrid we found a magnificent city of wonderfully welcoming people surrounded by the great sights and world-class attractions you’d expect from any major European city, only at prices you can afford.