I understand the situation well: you bought a London-Madrid ticket with Easyjet 6 months ago, telling yourself that in October you’re going to really need some sun. But lo and behold, the summer holidays created a rather large hole in your finances, and now you’re stressing about the idea of having to spend a euro or two…Don’t worry, a crisis is just another cause for celebration in Spain - you can always get by.
Sleeping in Madrid
Forget "hoteles", they are not the way to go. Instead, stay at "hostales" ou "hosteles" – they're where you will find the baratos prices (‘not expensive’, very important to know). Their youth hostels aren’t too bad; but definitely don’t go to one called Richard Schirrmann, it’s far from the centre and the street it leads onto is full of almodovarien transsexuals and prostitutes. On the other hand, the Madrid town hostel is really central, new and quite cheap.
Getting around Madrid
If you intend to only explore the centre of Madrid, it’s possible to walk everywhere. You will have to walk up and downhill a lot, but it’s much more pleasant than the metro. So it’s not worth buying a weekly metro pass; instead buy a book of 10 tickets, each of which are single tickets you can share with anyone. It's 9 euros well spent for when your legs have really had enough. And if you are especially lazy, a tourist ticket is 3,50 euros a day for unlimited access to the metro and bus.
Its best to walk around Madrid than anything else. Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, Gran Via are the best places to see, and they’re free.
Then there’s the museums. Le Prado et le Reina Sofia are must-sees, and thanks to the generosity of the Spanish, nights are free (and I mean every evening), as well as one day a week. For the Prado it’s Sundays, the Reina Sofia Saturdays por la tarde (afternoon and evening) and Sunday mornings. The Palais Royal is free on Wednesdays and the archeological museum and CaixaForum all the time.
Eating in Madrid
For breakfast, the easiest thing to do is to choose a set menu that you can find in any café: café+tostada con tomate+zumo de naranja for 4/5 euros. There are also Spanish franchises like Vip’s or Nebraska which serve hearty breakfasts at reasonable prices.
Lunch: Burger King! Every day. Or a kebab. If you feel like spending a little more (we’re talking about 10 euros), take a look at the "menus del dia" in the immigrant quarter of Lavapiés, where you can eat Indian as well as Senegalese or Arabic food, but it’s best to be able to see the kitchen. For dinner, you can have jamon serrano, some cheese and wine at Carrefour Express to dine under the stars at the Parc Retiro. If you like fried food you could stuff yourself with "raciones" in a bar, or it works out quite cheap to share and that way you can try a little of everything.
Drinking in Madrid
Forget the tourist areas; stay away from the Plaza Mayor terraces, they’re way overpriced. In the Malasaña ou Huertas quarters, in the evening you will see lots of classy guys and pretty young girls offering you visitors cards. Take them all, but don’t follow them and tell them "después". Most of the time, their cards will offer you free drinks to attract you to bars which are often empty at the beginning of the night. Take your pick, and do a tour of all the bars without spending a penny.
Buying in Madrid
Well, we’ve already established that you don’t have two pennies to rub together. But if you simply have to do some clothes shopping, favour the Spanish makes: Zara, Springfield, Pull & Bear, Mango are often cheaper than elsewhere in Europe. You’ll find everything you want on Gran Via. But the classiest designs are of course *slight sarcasm* the Chinese wholesellers in Lavapiès, who also sell retail. And the Rastro in the same quarter has flea markets on Sunday mornings which don’t break the bank.
And well, if you are really down and out, send me a little message - I have room for squatters at my place.