With dazzling light and bright blue skies for much of the year, Madrid would be an energising city even without the world-class museums and the buzzing nightlife. The centre has smartened itself up, too, with new boutiques, delis, cafés and gastrobars opening every week, but it is the traditional tapas bars and tiny shops that are the real soul of the city. Wherever you stay, you can usually walk to the major museums, such as the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia, which all have astounding collections, but what will make you smile long after you’ve left is the little things you discover along the way as you stroll through the different neighbourhoods.
Madrid is all about spontaneity and even the best-laid plans tend to get forgotten after a couple of days as you slip into the swing of the city. Don’t feel guilty about abandoning your cultural agenda, it just means you’re behaving like a true Madrileño.
Kickstart your system with a traditional breakfast of churro fritters dipped into gloopy hot chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been keeping Madrilenians carbed up since 1894. You may well have to queue but service is quick.
Cut down to Calle Arenal, turn right and immediately left up Calle Maestro Victoria, which leads to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. Originally a palace, the convent was founded in the mid-16th century by Juana, King Felipe II’s sister. It is still home to a small community of nuns and contains an extraordinarily rich collection of art and tapestries.
Walk down Calle San Martín and along Calle Bordadores to to the Plaza Mayor to soak up 400 years of history. Framed by red-brick buildings and slate turrets, the square is no longer the central hub of city life but is used for all sorts of events. Traditional bars and shops line the arcades and there are plenty of terraces for a drink and some tapas (check your bill and your change as this is obviously a real tourist hotspot).
Dive into the adjacent Mercado de San Miguel for a quick bite. Madrid’s first gourmet market continues to go from strength to strength and attracts Michelin-starred chefs, including Rodrigo de la Calle’s paella stall and Jordi Roca’s Rocambolesc ice-cream outlet.
Wander down the Calle Mayor to the Puerta del Sol square and look out for the ‘kilometre zero’ plaque on the pavement in front of the Casa de Correos (now the headquarters of the regional government), which marks the official centre of Spain. Take a photo next to the statue of a bear jumping up at an arbutus tree, which is the symbol of Madrid. For more reccommendations on the best free things to do, see our guide.
Have a mooch around the shops as you walk up Calle Preciados to the Gran Vía, the avenue that cuts through the city and was built in the first half of the 20th century – look up at the domes on the rooftops.
In the early evening, get right into the Madrid vibe by taking a tapas tour around the most traditional neighbourhoods, learning a bit of history and how to order in busy bars as you go. Try Devour Tours, as they focus on family-run places and offer a variety of routes, taking in the oldest taverns (such as Casa Botín), modern gastrobars and speciality food shops. For more tapas recommendations, see our guide.
With its maroon wooden façade, marble tables and red velvet banquettes, Café Central, just off Plaza de Santa Ana, is a much-loved institution that is popular with all ages and gets packed for the jazz and blues concerts that happen every night at 8pm and 10pm.
Afterwards, walk across the square to Salmon Guru, a buzzy cocktail bar run by top mixologist Diego Cabrera. The design veers from vintage New York bar to Pop Art in a series of spaces. Choose from classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned, or go for something more experimental – the expert bartenders are only to happy too advise you or mix your favourite combo. For more reccommendations on the best bars, see our guide.
Book online in advance to get into the Prado when it opens at 10am – you are going to need all morning just to see the highlights, including the best Velázquez and Goya collections in the world and works by Bosch, El Greco, Zurbarán, Rubens, Raphael and Titian. For more reccommendations on the best things to do in Madrid, see our guide
On the hill behind the Prado, Murillo Café has terrace tables and is a handy spot for lunch. A bloody Mary and a plate of huevos rotos – fried eggs broken over chips with slivers of ibérico ham – should set you up for the afternoon.
Continue up the hill to get to the Retiro Park, where Madrileños go to stroll, drink coffee at outdoor cafés and row boats. The monument to Alfonso XII, which presides the lake, has an observation deck with panoramic views.
From the park, walk down to the Reina Sofía Museum. The huge contemporary art museum, housed in an 18th-century hospital, is home to Pablo Picasso’s great masterpiece, Guernica, as well as works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Juan Gris.
