Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

If you’re looking for a classic Southeast Asian scene, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City, will do the trick. This is an area of vivid green rice paddies, conical-hatted farmers and lumbering water buffaloes, of floating markets and villages built on stilts. Lush orchards overflow with mangoes, papayas and dragonfruit; plantations brim with bananas, coconuts and pineapples. And through it all wind the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which nourish this fruitbasket of Vietnam, the waters busy with sampans, canoes and houseboats. It is the end of the run for Asia’s mighty Mekong, whose waters rise over 4000km away in the snows of the Tibetan plateau and empty out here, into the alluvial-rich plains fringing the South China Sea.

For the fifteen million people who live in these wetlands, everything revolves around the waterways, so to glimpse something of their life you need to join them on the river. Boat tours from the market town of My Tho will take you to nearby orchard-islands, crisscrossed by narrow palm-shaded canals and famous for their juicy yellow-fleshed sapodilla fruits. At Vinh Long, home-stay programmes give you the opportunity to sample the garden produce for dinner and spend the night on stilts over the water.

Chances are your host-family catch fish as well – right under their floorboards in specially designed bamboo cages, so the daily feed is simply a matter of lifting up a plank or two. Next stop should be Can Tho, the delta’s principal city, to see the enormous floating market at Cai Rang.

Here at the confluence of seven major waterways, hundreds of sampans bump and jostle early each morning to trade everything from sugar cane to pigs – and of course mountains of fruit.

My Tho is a 90min bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. Homestays can be arranged at local tourist offices or through Sinhbalo Adventure Travel in Ho Chi Minh City (www.cyclingvietnam.net).

 

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It happens to most newcomers: noses flare, eyes widen and pulses quicken upon entering La Boqueria, Barcelona’s cathedral to comida fresca (fresh food). Pass through the handsome Modernista cast-iron gateway and you’re rapidly sucked in by the raw, noisy energy of the cavernous hall, the air dense with the salty tang of the sea and freshly spilled blood. As they say in these parts, if you can’t find it in La Boqueria, you can’t find it anywhere: pyramids of downy peaches face whole cow heads – their eyes rolled back – and hairy curls of rabo de toro (bulls’ tails). Pale-pink piglets are strung up by their hind legs, snouts pointing south, while dorada (sea bream) twitch on beds of ice next to a tangle of black eels.

The Mercat de Sant Josep, as it’s officially called, was built in 1836 on the site of a former convent, though records show that there had been a market here since the thirteenth century. Its devotees are as diverse as the offerings: bargain-hunting grandmas rooting through dusty bins; gran cocineros (master chefs) from around Europe palming eggplants and holding persimmons up to the light; and droves of wide-eyed visitors weaving through the hubbub. At its core, though, La Boqueria is a family affair. Ask for directions and you might be told to turn right at Pili’s place, then left at the Oliveros brothers. More than half of the stalls – and attendant professions – have been passed down through generations for over a century.

When it comes time to eat, do it here. The small bar-restaurants tucked away in La Boqueria may be low on frills, but they serve some of the finest market-fresh Catalan fare in the city. Flames lick over the dozens of orders crammed onto the tiny grill at Pinotxo, a bustling bar that has been around since 1940. Pull up a stool, and choose from the day’s specials that are rattled off by various members of the extended family, like the affable, seventy-something Juanito. Tuck into bubbling samfaina, a Catalan ratatouille, or try cap i pota, stewed head and hoof of pig. As the afternoon meal winds down, Juanito walks the bar, topping up glasses from a jug of red wine. There’s a toast – “Salud!” – and then everyone takes long, warming swallows, as all around the shuttered market sighs to a close.

La Boqueria has a website – www.boqueria.info – and is open Monday–Saturday 8am–8.30pm.

 

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There’s nowhere on Earth like the Jemaa el Fna, the square at the heart of old Marrakesh. The focus of the evening promenade for locals, the Jemaa is a heady blend of alfresco food bazaar and street theatre: for as long as you’re in town, you’ll want to come back here again and again.

Goings-on in the square by day merely hint at the evening’s spectacle. Breeze through and you’ll stumble upon a few snake charmers, tooth pullers and medicine men plying their trade, while henna tattooists offer to paint your hands with a traditional design. In case you’re thirsty, water sellers dressed in gaudy costumes – complete with enormous bright red hats – vie for your custom alongside a line of stalls offering orange and grapefruit juice, pressed on the spot. Around dusk, however, you’ll find yourself swept up in a pulsating circus of performers. There are acrobats from the Atlas Mountains, dancers in drag and musicians from a religious brotherhood called the Gnaoua, chanting and beating out rhythms late into the night with their clanging iron castanets. Other groups play Moroccan folk music, while storytellers, heirs to an ancient tradition, draw raucous crowds to hear their tales.

