Madrid is fun, foodie and cultured, and there's plenty to enjoy here for free © NaughtyNut / Shutterstock
The capital of Spain is a city of fine food, rich history, buzzing nightlife and creative exuberance, but taking in its sights and experiences can burn through your travel budget. By the time you've factored in a morning trip to the Museo del Prado, tapas-grazing in La Latina, a late-night bar crawl in Huertas, and a hotel room close to the center, you'd be lucky to get change from €200 (US$218) for a day and a night in Madrid.
But help is at hand. While the city is rich with paid-for cultural attractions, if you aren't quite as rich yourself, there's plenty to do on a budget. Many of Madrid's world-class sights are free, including parks, churches and museums. Here are our favorite free attractions that offer the best of Madrid for travelers on a budget.
Visit Museo de Historia de Madrid to discover Madrid's back story
Behind a fabulous baroque facade, the free Museo de Historia houses a fine collection of paintings and artifacts outlining the history of Madrid. Highlights include Goya's Allegory of the City of Madrid, which lampoons the occupying French rulers of 19th century Madrid and the fractious political climate at the time, as well as an incredibly detailed model of the city as it looked in 1830.
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Casa de Lope de Vega is a free dip into Spanish literary culture
Although relatively unknown outside the Spanish-speaking world, Lope de Vega was one of the greatest playwrights, poets and novelists of Spanish literature, and the house where he lived offers a window into his life and times. This is where Lope de Vega wrote and lived with his mistress – scandalous at the time – before his death in 1635. It's packed with memorabilia related to his work and free guided tours can be booked in advance via email or phone.
Eclectic antiques on display at El Rastro flea market © Pedro Rufo / Shutterstock
El Rastro is the place for free flea market browsing
El Rastro started out as a meat market in the 17th century (rastro is the Spanish word for "trail," after the trail of blood left behind the butchered animals) but it evolved into Madrid's liveliest flea market. Every Sunday, stalls are piled high with antiques, vintage T-shirts and old records, alongside new clothes and souvenirs. The eclectic items on display have price tags but browsing is free and wandering the stalls is a great way to get a feel for what makes Madrileños tick.
Iglesia de San Ginés offers a taste of old Madrid
Existing in one form or another since at least the 14th century, San Ginés is one of Madrid's oldest churches. The current stone structure was constructed in 1645 but extensively rebuilt after a fire in 1824. Housed inside are some excellent works of Spanish art, such as El Greco's Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple (1614). It's free to visit and just a short stroll from Plaza Mayor.
The Templo de Debod is an Egyptian temple that was moved stone-by-stone from Egypt to Madrid © Miguel Diaz / 500px
Templo de Debod is a taste of Egypt in Madrid
This curiously translocated monument is actually a giant thank-you card. Constructed at the tail end of the New Kingdom period in Egypt, the Templo de Debod originally stood in the area now covered by Lake Nasser, and it was saved from the rising waters by Unesco with help from Spanish archaeologists during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. As a statement of gratitude to Spain for helping to save this and other monuments, Egypt donated the temple to the Spanish government and it was moved block by block to its new home in Parque del Oeste. It's been there ever since, and it's free to visit.
Head to Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida to see Goya paintings in situ
We're going to let you in on a little secret: the southern chapel of Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida is one of the few places you can see Francisco de Goya's work in its original setting. The chapel's rather unadorned exterior belies the riches inside – the centerpiece of the chapel is Goya's depiction of the miracle of St Anthony, with the saint shown raising a young man from the dead to absolve his father of murder. Also in the chapel are the remains of Goya himself – bar the painters' head, which mysteriously went missing when his remains were transferred from their original burial site in France. Guided tours are available for free with prior registration.
