Image: Royal Palace, Madrid
Arturo Rodriguez  /  AP
Tourists pose with a street artist outside the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain, last month.
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updated 4/4/2011 7:02:46 PM ET 2011-04-04T23:02:46

Unemployment stands at a staggering 20 percent in Spain, and no one is predicting the economic boom that Madrid enjoyed just two years ago will return anytime soon. Still, tourists visiting one of Europe's most breathtaking cities this summer will have to do some homework to find bargains.

Booking ahead for hotels is crucial because unrest in North African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia has prompted many European tourists to change plans and head for the sun and safety of Spain instead. That means the country isn't in any danger of losing its reputation as the world's fourth biggest tourist destination.

On top of that, many Spaniards are expected stay at home this year rather than pay to fly overseas on vacation.

Story: Planning a trip to Europe? Bargains can be found
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That said, there are plenty of bargains to be had in Madrid, and the best thing is that they revolve around Spain's famed food and culture. You just have to do it the way the Spaniards do. That means eating later than usual, going just a few steps off the beaten tourist path for tapas, and timing visits to key points of interest.

Any Spaniard will tell you eating out is one of the great pleasures of life, a sublime ritual that traditionally marries regionally-sourced food with great wine.

The same goes for France and Italy, but you can generally do it cheaper in Spain, if you go local and have lunch around 2 p.m., or take advantage of the freebie appetizers over drinks offered in many bars.

Restaurants across Madrid and throughout Spain have placards outside their doors offering the "menu del dia," or meal of the day which applies only to lunch. It includes two main courses, dessert and a drink — usually wine, beer or water, or the summer favorite "tinto de verano," which is red wine with slightly sweetened seltzer water.

The total price is usually between 10 and 15 euros ($14-$21), but many restaurants don't start serving meals until 2 p.m. or so. Forget about getting the meal of the day at noon.

Besides price, the advantage is that the meals offer a great way to sample a wide variety of traditional Spanish food, and paella is frequently served as the first or second course.

Spain's bars galore are famed for their tapas, but many also offer free mini-tapas with a drink in a combination called "aperitivos" (appetizers). The standing rule is that if you order a glass of wine or beer, or a soda, the bartender gives you a little snack to accompany the drink. You just don't get to pick.

Slideshow: Spanish glory (on this page)

The more drinks you order, the more you get, and bartenders will usually vary from one aperitivo to the next to give you a variety. Best to hit the bars where the crowd looks mostly if not all Spanish. The bonus this year is that Spain's bars and restaurants have gone smoke-free, except for outside terraces.

Bars don't say whether they give them or not, and bartenders might forget, but the best way to find out is just to say "Hay aperitivos con tapa?" ("Do you serve appetizers with tapa?"). If they say no, you're relegated to ordering tapas. But if they do — and you're not too hungry — you might be able to fill up just on the cost of the drinks.

For breakfast, don't order the coffee and the pastry you see in glass cases. Ask for the "desayuno" (breakfast) instead, and you'll get freshly squeezed orange juice, strong coffee and toast with butter and jam. Usually about 3 euros ($4.25).

Most tourists head to Plaza Mayor in the heart of Madrid, a monumental 15th-century cobblestoned square that has witnessed everything from bullfights to hair-raising Inquisition trials. All along its edges are restaurants offering tempting fare, but it's best to just soak in the atmosphere of the plaza and head to the nearby side streets to eat.

At the southwestern corner of the square is an arch with stone steps leading down to Los Cuchilleros and then Cava Baja streets. All along this southward route you will find some of the most well-attended restaurants in Spain, serving everything from traditional recipes — try Casa Lucio, one of the oldest restaurants in Europe — to modern tapas. And all at much better prices than in the tourist-trap plaza.

One of Madrid's priciest hotels has a great deal for those who can't afford rooms starting at 265 euros ($327) a night.

Deep inside, beyond the luxurious lobby, is the main bar of the Palace, set under a magnificent art nouveau stained-glass dome. Commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912, this is a regally elegant place to meet, and ordering a glass of Cava sparkling wine — served by waiters in tailcoats and white gloves — can be a perfect way to start an evening for the relatively modest sum of 12.20 euros ($17.20). Live piano music and celebrity-watching are included, but don't wear sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt.

Tourists looking for inexpensive hostels (known as "hostals" or "pensiones") that charge as little as 30 euros ($42) a night for a double room, can find them in Madrid or outside the city in locations such as the town of Guadarrama.

Madrid also boasts four of Europe's most important museums: the Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Caixa Forum. But timing is key, so make sure you don't take too long of a siesta after your long lunch.

The Prado — boasting masterpieces by Fra Angelico, Diego de Velazquez, El Greco, Francisco de Goya — charges no admission Tuesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. This year it will feature "Treasures from the Hermitage," a rare opportunity to see masterpieces outside of their famous Russian home.

The Reina Sofia — home to Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" — lets anyone in free Monday to Friday from 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Saturdays from 2:30 p.m.-9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Located within the central Retiro park are three smaller, more intimate museums. Palacio de Cristal and Palacio de Velazquez are linked to the Reina Sofia and often have free exhibitions, while Casa de Vacas at the northern end also holds free exhibitions.

Those wishing to follow in the footsteps of author Ernest Hemingway don't have to go to a bullfight in Madrid's famed Las Ventas bullring — shelling out for a ticket in the shade can be quite pricey. The building itself is a stunning example of Moorish influence on Spanish architecture, and people can enjoy a 40-minute guided tour in English — including a beginner's lesson in how to hold cape and sword — Tuesday to Sunday at 10 a.m., or 1:30 p.m. for 6 euros ($8.50).

Just outside the ring is a statue of a matador taking his hat off to a bust of Alexander Fleming, a tribute to the discoverer of penicillin. Before its discovery, bullfighters were often doomed to death by infection after gorings.

