Madrid may be one of the most expensive cities in Spain, but it is possible to have a good time without spending a single euro. Museums, cultural centres, clubs, parks, places of interest... the list of free places in the city is endless. So hang on to your wallet and have a look at all the things to do in Madrid that we've got lined up for you – it's free!
Places of interest
This 1880s glass and wrought-iron construction, which dates from 1887 and was constructed for the Philipine Islands Exhibition, is an outpost of the Reina Sofía museum and a lovely, luminous space for viewing art. It occupies a stunning setting in the middle of the Retiro park, next to a lake with ducks, surrounded by nature and people relaxing and having fun. Shows here often involve large-scale installations, sculpture or pieces conceived specifically for the space.
In the same square as the Hotel Ritz, Madrid's stock exchange is a landmark as well as a business centre. Enrique María Repullés won the competition to design it in 1884, with a neo-classical style chosen to reflect that of the nearby Prado museum. The building has two distinct areas: one is the trading area; the other, open to the public, houses an exhibition on the market's history. Visitors are admitted at noon only; phone to arrange a visit.
This huge, multi-tiered church between Puerta de Toledo and the Palacio Real is difficult to miss. A monastery on the site, reputedly founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, was knocked down in 1760; in its place, between 1761 and 1784, Francisco Cabezas, and later Francesco Sabatini, built this neo-classical church. Most challenging was the construction of the spectacular dome, with a diameter of 33m (108ft). The dome has recently been restored, but work on the rest of the basilica is expected to go on for several more years, so expect some parts to be covered with scaffolding. Inside there is an early Goya, 'The Sermon of San Bernardino of Siena' (1781), and several frescoes by other artists dating from the 17th to the 19th century.
Spain's parliament, the Cortes, was built in 1843-50 by Narciso Pascual y Colomer on the site of a recently demolished monastery, which led to problems of space for the modern needs of the chamber, which was enlarged in the 1980s with the addition of an annex building. A classical portico gives it a suitably dignified air, but the building is best distinguished by the handsome 1860 bronze lions that guard its entrance. Tourists are welcome on the popular free Saturday guided tours. There are guided visits for individuals on Saturdays and for groups every day of the week.
This plain neo-classical chapel was completed by Felipe Fontana for Charles IV in 1798. Quite out of the way, north of Príncipe Pío station on Paseo de la Florida, it is famous as the burial place of Goya, and for the unique, and recently restored, frescoes of the miracles of St Anthony, incorporating scenes of Madrid life, which he painted here in 1798. In contrast to the rather staid exterior, the colour and use of light in Goya's images are stunning. Featuring a rare mix of elements, including his unique, simultaneously ethereal and sensual 'angels', they are among his best and most complex works. On the other side of the road into the park is a near-identical second chapel, built in the 1920s to allow the original building to be left as a museum. There are free guided tours of the Ermita, in Spanish and English, at 11am and noon on Saturdays.
This Egyptian structure, which sits on the outskirts of the Parque del Oeste, dates back 2,200 years and is dedicated to the gods Amun and Isis. It was sent, block by block, by the Egyptian government in 1968 in thanks for Spain's help in preserving monuments threatened by the Aswan Dam. You can visit the inside of the temple, and the views from here at sunset are spectacular.
Founded in 1464 and rebuilt for Queen Isabella in 1503, this church near the Retiro was particularly favoured by the Spanish monarchs, and used for state ceremonies, including the religious ceremony for the crowning of King Juan Carlos. Most of the original building was destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars, and the present church is largely a reconstruction that was undertaken between 1848 and 1883. The cloister was incorporated into the nearby Prado Museum as part of its expansion project.
Museums, galleries and cultural centres
Spain's most important collection of paintings isn't usually free to get in. But there are certain times when it won't cost you a cent to appreciate the permament exhibition, although you may have to pay with your time, as there are usually long queues. Get in for free Mon-Sat from 6pm to 8pm and Sun and holidays from 5pm to 7pm. You can also visit for free on November 19 (the anniversary of the Prado) and the 18th of May (International Museum Day).
It's usually €8 to get in to the Reina Sofía, but, like with the Prado, there are certain days and times when you get a 100 percent discount on the admission price. Mon-Sat (except Tue, when the museum is closed) it's free in from 7pm to 9pm as well as Sun from 3pm to 7pm. You also won't pay for your art appreciation on the following days: April 18 and 27, May 17 and 18, October 12, and December 6.
The private art collection of the late Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza is considered one of the most important in the world. That's why general admission is usually €10. But on Mondays from noon to 4pm you can get access to the permanent collection absolutely free. It's a shame that temporary exhibitions aren't included, as they're often quite spectacular.
