Madrid, the capital of Spain and its largest city, is a must. The city is just magical. There’s a electric energy running through the city and everyone seems to be living their best life. And like its rival city Barcelona, this is a city that starts late — dinner doesn’t happen until 9 or 10 pm at night!
Though slightly sprawling place, the tiny neighborhoods are a great place to get lost in, eat tapas, and drink sangria. The warmth of the locals and the slowness of the meals will keep you out late. Don’t keep here trying to get to bed early. The best of Madrid happens after 9pm.
This travel guide to Madrid can give you everything you need to know to eat well, save money, and see the best sights the city has to offer.
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Madrid
1. Stroll Plaza Mayor
2. Visit the Prado Museum
3. Unwind in El Retiro Park
4. Visit the Palacio Real
5. Watch a Real Madrid soccer match
Other Things to See and Do in Madrid
1. Check out Puerta del Sol
This is Madrid’s most famous and central square. Originally, it was the site of one of the east facing city gates and was adorned with an image of the sun, hence the square’s name (the “sun gate”). The square is actually almost semi-circular in shape and owes its current form to the major renovation work carried out between 1854 and 1860.
2. See flamenco dancers
Madrid has been enjoying flamenco, Spain’s most famous style of dancing, since the early 19th century. Flamenco shows take place in many bars and taverns in Madrid, like Las Carboneras where you can enjoy a flamenco show with a glass of wine and some tapas for 45 EUR ($49 USD) or the historic Corral de la Morreria (admission is 50 EUR ($54 USD) and includes a drink).
3. National Archaeological Museum
This well-designed museum houses an incredible collection of archaeological finds from across the Iberian peninsula from the Greek and Roman periods, along with artefacts from Egypt and Mesopotamia. See the famous La Dama de Elche, the bust of a 5th century Iberian woman and the Altamira pre-historic cave paintings. Admission is €3 ($3.50 USD).
4. Explore the Naval Museum of Madrid
When you think back on the world’s historical naval powers, the Spanish Armada is sure to come to mind. You can come here to learn about the nation’s rich naval history through historic maps from the 1500s and an impressive display showcasing Spain’s impressive maritime history from the 15th to 18th centuries. Admission is €3 ($3.50 USD).
5. Go on a free walking tour
Free walking tours are one of my favorite activities to do in a city. You get to fill your morning, find your way around, and learn about the place you’re visiting – without spending a fortune. New Madrid Walking Tours and Cat’s Hostel Walking Tours are the two best free tours in the city.
6. Admire some modern art
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía offers a fantastic collection of modern art with some big names: works by Picasso’s, Miró, Kandinsky, Dalí, and Bacon can be found here. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Picasso’s famous Guernica painting. Admission is €10 ($11 USD). Closed on Tuesdays.
7. Shop at the Mercado de San Miguel
This iconic indoor market is a fun spot to do your grocery shopping. It’s the oldest covered food market in the city with beautiful 20th-century architecture and a fantastic spot to eat some cheap tapas, pick up ingredients for supper, or to just take in the people. Open seven days a week, the market is a five-minute walk from Plaza Mayor and attracts the after-work drinks crowd in the evenings.
8. Temple of Debod
The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian temple from the 2nd century BC. It was given as gift to Spain from the Egyptian government as a thank you for helping them relocate monuments from the Aswan Dam site. The temple can now be found in Madrid’s Cuartel de la Montaña Park. Although the inside of the temple is off limits, you can still walk along the outside.
9. Spend time in the Barrio de La Latina
Get out on foot and explore the upbeat La Latina neighborhood and its maze of narrow lanes and streets lined with tapas bars, restaurants, and cantinas. If you’re here on a Sunday, peruse the offerings at the El Rastro flea market, and stuff your face at one of the many food stall. Be sure to step inside the San Francisco el Grand Basilica or the Moorish San Pedro el Real church.
10. See the Plaza de Cibeles
Plaza de Cibeles is a famous plaza in Madrid, located along the central Calle de Alcalá and adjacent to Paseo del Prado. Here you’ll find the Palace of Communications, the city’s mayor’s office, and a fountain dedicated to the Roman goddess Cybele. There is an observation deck at the mayor’s office as well. Admission is €2 ($2.17 USD).
11. Take a food tour
Learn about the culinary culture of Spain by taking a food walking tour or cooking class in Madrid. Take the three-hour Madrid Gourmet Tapas and Wine Tasting tour with Devour Madrid and sample authentic tapas at three different bars. This tour is 109 EUR ($156 USD) per person.
12. Do a free walking tour
Free Walking Tours Madrid offers up a 2.5-hour walking tour at most cost which hits all the main sites of Madrid like Plaza Mayor, Puerta Del Sol and La Opera while explaining the complicated history of Spain. It departs Plaza de Callao every weekday at 11am, in addition to a Friday and Saturday tour at 3:30pm.