In their midst dozens of food stalls are set up, lit by gas lanterns and surrounded by delicious-smelling plumes of cooking smoke. Here you can partake of spicy harira soup, try charcoal-roasted kebabs or merguez sausage, or, if you’re really adventurous (and hungry), a whole sheep’s head, including the eyes – all beneath the looming presence of the floodlit, perfectly proportioned Koutoubia minaret to the west, making a backdrop without compare.

The rooftop terraces of the Café de France and Restaurant Argana afford great views over the Jemaa el Fna. Be aware that pickpockets operate in the square; usual cautions apply.

 

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Holding the tiny cocoon in your fingers, it’s hard to imagine it contains a fibre of silk that will be 800m long when finally unravelled. And when you consider 100,000 silk worms are being cultivated here at Vang Viang Organic Farm, you’re effectively surrounded by 80,000km of silk – enough to circle the earth twice.

The farm was established in 1996, in the village of Phoudinadaeng, on the banks of the Nam Song River, as a model centre of organic agriculture: mulberry trees are cultivated using natural fertilizers and predators, and their leaves picked daily to feed the silkworms or to make mulberry tea and wine. Half of each silk harvest is sold for fabric production, while the other half provides income for village women, who weave it at home and then sell silk products back to the farm. Profits from the farm are also used to run a community centre and school, where volunteers can help with English lessons.

Travellers are welcome to visit the farm – you can stay in simple rooms if you wish – to learn about how the silk is processed or see how the fruit and veg is grown using traditional techniques. And if – having learnt that each harvest produces around ten kilos of silk which is then dyed with local plants – you buy one of the brightly coloured scarves made by the women, you’ll have gained a real appreciation of what your silk is worth.

For directions to the farm and details of projects and accommodation (dorm beds US$1, rooms without bath US$3) see www.laofarm.org; +856 205 523 688.

 

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Turn a corner and you’re at one end of a long aisle, its sides lined with stalls selling nothing but chocolate. Turn a different corner and you enter another food-laden aisle, only this time dedicated to cheese, including matured Pecorino wrapped in walnuts, Norwegian Sognefjord geitost and Tcherni Vit green cheese from Bulgaria. There’s no aisle for wine though – rather an entire area with some 2500 different labels to choose between. There’s beer too. And vodka, whisky and a host of local liqueurs it would be rude not to try. And don’t even start on the aroma of coffee wafting through some parts of the hall.

Imagine the world’s largest farmers’ market lasting five days, and you still wouldn’t even be close to the Salone del Gusto (the “Exhibition of Taste”) – the flagship event in Turin by Italy’s Slow Food Movement. Having started as a local campaign to stop a McDonald’s being built near the Spanish Steps in Rome, over the years the Movement has grown into the world’s largest network of independent artisanal food producers. This is their biennial get-together, where you can meet a Tibetan farmer and taste his yak’s cheese; or inhale the intoxicating aromas of Mexican Chinantla vanilla; or get a whiff of the sea with carrageenan jelly from Ireland. Everything you can imagine ever eating or drinking, and much more.

The Salone takes place in October in the Lingotto Fiere, the giant exhibition space created from the former Fiat car factory, and attracts 170,000 gourmets from all over the world. As well as the aisles dedicated to different foodstuffs and national cuisines, there are lectures that are a far cry from those at university. Book yourself in for a talk on the history of Bourbon, and rather than falling asleep at the back you’ll be sampling six different types of whisky while one of New York’s best cocktail barmen explains the story behind such drinks as the mint julep and whiskey sour.

This being the land of the long lunch and seven-course supper, some people still have room for more at the end of a day’s grazing. For an extra fee, you can join them each evening at one of several hosted dinners in restaurants across the city and in castles, country houses and rural trattorie in the surrounding Piedmontese countryside, as some of Italy’s finest chefs prepare their favourite local meals. Add a constant background of music from Cape Verde to Lake Baikal played live throughout the day, the chance to buy as much as you can carry on the train home for Christmas gifts and indulgent treats, and the city of Turin all around if you fancy a stroll around a gallery or two, and you have a recipe to satisfy almost every palate.

