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Top 10 Things to do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s Budget

Originally published on OffTrackPlanet.com

Whether you’re just making a pit-stop on a EuroRail marathon tour or spending a year at one of Madrid’s universities, OTP will help you cut past the crowds and get straight into the heart of Spain’s vibrant capital, without busting a hole in your wallet. Ready to start? Here’s a list of 10 things you can’t miss while in Madrid.

Historical Madrid on the Cheap

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Lucky for you, the most historical sights in Madrid are free. The Spanish are a social people, so it makes sense that Madrid’s most important public monuments are the large plazas where Madrileno’s (the people of Madrid) congregate to chat and people-watch. Each of Madrid’s neighborhoods have their own plazas, but the largest and most central are: Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa and the marvelous Plaza de Oriente. The latter opens up to the former royal palace, El Palacio Real. You have to pay to enter the palace, but it is enjoyable to simply wander around its gardens for free.

Hang with Dali and Picasso

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Anyone who leaves Madrid without visiting at least one of its world-famous museums deserves a smackdown. The most famous three, Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, collectively hold more masterpieces than you could possibly absorb in a weekend. Even the most philistine among us can appreciate Picasso’s Guernica or anything by Dali. The first two museums are free on Sundays. Bring your student card for a discount! But there are many other smaller gems, including our personal favorite: Museo Sorolla (free for students).

Salir de Tapas

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Hopping from bar to bar sampling tapas (bite-sized bar snacks) is one of the most enjoyable Spanish traditions. Going out for tapas typically involves having a drink and a nibble at a half dozen bars, all of which are, loud, standing-room-only, and loads of fun. Though tapas traditionally come free with your drinks, Spain is drifting towards pay-per-tapa system. OTP has scraped up some places that defy the trend. Try El Tigre in Chueca for the best free tapas in Madrid. The most concentrated areas of tapas bars are in La Latina (especially Calle de Cava Baja and C. de Huertas).


When Spaniards eat tapas, they throw their trash on the floor, so check the ground of wherever you go: the dirtier the floor, the better the tapas.

Jam to Flamenco Guitar

Music is a vital element of Spanish culture. No visit to the birthplace of flamenco would be complete without seeing a live show. Most flamenco bars charge 30 euros to enter ($45) and that’s no bueno. Our suggestion? Go to La Solea in La Latina where you’ll get free admission when you order a copa of wine, settle down in the smoky bar and let the gypsy-influenced rhythms carry you away.

Get Lost in the Barrios

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Most tourists will hang around central Madrid, near Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol. Give it the obligatory gander, and then check out one of the city’s offbeat barrios, (neighborhoods). All are within walking distance and each offers something different: the funky old-skool vibes of Malasana, the live music and nightlife in Huertas, or the stylish restaurants of Madrid’s gay barrio, Chueca. Forget your guidebook and wander through each of them until you discover your own special corner of Madrid.

Pick Up Some Spanish Style

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No, the Spanish don’t have sexier DNA; it’s the way they dress. Madrid is the home of Spanish style, and it’s not hard to find something to bring back home. If the ritzy boutiques of Salamanca are not for you, head over to Malasaña, Gran Viaor Calle de Fuencarralto find what you need. If you’re counting your last Euros, hold out till Sunday to bargain in El Rastro flea market.

Eat Like a Local

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A fun introduction to Madrid’s food is El Mercado de San Miguel. The glass and metal building contains dozens of kiosks showcasing a wide variety of Spanish cuisine. You can easily spend a few hours here stuffing your cheeks with a bit of everything. For a cheap, authentic meal, go to Casa Mingo next to the Principe Pio metro stop. Also, Cien Montaditos(the menu consists of 100 little mini-sandwiches) is a chain of cheap restaurants. It’s hard to argue with a montadito and a beer for 1.20 Euros.

OTP Tips:

Eating Out Formula for the “so broke it ain’t no joke” (about 5 Euros per day) : tortilla (potato omelet) for breakfast 1 euro‚ bocadillos (sandwiches) for lunch from the Museo de Jamon (locations everywhere), and El Tigre for a dinner of tapas (see #3).

Have a Fridge at Your Disposal? Go to Supersol, Dia or any other local supermarket. Stock up on sliced meat, cheese and bread (label the packages with your name and date so people at the hostel feel guiltier stealing them) and make your own damn bocadillos!

Drink Like a Local

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Memorize this word: Botellon. Every weekend, thousands of young people gather in plazas to drink wine under the stars before going out. This practice, called the botellon, is widespread across all of Spain, especially in the summer. Do as the locals and mix yourself a calimocho: 2 parts red wine and 1 part coca-cola. Don’t shy away from wine in boxes. Don Simon boxes run you about a euro and the contents are of better quality than the crap you’re paying 6 bucks for in the states.

Best places to botellon: Plaza de Espana and Plaza de Santa Ana between 10-2 AM.

