Whether you’re on a budget or just want to save your Euros to splurge on a great hotel, there are plenty of free places and activities in Madrid to fill your days. Be sure to check out the secret Platform Zero subway station, watch the sunset from the city’s real Egyptian temple, and contemplate contemporary art at Matadero.
Our local insider gives her insider tips on the best free things to do in Madrid.
For more inspiration, check out our guide to Madrid and the city’s best hotels, restaurants, bars, tapas, nightlife, shops and things to do.
Plaza Mayor, Opera and La Latina
Stroll through the historic squares
Get a taste of Madrid’s history in the Plaza Mayor, which dates back to the 17th century and is framed by red brick buildings and slate turrets. Next, stroll to the Plaza de la Villa, the oldest square in Madrid. Descend to Cava Baja, which traces the curve of the old city walls and leads to the Plaza de la Paja, where the medieval atmosphere contrasts with the lively atmosphere of the outdoor cafés. This is one of the best areas for tapas bars, particularly along Calle Cuchilleros and Cava Baja where traditional taverns alternate with gastrobars.
Nearest Metro: Sun
Enter a movie set
Spain’s most famous director, Pedro Almodóvar, lives in Madrid and loves to showcase the city in his work. He discovers some of the key sights on a free walking tour with WalkingMad, as you walk from the Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Mayor and the fountain in the Puerta de Moros square, both seen in The Flower of My Secret. The route may also include the Bobia coffee in the Labyrinth of Passions; the Viaducto bridge, which appears in Matador; Villa Rosa, the High Heels flamenco bar; the Jerónimos area of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; and the Salesas neighborhood from Julieta and Madri Parallele.
Nearest subway: Sol
Retrace the history of the city
The San Isidro Museum traces Madrid’s origins from prehistoric times to the establishment of the court in the 16th century, offering an easy-to-follow overview of how the city developed over time. Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, born in the 11th century, is believed to have lived in a house on this site. The displays show the many miracles he performed, the most famous of which was rescuing his boss’s baby from a well. Of the traditional building, arranged around a Renaissance courtyard with a small botanical garden, fragments from the 16th and 17th centuries remain.
Nearest subway: The Latin
Puerta del Sol and Gran Via
See Goya paintings without the crowds
Despite being right in the center opposite the Four Seasons Madrid hotel, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando – Madrid’s version of the Royal Academy – is rarely crowded and is free on Wednesdays (reasonably priced at other times). Founded in the 18th century and housed in a grand neoclassical building, the collections include paintings by Goya, El Greco, Van Dyck, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Rubens, Arcimboldo and Picasso. Insider tip: If the chalcography section is open, pop in to see Goya’s superb engravings.
Nearest subway: Seville or Sol
Barrio de las Litras and Lavapiés
Search for souvenirs in a huge flea market
Trawling the sprawling Rastro flea market on Sunday mornings, looking at random things and hopping in and out of bars, has long been a favorite activity in Madrid, particularly if you haven’t made it to bed and are alone merrily going on from Saturday night. Chipped crockery, old keys, baggy pants… it’s all here. The main drag is Ribera de Curtidores, but wander the side streets and dive into small shops selling antiques, vintage clothes and old records. Pickpocketing is commonplace, so take as little as possible and keep your important stuff hidden away.
Nearest subway: Tirso de Molina
Explore a secret subway station
Chamberí Metro Station, closed in 1966, was given a new life as Platform Zero. It was originally designed in 1919 by Antonio Palacios, the architect responsible for many of Madrid’s signature buildings. Today it has been restored to its former glory, complete with ticket office, vaulted white-tiled corridors and ceramic advertising hoardings. The displays trace the history of the Madrid Metro over the last century, from its origins to the present day. You can also see the original engines in the adjacent Motores de Pacífico building.
Nearest subway: Alonso Martinez
Plaza de España and Moncloa
Watch the sun slip away in an Egyptian temple
It’s a bit of a surprise to come across an authentic Egyptian temple in an urban park in Madrid. The Temple of Debod is more than 2,000 years old: the structure was donated to Spain in 1968 after Spanish archaeologists helped save Abu Simbel from flooding during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It has been recreated stone by stone on the western edge of the city center and is aligned with the setting sun, as it originally was in Egypt, making this one of the most dramatic and romantic spots in the city at sunset, although you may have to wait your turn to use the best place for a photograph.
Nearest subway: Piazza di Spagna
Paseo del Prado and the Retiro Park
Immerse yourself in the best architecture of the city
The gloriously ornate former main post office known as the Palacio de Comunicaciones now houses the town hall and Centro Centro cultural centre. This is the signature building of the extraordinary architect Antonio Palacios, who designed it with Joaquín Otamendi in the early 20th century. While there’s sometimes a small fee for the temporary exhibitions, anyone can wander around the palatial building at no cost – or just sit and use the free Wi-Fi or browse the papers; this is a comfortable place to rest while sightseeing. There are also free guided tours every day (see website for times).
Nearest Metro: Bank of Spain
Madrid Río and Casa de Campo
Become a vulture of contemporary culture
Along the Manzanares River, a complex of red-brick Neo-Mudejar pavilions – built a century ago to house the city’s slaughterhouses – has been revitalized as a dynamic cultural hub. The Matadero is used for all kinds of exhibitions, shows, concerts, festivals and other events, with an emphasis on design and creativity. The Cineteca cinema specializes in showing documentaries, while Naves Matadero, under the aegis of the Teatro Español, stages experimental plays. There are also recording studios, workshops and activities for children, as well as a café.
Nearest subway: Legazpi
Picnic and people watch in the park
The banks of the Manzanares River are home to an urban park, known as the Madrid Río, where Madrileños stroll, run, cycle and skateboard. In summer, children let off steam on the playgrounds and splash around in the shallow pools. Pack a picnic and walk through the sprawling Casa de Campo park, which was originally a royal hunting ground and now contains a zoo, funfair, outdoor swimming pool and a number of restaurants around its huge lake. Head back towards the city center for spectacular views of the Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral set against a backdrop of slate spiers.
Nearest Metro: Príncipe Pío, Marqués de Vadillo or Legazpí