The city’s main tourist artery runs the famous Metrópolis building to the Plaza de España. Shops, bars and much more line this wide street that stretches for more than a kilometre. If you start walking at the Metrópolis building, with its stunning dome crowned by a bronze statue, the next landmark you’ll come to is at Gran Vía 1, the address for Grassy jewellers since 1952. A bit further on, the Hotel de las Letras deserves a look inside before you’re wowed by the window display at the Loewe shop or stop to have a drink in the legendary Museo Chicote, which, despite its name, isn’t a museum at all, though there is some art on the walls in the form of photos of celebrities who have passed through the swinging doors.
2 Visit big museums and small galleries
Explore the area known as Madrid’s Art Triangle. The Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are the three vertices that make up this triangle that is right on the Paseo del Prado, but they’re not the only places where you can see art in the area: Madrid’s CaixaForum and its vertical garden are also great places to contemplate beauty. But you don’t have to walk the hallowed halls of the grandest museums and galleries to admire all the art Madrid has to offer. Small galleries such as Elena Ochoa’s Ivorypress, urban art created at the hand of the likes of Suso33 and collectives such as BoaMistura, along with temporary exhibitions by young painters in bars and restaurants round out Madrid’s cultural panorama.
3 Take in the city’s best views
The Madrid skyline is one of the most attractive in Spain. And if there’s a perfect place to take it all in, it’s from the rooftop terrace at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in C/ Alcalá. From this massive patio you can see the whole city, its great avenues, famous monuments, green spaces, and the Cuatro Torres, the capital’s big skyscrapers. It’s also an ideal spot to have a drink and watch the sun set.
4 Tour the city’s parks
You might not realise it, but Madrid has a lot of green spaces. The biggest one is the Casa de Campo, with 1,700 hectares (6.6 sq miles) – five times bigger than New York’s Central Park. The interior features a large lake where you’ll find small boats and where schools practise kayaking for competitions. There’s also a funfair, the Madrid Zoo, a youth hostel, sports facilities and more than a few spaces for concerts and events, including Madrid Arena.
5 The Paseo de la Castellana
The Paseo de la Castellana is the axis that passes through the city from north to south along the Paseo del Prado and the Paseo de Recoletos. This is where you’ll find Madrid’s financial centre, exclusive shops and hotels, and even Spain’s most-visited stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, home to the Real Madrid football club. The Natural Science Museum, the Nuevos Ministerios area, the Kio Towers and Plaza de Castilla with its huge obelisk are just some of the attractions dotted along this seemingly endless avenue.
6 Plaza Mayor
A visit to famous Plaza Mayor is a must. You can relax with an expensive cup of ‘café con leche’, study the equestrian statue of Felipe III in the centre of the square and do some pretty good people watching.
7 Go treasure hunting in El Rastro
Every Sunday it seems like the whole of Madrid is in one place: C/Ribera de Curtidores, in the Embajadores neighbourhood, where dozens of stalls are set up selling second-hand clothes, vinyl records, jewellery and just about any object you can imagine. This is El Rastro, the most famous and oldest flea market in town. Get there early, because later in the day the street turns into a raging river of shoppers.
8 Chocolate con churros at San Ginés
Over a century ago this chocolatier’s opened its doors in a hidden alleyway between Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Ópera. Today San Ginés serves up the most famous churros in Madrid, and it’s a popular meeting point for clubbers heading home after a serious night out. The churros have used the same reliable recipe since 1894.
9 Take a picture with ‘El Oso y el Madroño’
The quintessential symbol of Madrid and the meeting point for lost tourists and friends heading out on the town, ‘The Bear and the Strawberry Tree’ sculpture, at four metres and 20 tonnes of bronze, is not only in the centre of the Puerta del Sol, which is in the heart of Madrid, but is also the starting point (0 km) of all the motorways in Spain. It also appears in Madrid’s coat of arms.
10 Enjoy a really good party
The streets of the Malasaña neighbourhood were the centre of Madrid’s post-Franco ‘Movida’ countercultural movement, and they’re still abuzz with nightlife. Bars such as El Penta, La Vía Láctea and Tupperware are heaving with party people into the small hours at weekends. If a night out dancing is more your thing, you’re also spoiled for choice. You’ll hear a lot of talk about Kapital, pumping out house and dance music – the funkier the better – in its seven floors. To boogie the night away to the top pop hits of the day, head for Shôko. And the indie kids won’t be disappointed at Independance Club or Ocho y Medio.
11 Feast on ‘cocido’ and calamari sandwiches
When you’re getting to know a city, it’s just as important to try the local cuisine as it is to take in the art and culture. Madrid makes it easy with two essential traditional dishes. ‘Cocido’ is a stew that is typical of Madrid’s fare, and there are a thousand different ways to prepare it. The locals love their ‘cocido’ so much that there are even tours you can go on to try the best in the province. Some of the best ‘cocido’ can be found at Lhardy, with one of the oldest recipes in Madrid; La Bola, where it’s not unusual for them to serve 100 a day; and Malacatín, a traditional Madrid tavern in La Latina. For the best calamari sandwich, take a seat at El Brillante café, opposite Atocha station. Be sure to ask for it with or without lemon or mayonnaise, to suit your taste. And the streets around Plaza Mayor are laden with home-grown café bars such as Postas and Ideal, where you’ll always find sandwiches filled with breaded calamari on the menu.
12 Hit a high note
If you’re looking for live music, you’ve come to the right place. Madrid boasts plenty of venues, enormous or intimate, where the biggest national and international stars have played. If you’re a jazz fan, you’ll find the real thing at Café Central and Café Populart – both host live jazz nightly. If you’re looking to rock out or get down and funky, look no further than La Boca del Lobo, where all concerts are free. La Coquette is a meeting place for blues lovers, El Búho Real is where you want to go to catch unplugged singer-songwriters onstage, and Gruta 77 is a favourite among fans of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll.
13 Celebrate with a local festival
If you can stand the heat, Madrid’s summer festival season is the best time to see the capital in all its splendour. Spring has its share of celebrations, with Dos de Mayo, marking the 1808 uprising against French occupation; and the San Isidro festival honouring the patron saint of Madrid with outdoor concerts, street stalls selling food and drink, and spending the day in the park named after the saint. Once those are history, the parties really pick up, with the streets filled with festivals and merry-makers virtually every weekend throughout summer. The big one in mid-July is the Virgen del Carmen, which is a big deal in the barrios of Puente de Vallecas, Chamberí and Villaverde Alto. And August celebrates the Verbena de la Paloma in La Latina, honouring the neighbourhood’s own patron saint.