Last year, research found that it is actually cheaper to live in Madrid and commute to London than it is to actually live in London. This means that the Spanish capital offers a great experience for the budget-conscious student traveller. I have visited many times and would gladly return for more. In no other European metropolis have I found it so easy and comfortable to blend into the bustling cityscape and fully take part in all it has to offer.
Being situated right in the centre of Spain, Madrid may lack the beaches of Barcelona, but it also lacks the annoyances of Barcelona's top tourist spots. Madrid certainly packs a punch as a tourist attraction, but there is no real Las Ramblas here. As long as you avoid the most obvious traps, you won't find yourself drowning in hordes of confused visitors, surrounded by pushy profiteers ready to part you with your money in more or less legitimate ways. Madrid is, simply put, a real city where everything is going on all the time, and with a touch of savviness you can drink in all of it while going gentle on your wallet. Pickpockets still remain a problem though, so stay sharp and check out the FCO's Know Before You Go pages for tips on how to stay safe in any bustling tourist destination - including travel insurance info. Sadly, I've heard many frustrated tales from fellow travellers at Spanish hostels who lost property and did not take out insurance beforehand, or failed to get an EHIC card before getting on the plane and ending up paying extortionate healthcare fees. It's not worth skipping out on these preparations as a student, even if you're travelling within Europe.
Accommodation-wise, I wholeheartedly recommend renting an apartment, especially if you're travelling in a group of 2-5. Book early and you will find many centrally-located apartments in good condition going for hostel rates and sometimes even lower. On our Madrid stop for our interrailing adventure last summer, me and two friends rented a flat for four nights for 135€ in total per person. This was located in the lovely La Latina neighbourhood, within walking distance from must-sees such as the Plaza Mayor and the Spanish royal palace Palacio Real. Much like in a hostel, having your own kitchen also significantly reduces your food expenses, with the added bonus of sharing a bathroom with people you actually like and not the inebriated American girls from the next dorm over who seem to have confused the showers with the social area.
However, eating out in Madrid does not have to make you declare bankruptcy, as long as you take care to look around. The cardinal rule of checking where the locals eat is king. Never sit down at a restaurant directly adjacent to a major touristsite, such as the famous plazas. Instead, take a side street, and you will find prices dropping dramatically. Our record was 2€ for a generous bowl of gazpacho. Take note of the widely used menu del día system, which offers modestly priced two or three course meals at lunchtime. A favourite hidden gem of ours was El Ingenio, just off the gargantuan shopping street Gran Vía, offering reasonably priced and unreasonably delicious traditional Spanish fare in an environment dedicated to Don Quixote paraphernalia.
Madrid boasts its fair share of world famous art museums, and these can be entered for free with a little planning and patience. Two of the biggest guns are El Prado for old masters and Reina Sofia for modern art (including Picasso's Guernica), and entrance for both is free during certain hours of the day. Be wary that queues grow exponentially during these times. The El Prado museum, however, is always free for students between 18-25. A visit to this massive art gallery may very well take up the entire day. Similarly, the Palacio Real has free entry for EU citizens on Wednesdays.
My favourite thing about Madrid will always be its parks. Strolling around the Retiro park is a refreshing break from city life. This place offers a small but beautiful lake, stunning architecture and landscape design, and a generous selection of benches in the shade for when your legs have had enough and all you want to do is to watch some joggers and dog walkers. At the end of the Gran Vía lies the Parque del Oeste, where you will find amazing views of the city as well as a genuine Egyptian temple (Templo de Debod, free entry). Of course, simply walking around the streets of Madrid is as great a pleasure as in any city as historical and vibrant as this one.
Madrid has it all, but it never forgets to show its visitors a friendly face, no matter the size of their wallets. If you're hungering for a city that actually sees some sunlight every once in a while, or if you're looking for stops on your cross-continental summer rampage, or if you're feeling a a bit priced out of Barcelona, or for any other reason, really, come here and you will find Madrid welcoming you with open arms.