Avoid hotels and instead opt for one of the city’s boutique hostels. They are far removed from the squashed-dorm experiences you might have had before and have double and group room options ideal if you’re travelling with friends, as well as hip design. Of course, if you do want to really save the pennies, staying in a dorm is a good option, and hostels such as The Hat are a new breed of stylish lodging that offer spacious dorms and added extras such as rooftop bars and city tours.
Websites such as Airbnb are becoming more and more popular, and an increasing number of properties are available in Madrid. Whether you’re after a cheap room in someone else’s flat or a penthouse apartment with a roof terrace, property rental sites have you covered.
A pension is a small, often family-run, hotel with one or two stars. It is a good cheap option if you’d prefer not to stay in a hotel, and many in Madrid are comfortable, clean and offer a good base from which to explore the city. Pensiones are often called hostals, so don’t be put off by the name.
There is no specific cheap time of year to visit Madrid, but when it comes to flight prices, off-season is key. Consider visiting in January or February to make the most of bargain airline prices and sales. Madrid is crisply cold but usually still gloriously sunny during the first two months of the year.
Central Madrid is quite compact compared to cities such as London, so is easily walkable. When you do need to go slightly further afield, the city’s public transport system is excellent and cheap, at around €1.50 a journey. You can take the metro, local commuter train or bus from the airport to the centre of Madrid.
Avoid tourist traps with people outside trying to shepherd you in. These places also usually have big menus full of pictures, a sign that they are trying to cater to a tourist crowd.
Madrid is home to some great cheap tapas bars and other budget eats that do regular deals, and these are a great option if you are travelling on a tight budget. The Museo de Jamón, a chain specialising in Iberian ham, is the ideal place to find a spot at the bar and settle in to sample some Spanish favourites, including ham, cheeses and tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette).
Top tip: look out for the menu del día in restaurants, a fixed lunchtime menu that usually includes a starter, main course, dessert or coffee and a beer or wine, all for around €10.
Suss out the tapas bars that give out generous free tapas and you’re guaranteed a good feeding for the price of a beer. One local favourite is Bar El Tigre, where the price of a drink gets you a plate piled high with Spanish favourites, from croquettes and potatoes to bocadillos (little sandwiches) and jamón (ham).
Explore the best and freshest food Madrid has to offer at one of its markets. While Mercado San Miguel, just off Plaza Mayor, is the most famous, it is also packed, and prices are high. Instead, head off the beaten track and into the diverse and cool neighbourhood of Lavapiés and Mercado San Fernando. The market was built in 1944, and today has an array of food stalls, from pizza and tacos to wine, craft beers and veggie-friendly options. Best of all, prices are considerably lower than at its more famous counterpart.
If you’re visiting Madrid when the weather is good, which is pretty much any time of the year, consider having a picnic in one of the city’s parks. Retiro Park, in the centre of Madrid, is a popular weekend spot with families and groups of friends, while the bigger Casa de Campo has picnic benches handily dotted throughout. Just stock up on some food in a local supermarket or market and you’ll be able to enjoy an authentic Spanish picnic in a picturesque setting.
One of the best things to do in Madrid is just walk around and soak up the atmosphere, and you can see many of the city’s most famous buildings for free. If you are on a budget, skip going inside the Royal Palace and instead go and see the building from the tree-lined Plaza de Oriente. You can also visit the palace’s beautiful Sabatini Gardens for free.
One of the most impressive and seemingly out-of-place sights in Madrid is the city’s Egyptian temple, given to Spain by Egypt as a thankyou for helping to preserve ancient treasures during the flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. Head up to the Temple of Debod at sunset for unforgettable views across the city.
If you want to visit Madrid’s most famous museums but can’t afford the prices, the Prado (Monday to Saturday 6–8pm; Sunday 5–7pm), Reina Sofia (Monday, Wednesday to Saturday, 7–9pm; Sunday 1.30–7pm) and Thysssen-Bornemisza (Monday 12–4pm) offer free entry at times, usually for the last hour or two before closing. Consider also checking out some of Madrid’s more underrated museums, many of which are free.