While Madrid's taxis are certainly cheaper than cabs in cities such as London, the best way to get around is on the city's extensive public transport system. A tourist travel pass allowing unlimited bus and subway rides costs 5.20 euros ($7.30) a day or 23.60 euros ($33.25) a week.

The adventurous can shell out a little more for public transport and head to the Guadarrama Mountains looming near the city. The peaks are topped with snow during the winter months, but offer relief from Madrid's scorching heat during the summer, amid the smells of wild lavender and rosemary growing on the slopes.

Some like to stay past sunset, then rush to take the last commuter train back to Madrid.

"From here at night," said Singaporean tourist Melvyn Tan, "Madrid looks like a chest of jewels shining in the darkness."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos:

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  1. Crown jewel

    The Alhambra palace in Grenada, completed in the 14th century under Muslim rule, is one of the world's greatest architectural wonders. Today, The Alhambra's famous Ismlamic architecture is one of Spain's major tourist attractions. In 2007, it was among the contenders to become one of the New Seven Wonders of the World through a massive worldwide vote. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Defining lines

    Fireworks explode behind the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in the Spanish northern Basque city of Bilbao. The museum features modern and contemporary art, and was designed by world-renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The structure is made with glass, titanium and limestone. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Quiet retreat

    Although Spanish convents and monasteries such as the Monasterio de San Benito de Montserrat convent outside Barcelona have traditionally opened their doors to accept pilgrims and other members of the cloth, more and more they are accepting non-religious visitors looking for spiritual reflection or a relaxing break from city life. (Cesar Rangel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Windy city

    The town of Tarifa, located in southern Spain across from the Straits of Gibraltar, is particularly popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers due to its strong winds. Two consecutive non-windy days are rare. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A taste of tradition

    Two fishmongers wait for customers at their fish and seafood shop at a market in Madrid. Traditional markets are still a part of the Spanish way of life, and many are distributed through the city. A visit to one of these markets will reveal a large selection of quality vegetables, meat and much of the traditional way of life. (Angel Diaz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. All lined up

    Architect, artist and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the 'L'Azud D'Or' bridge (foreground) and Principe Felipe Museum (background) of the City of Arts and Sciences complex, one of Spain's top tourist attractions, in Valencia. Visitors are encouraged to touch everything in the museum so they can learn the sciences through experience. (Heino Kalis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dipping into the culture

    Tourists enjoy the pool of the Costa Encantada Hotel in Lloret de Mar, Spain. The coastal town is one of the most popular holiday resorts in the Costa Brava. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Running tradition

    Participants run ahead of Cebada Gago fighting bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. On each day of the festival six, which starts July 6 and ends at midnight on July 14, bulls are released at 8 a.m. to run from their corral through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town over an 850-meter course. Ahead of them are the runners, who try to stay close to the bulls without falling over or being gored. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An ancient art

    Famed Spanish matador Miguel Abellan gives a pass with a muleta (the red cloth) to his Conde de la Corte fighting bull during the first corrida of the 2008 San Fermin festivities in Pamplona. (Rafa Rivas / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cultural moves

    Spanish flamenco dancer Fuensanta "La Moneta" performs on the stage during rehearsal for the show "Entre la luna y los hombres" ("Between Moon and Men") at La Zarzuela theatre in Madrid. The flamenco, which embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition and is considered a part of the Spanish culture, actually originates from Andalusia. (Ballesteros / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A sign of the times

    The architecture of the Alpujarras harkens back to when this was the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. The villages' flat, whitewashed houses and distinctive conical chimneys are reminiscent of Berber villages in the mountains of nearby Morrocco. (Jill Kooyoomjian / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Unfinished beauty

    On March 19, 1882, work on the La Sagrada Familia cathedral was started by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, but by the end of the next year, Catalan Architect Antoni Gaudi was commissioned to finish it. He did not abandon his task until his death in 1926, when the grand church was left unfinished. Since then, different architects have worked on the cathedral to continue his original idea -- that it mirror the people who built it. (Cesar Rangel / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Liquid currency

    Ricardo Penalba prepares to taste a wine at Penalba's winery in Aranda de Duero, northern Spain. With more than 2.9 million acres planted, the country is the third largest producer of wine in the world, but the most widely planted wine-producing nation. (Felix Ordonez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grand headquarters

    A scenic view in downtown Madrid highlights the beauty of the Plaza de Cibeles, which features the Fountain of Cibeles and the Palacio de Comunicaciones, which was built between 1905 and 1917 as the headquarters of the post office. In 2007, it became Madrid's official city hall. (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Square expansion

    A man looks at "The execution of Torrijos and his companions" by Antonio Gisbert at the Prado museum in Madrid. Spanish architect Rafaelo Moneo designed the sober and elegant red-brick cube-shaped expansion building that opened in 2007. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Tourist attraction

    Members of the Royal Guard take part in the first changing of the guard outside the Palacio Real in Madrid. Every Wednesday, the guard changes in front of the palace in an effort to boost tourism. (Pierre-philippe Marcou / AFP via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Imposing architecture

    Santa Maria del Mar is an imposing church in Barcelona. Located in the district of La Ribera, it was built between 1329 and 1383, at the height of Catalonia's maritime and mercantile preeminence. It is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic, with a purity and unity of style that are very unusual in large mediaeval buildings. (Espai d’Imatge via Turisme de Barcelona) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Awash with history

    A scenic view of Plaza del General Torrijos shows the "Las Tres Gracias" fountain with the Alcazaba Castle in the background in Malaga. The Alcazaba was built in the 11th century and extended in the 13th and 14th centuries. It originally defended the city from pirates. (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Madrid city guide

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