The Spanish capital presents an odd mix of grand Habsburg architecture, top drawer cultural institutions and free-wheeling fun. Grand people-watching parks combine with football fanaticism and swankily fashionable districts such as well-heeled Salamanca. But Madrid comes into its element when the sun goes down, as people hop between thousands of tiny bars, all of which have their own distinct personality.
Madrid's trio of world class art museums – the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia – make a rough triangle in the city centre. The Prado is heaviest on old masters, with plenty of works by Goya and Velazquez, and the Reina Sofia has a strong Dali collection and Picasso's masterpiece Guernica. See museodelprado.es, museothyssen.org, museoreinasofia.es.
Guinness World Records reckons El Botin is the oldest restaurant in the world – and it has been serving up traditional hearty dishes such as juicy suckling pig since 1725. It's touristy, but for a good reason, and the walls covered in rather pretty tile paintings make for an atmospheric backdrop. Mains cost around €18. See botin.es.
The El Rastro flea market, which sets out along the Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores between 9am and 3pm every Sunday and public holiday, is a sprawling shambles. But that's a large part of the appeal. Only a fraction of the 3000-odd stalls might have anything worth selling, but it's hunting the treasures amongst the tat that makes the experience.
Madrid has a decent hand of daytime attractions, but it is overwhelmingly a nighttime city. Hopping between tapas bars is the absolute best way of exploring the city, especially around the Chueca district or down Calle de Cava Baja. For informed assistance in such noble quests, Devour Madrid Food Tours runs a €95, four-hour evening "Tapas, Taverns and History" tour that grazes at several of the tastiest tapas joints. See madridfoodtour.com.
There are a lot of hip hotels in Madrid, and the Room Mate Oscar is one of the more affordable examples. There's a fine rooftop terrace with a small pool, and the rooms themselves have beautifully curvy furniture, lots of backlighting and plenty of design chops. Rates start at €116. See Oscar.room-matehotels.com
There are plenty of half day tours that end up taking you things that are easier to reach by public transport and do independently. Those going to Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium is a classic example. Just hop on the Metro rather than sitting on the tour bus, then pay on the gate. See realmadrid.com.
David Whitley was a guest of Room Mate Hotels.