If your next travel adventure points towards Europe, Madrid is one of those cities that delivers genuine bang for your buck. Spend two days here and you'll feel like you've crammed in weeks' worth of eating, drinking, culture and sightseeing.
If you've got the energy to stay up all night, Madrid's the perfect party city. True, things are a little less lively than the hedonistic days of la movida in the 70s and 80s, a movement of post-Franco punk rebellion and sexual liberation epitomised in the early movies of Pedro Almódovar. But with a rash of slick new designer bars, restaurants and hotels, today Madrid rivals Barcelona for the title of Spain's hippest city. Add some stunning architectural projects and museums (such as Richard Rogers' Terminal Four at Barajas Airport, Giner de los Ríos Foundation and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), cutting-edge fashion stores and eclectic restaurants, and you've got the makings of an exhilarating, if hectic, long weekend in Europe. Make the most of Madrid, using our day-by-day itinerary.
Marvel at the simplicity and beauty of an undulating bamboo roof, tree-like pillars and natural light flooding through the roof of Barajas Airport's Terminal Four before hopping into a taxi to Urban Hotel (Carrera de San Jerónimo, 34, +34 91 787 7770, hotelurban.com). Madrileños eat late, so ask the staff to book a restaurant for about 10pm. There's time for a swim in the rooftop pool and a cocktail beneath a shimmering chandelier at the Glass Bar, packed with local fashionista and media types. From here, it's a short walk to Plaza de Santa Ana, a popular start for many a Madrileño's Friday night chateo (tapas crawl). This buzzing square is flanked at either end by the elegant 18th-century Teatro Español (Spanish Theatre) and the famous Gran Hotel Reina Victoria that's recently morphed into the ME Madrid Reina Victoria. Once favoured by bullfighters, the Reina is now a serious contender for the late-shift party crowd at its rooftop and lobby bars.
It's worth a quick ice-cold beer at two of Hemingway's favourite bars close by; Viva Madrid is famous for its walls decorated with hand-painted tiles depicting turn-of-the-century scenes, and still lives off its reputation for attracting the likes of Ava Gardner and bullfighter Manolete, who made out at one of its intimate tables. Hemingway's other favourite, Cervecería Alemana, is a wood-panelled gem with decent plates of jamón, white asparagus and fried squid. Try nearby Casa Alberto before wandering down popular Calle de las Huertas, lined with more atmospheric bars. Situated on the street level of a house where Cervantes lived and wrote the second part of Don Quixote in 1614, Casa Alberto has been serving rabo de toro estofado (oxtail stew), albóndigas (meatballs) and glasses of chilled vermouth from its worn onyx bar since 1827.
Flag a taxi to take you to Puerta 57 for a serious seafood feast. Taking its name from Gate 57 of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid's impressive football stadium, it attracts an eclectic crowd of soccer socialites and footballers' wives and their agents. Waiters rush past with metal platters of dorada a la sal (salt-baked gilt-head bream), steaming mariscos (shellfish), arroz a banda (seafood rice) and perfect frituras of red mullet and whitebait. Decorated in mock-Versailles style, it's a surreal way to enjoy the city's twin obsession with seafood and soccer. If there's a match on, there's the added attraction of watching some of Europe's top players in action. Also try the nautical-themed Casa Rafa or El Telégrafo for more sensational seafood. They specialise in fresh produce flown in daily to this land-locked capital in the heart of Spain - boiled ruby-red gambas rojas (prawns), stuffed centola (spider crab), steamed percebes (goose barnacles), boiled octopus, grilled sardines, lubina a la sal (salt-baked sea bass) and roasted rodaballo (turbot), all cooked simply for the discerning locals.
Time to wander the Old Town, the city centre dating from the 16th century when the Habsburg dynasty made Madrid the capital of Spain. This area contains impressive public buildings such as Iglesia de San Isidro, a massive Baroque church housing the remains of the city's patron saint San Isidro, and rambling squares like Plaza de la Paja, once the hub of the Muslim quarter in medieval Madrid. From Urban Hotel, turn left onto Carerra de San Jerónimo and head for two landmark pastelerías (sweet shops). Casa Mira's enviable selection of turrón (nougat), pastries and marzipan spin on a revolving tiered window display. Beautifully packaged, the addictive hard turrón de Alicante and soft turrón de Jijona (both made from almonds, honey, sugar and eggwhite) are worth taking home. Often you'll find a group of nuns queuing on the sidewalk outside the tiny La Violeta, to buy the crystallised violets and violet bombones (sweets) that are its speciality. A little further on is the legendary Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839. Skip the sumptuously ornate upstairs room and stick with the stand-up bar downstairs, a better option for a reviving cup of consommé served from silver samovars.
Next stop is Puerta del Sol (sun gate) - Madrid's centrally located plaza - which is always busy with buskers and locals shopping for mantillas and hats at the old-fashioned stores or heading for the massive El Corte Inglés department store. It's worth a detour across the nearby Plaza Mayor to Calzados Lobo, a shoe-box sized store specialising in traditional handmade espadrilles. It's a short walk to the Plaza de Oriente, a vast 19th-century square which houses the Teatro Real, the place for opera or ballet performances, and the Palacio Real, the ostentatious 18th-century Royal Palace inhabited until 1931 by the Spanish royal family. Close by is Alambique, a kitchen store and cooking school and the place to pick up an olive wood mortar and pestle, earthenware cazuela dishes and gazpacho bowls and cast-iron crema Catalana cookware. Nearby, you might find yourself queuing at Casa Mingo, a cheap and cheerful Asturian rotisserie chicken-and-cider joint, but it's worth the wait to sit at refectory tables to eat empanadas, grilled chorizo, tomato and onion salad and roast chicken.
