City breaks: 48 hours in the life of Madrid

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For a short cut to the soul of the city, Liz Nash offers a guide.

Why go now?

Because the young Madrilenos who inject the city with their vibrant energy are back from their New Year skiing breaks and extended family reunions, eager to go out and have fun. And the tourist invasion that immobilises streets, bars and museums won't kick in till Easter; the winter sun spears through your eyelids into your heart, you get 240 pesetas to the pound - and the sales are on.

Beam down

British Airways (0345 222111) and Iberia (0171-830 1711) have been engaged in a low-attrition fares war on the London-Madrid run for several years. Fares are currently around pounds 120. You may be able to find lower prices from Luton on Debonair (0500 146200). From other parts of the UK, the best deals may be with KLM via Amsterdam - through discount agents for around pounds 125.

Get your bearings

The airport bus leaves every 15 minutes and takes 45 minutes to get to the central Plaza Colon. The underground bus terminal connects with the tube, where you can ask for a public transport map.

Check in

Book ahead at the Monaco (522 4630), a former brothel, famed for its opulent bedrooms and easy-going decadence, in the lively gay quarter, Chueca. More mainstream is the Suecia (531 6900), amazingly quiet for such a central spot. The five-star Palace (429 1302), opposite the Parliament, dazzles with belle-epoque glory after months of being shrouded in scaffolding. Expensive, at up to pounds 200 a head, but unmissable if only for a drink in the chandeliered lounge. The warm-hearted Pension La Coruna (429 2543), a snip at pounds 10 per head, has beautiful views over the Retiro park.

Take a ride

Madrid has few architectural gems and traffic is impossible, so forget the coach tour and take the Teleferico, or cable car, from the Parque del Oeste. Soar over the city and watch trees, the motorway ring road and the feeble Manzanares river fall away beneath you until you arrive in the sprawling Casa de Campo park. Clock the stunning city skyline and after a swift turn about the scrubby Casa de Campo - a wretched, creepy place in my opinion - take a return ride. Off season you're likely to get a cabin to yourself, so if the company is right, have a 10-minute cuddle suspended in that magnificent sky.

Take a hike

Lunch on the run

Spaniards like to lunch long and late. But for a brisk midday chomp-and- go, try La Toscana (Ventura de la Vega 22) in the heart of bar territory between Plaza Ana and Sol. Get there early (ie before 2pm) and you may be seated without having to queue. Specialities are the tomato, tuna and onion salad, and roast veal and chips swimming in luscious meat juice. Non-meat-eaters enjoy deep-fried squid, or scrambled egg with mushrooms and little eels. With frothy beer on tap, or a jug of house red, it is difficult to pay more than pounds 10 a head.

Cultural afternoon

Don't miss the Prado which, even amid disruptive renovations, still offers the finest collection of Goya, Velazquez and El Greco you are ever likely to see. The newly opened top floor contains a rotunda in semi-darkness with a fine collection of Goya drawings illustrating witchcraft, ignorance and superstition. Being fragile, they are on show for only a few months each year. Across the road is Rafael Moneo's Thyssen Bornemisza museum, jammed with dazzling stuff, particularly 19th-century European and 20th- century American art. Canova's masterpiece The Three Graces, on loan from the V&A, is on show in the foyer until 22 February.

Window shopping

Shoes are the thing: cheap, elegant and everywhere. Luruena, Serrano 54, just by Marks & Spencer, is loafer heaven. For clothes, try any branch of the fashion chain Zara, which knocks off the hottest designs in the blink of an eye at half the price of Britain's high-street equivalents. Vincon, a cutting-edge Barcelona emporium of every designer object you can imagine, has opened in a matt black, laid-back warehouse in Castello 18.

An aperitif

This is Spain's favourite art form, celebrated with enthusiastic fervour between 12 noon and 2pm and between 7pm and 9pm. Try the raucous and kitsch Torre del Oro, a gash of Andalucia on the Plaza Mayor, for a chilled fino and coffee-cup-sized tapa of paella. Or, if gory bullfight videos are not to your taste, head for Chicote, the city's smartest cocktail bar, at Gran Via 12. This is an austere haven of steel and leather Art Deco curves, unchanged since the Thirties. Occupy one of the side benches, sip the best mojito in town and savour the hush.

Dining late

Madrid may be 300km from the sea but it has the best and freshest fish in Spain, possibly Europe. And the restaurant for unadorned fishy delight is La Trainera (Lagasca 60), run since the Fifties by cheery Miguel Garcia, whose grandfather used to bring fish to the capital in his ice-covered donkey cart. The warren of little rooms with wooden benches and tables gives a casual "ahoy lads" feel to a classy operation.

Sunday morning: go to church

Madrid's churches are mostly heavy, depressing places but an exception is El Basilico de San Miguel, just off the Plaza de Cordon, a sweet, rococo confection built during the rule of the Habsburgs that could have been plucked from a side street of old Vienna. Creamy cherubs and gilded curlicues make you smile, and the surrounding cobbled hilly lanes show a gentler side to this roaring city.

Bracing brunch

Squeeze in sideways to Diaz y Larrouy, Cava Baja 6, a Basque delicatessen and bar that serves sturdy rioja wine in squat tumblers, and a fierce, sloppy cheese called torta de casal with wedges of good, salty bread. Spicy chorizo sausage and smoked salmon canapes will set you up for the day - or at least until siesta-time. By Sunday lunch time bargain-hunters pile in from the nearby Rastro street market.

A walk in the park

The Retiro, once the monarchs' private garden, is a vast, leafy space in the heart of the city. It's a bit nippy just now for a boatride on the lake, or to linger with the fortune tellers, the buskers or the open- air chess enthusiasts, so tramp on and admire the statues, the rose garden and the lovely trees.

Icing on the cake

The coolest souvenir is an oilcloth tablecloth of a post-Franco map of Spain with its 17 autonomous regions clearly delineated. Available from Galean, an orthopaedic and exercise goods supplier on Carretas 31. Don't hang about, though: this is a well-known prostitutes' corner. Before taking the airport bus for your flight home, have a coffee in Gijon, Paseo de Recoletos 21, a traditional marble-and-mahogany coffee-house, where elderly gents still hold forth in their discussions or tertulias, as they did a century ago.