by Annie Bennett, The Telegraph, February 8, 2019
Whether you're on a budget or just want to save your pennies to splurge on a fantastic hotel, there are plenty of free sights and activities in Madrid to fill your days. Be sure to check out the secret metro station Platform Zero, watch the sunset from the city's real Egyptian temple, and contemplate contemporary art at Matadero. Telegraph Travel expert Annie Bennett gives her tips on the best free things to do in Madrid.
Plaza Mayor, Opera and La Latina
Ramble through historic squares
Get a flavour 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, wander along to the Plaza de la Villa, the oldest square in Madrid. Walk down to Cava Baja, which traces the line of the old city wall and leads to Plaza de la Paja, where the medieval atmosphere contrasts with the lively vibe at the pavement cafés. This is one of the best areas for tapas bars, particularly along Calle Cuchilleros and Cava Baja, and where traditional taverns alternate with gastrobars.
Nearest metro: Sol
Step into a film set
Spain’s most renowned film director, Pedro Almodóvar, lives in Madrid and loves to showcase the city in his work. See some of the key locations on a free walking tour with WalkingMad, as you stroll from the Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Mayor and the fountain in Puerta de Moros square – both seen in The Flower of My Secret. The route may also take in the Bobia café from Labyrinth of Passions; the Viaducto bridge, which appears in Matador; Villa Rosa, the flamenco bar from High Heels; and the Jerónimos area from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 11am start
Nearest metro: Sol
Trace the city's history
The Museum of San Isidro charts Madrid’s origins from prehistoric times until the establishment of the court in the 16th century, giving an easy-to-follow overview of how the city developed over time. Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, who was born in the 11th century, is believed to have lived in a house on this site. Displays show the many miracles he performed – the most famous of which involved rescuing his boss’s baby from a well. Fragments remain from the 16th and 17th centuries in the traditional building set around a Renaissance courtyard with a small botanic garden.
Contact: 00 34 91 366 7415; madrid.es
Opening times: 9.30am-8pm; June 16-Sept 15, 10am-7pm; closed Mondays
Nearest metro: La Latina
Browse works of art in a convent
The Descalzas Reales convent is hidden away in a little square behind the El Corte Inglés department store and dates back to the 16th century. It was founded by Princess Joan of Austria, the sister of Philip II. Although it is a closed order, part of the historic building is a magnificent museum with an astounding collection of works by artists including El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Zurbarán. There is usually an entrance fee, but EU citizens can visit for free on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons – you need to show your passport.
Contact: 00 34 91 454 8800; patrimonionacional.es
Free opening times: Oct-March, Wed-Thurs, 4pm-6.30pm; April-Sept, 5pm-8pm
Nearest metro: Callao
Barrio de las Letras and Lavapiés
Search for souvenirs at a huge flea market
Trawling aroud the sprawling Rastro flea market on Sunday mornings, looking at random tat and popping in and out of bars, has long been a favourite activity in Madrid – particularly if you haven’t actually made it to bed and are just merrily carrying on from Saturday night. Chipped crockery, old keys, big pants… it’s all here. For more upmarket finds, head to the main drag on Ribera de Curtidores but veer off into the side steets and dive into tiny shops selling antiques, vintage clothes and old records. Pickpocketing is rife, so take as little as possible and keep your important stuff hidden.
Opening times: Sun, 9am-3pm
Nearest metro: Tirso de Molina
Explore a secret metro station
Chamberí metro station, which closed in 1966, has been given a new life as Platform Zero. It was originally designed in 1919 by Antonio Palacios, the architect who was responsible for many of Madrid’s signature buildings. Today, it has been restored to its former splendour, complete with ticket office, white brick-tiled vaulted corridors and ceramic advertising panels. Displays chart the history of the Madrid metro system over the past century, from its origins to the present day. You can also see the original engines in the adjoining Motores de Pacífico building.
Contact: 00 34 902 444 403; esmadrid.com
Opening times: Thurs, 10am-1pm; Fri, 11am-7pm; Sat-Sun, 11am-3pm
Nearest metro: Alonso Martínez
Plaza de España and Moncloa
Watch the sun slip away at an Egyptian temple
It is a bit of surprise to come across an authentic Egyptian temple in an urban park in Madrid. The Debod Temple is more than 2,000 years old – the structure was given to Spain in 1968 after Spanish archaeologists helped save Abu Simbel from flooding when the Aswan Dam was built. It was recreated stone by stone on the western edge of the city centre and is aligned with the setting sun, as it was originally in Egypt, making this one of the most dramatic and romantic spots in the city at dusk – although you might have to wait your turn to use the best spot for a photograph.
Nearest metro: Plaza de España
Paseo del Prado and The Retiro Park
Immerse yourself in the city's finest architecture
The gloriously ornate former main post office, grandly known as the Palacio de Comunicaciones, is now the Centro Centro cultural centre. This is the signature building by the extraordinary architect Antonio Palacios, who designed it with Joaquín Otamendi at the beginning of the 20th century. While there is sometimes a small fee for temporary exhibitions, anyone can roam around the sumptuous building for no charge – or just sit down and use the free Wi-Fi or browse the newspapers; this is a comfortable spot for a rest when sightseeing. There are also free guided tours daily (see website for times).
Contact: 00 34 91 480 0008; centrocentro.org
Opening times: 10am-8pm; closed Mondays
Nearest metro: Banco de España
Madrid Río and Casa de Campo
Be a contemporary culture vulture
Down by the Manzanares river, a complex of neo-Mudéjar, red-brick pavilions – built a century ago to house the city’s slaughterhouses – has been given a new lease of life as a dynamic cultural centre. The Matadero is used for all sorts of exhibitions, performances, concerts, festivals and other events, with a focus on design and creativity. The Cineteca cinema specialises in screening documentaries, while Naves Matadero, under the auspices of the Teatro Español, stages experimental theatrical works. There are also recording studios, workshops and activities for children, as well as a café.
Contact: 00 34 91 318 4670; mataderomadrid.org
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 4pm-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-9pm; closed Mondays
Nearest metro: Legazpi
Picnic and people watch in the park
The banks of the Manzanares river are home to an urban park, known as Madrid Río, where Madrilenians stroll, run, cycle and skateboard. In summer, children let off steam in the playgrounds and paddle in the shallow pools. Pack a picnic and cross over to the vast Casa de Campo park, which was originally a royal hunting ground and now contains a zoo, funfair, outdoor pool and a string of restaurants around its huge lake. Look back up towards the city centre for a spectacular view of the Royal Palace and the Almudena cathedral against a backdrop of slate spires.
Nearest metro: Príncipe Pío, Marqués de Vadillo or Legazpí