By the way…Drinking in public is technically illegal in Madrid and although the law is rarely enforced. You don’t need to brown bag and look over your shoulder, but just don’t piss on anybody – follow the locals.

Dance Like a Local

665144 Top 10 Things to Do in Madrid on a Backpacker’s BudgetAvoid the pijo (posh) discos and go where the students are. Tupperware (bar) or Palma III (disco) in Malasana will bring out the booty shaker in you. A safe bet is to head to Plaza de Santa Ana, talk to the club promoters passing out flyers, pick a place and dance till the metro opens up at 6 AM.

Lazy Sunday

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After you’ve done all the above, wrap up with a lazy Sunday, Madrid-style. Here’s the plan:

  • Wake up at the crack of noon and make your way to the La Latina neighborhood to catch El Rastroflea market before it closes at 3. It’s the largest outdoor market in Europe and the whole city comes out for it every week. You can buy anything from a scarf to a chicken at this place. Buying nothing at all is fine; the bustling vibe is the most exciting part anyway.
  • Then migrate with the Madrilenos to El Retiro park to while away the afternoon. Thousands of people lounge on the grass and a massive drum circle starts up next to the lake.

Not active enough for you? Rent a rowboat for 4 euros and row around the lake till your arms fall off.

If you are able to squeeze half of these activities between your siestas, you’ll walk away from Madrid having experienced a side of the city most visitors never see. So what are you waiting for? Flamenco, tapas, and fiestas beckon.

Carnival en Cádiz (Pt. 1)

I feel drastically unprepared for this. It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.

I should have taken a siesta this afternoon. My costume is decent. I am dressed in loose pants and a shirt covered in Hindi excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, trying to pass off as an Indian. Derek, another local English teacher, is dressed as a detective. Zubin is wearing street clothes with a 2€ plastic mask on his face. And Taylor, our CouchSurfing host, is wearing a ski jacket and holding a Mexican wrestling mask under his arm. For better or for worse, the four of us have banded together for the wildest celebration of Carnival in all of Spain.

I heft our bottles of rum and wine as we enter the station to greet the rest of the gang: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante. We take a few pictures while we’re all together. Our group won’t survive intact once we arrive in Cádiz.

Everyone is buying round trip tickets for the train. The first train back to El Puerto leaves Cádiz at 4:30 AM. The station is buzzing with anticipation. I try to imagine the return home from Cádiz. Some blurry late-night retreat from the sunrise. More likely wet and shivering on the beach or bobbing in the Atlantic.

The train arrives and we all rush onboard. It swells as more people board at each stop. Now we are all pressed against each other chest to chest. I’m standing next to two Spaniards, one dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte and the other as the Pope. They are chain-smoking doobies of chocolate and have effectively hot-boxed the entire train.

I am squeezed between the other passengers and the walls of the train and our rhythms all synchronize into one throbbing pulse rising rising rising with each passing station. My face is pushed against the cold metal walls of the train as it whips clockwise around the bay. It is as packed as a Bombay local train at rush hour, and if they’d opened the doors we would have hung out the side of the train just like the Indians.

I make a joke that the only place with any space remaining is in the bathroom. We all laugh, but then a group of girls goes into the toilet and never comes back.

We finally arrive at the station. Ya esta! Ya esta! they shout. Everyone is spilling out of the train when suddenly I hear a loud THUD! and a girl behind me starts screaming. I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte sprawled on the ground with his eyes rolled back in his head and his tongue flopped off to the side. I think he is having a seizure and pull out my pen to wedge between his teeth.

One of the American girls behind me yells Someone call 911! and her friend is screaming, They don’t have 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE it! Meanwhile, the Pope drags Napoleon off the train and down onto the platform.

Then Napoleon is back on his feet, dazed but smiling. The Pope tells me that the chocolate had gone to his head. I smile and hand Napoleon back his hat. Within minutes the doobie-smoking-dictator is ready to re-attempt conquering the night.

So am I. We gather in the vestibule of the train station and make a futile attempt to reassemble our massive posse. A girl says that I don’t look Indian enough. She rubs a little lipstick on her finger and smears a makeshift bindi across my forehead.

Then a collective gasp sweeps across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I sense the crowd start backing away from me.

I look up. Taylor and I are alone in the middle of a gigantic circle of onlookers. Taylor is finally in his costume. When taciturn Taylor told me that he was going to put on his costume, I didn’t realize that it would entail taking off all his clothes.

There he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask. The Spanish have never see anything like it. In Spain most people are terrified of being perceived as ‘ridiculo’ – walking around in whitey-tighties is just not done.

Therefore Taylor is an instant hit. Todo del mundo is yelling Joder! Mira a este tio! Taylor really looks like a wrestler. He is Taylor no more – he has transformed into El Luchador.

People are a-pointing and cameras a-flashing, but we have to get a-going. I run into the circle, break through the ‘Madre mia!’s, pull the rock-star off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station.