Another favourite lunchtime spot is La Bola, the best place to try cocido Madrileño, one of Madrid's famed dishes; cooked over oak embers and served in earthenware pots, the meal starts with a bowl of fideo (vermicelli) and caldo (the broth). The waiter then brings back your cocido pot and unceremoniously dumps the remaining mixture of boiled meats, chicken, morcilla, chorizo, chickpeas and vegetables onto your plate, with a trio of condiments (pickled peperoncini peppers, sliced spring onions and chilli and tomato sauce).
It's imperative to do more walking after a cocido and the hot Chueca barrio beckons. Navigate the sweeping Gran Vía to Calle de Fuencarral and join the crowds in stores such as Dominguez U and Barcelona street-brand Custo, then get lost in the nearby narrow streets to find yourself in one of Madrid's most endearing neighbourhoods. You'll also find hidden delights such as the Art Nouveau Palacio Longoria, a Gaudí-esque folly built in 1902 by Catalan architect José Grases Riera, on Calle de Fernando VI, old-fashioned bakeries and small boutiques. A perfectly chilled manzanilla sherry awaits at Bocaíto, a tapas bar opened by Luís Benavente, that has served freshly made egg and shellfish dishes, such as tortilla de ajetes, habitas y jamón (young garlic, broad bean and ham omelette) and judiones con almejas (lima beans with clams) since 1966.
Now cross over to Salamanca, the city's chicest area. Built in the late 19th century, with wide boulevards and elegant Beaux-Arts buildings, it's fringed by the Retiro Park, a 120-hectare oasis with boating lake and ice-cream vendors galore, and the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas bullring, worth a visit during the bullfighting season (between March and October). Calle de Serranó is where the serious shopping starts, with flagship stores from all the major Spanish brands (Adolfo Dominguez, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Purificación Garcia, Caroline Herrera, Farrutx and Loewe). In the side streets, you'll find fewer big brands and more local, independent talent represented at stores in the ever-so-cool fashion cul de sac, Calle de Jorge Juan, where a clutch of young designers strut their stuff and Calle Claudio Coello. Make time also for Mercado de la Paz, Madrid's best enclosed food market with impeccable produce, especially seafood delicacies such as mojama (salt-cured tuna loin), anchovies and every type of salt cod. There's also Lavinia, a cavernous, modern wine store and Mallorca, an upmarket gourmet chain with several branches in the area that makes delicious raciónes, cakes and pastries.
Now act like a real Madrileño and have a late-afternoon siesta before going somewhere smart such as Michelin-starred Dstage. Run by Basque chef Diego Guerrero, it offers three different tasting menus (10, 13 or 17 courses) that each kick off with a round of snacks on the pass before moving on to smart plates that draw widely from the chef's travel experiences. Finish the evening off with a post-prandial orujo liqueur at Del Diego, a late-night haunt frequented by chefs and their staff after a busy shift, or Museo Chicote, an Art Deco cocktail bar that's been making bone-dry martinis since the 30s.
Sadly, Sunday's not a day of rest. Head early for El Rastro, Madrid's labyrinthine flea market, between Plaza de Cascorro and Calle de Embajadores, before it gets too crowded. El Rastro takes its name from the trail of blood (rastro) left when cattle carcasses were dragged through the streets from abattoir to tanneries in the area. Join the market traders crowding the bar at Restaurante Casa Amadeo Los Caracoles for a restorative breakfast plate of spicy caracoles (stewed snails), callos (tripe) or zarajo (grilled lamb's intestines wrapped around wooden sticks), then scour the streets between Calle de Embajadores and Calle de Toledo for bargains, such as old copies of El Ruédo - a bullfighting magazine - and religious artefacts. Botin, just off Plaza Mayor, lays claim to being the world's oldest restaurant and it's been serving cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and cordero (lamb) since 1725 on its four cramped floors. It's the perfect place for a leisurely lunch. Check out the tiny corner kitchen with shelves groaning under the weight of suckling pigs in chipped earthenware dishes, destined for the wood-fired oven, and prepare for a real feast that needs nothing more than a simple salad on the side. Also try Casa Lucio, a classic tavern specialising in sizzling steaks served in hot pans and huevos estrellados (scrambled eggs and chips).
If you can't face the crowds at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, with its eclectic but overwhelming collection of 17th-century Dutch masters, pop art and abstract works, at least go to the Prado to see some of the world's greatest paintings; Hieronymus Bosch's surreal triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Albrecht Dürer's Self Portrait, Francisco de Goya's Majas, Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas and El Greco's modernistic Christ in the Garden of Olives still have the power to shock in their timeless canvasses.
There's just one last brisk walk for a quick hot chocolate and churros at Gran Café de Gijón, a favoured literary haunt, before rushing along the Paseo del Prado, past the 19th-century Atocha railway station, where bombings took place in 2004, to the last of the weekend's attractions, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía, to see Guernica, Pablo Picasso's 1937 masterpiece. This jagged outcry against the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Gernika-Lumo has become a universal symbol for the horrors of war and a reminder of many Spaniards' suffering during the Civil War. Both bear witness to the suffering that's at the heart of the Spanish psyche, layered in the history of Madrid's streets.
With so much on offer, it's no wonder Madrid is forging a name for itself.