Being smack-dab in the middle of the country, and also surrounded by plenty other popular destinations, Madrid sometimes gets lost in the shadows of Spain itineraries. Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla all take slices out of what would be a blissful few days in the city. It’s sad really, because if you do Madrid right, you’d have a fabulous time.
Nonetheless, even if you only have 24 hours here, and a tight budget, there are many ways in which you can make the most of it. Find a buddy for the day in which you can split a few costs with and set off around the land of tapas and siestas. Here are my recommendations for an ideal day under €25 (excluding accommodation)!
Start the day with chocolate decadence at San Gines
Known for their ¨crispy-on-the outside-doughy-on-the-inside¨ fried churros and thick rich chocolate, Sin Gines is one of Madrid’s most famous restaurants. Six churros will seem like a heavy breakfast to most of us, so just order one plate of “churros con chocolate” for you and a friend to share. Once you’ve got them, tear pieces off, roll them in sugar, then dip them in the cup of hot melted chocolate. The decadence should keep you full for a while!
[box size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Cost: €3.8 total, €1.9 each.
Take your own walking tour of the center
From San Gines walk to Puerta del Sol, the modern center of Madrid since the 17th century. In the southern part of the square you can find the 0 kilometer mark where all highways in Spain are measured. To the eastern side is the symbol of Madrid, the bear with the madrone tree. If you are ready for a coffee, head the to western side where you will find La Mallorquina, an old and famous bakery, for a cafe con leche (€1.20).
After a caffeine fix, head to Plaza Mayor, the main plaza from the Habsburg period in the 1600’s. Although it’s now full of overpriced cafes and people dressed in costumes fighting to attract tourist money, try and imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago. Back then, the square would have been the stage for bullfights, soccer games, markets and public executions. Exit at the southwest corner through the Arco de Cuchilleros. Continue straight, reaching Restaurante Botin on the left, the world’s oldest restaurant! If you happen to pass by while it is open, you are allowed to browse around inside (shh, it’s kind of a secret). Just ask politely, then take a peak at the rows of roast suckling piglets about to consumed in the open fire oven. Next, take the narrow staircase downstairs and check out the old wine cellar in the back. Hundreds of old wine bottles now just remain as part of history, laying there blanketed in a thick coating of dust.
From Botin, make your way to Plaza de la Villa, Madrid’s first main square from the 15th century. In that plaza you can see what Madrid would have looked like when it first became the capital. One of Madrid’s oldest buildings is on the eastern side and was constructed in the late 1400’s. From there it is a short walk to the Palacio Real. Walk to the northernmost side and wander through the Jardines de Sabatini.
[box size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Cost: €1.20
Lunch at Mercado de San Miguel
After you’ve walked up enough of an appetite, head back toward the Plaza Mayor. Outside the western edge of the plaza is the Mercado de San Miguel. Once inside pick up a beverage and browse the offerings. Once you have an idea of what’s out there, choose 4-5 tapa-sized bites for lunch.
I’d recommend getting a small sangria or vermouth and then stopping at the olive stand. The ¨croquetas¨ are also fabulous, but of course a fried ball of cheese and ham would be. Keep an eye out for a small counter towards the western side of the market which serves up many tapas on small pieces of bread. I recommend either the goat cheese on a bed of caramelized onions or the foie gras with blueberry sauce.
[box border=”full”]Cost: €11-15 depending on the amount of dishes and price of beverage.
Spend the afternoon in Retiro Park
The walk from the market to Retiro is a bit far, but on a clear day it can be a great way to see the city. In about 25 minutes you’ll make it to the oasis of shady trees and green fields of grass. Take a seat somewhere and just enjoy the park, or head to the lake directly in the center and rent a boat for an hour.
Cost: €5 per boat. (€2.5 each)
Free admission at the Prado
Around 5pm you’ll want to head to the nearby Prado museum if you fancy seeing one of Europe’s most prestigious collections of art while in Madrid. Just in case you aren’t the biggest museum fan, or don’t want to spend the entire day indoors, go during the free entry times. These are Monday to Saturday, from 6pm to 8pm, (and Sundays and holidays from 5pm to 7pm). Since it is free at this time, the line gets long pretty quickly so you’ll want to be there a bit early.
[box size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Cost: Free!
Enjoy Madrid’s nightlife
Spaniards love to enjoy the night, but don’t go out early. Around 7pm they will have a small snack with a drink, and then around 10pm (or even later) dinner starts. Dinner can run a pretty high bill if you aren’t careful, but there are still bargains to be found if you know where to look. One such place is called Museo del Jamón, and you can find them all around Madrid. Here you can get a bocadillo de jamón (Spanish ham sandwich) and a caña (small beer) for €2. Upgrade the ham and it’ll only cost a euro or two more. If you are still hungry, order some of the “raciones” for a few euros.
From 10pm onwards, any night of the week, you can expect people to be congregating in Huertas, near Plaza Santa Ana, over drinks or food. Head in that direction and stop somewhere offering “cubos”. These are buckets of 5 small Spanish beers for around 5-6 euros each. It is a great way to have a drink with friends without spending too much money. One place nearby which offers these ice cold buckets is called Bulevart. Past midnight (and on) expect to see many young Spaniards taking advantages of the cheap frosty brews.
Madrid never sleeps, but if you want to stay within budget it’ll probably be about time for you to head to bed. Madrid is also safe at night (as long as you keep your valuables out of reach and out of sight) so take advantage of the breezy night air and walk back. Regardless of the hour, it’s unlikely that you will ever find yourself alone, since some people might just be beginning their night!
Cost: Around €7 (including dinner and splitting the cost of a bucket with at least one person).
Total cost per person: €23.60! This is if you decide to rent the boat in Retiro. If you skip that, have a few more tapas at the Mercado de San Miguel or pitch in for another cubo, and you still come in around €25!