It’s no use. We’ve only advanced fifty yards and once again he is surrounded by onlookers. He is turning every head with in a 50-foot radius. ¡Que cajones tienes, tio! they shout, ¿No tienes frio? El Luchador’s incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere.

But it doesn’t matter. Our buddy is the most famous guy in Carnival and we all leech off his parvenu status. We’re like Turtle from the early seasons of Entourage as we walk down the street introducing ourselves as friends of El Luchador.

We push him through the crowd and he parts the sea of people like Moses. Everyone is just turning their heads and stepping out of his path.

We’re at the edge of a main plaza now. It is the size of a football field and it’s overflowing with people, pouring groups of costumed Carnivalers down side streets and into cafés and bars. I put my hands on my friends’ shoulders and let out a deep breath of satisfaction. We made it.

“Jesus, guys. It’s only 10 PM,” I say, “We’ve got over six hours left to go. Bust out that rum and let’s mix ourselves some Cuba Libres.” I dig through my goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, and a few cups – but no rum.

It’s my fault and everyone knows it. I must have forgotten a bag when I’d gotten off the train. Napoleon’s pseudo-seizure threw me off. I offer to buy more rum and we push through the crowd in search of a liquor store.

Everything is closed. The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and ham and cheese bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival. No liquor stores in sight. We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now it’s only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador. We find a store and someone goes inside to re-supply. I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by.

Cádiz is abuzz with an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count.

It’s pure bacchanality. One enormous, nationwide, institutionalized sin before Lent. Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – a macro-bottellon.

My friends come back outside with the rum and we fill up our glasses. Derek offers me a bag of lemons and I reach inside and snatch one up. “Hey!” he says, “Don’t be so cocksure with my lemons!” He throws me an accusing glance. “And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.” I ignore him and turn to address the others.

Vale. ¿Listos?” I ask, “¿A donde vamos?” Someone suggests we go to Plaza de something-or-rather and we plunge back into the seething tangle of alleyways.

We approach a plaza even larger than the previous. We have to link arms to stay together through the crowd. We pass a drunk American with her finger in one ear and her phone in the other, yelling,

Where are you guys?!? I’m lost! Do you see a…a sign or…or a building or something? I see – What? I said, I see a big church and… and there are a lot of people dressed like jesters dancing on a tractor! Where are you…?”

¡Egads! ¿Jesters dancing atop tractors? ¿What on earth could she be talking about?

Then I see what the poor girl is referring to: a large pack of chirigotas, the wandering groups of guitarists and singers that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous. I’d seen a few groups earlier, wandering amidst the party like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp. But this was the first time I’d seen so many of them at once, and dancing on a trailer no less.

The tractor swings around the corner before me, hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan. There must be twenty of them, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color of the rainbow. A dozen or so singers wrap around the edge of the trailer on all sides and encircle five guitarists who float above them on a platform. The guitarists strum their Spanish guitars with a flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest.

I focus my attention on the singers. Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache. They sing, not in the sloppy way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness. You can almost hear the sherry swishing around in their bellies as they sway in unison. They slur articulately with their left hands on their hearts and their right arms extended before them holding their copas in the air in a perpetual toast to the good life.

They are dressed in the same clothes, singing the same songs and all equally drunk, but each man is slightly different. Each has his head cocked at a different angle, his arm raised to a different height, his voice tuned to a different pitch, and his eye winking at a different muchacha in the crowd. Music, style and movement all harmoniously composed. Not a touch of discord coming from the whole drunken lot

The tractor fires up again and starts moving towards a nearby plaza. A drunkard stumbles into the road and pauses directly in the path of the chirigotas. He is incredibly disheveled. His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember. The tractor honks its horn and moves closer to him but he is oblivious. He is preoccupied with something in his pants and has both his hands wedged elbow-deep into his unbuttoned jeans searching for Dios sabe que.

As I watch the fool standing in the plaza and unknowingly squaring off against the tractor it seems like some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square. I can see the headlines now:

Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cadiz, one man, drunk as a skunk, felt he’d had enough wine and decided to take a stand against his fellow revelers. He courageously stood before a band of chirigotas and refused to move. Their tractor was about to run him over when suddenly he shouted, ‘¡Ya! Enough! The forces of fun and merriment have carried this party too far! What we need is solemn sobriety! Go home chirigotas! Thou shall not pass!’ But it was of no use. An plain-clothed officer from the State Ministry of Bacchanal filled up his glass and definitively crushed this nascent party-pooper movement…

The tractor moves off and disappears into the crowd and we run into some of Derek’s friends: a cute blonde and her effeminate male companion both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as a Chickens/Hen duo As we are introduced, the Chicken and I lock eyes. I call for a new round of Cuba Libres and a toast. We look for the bag of booze but once again we are all empty-handed.

¡Me cago en la leche!

(See Part 2 for the rest of the story)