I live in Lisbon, Portugal – and have recently had the urge to explore more of my next-door neighbor. So I planned a long weekend in Madrid, Spain.

Since I’m a food writer and photographer, I try not to skimp on eating and drinking – so to balance costs, I opted to take advantage of non-food-related activities that cost little or nothing, like free museums, open-air markets, tips-only guided tours and the like.

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Madrid train station
Estación de Chamberí is the long-lost ghost station of Madrid's metro © Austin Bush

Since I wasn’t in a rush, I decided to take the train. This option isn’t necessarily cheaper than a flight (and involves at least two transfers and a full day of travel) – but it allows some time for reading, listening to podcasts and the chance to see some beautiful Portuguese countryside and a little-visited corner of Spain. 

Accommodation was the only frustrating element of my budget. Hotels are relatively expensive in Madrid and I didn’t get around to booking until rather late – so with few options, was I forced to pay a relatively high price for a small albeit centrally located room.

As Madrid’s taxis are also relatively expensive, I bought a metro pass that allowed for 10 trips. Ultimately, I did so much walking – yet another free pleasure in Madrid – that I didn’t even use all the trips.

In the end, I spent more than one would spend on a similar weekend in Lisbon. Still, Madrid didn’t seem prohibitively expensive, and felt like a good value – especially when it came to food and drink.

Pre-trip spending

Train tickets: €77.70 for round-trip tickets from Lisbon

Accommodation: €249 for three nights in a tiny room in the centrally located Chueca neighborhood

Total: €326.70

Tapas in Madrid
Taberna de Ángel Sierra has been in business for a century and is still considered one of the best tapas bars in Madrid © Austin Bush

On the ground


Snacks: I arrive at Madrid’s Atocha Train Station, where I buy a 10-ride metro pass (€8.60). After dropping my bags off at my hotel, I head to the century-old vermouth bar Taberna de Ángel Sierra for a Galician-style tuna empanada and a couple glasses of vermouth (€6.50). The spot continues the Spanish tradition of offering some sort of salty snack – olives, chips, a few slices of ham – with every drink order, easing my dining budget a tiny bit.

Total: €34.85

Enjoy Madrid for less with these 15 cost-free things to do

Hot chocolate and churros in San Gines Madrid
Chocolatería San Ginés is one of the best places for hot chocolate and churros in Madrid © Austin Bush


Breakfast: I kick off the day with churros and hot chocolate at the legendary Chocolatería San Ginés (€5.50). From there, I take the subway just north of the city center to Estación de Chamberí (free), an abandoned subway station from 1919 that’s now restored and accessible via a guided tour. I bookend this visit with a café con leche (€2.50), coffee with milk, at a random cafe nearby.

Lunch: Lunch takes the form of a mini bar-hopping session in the Chamberí neighborhood. First, there are boquerones, cured anchovies and a caña (a tiny glass of beer) at the legendary seafood bar El Doble (€15.50), followed by four pintxos (Basque-style tapas) and a couple glasses of txakoli, slightly fizzy white wine, at Basque restaurant Sagaretxe (€15.40). 

The top 12 things you can't miss in Madrid

Cured anchovies and beer in Madrid
Sagaretxe is a Basque-style tapas bar where you can treat yourself to an array of pintxos © Austin Bush

Activities: I jump on the metro and head back into the city center for something of a shopping spree. I buy a pair of alpargatas (€9.75), rope-soled shoes, also known as espadrilles, at stuck-in-time Casa Hernanz; a Spanish cookbook (€9.95) at Casa del Libro, and a couple bottles of Spanish vermouth and some Spanish ingredients (€35.55) at the supermarket linked to the El Corte Inglés department store. 

The Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is free to visitors on Saturdays from 7–9pm, so I offset my purchases by making a budget-friendly visit to one of my favorite museums in Europe.

Dinner: Dinner is pimientos de padrón, a dish of eggs scrambled with mushrooms and shrimp, plus a glass of red wine (€20.10) at Casa Toni, on the rowdy, almost red light district–feeling Calle de La Cruz.

Total: €114.25

Shoppers at El Rastro market in Madrid
Buzzy El Rastro market takes place every Sunday and is free to explore © Austin Bush


Breakfast: Breakfast takes the form of pastry and a coffee (€3.80) at the classic La Mallorquina. From there, it’s a short walk to El Rastro (free), said to be Europe’s largest flea market, where I spend a couple hours looking at items ranging from flamenco dresses to vintage furniture, and poking around in secondhand bookshops. 

Lunch and wine: It’s la hora del aperitivo, that chunk of the afternoon that’s not quite yet lunchtime – so I have a couple glasses of Manzanilla accompanied by olives and a tapa of salted anchovy (€7.50) at the time capsule of a sherry bar La Venencia. Lunch proper is a bowl of callos, Madrid-style tripe, here served with chickpeas, plus a glass of red wine, at Madrid institution Casa Camacho (€12). 

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Cured anchovies and beer in Madrid
L-R tripe and red wine at Casa Camacho, olives and sherry at La Venencia, cured anchovies and cider at Los Asturianos © Austin Bush

Activities: I opt to spend the afternoon at the expansive Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (€13), my only paid museum visit of the stay. 

Dinner: My splurge-y dinner takes the form of cured anchovies served in olive oil, bread, a bottle of Asturian cider and a mind-blowing flan made with fresh cheese (€28.70) at Los Asturianos, an excellent Asturian restaurant outside of the city center.

Total: €65


Breakfast: It’s one final round of churros and hot chocolate (€4.80), this time at Las Farolas, before catching my train(s) back to Lisbon.

Total: €4.80

The final tally: €448.15

Overall spend: one the ground (€199.15) + accommodation (€249) 
Note that this does not include train tickets: €77.70

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