Why go now?
Spain's capital is at its best in May, no longer held by the chill that makes its winters surprisingly cold and not yet assaulted by the raw heat that can make it stifling in high summer. The coming month also sees it stage the curious concept that is Festival de Otoño en Primavera (Autumn Festival in Spring; 11 May-5 June; madrid.org/fo), where a riot of music and drama plays out in its many theatres.
The leading airlines are easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) and its partner British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly from Heathrow and London City. Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) flies from Gatwick.
Barajas airport is eight miles north-east of the centre, with the new Terminal 4 two miles further away. Both are linked to the city by the Madrid Metro ( metromadrid.es), via an infuriatingly complicated journey: buy a €2 ticket and take Line 8 to Nuevos Ministerios. Change for Line 10 south to Tribunal. Switch to Line 1 for the city-centre stops of Gran Via (1) and Sol (2). Single fares within Metro Zone A, which spans the centre, are a flat €1.
Taxis are in good supply at the airport, and take around 30 minutes to the centre for €30.
Get your bearings
For a city of over three million people, Madrid has an oddly compact centre – the fruit of a late growth spurt that did not begin until 1561, when Felipe II crowned it Spain's capital and moved the royal court within its walls. The city sits at the heart of the Iberian Peninsula. A plaque on the south side of the Puerta del Sol (2) marks kilometro cero, the point from which the whole Spanish road system is measured. Madrid also fans out around this dot – its oldest district of La Latina to the south and "newer" areas such as Malasaña and Chueca to the north. This compactness makes it a place easily explored on foot – but you can find extra guidance at the main Centro de Turismo, at No. 27 in the city's main square, the Plaza Mayor (3); 9.30am-8.30pm daily (00 34 91 588 1636; esmadrid.com).
The Petit Palace Posada del Peine (4), pictured, at Calle Postas 17 (00 34 91 523 8151; madridhotelposadadelpeine.com), offers doubles from €135, room only. The Vincci Centrum (5), a four-star hotel with a boutique flavour at Calle de Cedaceros 4 (00 34 91 360 4720; vinccihoteles.com) has doubles from €110, with breakfast. And the AC Palacio Del Retiro (6), a five-star at Calle Alfonso XII 14 in the Salamanca district (00 34 91 523 7460; ac-hotels.com), has doubles from €270, room only.
Take a hike
Begin where the city did, in the Plaza Mayor (3). There is still a whiff of the imperial Spain that ruled half the planet in this elegant three-storied rectangular square (if not its overpriced cafés). Condemned heretics were burned here during the days of the Inquisition. Leave the plaza at its northern perimeter and turn left down Calle Mayor, the key avenue of Hapsburg Madrid – pausing to admire the Plaza de la Villa (7), the former kernel of 16th-century Madrid. Turn right at the crossroads into Calle de Bailé* and absorb the grand bulk of the Catedral de la Almudena (8), before continuing to the Palacio Real (9). Still the official (although not actual) residence of the Spanish monarch, the royal palace (00 34 91 454 8700; patrimonionacional.es) is an impressive Baroque pile that flaunts its 18th-century design. Its state rooms are open 9am-7pm Monday to Saturday, 9am-4pm on Sundays. Standard entry is €10 – but present an EU passport for free admission on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4-7pm.
Turn right opposite the palace and enter the Plaza de Oriente (10), a square lined with statues of Spanish kings. Then pause at the rear, where the Teatro Real (11) – a platform for opera and ballet – awaits at Plaza de Isabel II (00 34 91 516 0696; teatro-real.com). Guided tours are available 11am-1.30pm at weekends (from 10.30am other days, closed Tuesday) for €5.
The Gran Vía and the streets above Puerta del Sol (2) are lively shopping areas. There is also an excellent outlet of department stores El Corte Ingles (12) at Calle de Preciados 1-3 (00 34 91 379 8000; elcorteingles.es).
The Salamanca district offers swish retail therapy on Calles Jorge Juan, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Serrano. Lavinia (13), at Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset 16 (00 34 91 426 0604; www. lavinia.es), sells fine Spanish wines.
