Madrid on a Budget

Or how I saved € 50  in a day for two adults.

Traveling can be expensive, but there are plenty of ways to save money with a little planning. My recent trip to Madrid spanned five days but due to New Year's many sights had abbreviated hours or were closed for the holiday. Shortened hours were not going to stop me from seeing the sights though. I enacted a carefully concocted plan of whirlwind sightseeing on a Sunday to maximize what I could see free of charge.

This itinerary is for a Sunday in Madrid, but I've included tips on how to avoid entry fees for sights on other days as well. Michael and I enjoy walking everywhere so the only costs on this day were for food. Factor in a subway ride or two if you don't like walking as much as we do.

The Plan:

Sunday morning started at a little no-name place in Madrid that we walked past on our way to the first museum. Unless breakfast is included I usually opt out of eating breakfast at the hotel, knowing I am almost guaranteed to find breakfast elsewhere much cheaper.

We stumbled into a small place that was a bar at night that opened for breakfast in the morning. In my broken half Spanish/half French (Franish?) confusion, I asked the server what was offered for breakfast. After waving to the tapas selection presented on the bar, he paused and motioned to all the locals. They were all eating the same thing: a tomato spread with olive oil on a toasted baguette. The decision was made.

The local breakfast combo: toasted baguette, mashed up tomato spread, olive oil on the side, small glass of orange juice, and coffee with milk.

Then for the surprise: the bill. The grand total for everything described above, for one person, was €2. Just to give some perspective, coffee with milk in Paris usually costs between €4 - €4.50.  

My take-away - head to any small bar for breakfast and order like a local!

Sorolla Museum:

After breakfast it was time to head over to the first museum of the day, the Sorolla Museum. This smaller, less-known museum in Madrid was one of my favorites in the city and is free all day on Sunday. If you enjoy Impressionist art, make sure you make it to this museum. It introduced me to one of Spain's great Impressionist painters while presenting his works in the painter's former house and studio. Meet Joaquín Sorolla.

You can walk around his house, built between 1910-1911. The house and gardens are beautiful in their own right, and bear personalized marks of the artist, like the paintings of his wife and daughters incorporated into the border of the dining room decor. After Sorolla's death, his wife donated many of his paintings to Spain in order to make a museum in his memory. The museum opened in 1932.

Free bonus: You can get to know some of Joaquín Sorolla's works now by looking at Museo Sorolla's exhibit on Google's Cultural Institute.

Museo Sorolla

Paseo del General Martínez Campos, 37

28010 Madrid, Spain

Free all day Sunday, and on Saturday from 2:00pm-8:00pm. Although if you don't make it there on a weekend, the normal price is only €3 and is completely worth it.


El Retiro Park:

It was a sunny day so we decided to walk about half an hour from the Sorolla Museum over to El Retiro Park. This (free) park was teeming with life on the weekend and provides a great break to people-watch and walk around. There were street musicians and performers, boating on the lake, and a few free sights we stumbled upon.


One of those sights we found was the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). Built in 1887 as a greenhouse for plants from the Philippines, it is now used for art exhibitions through Madrid's modern art museum, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

It's free to take a peek in here. As I walked around the space, I couldn't help but imagine the possibilities for throwing a fancy dinner party here.

There was no art exhibited when we popped in, but it was still a pretty building to admire.

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía also runs the Palacio de Velázquez on the grounds of the park. This venue is also worth popping in to see its free art exhibition. 

Both Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio de Cristal are open daily for free during the following hours:

October-March: 10:00am-6:00pm / April-September: 10:00am-10:00pm


Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía:

Even better than the two branches in El Retiro Park is the main location of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. This modern art museum is about a fifteen minute walk from El Retiro Park and is free on Sunday afternoons. My strategy would be to stop by La Libre (recommended in my food post on Madrid) for lunch and then heading around the corner to the museum - the café is really that close.

I'm not going to sugar-coat it - the museum got quite crowded due to the free hours. (We felt like the museum was a little short on oxygen by the time we were done!) But at €8 per person, it is worth considering sucking it up and enduring the crowds. Only the permanent collection is open during the free hours so if you want to go back to see the temporary collection, you can go back another time and pay €4 for the temporary collection only. (Check their website for current pricing.) 

Not to miss is Pablo Picasso's Guernicaan emotionally charged painting depicting the tragedies of war in response to the bombings of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

You can also get a free taste of the museum without the cost of a flight to Madrid, or the crowds for that matter. Take a look at their exhibit on Google's Cultural Institute. (Can you tell yet that "free" is one of my favorite words?) 

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Calle de Santa Isabel, 52

28012 Madrid, Spain

Free on Sunday from 3:00pm-7:00pm and on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7:00pm-9:00pm


The Museo del Prado:

Conveniently close-by to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (about a fifteen minute walk) was the last stop of the day: The Museo del Prado.

The Prado is the art museum of Spain, showing off works from the 12th-19th centuries. Go here to see works from famous Spanish artists such as Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco as well as other European greats like Rafael, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, get the idea. This is a massive collection.

On Sundays the museum is free from 5pm-7pm. We got in line around 5:15pm and waited about half an hour to get through security and in the doors. That left us with a little over an hour to explore this huge museum loaded with masterpieces. We were selective in what areas we really wanted to see, and had to be a bit patient with the crowds. But getting in free to the Prado was the big money-saver of the day: €14 each.

If you want more time to explore, consider making a second trip during the free evening hours (see below). It may not be a bad idea to split up the time in the Prado so not to be overwhelmed or museum-fatigued (as this day might do to you!).

Museo Nacional del Prado

Paseo del Prado, s/n

28014 Madrid, Spain

Free on Sunday from 5:00pm-7:00pm and Monday-Saturday 6:00pm-8:00pm


Additional Museum:

If you are still up for one more museum, put Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza on your list for a Monday. This museum is worth a visit even if you already went to the others listed above., notably for its Impressionist artwork.

As mentioned before, you can also view a limited collection of the museum's works from the comfort of home through the exhibit on Google Cultural Institute.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Paseo del Prado, 8

28014 Madrid, Spain

Free on Monday from 12:00pm-4:00pm (normally € 10 per person)


Now go out and enjoy dinner and/or a flamenco show with some of that money you saved!