Madrid has fantastic art galleries and beautiful plazas where cafés provide a front-row seat to the baroque architecture and energetic street life.
The city's divided into neighbourhoods: Los Austrias, Sol and Centro make up the medieval heart, while working-class Malasaña and Chueca are the fun, cultural districts.
The Museo del Prado's collection is like a window on the historical vagaries of the Spanish soul. All the great names of Spanish art can be found here, including Goya, Velázquez and Ribera (00 34 91 330 28 00; museodelprado.es; Paseo del Prado; 9am-8pm Tue-Sun; £7).
The recently restored southern chapel of Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida is one of the few places to see a Goya masterpiece in its original setting, and the painter is buried in front of the altar (Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida 5; 9.30am-8pm Tue-Fri, 10am-2pm Sat & Sun).
El Rastro is Europe's largest flea market and a Madrid institution. Begin at Plaza de Cascorro and inch your way down Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores. After the stalls shut, follow the crowds into the nearest bar for an aperitif of vermouth and tapas (La Latina metro stop; 8am-3pm Sun).
The Palacio Real is an 18th-century colossus built at the behest of Felipe V. The interior has ornate ceilings by Venetian painter Tiepolo and stucco work, and the gardens are an ordered haven (00 34 91 454 88 00; patrimonionacional.es; Calle de Bailén; 9.30-5pm Mon-Sat, 9am-2pm Sun; £8).
The splendid gardens of El Retiro are dotted with monuments, lakes and elegant follies. It's a quiet place during the week but comes to life at the weekend when Madrileños like to stroll, read the newspapers and take a boat ride (Retiro metro stop; 6am-11pm).
Eat and drink
A slick tapas bar, Estado Puro serves fantastic small plates, many of which have their origins in the world-famous El Bulli restaurant. The kitchen is overseen by Paco Roncero who learned his trade from El Bulli's Ferran Adrià (00 34 91 330 24 00; tapasenestadopuro. com; Plaza de Cánovas del Castillo 4; 11am-1am Tue-Sat, 11am-4pm Sun; tapas £2-£8).
The founder of 1930s-style Museo Chicote is said to have invented over 100 cocktails, which the likes of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly once enjoyed. It's still frequented by film stars, and is at its best after midnight when a lounge atmosphere takes over (museo-chicote.com; Gran Vía 12; 6pm-3am Mon-Sat; cocktails £5).
You can sample the best of Spanish cuisine in one of Madrid's oldest markets, the Mercado de San Miguel, which has been beautifully restored (mercadode sanmiguel.es; Plaza de San Miguel; 10am-12am Sun-Wed, 10am-2am Thu-Sat; mains £10-£15).
Restaurante Sobrino de Botín claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world (1725). The secret to its success lies in the suckling pig and lamb cooked in wood-fired ovens (00 34 91 366 42 17; botin.es; Calle de los Cuchilleros 17; lunch and dinner; mains £20).
Sula Madrid is a gourmet food store, stylish tapas bar and restaurant. Chef Quique Dacosta - voted Spain's best chef in 2005 - serves creative Mediterranean dishes such as cod with peppers (00 34 91 781 61 97; sula.es; Calle de Jorge Juan 33; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat; mains £20-£30).
Chic & Basic Colors gets everything right for a budget hotel. A striking use of black, red and orange offsets the simple, modern rooms brilliantly. Rooms are small but perfectly furnished with hardwood floors, a big bed and a signature design chair, and some have French windows that open out onto wrought-iron balconies (00 34 91 429 69 35; chicandbasic.com; 2nd fl, Calle de las Huertas 14; from £65).
Hotel Abalú is an oasis of style in the time-worn barrio of Malasaña. Each room has its own design scheme drawn from the extravagant imagination of Luis Delgado, from retro chintz to pure white. It's also close to Gran Vía (00 34 91 531 47 44; hotelabalu. com; Calle del Pez 19; from £80).
The façade of Hotel Ósca - covered in Coca-Cola bottles - is a striking landmark. Inside, corridors in fuchsia pink lead to rooms with floor-to-ceiling murals and retro-modernist furniture. It also has a good tapas bar and rooftop terrace (00 34 91 701 11 73; room-matehoteles.com; Plaza de Vázquez de Mella 12; from £80).
Hotel de Las Letras combines classical architecture with understated rooms. The grand proportions ensure big windows and high ceilings, while angled lamps and moulded sofas lend a modern edge. Each room has a literary quote on the wall (00 34 91 523 79 80; hoteldelasletras.com; Gran Vía 11; from £100).
The glass edifice of Hotel Urban is a fine example of art-inspired cool and a wonderful counterpoise to the more classic approach of many five-star hotels in Madrid. The rooftop pool and candlelit terrace are Madrid's best, (00 34 91 787 77 70; derbyhotels.com; Carrera de San Jerónimo 34; from £165).
The metro is fast and efficient. There are 11 colour-coded lines, and maps are available at stations (single 80p; 6am-2am; metromadrid.es). Taxi ranks are all over town. To call for a taxi, try Radio-Teléfono Taxi (radiotelefono-taxi.com).
How to Go?
Iberia, British Airways and easyJet fly direct to Madrid from Gatwick (£50), Manchester (£50) and Edinburgh (£70). Aero City is a private doorto- door minibus service from the airport (from £5; aerocity.com). A taxi to the centre costs from £20.
The article 'Mini Guide to Madrid, Spain' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.