This exciting new multidisciplinary centre in a large neo-Mudéjar building was conceived as a space for cultural interchange. It offers exhibitions principally by emerging artists working in all genres, but also features cutting-edge performance art and music (including short seasons of video artists) and activities for kids. The centre also includes a fair-trade shop, a cafe, a library and classrooms for courses, especially in IT, languages and audiovisual and plastic arts.
Located in the former Real Cuartel de Guardias de Corps (the headquarters of the elite Royal Guard) of King Philip V, the magnificently restored Conde Duque is nowadays one of Madrid's most important cultural centres. It hosts shows, exhibitions, talks, book days and a varied programme of workshops. Don't miss its open air concerts and theatrical representations in summer, which are part of the Veranos de la Villa programme and feature top artists and shows every season. Institutions like the Archivo de la Villa, the Hemeroteca Municipal, the Biblioteca Histórica Municipal, the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo, the Biblioteca Musical Víctor Espinós and the Biblioteca Digital Memoriademadrid also have their headquarters here.
Behind the deafening but refreshing water cascade in Plaza Colón, below the Columbus monument, is the city council's only purpose-built cultural centre. On offer is a mixed bag of theatre, puppets, opera and zarzuelas in the summer, as well as art exhibitions, usually featuring important Hispanic artists.
Established in 1981, Lola Moriarty's gallery was a prime hangout and showcase for artists on the Movida scene, and still supports the Spanish avant-garde and contemporary art scene. Some of her best current artists are photographers (Luis Bisbe, Nicolás Combarro and the surrealist talent of Chema Madoz), though you'll also see video art, installations, paintings and all kinds of creative work that can bring something new to the gallery.
One of Charles III's scientific institutions, the Observatory was completed after his death in 1790. Beautifully proportioned, it's Madrid's finest neo-classical building, designed by Juan de Villanueva. It still contains a working telescope, which can only be seen by prior request. One room is also open to the public, but only on Fridays while the building undergoes renovation.
This modern art centre is a gallery, a bookshop that specialises in Latin American writers and Spanish authors with a major presence in Latin America, a publishing house and a cultural centre. It also promotes artistic exchanges between Spain and Latin America, especially in the field of photography.
This luminary of the Madrid art world, which first opened in 1992 with an exhibition on Francis Bacon represents major Spanish artists, including Martín Chirino, Antonio López García, Blanca Muñoz and Luis Gordillo, and has branches in London, New York, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Santiago. The expansive space, designed by US architect Richard Gluckman, is a work of art in itself.
Nightclubs with no cover charge
Truly postmodern, this place is outrageously kitsch but with a pop art sensibility that saves it from crossing over too far into tackiness. The fake fur, Star Wars pictures and the faux-cool 1970s psychedelia hang together surprisingly well, and there's a pleasant anything-goes music policy that brings all kinds of sounds from acid jazz to house to soul. The crowd, slightly older and with less to prove, tend to chill out in the easygoing vibe. Therefore, the armchairs here are a constant temptation, and are always conducive toromantic encounters.Plaid shirts and beers a bound in this alternative Malasaña establishment.
A very cool little venue that doubles as a café by day and a venue at night for live acts and DJs. In the pleasant upstairs café you can sit and have a bite, but as the night wears on, head downstairs, either to the dimly lit chill-out room or the dancefloor bathed with psychedelic projections. The in-house DJ is often accompanied by live percussion. All styles have a place here and soul, funk, afro, lain and beats all feature in the multitude of events on the programme of this active club. Black music has its own place in Madrid in this club. Check out the website to find out about upcoming events.
Honky Tonk programmes local country, blues and rock acts nightly, and its own Gary Moore/Rolling Stones-influenced band performs regularly. Ignore the intimidating-looking doormen and get here early as the large pillars that hold up the building tend to restrict the views of those not at the front. Tribute bands concerts to bands from the 70s, 80s and 90s are a regular here, from Arrivederci Lola, who pay tribute to Joaquín Sabina, to the All Together Band whose style recalls that of the Beatles.
As Madrid's oldest bar, this place used to be a real institution. These days, however, it's an Irish theme bar. It's run-of-the-mill during the day, but everything changes when night falls. Then the crowd packs in, fuelling up for the night ahead and losing themselves to a mix of classic beer anthems and a variety of live music. Decorated in classic style, its antique lamps combine with paintings of horses and brick walls. There’s also table football for fans.
This is an unusual place. Inside, it looks just like a train. The wide wooden seats are matched by screens that show passing landscapes, giving you the impression that you’re having a cup of coffee while travelling through the plains of Castile. Some evenings feature live music, which you can enjoy while having dinner, a snack or one of the tempting cocktails on the place’s extensive list. On Thursday evening you can see all kinds of performances here, from theatrical pieces with accordions to gigs by unknown singer-songwriters.
Located in an exclusive area of Madrid, at the end of Calle Serrano, practically on the corner of Príncipe de Vergara, Black Star is a classic establishment for young, middle class kids who head here for rabidly fashionable music and fun without limits. It’s one of the few places in the area that doesn’t charge for admission and drink prices are not exorbitant, making for a younger atmosphere than that of its competitors, with an average age under thirty.