Madrid Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Hostel dorm rooms in Madrid vary in price depending on how close the hostel is to the Plaza Mayor. A bed in a four-six bed dorm during peak season (June through August) will cost about €28 ($30 USD), while a bed in a room with eight beds or more will cost from about €22 ($23 USD).
During the off-season, a bed in a room with eight beds or more will cost from about €16 ($17 USD) each night, while smaller rooms will cost about €22 ($23 USD). Free WiFi is standard, and many hostels in the city also offer free breakfast.
A basic private room for two with an ensuite bathroom costs from €60-150 ($65-163 USD) per night during peak season. Prices are about €50-100 ($54-108 USD) in the off-season.
There are a few options for camping outside the city, though the prices are often more than hostels — most charge around €15 ($16 USD) per night.
Budget hotel prices – A typical budget hotel room for two near Plaza Mayor is between €80-120 ($87-130 USD) per night during peak season. Prices are generally cheaper outside of the summer months, expect to pay between €60-100 ($65-108 USD) per night.
Airbnb is another option for those wishing to have more privacy and kitchen facilities. A shared room (like a bed in a dorm) averages about €40 ($43 USD) per night, while a private room is about €70 ($76 USD) per night. A full apartment averages about €140 ($152 USD) per night.
Food – In Madrid, you can get cheap tapas meals for around €6-13 ($7-14 USD), which typically includes about 3 or 4 tapas. If you want wine included, expect to spend about €10-15 ($11-17 USD) per meal. A good restaurant meal with three courses called a “menu del dia,” is popular in all of Spain and a great way to save on eating out. The whole meal, which usually comes with a glass of house wine, will set you back around €15 ($16 USD).
If you go out for paella, drinks, or appetizers, then you should plan to spend around €20 ($25 USD) for a meal. Like any city, Madrid has a lot of expensive restaurants, and meals there begin around €30 ($35 USD) with a drink.
If you buy your own food, expect to spend about €35-40 ($38-43 USD) for a week’s worth of groceries that include fresh produce, bread, and meat. Stick to the local markets for the freshest and cheapest food.
Backpacking Madrid Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Madrid, expect to spend around €65 ($70 USD) per day. This budget will cover a bed in a hostel dorm, eating out once or twice but mostly cooking your meals (or at least eating super cheap tapas), public transportation, free walking tours and activities, and maybe a few paid attractions.
A mid-range budget of about €139 ($150 USD) will get you a stay in a two-star hotel, Airbnb, or a private room at a hostel as well as a couple of attractions per day, maybe a guided tour, some free walking tours, cheap eats and lunch specials, and a nice meal or two.
If you want luxury, anticipate spending at least €369 ($400 USD) per day, but the sky is the limit in Madrid! You’ll get a four-star hotel, meals at high-end restaurants, cocktails, food tours, taxis if you want them, and anything else you want.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Madrid Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Madrid can be an expensive city, especially if you indulge in all the food and drink here. It all adds up quickly but you can trim your costs if you follow a few simple rules. Here are some general ways to save money in Madrid:
- Eat a large lunch – Lunch is much cheaper in Madrid, and everywhere you will find “menu del dia” which will cost around €10-15 ($11-16 USD) for a large meal with a glass of wine or beer.
- Get the Madrid tourist card – The underestimated Madrid Card offers free public transportation, free access to Prado and other museums as well as all sorts of discounts at nightclubs, entertainment facilities, shops, and restaurants. You can purchase a 24-hour card for €47 ($51 USD), a 48-hour card for €60 ($65 USD), or a 72-hour one for €67 ($73 USD).
- Free museum days – Lots of museums in Madrid are free on certain days and certain times throughout the day. Be sure to check before you go because it’s far better to see sights like the Prado for free! You can also ask the tourism office as they will have a list for you.
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing is a great way to save money on accommodation while also getting some insight from the locals. While hostels aren’t too expensive in the city, this is still the best way to save money.
- Go on a free walking tour – This is one of my favorite ways to get to know a new place, and you can’t beat the price! New Madrid Walking Tours and Cat’s Hostel Walking Tours are the two most popular free tours in the city.
- Grocery shop at the markets – Fresh foods can be bought for cheap at some of the daily markets in the city. Check out the historic Mercado de la Paz or mammoth Mercado de Maravillas and buy fresh produce and meats to save money.
Where to Stay in Madrid
Madrid has a ton of hostel choices for any budget. There is no shortage of places to stay here. My recommendations places to stay are:
How to Get Around Madrid
Subway – The best way to get around Madrid is to use the subway, as it’s easy to learn and navigate. The base fare is €1.50 ($2 USD) for the first five stations one-way; then an additional €0.10 ($0.15 USD) for each additional station up to a €2 ($2.17 USD) maximum in central Madrid.
Bus – Public buses run all over Madrid from 6:30AM-11:30PM (with some night routes also) and they cost the same as the metro. You can also get 10-journey cards from €11.20 ($12.15 USD) depending on your zones.
