What to Do in Madrid

Looking for things to see in Madrid, Spain that are free, buget-friendly, or must-sees? Find out where to go and what to eat in the capital city.

I arrived at the Madrid-Barajas Airport late Christmas Eve and navigated to the train station below with help from locals. The city’s public transportation is one of the best and cheapest in Europe and worth getting a travel tourist pass for access to the bus, train, and subway.

My breath hung in the air as I waited with other passengers from the Nice flight. It was difficult to switch my brain to Spanish from French after being in the neighboring country for a month.

Luckily, I had my phrasebook handy to help replace “Je suis désolé” with “lo siento” to apologize in advance for butchering yet another language. Some other Spanish phrases to remember include:

  • Por favor and gracias, as manners go a long way.
  • ¿Cómo llego a…? (How do I get to….?)
  • Ayúdame. Tengo un problema. (Help. I have a problem.)

Memorizing a few key phrases significantly helps when new to an area. Likewise, it helps with cultural immersion. One of the first things I learned was, “Un café con leche, por favor” cause I can’t function without coffee.

Food to Eat in Spain

Locals in the capital city have incorporated traditional Spanish dishes from throughout the country. For instance, Paella can include seafood, meat, or vegetables, as the region influences the ingredients. The rice-based meal’s name comes from how it’s made — in a pan.

Visitors seeking authentic cuisine must try Taberna El Buo La Latina‘s Spanish tortilla, which is very different from the flat Mexican bread of the same name. The cozy bar also serves free tapas with each drink order. Tapas are a traveler’s best friend, as they are great for a quick and cheap energy refuel while touring the city.

Bocadillo de calamares is another traditional meal frequently found in bars particularly around Plaza Mayor. The sandwich is deep-fried squid, which is not too dissimilar to New Orleans’ po’boys.

Most meals in Spain are meat-based, such as with dry-cured ham (jamón) or sausage (chistorra and chorizo). Merimee is a gastropub where I had Ensalada De Queso De Cabra — or Caramelized Goat Cheese Salad — with dried horse meat (Cecina de León) and dried tomatoes.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, then try gazpacho — a cold vegetable soup invented in the country as a meal during the hot summers.

Spanish food checklist:

  • Paella
  • Spanish tortilla
  • Bocadillo de calamares
  • Jamón serrano and Iberico
  • Chistorra and chorizo
  • Gazpacho
  • Croquette
  • Churros

For dessert — or any time IMO — head to the chocolateria, San Gines near Plaza Mayor. The long-established shop sells deep-fried and sugared churros along with its thick and rich chocolate for dipping. Don’t let the line out the door deter you; it moves quickly and worth the wait.

Free Things to Do in Madrid

When I visit a country for a few weeks, every day cannot include an expensive tour. However, there are plenty of free things to see in Madrid to reduce travel costs.

The Plaza Mayor is a square lined on all four sides by beautiful architecture. The ground level has cafes and stores and is the perfect people-watching location, while the two stories above are mostly residential housing.

Puerta del Sol is another public square and the place to be on New Year’s Eve. As the clock on the Royal House of the Post Office chimes at midnight, locals chow down on 12 grapes, one for each hour.

The largest park in Madrid, El Retiro Park, often has free concerts on Sundays as well as hosts several other events. The park is home to statues galore, and street performers flock around the Retiro Pond. The Crystal Palace, a glass and iron pavilion, is a beautiful place for pictures.

El Retiro is also a great place to workout with:

  • Paths for runners and bikers.
  • Outdoor exercising areas.
  • Rowboat rentals.

The Egyptian Templo of Debod looks out of place in the Parque de la Montana because it is. Egypt donated the temple from second century B.C. to Spain because of its help saving other archeological sites. It is only Egyptian architecture in Spain and one of the few works you can visit outside of the original country.

Quintessential Madrid

Royal Palace of Madrid is simply stunning. It’s possible to walk through in just a few hours, but don’t get caught trying to take a selfie, as photographs within the gorgeous interior are strictly forbidden.

I recommend at least a half-day at the Museo Nacional del Prado. If you purchase a book along with your admission ticket, then pick up it up from the gift shop when you are ready to leave, as it weighs close to eight pounds. Buy your ticket in advance, not the day of.

Other sights you may consider depending on your interest include:

  • Santiago Bernabeu Stadium for soccer (European football) fans.
  • National Archaeological Museum.
  • Gran Via for shopping and to see the iconic Telefonica Building.
  • Mercado San Miguel (marketplace) for the “best of Spain” produce and goods.

If you want to a very Spanish experience in a short period, then get tickets to a Flamenco dinner show. There you can have almost all your senses pleased with local wine, cuisine, music, and dancing.

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