Fixed-price lunch/menu del día
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Madrid. Most restaurants offer a fixed-price lunch on weekdays (called the menu del día); for 9-10 euros you get a first course, a main course, bread, drink, dessert, and coffee or tea.
If you eat breakfast and then fill up with everything on your menu del día plate, you might just forget about dinner.
University cafeterias and canteens
For hearty, budget-friendly food and a slice of local life, head to the cafeterias of Madrid’s facultades (university departments) and colegios mayores (residence halls). You don’t even have to be a student.
When in doubt about where to go, just show up in Ciudad Universitaria and ask someone to point out a cafeteria. Each building has its own, so you’ll find one easily and probably meet up with some cool university folk. (Metro stop: Ciudad Universitaria)
Hare Krishna Restaurant
As an alternative to student cafeterias, try the all-you-can-eat vegetarian lunches of the Hare Krishna Restaurant (Calle del Espíritu Santo 19, Metro stop: Tribunal). In fact, they offer free dinner on Sundays.
Cafes & Bars
Madrid’s infinite assortment of cafes and bars deliver reasonably-priced fare of varying quality and atmospheres: from your Spanish grandpa cafe to the hip, hot breakfast nook on the corner.
For breakfast, try the combinations on offer: pastry, toast, pan con tomate, or churros with tea, coffee, or pudding-thick hot chocolate. For lunch or dinner, try a bocadillo sandwich and a drink.
If you want the freedom to choose what you eat and don’t mind a scavenger hunt, then try self-catering. Head to the supermarket (the Día chain is the cheapest) for your main items, but buy your greens from the Ay! Madre chain (or another cheap frutería).
A whole week’s worth of seasonal fruits and vegetables is so shockingly cheap you might be tempted to subsist on bread and salads alone.
Expert tip: If kitchen facilities are unavailable, wash greens at the drinking fountains in the parks, buy plastic plates (and reuse if you want), make use of a Swiss Army knife, and dine al fresco. Add a bottle of wine and you’re set.
Cheap bars and open-air cafes
For a good time on a budget, stick to these areas: Malasaña (Metro stop: Tribunal), Argüelles (Metro stop: Argüelles), and Lavapiés (Metro stop: Lavapiés), where you’ll find a mix of bohemian and student crowds.
If you’re here in summer, be prepared for the treat of terrazas (open-air cafes/bars). Terrazas combine the best of the cafe with the best of the street. Note that prices are slightly higher outside than if you sit inside.
El paseo y el botellón
The paseo (a leisurely stroll) is indispensable to Madrid residents of a certain age, and the botellón (an outdoor drinking party) is equally common among its youth.
Simply grab some wine, spirits and friends, head for the nearest park, square, or street corner, and voila! A portable party.
Free drinks and clubs
If you don’t mind working the nightlife industry for a few drinks, then get ready to party. Just cruise Madrid’s nightlife districts (Huertas, Chueca, Malasaña) and soak up the ambiance.
You will inevitably be stopped in the streets by promoters (many speak English). Some may hand you flyers for drink specials or discounts on clubs, but what you’re really looking for is an offer of a free drink or free entrance to a club.
The promoter will walk you to the place, make sure you get what you were offered (usually a cheap shot of liqueur), and then go off to lure someone else to the bar.
The idea is that you’ll stay on and order more drinks, but no one will make you. So rinse, repeat, and feel free to have a night out on them.
For a hostel bed in Madrid, plan to spend around 15-30 euros a night. A good, fun choice – among many – is Cat’s Hostel (Calle Cañizares 6, Metro stop: Antón Martín).
With some ingenuity, you can exchange your digs with someone who lives in Madrid for the duration of your holiday. To give it a go, put up an online classified ad on Loquo.
Need I say more? If you’ve read this far in this article, you really must visit www.couchsurfing.com.
Luckily, a good number of museums are free or have free entrance days (usually weekend afternoons).
These include the Museo del Prado (art), Museo del Traje (historical costume), Museo Nacional Antropológico (anthropology), Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo (contemporary art), Museo del Ferrocarril (trains), Museo Naval (ships), and La Casa Encendida (art expositions), among many other options.
Not all of Madrid’s sights are limited to its museums. For old Madrid, head to the Plaza Mayor and Madrid de los Austrias (Metro stop: La Latina/Opera).
For some flora, go to Madrid’s parks and gardens (the Retiro, Campo del Moro, Casa de Campo, Rosaleda Ramón Ortiz – Metro stops: Retiro, Príncipe Pío, Lago, and Argüelles, respectively).
Sunday strolls (and drum circles) at Retiro Park are an institution. For fauna, head to Madrid’s squares for some serious people-watching. Try the Plaza de Santa Ana (Metro stop: Sol), Plaza de Chueca (Metro stop: Chueca), and the Plaza del Dos de Mayo (Metro stop: Bilbao).
For more trip planning information about Madrid and Spain, check out Matador’s “Where In Spain Should I Study Abroad?” And be sure to check out our lists of the world’s best rooftop bars and world’s sexiest men; Madrid gets a nod on both lists.