Madrid, like many capitals, is more expensive than other parts of Spain. Public transport is affordable but food costs can be surprisingly steep, and accommodation isn’t cheap either. But there’s plenty to do for free in Madrid, and some of these are the city’s best attractions.
1. Admire the architecture
One of the most striking things about Madrid is its architecture, a lot of which was built during the reign of Charles III in the eighteenth century; the Puerta de Alcalá, the Royal Observatory and the Prado all date from this time. Elegant structures line the wide avenues, making the city a wonderful place for a stroll.
2. See the views at Cibeles Palace
The impressive Cibeles Palace used to be the main post office, and now houses the city council, hosts a variety of exhibitions, and offers access to its eighth-floor viewing platform. Although eight floors doesn’t seem like much, Madrid is a low-rise city and the views from the viewpoint are quite good.
Entrance is free on the first Wednesday of each month, and also on May 2 and 15, and October 12; otherwise it’s €2 for adults. Be aware that there are limited tickets available for each 30-minute slot (10.30am-1pm, 4.30pm-7.30pm). See more details here.
After putting your bags through the scanner at the entrance, go up the stairs and collect your ticket from a booth that’s slightly hidden behind a pillar. On this same level there’s an air-conditioned area with comfortable couches, wifi, and newspapers to read: relax here until your time slot comes up, or come back after your visit — you’ll appreciate the coolness if you’ve been wandering Madrid in summer. The town hall is located in the Plaza de Cibeles.
3. Relax in Retiro
The Retiro gardens are known as the “lungs of Madrid”, 140 hectares of park located near the city centre. In addition to the hundreds of trees and many grassy areas good for picnics, sunbathing or just relaxing, there’s also a large lake with rowboats for hire. For those who want to exercise, there are dedicated exercise areas as well as many paths suitable for running, cycling, or rollerblading, and there are playgrounds for kids.
It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering slowly through the park, admiring the many statues and structures like the Crystal Palace. The shady paths provide respite from the heat of summer, and you can buy a drink at one of the kiosks if you need to rehydrate. Plus, if you’re there at the right time of year, a variety of activities like concerts and a book fair are held in the park.
4. Go to Egypt (but stay in Madrid)
One of Madrid’s most interesting attractions is the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple now located in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste. Egypt donated the temple to Spain after Spanish engineers helped Egypt build a dam and save some important historic monuments from destruction. A sandbag structure at the entrance to the park references this connection.
Entrance is free, but access is currently closed to visitors for conservation reasons. Hopefully it’ll be open again soon! In the meantime, admire the structure from outside, and perhaps have a picnic in the gardens.
5. Visit the Prado
Entrance to one of the world’s most famous art galleries is free from 6-8pm Monday to Saturday, and from 5-7pm on Sunday. This means you’ll have two hours to explore the amazing art on display — and if that isn’t enough time, just come back the next day. It’s a good way to combat museum fatigue.
Of course, free entry to the Prado is a pretty popular offer, so don’t be surprised if the line stretches around the block when you arrive at 6pm. However, the ticket clerks have a good system for admitting visitors: the tickets are pre-printed, and half the visitors enter on the ground level while the others are directed up the stairs to the first floor.