Flamenco isn't the only theatrical flourish on the historic streets of the Spanish capital, writes David Whitley.
For backpackers, the highly regarded Way Hostel (17 Calle de Relatores, 420 0583, wayhostel.com, dorm beds from €23 a night) and Hostel One Puerta del Sol (2 Calle de la Victoria, 521 0504, dorm beds from €13 a night) are centrally located, airconditioned and small enough to have a personal touch. For private rooms, Hostal Gala (15 Costanilla de los Angeles, 541 9692, hostalgala.com) is fantastic. The en suite doubles have a design flair, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs for from €70 a night. Readers should also go to 30madrid.com, which specialises in budget accommodation and rates scores of options in the €30 to €60-a-night bracket.
Chic and Basic Mayerling (6 Calle del Conde de Romanones, 420 1580, www.chicandbasic .com, from €80.75 a night) is as the name suggests. The black-and-white colour scheme and outdoor sun deck are complemented by decent-sized rooms and great service. Room Mate Alicia, pictured, (2 Calle El Prado, 389 6095, room-matehotels.com) is also cool, with a great central location and rooms from €82.62 a night.
It's a perfect spot for impressing without breaking the bank. If you want a solid four-star at a great price, then Hotel Agumar (7 Paseo de la Reina Cristina, 552 6900, hotelmadridagumar.com) is superb value from €65 a night.
Vincci Via 66 (66 Gran Via, 550 4299, vinccihoteles.com, superior rooms from €106) has a theatrical edge — designer mirrors, red velvet curtains and hip-looking rooms — married with marble bathrooms, twin-wash basins and super-comfortable beds. Hotel de Las Letras (11 Gran Via, 523 7980, hoteldelasletras.com, superior rooms from €114) has a real wow factor as you walk in but, mercifully, the rooms aren't overdesigned. The restaurant and spa are highly rated, too. Hotel Urban (34 Carrera de San Jeronimo, 787 7770, derbyhotels.com, duplex rooms from €189) distinguishes itself from five-star monotony with an art deco look, outdoor pool, oyster bar, Egyptian museum and collection of ancient art.
ME Madrid (14 Plaza de Santa Ana, +34 902 144 440, memadrid.com, supreme rooms from €269) is celeb central. The luxury rooms and designer decor in a grand building are the main drawcards, although the super-hip rooftop bar is a clincher. Hotel Unico (formerly La Selenza, 67 Calle de Claudio Coello, 781 0173, www.selenzahoteles.es, junior suites €340) in the popular shopping district of Salamanca, gets the five-star designer boutique vibe spot-on. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant downstairs, while the rooms have character and the usual deluxe trimmings. The Ritz (5 Plaza de la Lealtad, 701 6776, www.ritzmadrid.com, from €280 a night) is the best bet for old-school grandeur.
SHOP + PLAY
El Rastro is the biggest flea market in the world, sprawling along Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores every Sunday from 8am to 2pm. There's the occasional pearl in a sea of tat. No point in trying to hurry through — it's a scrum at the best of times. Lining up against the walls of the botanic gardens, the Cuesta de Moyano (Calle de Claudio de Moyano, open daily) is a series of book stalls worth mooching past. For quality food, the Mercado de San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel, www.mercadodesanmiguel.es) near Plaza Mayor is very good, if a little pricey. It's open daily from 10am until late.
Madrid is a serious shopper's city; Salamanca is the district to head to for high-end designer fashion. Calle de Serrano is the main card-busting street — it's home to the flagship stores of colourful Madrid icon Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (272 8001, agatharuizdelaprada.com) and shoe guru Manolo Blahnik (575 9648, manoloblahnik.com). Neighbouring Chueca is home to many up-and-coming designers based in tiny shops — handbag heaven Inaki Sampedro (13 Calle del Conde de Xiquena, 319 4565) is a classic example. You should head further west into Malasana for alternative culture and grungier fashion.
Two of the best flamenco joints are close to each other in the Huertas district. Cardamomo, pictured, (15 Calle de Echegaray, 396 0757, cardamomo.es) is a bigger, slicker place but attracts some of the best performances. El Callejon (7 Travesia de Algemesi, 329 2174) is small and a favourite with the locals because the dancing and music come straight from the heart. La Boca del Lobo (11 Calle de Echegaray, 429 7013, labocadellobo.com) is good for live rock and DJs in a small, smoky atmosphere, while the art deco Cafe Central (10 Plaza del Angel, 369 4143, cafecentralmadrid.com) is legendary for its nightly jazz performances.
Kapital (125 Calle de Atocha, 420 2906, grupo-kapital.com) is a seven-floor behemoth that has something of a moth-to-flame effect come 3am. Expect thumping house music with a few more laid-back sideshows. Smoother and with a "beautiful face" policy to match the funk and R&B grooves, Marula Cafe (27 Calle de Bailen, 366 1596, marulacafe.com) attracts a cooler crowd. If you're still going on Sunday morning (and many locals are), the Laydown Rest Club (Plaza Mostenses, 548 7937, laydown.es) in Malasana is an odd concept. You can lie down and have breakfast while the beats plough on mercilessly.
SEE + DO
The Museo del Prado (23 Calle Ruiz de Alarcon, 330 2800, www.museodelprado.es, entry €8) is justifiably regarded as one of the world's greatest art galleries. About 3000 paintings are on display, with masterpieces by Goya and Velazquez best represented. Rembrandt and Titian get a strong look-in, too. The Palacio Real (Calle Bailen, 454 8700, patrimonionacional.es, entrance options from €8) is one of Europe's great palaces, with 50 of its 2800 rooms open to the public. Football fans can make a pilgrimage to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium (1 Avenida Concha Espina, 398 4370, realmadrid.com), which is the home of Real Madrid. The €16 self-guided tour is excellent.
