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
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
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
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
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
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 MalasaÃ±a, 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
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.
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
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.
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
Avoid 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.
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.