MADRID — Spain has for decades been among the world's top tourist destinations, mainly thanks to sun seekers who flock to Mediterranean beaches or the Canary Islands. While top-end hotels and restaurants are expensive, it comes as a relief to find that some of Madrid's best features can be enjoyed for free.
Few museums boast a permanent collection as rich and historically important as that of El Prado. For anyone with an interest in art, it is a must-see.
Many of the Prado's works were collected or commissioned by Spain's art-loving royalty in centuries past when the country was a fabulously wealthy superpower with a global empire. Then, in 1819, King Ferdinand VII opened the doors of his private collection to the public.
Normally, admission costs 14 euros ($19), but from Monday through Saturday, access is free between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., while on Sundays and public holidays it is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Each year there are two whole days when entry is free: Nov. 19 (the Prado's anniversary) and May 18 (International Museum Day). Details: www.museodelprado.es/en.
At the heart of Madrid lies Buen Retiro Park, a 350-acre garden space where city dwellers go to escape the metropolitan hubbub. Originally the formal gardens of a medieval palace, it became King Philip II's 16th century refuge from court preoccupations, as well as his religious retreat.
Retiro offers all you would expect from a showcase city park: leafy walks, bicycle rides, superb horticulture, rowboats and cooling fountains. But it is also packed with cultural surprises. It contains three free museums — Casa de Vacas, Palacio de Velazquez and Palacio de Cristal. Details: madridtourist.info.
As dusk approaches, strolling couples head west to the Temple of Debod, one of Madrid's oldest buildings — if not the oldest. It is one of very few early Egyptian temples visible outside that country and was given to Spain in 1960 in a bid to save it from flood damage when the Aswan dam was built across the Nile. Free cultural events are regularly organized within its exquisitely proportioned chapel. Details: madridtourist.info.
From 1911 to 1996, Matadero was Madrid's main slaughterhouse and livestock market, where herds of cattle were trotted in on foot. The 45-acre complex, today a creative center, includes a space devoted to design, where graphic, industrial and interior decoration artists can be seen in action. Other buildings include a RV studio, a hall for books and reading, a workshop used as a meeting place by the city's artists, and at least two theaters. There is always plenty happening here for free. Details: mataderomadrid.org.
Juan March Foundation
Juan March was a financier who bequeathed Madrid a richly endowed foundation that today hosts some of the capital's most exciting musical events, film screenings and art exhibitions, all free. Dotted around the building are sculptures by renowned artists, while inside music lovers can enjoy orchestral symphonies, intimate chamber music or jazz, in a concert hall with admired acoustics. Details: march.es.