The grey in the name is reflected in the subdued lighting. It’s a small place that tends to fill up at weekends so you might end up feeling a little stressed out. It exudes an old fashioned melancholy that some find charming. They usually play rock and punk and sometimes stage little tributes to great bands, so it's a good place if they run out of tickets when your favourite band comes to town. The bar is pretty cheap for the area. If you like this kind of music, head for Gris any day of the week except Monday.
The origins of this 118-hectare park date back to the construction of the Monasterio de los Jerónimos by Queen Isabela I and King Ferdinand II (of which there remains only the parish church of San Jerónimo el Real and a baroque-style cloister). Philip II created an area of religious retreat and devotion, hence its name. But it wasn’t until the reign of Charles III when the citizens of Madrid, if properly dressed, were given access to the fenced-off site.
Currently, it’s one of the most popular green areas for people to go jogging, boating, picnicking and walking with pets. It’s worth checking out the monument to Alfonso XII, a large colonnade by José Riera Grases overlooking the pond, the Casón del Buen Retiro, a majestic ballroom that nowadays belongs to the Museo del Prado, and the Palacio de Cristal, built for the 1887 Philippine Exposition. But the gardens of the Retiro have plenty of other attractive features, like a rose garden, the Casa de Vacas cultural centre, and numerous fountains and statues, including the famous Fallen Angel (Ángel Caído).
The roadworks everyone thought would never end to move the the M-30 motorway out of sight have finally been completed, and now it's a pleasure to walk along the banks of the Manzanares. Loads of parks with swings, slides and the usual kiddie attractions are dotted along the five miles of this green space. There are jet fountains the little ones can play in and cool off in summer. Parents can take a break from all the commotion at the bars with terraces that line Madrid Río. Don't forget your bikes or skates!
At over 1,722 acres, the Casa de Campo is Spain's largest green space. It dates back to 1553, when Felipe II moved his court to Madrid and bought the Vargas family’s country estate, which was later expanded through with the addition of surrounding farms. During the reign of Fernando VI it was declared a Royal Forest and continued to be crown land until the days of the Second Republic, when it became a place for public use.
The park has a large lake, where you can hire a boat or a kayak, sports facilities, numerous paths through the trees and bushes for running and cycling, and various leisure facilities like the famous cable car, an amusement park, the Zoo Aquarium, a fairground and the Madrid Arena. There are plenty of restaurants scattered throughout the park, mainly around the lake.
There is a park in Madrid that is unknown, even to many locals, where the almond trees bloom each spring. It's the Quinta de Los Molinos, in the El Salvador neighbourhood. Its 21.5 acres are home to a large number of olive, pine and eucalyptus trees, as well as various fountains and a lake. But the real stars of the show are the white and pink flowers on the almond trees, which give off a heady scent.
This garden once belonged to the Count of Torre Arias, but in 1920 became part of the estate of César Cort Boti, an engineer and architect. It was categorised as a historical park in 1997 and fills up with families playing ball games, couples of all ages, and groups of friends taking photos of the colourful trees with their mobile phones.
In Alameda de Osuna in the district of Barajas, you'll find El Capricho (literally, 'The Whim'), a garden that is a jewel of Romanticism and a monument to 18th-century taste. Within its 14 hectares lie an artificial river, lakes, woods, gardens, simulations of temples and other surprising nooks. Building work was begun in 1780 on order of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, the most cultivated couple among the aristocracy of their time, supporters of the ideas of the enlightenment and patrons to many artists. Jean-Baptiste Mulot, a French gardener who had worked for Marie Antoinette, was the head architect, though most of El Capricho is in the English style.
This vast garden was named after a Muslim leader in the Middle Ages, Ali Ben Yusut, who attempted to capture the fortress that is now the Palacio Real. Unfortunately, it is only accessible from the Paseo de la Virgen del Puerto side, requiring a fairly long walk down Cuesta de San Vicente or Cuesta de la Vega. As a reward, however, you'll find a quiet, leafy garden (in complete contrast to its surroundings) with two fine monumental fountains where you can see peacocks and forget about the outside world. The fountain nearest the palace is Los Tritones, originally made in 1657 for the palace in Aranjuez; the other is Las Conchas, designed in the 18th century by Ventura Rodríguez. Both were moved here in the 1890s.
This huge park, which was opened as a green space when Madrid became the European Capital of Culture in 1992, lies between the airport and the Feria de Madrid trade fair centre. Although its trees have taken some time to grow enough to offer shade, the different gardens here, like Tres Culturas, the artificial river, the attractions for children and the fountains, have all made it a favourite place at weekends in good weather. It's an especially good option on summer evenings when you can take a dip in running water and enjoy the show at its fountains.