(Not so) Insider's guide to Madrid on a shoe string

October 19, 2015

It was early Friday night when we received a text from our room mate, María. "I'm driving to Madrid tonight, do you want to come?", it read. We didn't need to think twice. A five hour drive, Madrid isn't too far away from Ourense nor a journey too unpleasant. By half 9, we were on the road, searching for an Airbnb for the next two nights. Being students on our year abroad, we needed to do things on the cheap (especially as our first wage doesn't come in until next month). We also have a wide network of friends scattered across the country between us, so we knew between us we'd definitely be able to find one personal tour guide.

María has spent seven years living in Madrid so she was well accustomed to the city. We, however, were not. Arriving at 3.00am to a dodgy looking Airbnb, we struggled to understand that it was all part and parcel of the adventure. Eight hours later, and we'd already fallen in love with the enchanting city. Here are my three top picks and recommendations from this weekend.

What to eat?
Mercado San Ildefonso, Calle Fuencarral

Maria took us here, after all her favourite restaurants had a long waiting list. She'd never been here either, but we were pleasantly surprised.  If you look at guides to the city elsewhere on the Internet, people always suggest eating at Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor hipster food court near the Plaza Mayor. Mercado San Ildefonso seems to be the younger, more wild but less well known food court of the two. The vibe here is seriously cool, with waiters sporting beards and braces, and the atmosphere is kicking. Finding a seat can be tricky, but it's well worth it. The cafe is filled with market stands offering different cuisine options, from sushi to paella, crêpes to ham so there's something for everybody. I had a gorgeous runny tortilla with corn fed ham, and finished with half a piece of an appetising Oreo cheesecake. The prices of food are extremely reasonable for a capital city, as are drinks with beer and wine being around €3. Perhaps being situated outside of the touristy districts has something to do with this. I can't wait to go back and try an ox burger.
Cheap churros for breakfast

Another place, which a mutual friend living in Madrid recommend, is the area of La Latina. If you're searching for delicious tapas and a cracking atmosphere at a low cost, this is apparently the place to be. Most bars offer tapas and a beer for a measly €1.50, meaning getting drunk and full is extremely low cost. We were meant to spend Saturday night in this district but it's obviously that popular with the Madrileños, that we couldn't find a seat.

What to see?
"Tartan Roof"- Círculo de Bellas Artes, Calle de Alcalá.

Heading to the rooftop of the Bellas Artes building had me feeling like a pound shop version of a Made in Chelsea socialite. For only €3, you can head to the top of this art centre and witness the most spectacular 360 degree views of the city. The terrace offers turf seating areas and sun beds so you can take a break from photographing the city (because it's so exhausting, don'tcha know) and grab a drink. Although probably the most expensive bar that I've ever been to (4€ for half a Heinneken, excuse me?!), it's definitely worth nursing the one drink to feel like a celebrity and to watch the sun set over the most beguiling city in Europe.
Stunning 360 views of Madrid 
Guide books will tell you that it closes at 9pm, but don't believe them- at the weekend the bar is open until 2am. For a cool vibe, a beautiful view, and an expensive drink, definitely head here.

Where to pass lazy afternoons
El Retiro Park, Plaza de la Independencia

Madrid is home to many green spaces, but the best- and most popular- is the El Retiro Park. The boating lake is the main reason why people head here- including us, but it was closed due to a rowing race unfortunately- however there's so much to see here also. Teaming with interesting sights, statues and contemporary art installations, the park is not only visually appealing but also a tranquil escape from the vicissitudes of urban life. I suggest taking a picnic and settling by the Crystal Palace- a building made, coincidentally, of just glass. Not only would you be able to gaze at this architectural beauty, but just in front is a lake, bustling with wildlife. Most notably, it's home to turtles. I don't think I need to add anymore.

Not that I've ever been to New York, but it did remind me of Central Park, with brass bands playing and food sellers throughout. It's a brilliant place to lose yourself in for several hours.

Getting around the city is incredibly easy, with the metro being comfortable, cheap and frequent. We, however, decided to soak in the views of the city via foot, so as not to miss a thing. Like London, most things to see are in walking distance and are closer than one would think. It also meant I could burn of the churros con chocolate that we had for breakfast on the Saturday morning. As we were on a shoe string, we did find some places to eat that didn't tip the boat- our favourites being two bars on the outside of the Plaza Mayor, on Calle de Gerona. These neighbouring bars boast the cheapest caña in Madrid- 40 cent- and cheapest food, with breakfast and a drink starting at €1.95 and bocadillos for only €2.50. Bargain!

Palacio Real de Madrid
Of course, I'm not an expert on Madrid, having spent less than 48 hours there, however it's soon become one of my favourite cities in the world. With plans to go again soon, please let me know of your own recommendations or insider tips!

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