The Prado is one of a trio of world-class galleries. Of the others, the Centro del Arte Reina Sofia (52 Calle de Santa Isabel, 774 1000, www.museoreina sofia.es, admission €6) has a modern slant with plenty of works by Dali and Gris, although many visit for Picasso's masterwork, Guernica, pictured. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (8 Paseo del Prado, 276 0511, museothyssen.org, admission €8) acts as a best-of collection and has a bigger range of great artists. A more controversial cultural attraction is the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas (Calle de Alcala, 356 2200, www.las-ventas.com). It's Spain's most prestigious bullring, hosting fights on Sundays from March to November.
For fans of a leisurely stroll, a visit to the Parque del Retiro will find you in like-minded company. It's Madrid's most popular, if not biggest, park. The crystal palace and boating lake are among the amiable landmarks. For more space (1700 hectares, to be precise) and fewer people to share it with, head to Casa del Campo, west of the city centre, for myriad walking trails through this former royal hunting estate. For English-language guided walking tours, Descubre Madrid leads daily themed ambles from the Madrid Tourism Centre (27 Plaza Mayor, 222 1424) for €3.90.
Follow the leader
The Adventurous Appetites evening tapas tour (+34 639 331 073, adventurousappetites.com, €50) is really good. It cherry-picks some of the best and most interesting tapas bars in the city that specialise in regional cuisines rather than going for the obvious Cava Baja crawl option. An active option is a city cycling tour, covering the main highlights on two wheels. Bike Spain (559 0653, bikespain.info) runs them daily for €9.90. For something a little different, GoCar (559 4535, gocartours.es, €99 for the full day) offers self-drive tours in little yellow pseudo-cars, guided by a GPS and commentary.
EAT + DRINK
For a grand old cafe where customers with delusions of literary greatness are served by bow-tie clad waiters in opulent surroundings, Cafe Gijon (21 Paseo de Recoletos, 521 5425, cafegijon.com) hits the spot. La Mallorquina (2 Calle Mayor, 521 1201) on the edge of Plaza de la Puerta del Sol is more typical of Madrid, however — the coffee is superb and the sea of cakes highly tempting but you eat and drink standing up. A hip option — if your retinas can withstand the lime green colour scheme — is the instantly likeable Bojala (1 Calle de San Andres, 523 2747), which is in Malasana.
Madrid is eat-on-the-go nirvana; the tapas culture is ingrained across the city. Try Chueca or La Latina for a crawl — Calle de la Cava Baja is a ready-made route in the latter. Juana La Loca (4 Plaza de Puerta de Moros, 364 0525) at the end of the Cava Baja run has some fantastic mini-dishes, although it is famed for its tortilla de patatas with caramelised onion. El Escarpin (17 Calle de las Hileras, 559 9957) specialises in cider-drenched dishes from Asturias in northern Spain — the slow-cooked chorizo is sensational — while Cerveceria Cervantes (7 Plaza de Jesus, 429 6093) offers aged hams and works magic with the not-so-humble octopus.
Top of the town
El Botin (17 Calle de los Cuchilleros, 366 4217, botin.es) is the oldest restaurant in the world. It's a little pricey and touristy but the unspeakably delicious suckling pig makes a visit worth it. Casa Lucio (35 Calle de la Cava Baja, 365 3252, www.casalucio.es) does traditional dishes to even the pickiest gastronome's approval. The King of Spain apparently loves the huevos rotos (egg and chips). More modern, darkly lit and label-conscious (check the Joselito ham and Dom Perignon bottles in the window) is Sula (33 Calle de Jorge Juan, 781 6197, sula.es) in Salamanca. It thinks a lot of itself but the Menu Especial is darned good.
By the glass
Many of the best places to eat tapas are also best for a drink. Taberna de Conspiradores (7 Calle de la Cava Baja, 366 5869, conspiradores.com) is one of the quieter options on the well-trodden La Latina route — the artisan beers and black-and-white movie posters are plus points. El Tigre (30 Calle de las Infantas, 532 0072) in Chueca is a raucous, often rammed-to-the-gills haunt favoured by a young international set, while nearby Vinoteca Barbechera (6 Calle de Gravina, 523 9816) is a good upmarket wine bar for the last drink or two of the night.
If tapas is Spain's greatest culinary invention, then the Menu del Dia isn't far behind. During the Franco dictatorship, by law all restaurants had to offer a three-course meal at a fixed price on weekday lunchtimes. Most still do - and they're a bargain if you can make lunch your main meal of the day. The three courses, often with a drink thrown in, usually cost between €10 and €15. You'll often pay slightly more to eat outside on a terrace than inside.
Emirates (emirates.com) and Thai Airways (thaiairways.com.au) offer one-stop flights to Madrid, going via Dubai and Bangkok respectively. Expect to pay at least $2000 for a return fare.
Visas and currency
Australians don't need a visa to enter Spain, unless you're planning to stay (or stay within the 25-country Schengen zone) for more than 90 days in six months. The currency is the euro. $1 = 0.77 euro.
The international dialling code for Spain is +34. The Madrid city code is 91. To call any of the seven-digit numbers listed here from abroad, add +3491. Other numbers are listed in full.