Within the museum, Arzábal and Nubel are both great for a drink or dinner. Or walk 10 minutes to Bodega de los Secretos, a romantic restaurant in underground wine cellars with arched booths where you can feast on modern Spanish dishes, such as oxtail roll and rice with prawns, squid and octopus. For more restaurant reccommendations, see our guide.
From the restaurant, meander through the atmospheric lanes of the Barrio de las Letras to Santos y Desamparados, where crucifixes adorn the black walls and they take the business of making cocktails very seriously indeed. It is a favourite with actors, artists and writers, so look out for famous faces lurking in the darkness.
Walk up to the adjacent Calle Huertas, where there are lots of bars such as La Trocha and Caracortada. If you feel like dancing, walk to nearby Teatro Kapital, a wildly popular club in a former theatre that sprawls over seven galleried floors with a different vibe on each level. For more nightlife recommendations, see our guide.
If you are planning on visiting the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, save 20 per cent with the Paseo del Arte combined ticket.
The Real Madrid stadium tour offers an in-depth look into one of Spain’s most storied football clubs (plus a peek at the changing rooms), but if some in your group aren’t keen they can hang out in the Puerta 57 bar and restaurant, which overlooks the pitch.
There is no need to stay at the hip 7 Islas Hotel in Malasaña to try the surprising cocktails in the bar. Go for a gin-based cocktail – the spirit is distilled in-house.
Did you know?
Madrid operates on its own terms and some things happen two hours later than you might expect: locals have lunch at 2pm and dinner at 10pm. Equally, the tradition of having a vermouth before lunch has had quite the renaissance in the last decade. Try Bodegas Ricla which has it on draught, or Taberna de Ángel Sierra, featured in Pedro Almodóvar’s films The Flower of My Secret and Parallel Mothers.
Where to stay
Situated right in the middle of the city, Gran Hotel Inglés brings a whole new level of luxury to the Madrid hotel scene, with stylish Art Deco design, sumptuous rooms, a quietly excellent restaurant and a superb spa.
You feel like you are sleeping in an art gallery at The Pavilions Madrid. This elegant boutique hotel is a favourite of regular Madrid visitors, particularly from the creative industries, given its handy yet non-touristy location (just off Plaza de Colón) and well-designed rooms.
The fun, no-frills Generator Hostel Madrid is just off the Gran Vía, 700 yards from the Puerta del Sol. The cool bars and boutiques of Malasaña and Chueca are a five-minute walk away. There are plenty of double rooms as well as dorms, industrial design, a groovy rooftop bar and a friendly vibe.
What to bring home
Casa Hernanz has been selling handmade espadrilles since 1840. Behind the long wooden counter, shelves are stacked with every conceivable style from the traditional flat version to wedges with ribbons.
The Real Fábrica Española shop is a treasure trove of gorgeous things that are made in Spain. Snap up baskets, scarves, olive oil, kitchenware and lots more.
When to go
Although it is cold in winter, there are usually a lot of bright, sunny days and it is often warm enough to sit outside during the day. Just remember your hat and gloves. The weather is best in spring and autumn. Cultural and street festivals are under way for most of May. It is usually uncomfortably hot for much of July and August, so if you want to go then, it is a really good idea to book a hotel with a pool. Then you can spend the mornings in air-conditioned museums and shops, swim and sunbathe all afternoon, and sit at outdoor cafés and restaurants after the sun has gone down.
Know before you go
British Consulate General: Torre Espacio, Paseo de la Castellana 259D; 00 34 917 146 300; ukinspain.fco.gov.uk/en
Tourist Offices: 00 34 91 578 7810; esmadrid.com; Plaza Mayor 27, Plaza de Neptuno; Centro Centro, Plaza Cibeles 1; Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport Terminals 2 and 4
Emergency services: Dial 112 for police, ambulance and fire services. To report a crime, call 902 102 112, where English-speakers are available
Local laws and etiquette
You must carry your passport with you by law, and may have to show it when paying by debit or credit card. Take photocopies of your passport and UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), as you will need both for any medical treatment.
Telephone codes: Dial 00 34, then the local number, if telephoning Madrid from Britain. When dialling Madrid numbers, you must always dial the 91 Madrid code before the number
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight times: Madrid is approximately two hours from UK airports
Annie has been living in Madrid on and off for more than 30 years. She never gets tired of exploring the oldest parts of the Spanish capital and discovering new tapas bars.