Museo del Prado is one of Madrid's finest free attractions © trabantos / Shutterstock
Browse the Museo del Prado for free in the evening
By day, there's a charge to view the Museo del Prado's massive collection of 1500 artworks, but the museum is free to visit from 6pm to 8pm Monday to Saturday and from 5pm to 7pm on Sunday. So long as you don't mind an early evening browse, you can admire some of the world's best-known works of art. Seek out Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights – a vision of paradise and hell that puts the trippy into triptych – and Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, depicting the Spanish royal family from a unique (and, at the time, revolutionary) perspective.
Drop into the Iglesia de San Jerónimo on a museum trip
Somewhat in the shadow of the ever-popular Museo del Prado, the Iglesia de San Jerónimo sits on the site of a former monastery dating back to the early 16th century. The buildings were damaged in the early 1800s during the Peninsular War, and then restored half a century later, during the reign of Isabel II. The remains of the former cloisters are now part of the Museo del Prado. With free admission, it's a rewarding detour to bolt onto a museum visit.
The gardens of Campo del Moro offer stunning views of the Palacio Real © Sami Auvinen / Getty Images
For gratis garden grandeur, head to Campo del Moro
Encompassing 20 hectares of lush green spaces in central Madrid, Campo del Moro sits just beneath the Palacio Real, providing one of the prettiest views in Madrid. The gardens' were laid out in the English style in the 18th century, centered on the Fuente de las Conchas (Fountain of the Shells), which was designed in the 18th century by Ventura Rodríguez and erected in the middle of the east-west pradera (meadow).
See sculpture for free at Museo al Aire Libre
Tucked underneath an overpass, this excellent open-air sculpture collection features over a dozen abstract sculptures from some of Spain's foremost artists, including works by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, Catalan artist Joan Miró, kinetic artist Eusebio Sempere and Civil War veteran Alberto Sánchez Pérez. The slight hint of traffic grime only adds to the appeal of this fascinating urban art space, and being out in the open, there's no entry fee.
Madrid's stunning Biblioteca Nacional © Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock
Indulge your inner bibliophile at Biblioteca Nacional
A must-see for booklovers, the museum within the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) has interactive displays on the history of the printing press and Spain's national library, as well as exhibits of illuminated manuscripts. Although you need a reader or researcher card to check out any of the books in this massive collection of more than 30,000 manuscripts, the free museum downstairs has enough for bibliophiles to while away an afternoon.
Learn more about Madrid at Museo de San Isidro
Named after San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Madrid, the free-to-visit Museo de San Isidro details the rich history of Madrid from prehistoric times to its establishment as the capital of Spain. The museum is believed to sit on the spot where San Isidro worked and died. Of particular historical interest is the "miraculous well" – according to legend, the saint's son fell into the well but was saved when the waters miraculously rose thanks to his parent's devout prayers.
Although access inside is mostly restricted, the exterior of the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores is a treat © Krzysztof Dydynski / Lonely Planet
Admire the grand exterior of the Palacio de Longoria
This extravagant art nouveau structure, with its organic, swirling flourishes, is the headquarters of the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, a society of music composers and publishers. Although the interior is off-limits to travelers, the exterior is what you're here for – it's a decadent ode to Modernisme (also known as Catalan modernism) of which Antoni Gaudí was the most famous exponent.
Step back into Madrid's past at Estación de Chamberí
The Estación de Chamberí is a chance to step into Madrid's recent past. In the 1960s, several of Madrid's train stations were upgraded, but the layout of Chamberí station meant that it couldn't be similarly modified. Instead, the station was bricked over and abandoned, before reopening in 2008 as a museum and time capsule. The interior appears much as it did in 1966, down to the posters, advertisements and art deco furnishings that were first installed in the early 20th century.
Catch your breath in the green spaces of Parque del Buen Retiro
Established by King Felipe IV as a garden for Spanish royalty, El Retiro park has become the green heart of Madrid. Festooned with white marble monuments, carefully landscaped lawns, ponds and several interesting buildings (the elegant metal-and-glass Palacio de Cristal greenhouse is a standout landmark), the park is usually quiet on weekdays, but it comes to life on weekends, when it's a great spot for people-watching.