These days, most people are watching their wallets, but a trip to Europe is just a seat sale or mileage award redemption away. Madrid is the perfect gateway for exploring the continent, although once you get a taste of this fabulous, multifaceted city you may just want to spend your whole vacation here: there's plenty to do and see, and lots of ways to stretch your euros.
With more direct flights to Madrid than ever, getting there is easy. American Airlines, Delta, Air France, and Iberia all have direct flights from New York's JFK. Continental and United Airlines fly direct from Newark. There are also direct flights from Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.
Once you're in Madrid, here are some priceless money-saving tips:
1. Transportation Tip
First and best advice: take the metro! It's cheap, extensive, and extremely easy to navigate, even if you don't speak Spanish. The metro is well connected to the city center, a trip that takes about 45 minutes from the airport. All metro rides are 1 euro, and there's a 1 euro surcharge for airport trips.
2. Major Museums
With several major art institutions, including the world-class Prado, museum-going is a major part of any trip to Madrid. The Paseo del Prado, in central Madrid, is a wide, tree-lined boulevard that's also known as the Art Walk because it passes four of the city's important museums:
The Prado is home to the world's largest collections of artworks by Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez, as well as many other European masterpieces. Madrid's modern art museum, The Centro de Arte Reina Sofía houses Picasso's Guernica. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza has an ambitious collection of almost 1,000 paintings tracing the history of Western art from 13th-century Italian Gothic through 20th-century American pop art. Madrid's newest art destination, the CaixaForum, is a public art and culture exhibition space.
The CaixaForum is always free but there are several ways to save on entrance fees for the others. A Museo del Paso pass, available for purchase at any of the three museums, costs €17.60, and you don't need to visit all three on the same day. (It would cost €22 for full price adult entry for all three otherwise.) The Prado (€8) and the Reinia Sofia (€6) both have free visit times: The Prado is free Tues.–Sat. 6 pm–8 pm, and Sun., 5 pm–8 pm. The Reina Sofia is free Mon. and Wed.–Fri. from 7 pm–9 pm, Sat. 2:30–9 pm, and all day Sun. The MuseoThyssen-Bornemisza (€8), however, does not have any free visit times.
TIP: Another savings option is the Madrid Card, which, for €47, €60, or €74 (one, two, or three days, respectively) gives you entry to 40 of the city's museums and monuments—including, of course, the ones along the Paseo del Prado—as well as free use of the tourist bus Madrid Visión, and all the guided visits in the Discover Madrid program.
3. More Free Sights
It's definitely worth noting that some of Madrid's top sights are absolutely free: Retiro Park, right behind the Prado, is a gorgeous expanse of path-lined greenery, replete with a man-made lake; the park is especially lively on weekends, when street musicians, jugglers, and sidewalk painters entertain Spanish families out for a stroll. Sunday is also the day of the massive El Rastro flea market, which is, of course, free to wander, though you might be tempted to buy some treasures.
4. Foodie Finds
There are plenty of world-renowned restaurants in Madrid where you can spend your euros—remember to make reservations at Casa Botin for the famed roast suckling pig—but you can certainly keep it inexpensive by making a meal of tapas (small plates). There are tapas spots all over town, but just like restaurants, some are better than others. We list our favorites on our Madrid Tapas Bars listings. Highlights include El Cervantes, a popular spot off the Paseo del Prado for hot and cold tapas, along with a glass of beer or wine, and La Dolores, just a few doors down. Many restaurants also serve tapas in the early evening and afternoon, before dinner service. Mercado de la Reina, on the Gran Vía not far from the Puerta del Sol, has a delicious selection of small plates, and when the weather's nice, the huge front windows open into the sunshine.
Another stellar spot to sample all sorts of gourmet delicacies is at the swanky stalls of the newly made over Mercado de San Miguel indoor market, near the Plaza Mayor. Here, a bustling mix of travelers and madrileños snack on hot and cold tidbits, while sipping glasses of wine, sangria, or sherry.
Churros—fried bread, sprinkled with sugar or dipped in chocolate—are, essentially, the Spanish answer to donuts. Stop in at Chocolatería San Ginés for the quintessential snack, fresh and hot. It's open almost twenty-four hours a day and is especially popular as a last stop before home after a night of partying madrilène-style.
5. Hotel Bargains
If you're looking to save money on accommodations but want a fun and funky hotel experience, check out the Room Mate chain. Room Mate Mario was the first of what is now a worldwide chain that's hit on a winning combination of hip design, slightly limited hotel services (though all the Room Mate hotels have Wi-Fi, and the buffet breakfast, included in the price, is served till noon) at low prices. In Madrid, the flagship Mario has been joined by Room Mate Laura, Alicia, and Oscar. Madrid also has the Chic & Basic chain, which competes with the Room Mates. Their motto is "no frills, no ostentation, but with exquisite taste, fun and an even greater ambience." There are two Chic & Basics in Madrid: Chic & Basic Atocha and Chic & Basic Mayerling.
There are plenty of more luxurious hotels to choose from in Madrid, if you're looking for lodgings with a few more amenities for your siestas. One of the newest on the scene is the new outpost of the Scandinavian Radisson Blu chain, which opened just in time to start 2010—and it won't break the bank like the Ritz, even though it has amost the same fabulous location right off the Paseo del Prado.
Photo credit: Retiro Park's Crystal Palace: istock/Luis Sandoval