There are also tourist passes available for unlimited usage on all public transportation, from 1-7 days. Prices range between €8.40-35.40 ($9.10-38.35 USD).
Bicyle Rental – Madrid has an electric bike-sharing program called BiciMAD. Rentals start at €2 ($2.17 USD) per hour limit (and then it’s €4/$4.35 USD per half hour).
Taxis – Taxis start between €2.10 ($2.30 USD) and €2.20 ($2.40 USD) in Madrid, with normal tariff between €1 ($1.20 USD) and €1.20 ($1.30 USD) per additional kilometer.
When to Go to Madrid
Madrid is a year-round destination like the rest of Spain but during peak season (June-August) crowds are heavy, prices are highest and the heat is oppressive with daily temperatures hitting above 86°F (30°C) in August.
The shoulder seasons are the best time of year to visit this inland city. Shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are really great times to visit. This is typically the time between April to the end of May, and September to the end of October. Tourist sites will be much less congested, and prices for hostels are lower. Temperatures are pleasant in spring with average temperatures at 64°F (18°C) and only a few days of rain.
How to Stay Safe in Madrid
Madrid is a safe city. Violent crime is very rare here so that won’t be a problem, but Madrid has a major problem with pickpocketing and petty theft, especially in the major tourist areas and on the metro. You need to be really careful with your stuff and always watch your pockets.
Tourist scams are super prevalent as well so keep an eye out for groups of kids trying to distract you, as they’re probably trying to take your money and be wary of people trying to take your luggage. They may try to charge you a large fee.
Read more about 14 major travel scams to avoid so you don’t fall for one.
My best piece of advice: if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Madrid.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Madrid Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel around Madrid. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Eurail – If you are going to Europe and taking a lot of high speed or long distance trains, get a rail pass. I’ve used a rail pass three times and saved hundreds of dollars each time. The math just works.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Europe, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website is the ultimate guide to train travel anywhere in the world. They have the most comprehensive information on routes, times, prices, and train conditions. If you are planning a long train journey or some epic train trip, consult this site.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- FlixBus – German based Flixbus has routes between 20 European countries with prices starting as low €5 ($6 USD)! Their buses include WiFi, electrical outlets, and up to three 3 free bags.
- BlaBlaCar – BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing website that lets you share rides with vetted local drivers by pitching in for gas. You simply request a seat, they approve, and off you go! It’s a cheaper and more interesting way travel than by bus or train!
- Take Walks – This is my go-to walking tour company. They use expert local guides and their tours are entertaining and insightful. If you want something in-depth, go with them!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Madrid Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Madrid Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra
Don Quixote had become so enamoured with reading tales of chivalry that he decides to be a knight himself. With his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, they roam the world together in a series of adventures and misadventures – including mistaking windmills for giants. Is Don Quixote a wise fool, or a madman? This book from Cervantes is considered the world’s first true novel, and it has been delighting people for 400 years!
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
Back in 1937, Ernest Hemingway went to Spain to cover the civil war for an American newspaper. This book is the result of his experiences there. It’s about Robert Jordan, an American in the International Brigades tied to an antifascist guerrilla movement in the mountains. It’s one part love story, and other parts about significant moments in the war – including El Sordo’s last stand, and the demise of La Pasionaria. This is considered one of Hemingway’s best novels, and the best literature to come out of the war. It’s a must-read.
Winter in Madrid, by C. J. Sansom
This book about life in post-Civil War Spain is an international bestseller, and for good reason. After the war is over, Madrid is completely in ruins – and the Germans are moving in, although General Franco denies Hitler’s request to lead the country into another war. Along comes a spy for the British Secret Service, sent to earn the confidence of an old school friend/shady Madrid businessman named Sandy Forsyth. There’s also an ex-nurse with a mission all her own. This book is a thrilling read, but it also gives us a sense of history unfolding as the story does. It’ll keep you on your toes.
Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, by Giles Tremlett
After the Spanish Civil War ended, Spaniards kept quiet about the whole affair – calling it “the pact of forgetting.” But then a discovery of mass graves filled with victims of Francisco Franco’s death squad came to light, and the pact was broken. In this beautiful book, Tremlett sets out on a journey around Spain and through its history to better understand what kept the Spaniards quiet for so long. It’ll give you some amazing insight into the country.
Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, by Chris Stewart
Here’s your comedic relief to all that Civil War literature. Chris Stewart had set his eyes on El Valero for maybe two minutes before handing over a check – and then all he had to do was explain to his wife that they were now the happy owners of a remote sheep farm in Alpujarra Mountains in Southern Spain. Despite being overrun with olive, lemon, and almond groves, the farm is clearly lacking in other areas – like running water, and electricity. There’s not even much of an access road. Then there’s Pedro Romero, the previous owner who just won’t leave. Thankfully, Stewart’s eternal optimism pushes them through, and along the way he’s enchanted by the gorgeous landscape of the mountain range and the people he meets along the way. (Maybe not Pedro, though.)
Madrid Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Spain travel and continue planning your trip: