Spain’s capital is an amazing place to visit but like most cities it can really strain your pocketbook if you aren’t too careful. Luckily, there are many free things to do while visiting and just as many inexpensive options. For art lovers especially, Madrid is a wonderful place to see amazing art for free.
The Prado Museum (Museo del Prado) houses classic works from five centuries and includes major pieces by some of the biggest names in art history. Many people come to Madrid solely to see the Prado – and you can do it for free. In fact, it’s even better that way.
Tuesday through Saturday the museum is free from 6pm to 8 pm when it closes, and Sundays it’s free from 5pm to 8pm. It’s also free if you’re if you’re under 18 or over 65. The museum is huge, and while two hours is not enough time to see all the masterpieces, it’s just about the length of time it takes to become overwhelmed. Plan your visit to Madrid with evenings free and visit the Prado several times, each time seeking out a new section or new Old Master. You’ll appreciate the art more and won’t be exhausted at the end.
The National Museum and Art Center, Queen Sophia (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) is in an 18th century hospital and displays the best of Spain’s modern art. There are several pieces by Picasso (including Guérnica), Dali and Gris along with many other surrealists and modern artists. The museum is absolutely free Monday through Saturday from 7pm and on Sunday after 1:30 pm (and closed on Tuesday).
The National Archaeology Museum (Museo Arqueologico Nacional) has some great replicas of prehistoric paintings and some ancient stoneware from Spain, Greece and Italy. Entrance is free on Saturdays after 2 pm and all day Sunday.
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The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) is mainly used for ceremony and has some spectacular furnishings and art in its rooms. This is also the place to go to see a great collection of old armor and weapons. In the past the palace has had one free day a week but currently limits free entry to members of the European Union during the last two hours of the day. They may (or may not) re-institute free admissions, but the grounds are always open to the public and are quite lovely.
Parque de el Buen Retiro (Retiro Park) was the Royal family’s playground and is filled with quirky monuments, odd buildings, fountains and ancient trees. There are pleasant lawns to sit on and a lake that is perfect for having lunch next to. It’s also a nice place to slip into if you want to take a break from the city and just hang out on a bench for a while.
Parque Juan Carlos I ( Juan Carlos I park) may be more geared towards the younger crowd but there are some fun sculptures and trails that wind through the playgrounds and swings. You can even borrow a bike for free and explore the park on wheels.
The Planetarium (Planeterio) is indoors but has a lot of walk-through and interactive exhibits that let you explore the science of the stars. Everything except the projection hall is always free.
El Rastro is an open-air flea market that takes place on Sunday morning and sells, well, absolutely everything. You can outfit your entire trip here, or spend the morning having fun and enjoying the variety of items people are hoping to sell.
Walking Tours and Destinations
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There are some free walking tours that start from various places around the city, but it’s just as easy to organize your own. The Gran Via, for example, is an historic street that’s mentioned in numerous films and operas and is architecturally fascinating to walk down in addition to being fun for window shopping.
The City Walls have crumbled but there’s still a reasonable piece of the ancient walls from Arabic times found in the Parque del Emir Mohamed I.
The Plaza Mayor is the city’s main square and has seen the best and the worst of history, from executions to celebrations. It’s a prime spot to sit in an outdoor cafe and do some people-watching.
The Templo de Debod is an Egyptian temple that was brought to Spain when its site in Egypt was at risk of being damaged by construction. It sits in the Parque del Oeste and there are some amazing views from the area just behind it.
The Atocha Railway Station has a tropical garden in it, complete with a turtle pool. It may not be worth a trip by itself, but if you are headed to the train station anyway make sure you leave yourself some time to walk through the garden.
Puerta del Sol was the site of the city gates and is the city’s most central location. If you look around you’ll find a slab marked ‘Kilometre Zero’ that is the starting for the National Roads of Spain. There are a couple interesting statues, monuments and fountains there too.