Turin has excellent rail connections throughout Europe (see www.bahn.de). Some of the most popular dinners, lectures and tasting events book up months in advance. See www.salonedelgusto.com for more information. For details on Slow Food events in your own region or anywhere in the world, go to www.slowfood.com.

 

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With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

The market town of San Francisco el Alto adopts its suffix for good reason. Perched at 2610m atop a rocky escarpment, it looks down over the plain of Quetzaltenango to the perfect volcanic cone of Santa María that pierces the horizon to the southwest.

But on Friday mornings, few of the thousands that gather here linger to take in the view; instead, the largest market in Guatemala’s western highlands commands their attention. Things start early, as traders arrive in the dead of night to assemble their stalls by candlelight and lanterns, stopping periodically to slurp from a bowl of steaming caldo broth or for a slug of chicha maize liquor to ward off the chilly night air.

By dawn a convoy of pick-ups, chicken buses and microbuses struggle up the vertiginous access road, and by sunrise the streets are thick with action as blanket vendors and tomato seekers elbow their way through lanes lined with shacks. There’s virtually nothing geared at the tourist dollar, unless you’re in desperate need of a Chinese-made alarm clock or a sack of beans, but it’s a terrific opportunity to experience Guatemala’s indigenous way of life – all business is conducted in hushed, considered tones using ritualistic politeness that’s uniquely Maya.

Above the plaza is the fascinating animal market, where goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and pigs are inspected as if contestants at an agricultural show. Vendors probe screeching porkers’ mouths to check out teeth, tongues and gums, and the whole event can descend into chaos as man and beast wrestle around in the dirt before a deal can be struck.

San Francisco el Alto is 1hr by bus from Quetzaltenango.

 

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One result of Eastern Europe’s economic transformation is that shopping is no longer a voyage into the unknown. Familiar international brands fill the malls, and local crafts lie hidden behind shelves of mass-produced souvenirs. Luckily, a parallel culture of flea markets and craft fairs is still going strong, and if you happen to be in Budapest over the weekend then there’s no better city in which to indulge in a rummage.

Dedicated browsers should head first for the bustling flea market held outside the Petőfi Csarnok, a cultural centre in the middle of the Városliget park. With traditional porcelain sold next door to pirate DVDs and hand-operated meat-mincers, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. You’ll usually turn up the odd bit of folk art if you prowl the stalls for long enough: the embroidered pillowcases here are certainly better quality than those in Budapest’s central souvenir shops. Fans of hammers, sickles and furry hats may be disappointed to discover that there’s not as much communist-era memorabilia on display as there used to be, although Red Army-issue gas-mask fetishists are unlikely to walk away empty-handed.

While it’s the jewel-or-junk unpredictability of Petőfi Csarnok that makes it so enjoyable, serious seekers of collectables will want to head for the Ecseri antiques market on the city’s southeastern fringes. A century or so of Budapest’s domestic history stands piled up in the dense bazaar-like warren of stalls. If you haven’t got room to stow a hat-stand in your luggage, there are plenty of smaller items that might appeal: china, cutlery, vintage postcards and piles of magazines from the 1920s and 1930s.

Those really serious about their shopping should time their visit to coincide with the monthly WAMP design fair, an open-air market on the central Erzsébet tér featuring cutting-edge work by local designers. If you’re looking for something that will bring out the individual in you, then the affordable accessories on display here should help
do the trick.

The flea market at Petőfi Csarnok (Sat & Sun; 8am–2pm) is in the middle of Városliget park; trolleybus #70 trundles past every 15–20min. Ecseri antiques market (Mon–Fri 8am–4pm, Sat 6am–3pm, Sun 8am–1pm) is in the southeastern suburbs; catch bus #54 from Boraros tér and get off at the Fiume út. stop. Dates for the WAMP design fair are posted on www.wamp.hu.

 

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From the white, snowy tops of the Himalayas, to the greenery of Kerala and then the sands of Goa, India is a hugely diverse, intense but addictive country. It has deserts, rainforests, rural settlements and big cosmopolitan cities – some will love it, and a few will hate it, but with such variety there is pretty much something for everyone.

Here’s a selection of photos from our Things Not to Miss gallery for India, with music by Aruna Sairam, taken from the Rough Guide to the Music of India.

Music: Sarahanabhava, Aruna Sairam – Rough Guide to the Music of India
Available from worldmusic.net >

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