Lunch on the run
Hop to the Plaza de San Miguel, where the Mercado de San Miguel (14) – a fruit market that opened in 1916 – has been restored, selling gastro-goods such as hams, olives and cheeses (00 34 91 542 4936; mercadodesanmiguel.es). At the cafés strewn amid the stalls, you can eat beef bocadillos for €2.50.
Any cultural foray to Madrid should be pinned to three galleries. In the Museo del Prado (15), at Calle Ruiz de Alarcó* 23 (00 34 91 330 2800; museodelprado.es), European art of the 12th to 19th centuries is showcased via Spanish giants Goya and Velazquez, plus El Greco, Botticelli and Titian. Open 9am-8pm daily except Mondays, €8. A short walk away, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (16) at Paseo del Prado 8 (00 34 91 369 0151; museothyssen.org), focuses on the same era with pieces by Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Open 10am-7pm daily except Mondays, €8.
The Museo Reina Sofía (17), at Santa Isabel 52 (00 34 91 774 1000; museoreinasofia.es), trawls the 20th century with Dalí and Miró, but is renowned for Guernica, Picasso's portrayal of the bombing of the Basque city in 1937. Open 10am-9pm daily except Tuesday, to 2.30pm on Sundays, €6.
The Tarjeta Paseo del Arte – a pass that covers the full triumvirate – is available for €17.60.
The streets below Puerta del Sol (2) are a hub of nightlife. Busy bars compete on the likes of Calle de las Huertas and Calle de Núñez de Arce. But a good spot for a tipple is the ME Madrid Hotel (18) at Plaza de Santa Ana 14 (00 34 90 214 4440; memadrid.com). Its rooftop bar, The Penthouse Terrace, gazes down onto the square.
Dining with the locals
The same district boasts numerous versions of that Spanish staple, the tapas bar. La Trucha (19), at Calle de Núñez de Arce 6 (00 34 91 532 0882), is all hanging hams and crisp calamari for €3. For more formal fare, El Mercado de la Reina (20), at Gran Vía 12 (00 34 91 521 3198; mercadodelareina.es), serves grilled octopus for €13.50.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Catedral de la Almudena (8) (00 34 91 542 2200; archimadrid.es/catedral; 9am-8.30pm daily) is the city's awkward child, a mish-mash of Gothic and Baroque styles due to its 110 years in gestation – work finished only in 1993. Many worshippers are likely to head south-east straight after Mass into La Latina and hunt for bargains at El Rastro, the Sunday street market (9am-3pm) in and around the Plaza de Cascorro (21).
Take a ride
Pick up Metro Line 1 at Sol (2) and ride north to Bilbao station (22). From here, venture south of Calle de Sagasta into Malasaña, the rising district that, 15 years ago, was distinctly sleazy – but which now has a Bohemian ambience in its cafés and shops, especially on the north-south artery of Calle Fuencarral.
Out to brunch
Hidden in the upper reaches of Malasaña, Nina (23), at Calle Manuela Malasaña 10 (00 34 91 591 0046), proffers Mediterranean cuisine in a restored space of bare brick and naked plaster – but is popular for the unlimited brunch option (€20, 12.30-5.30pm) that sees madrileños pile their plates with croissants, Eggs Benedict, bagels and fresh fish.
A walk in the park
Take Metro Line 2 to Retiro station (24). The Parque del Buen Retiro is Madrid's most important expanse of green. This 350-acre park is the city's weekend (and weekday) playground, where joggers pound the winding paths, friends gather at cafés and couples sit on the steps of weighty monuments. The curving colonnade (25) that tips its hat to 19th-century monarch Alfonso XIII is particularly striking – while El Angel Caído (26), a statue by Spanish sculptor Ricardo Bellver depicting Lucifer tumbling from heaven, injects an unexpected note of darkness into this pastoral enclave.
The icing on the cake
Retreat to the centre, and the fabled Chocolatería San Ginés (27), a Madrid institution at Pasadizo de San Ginés 5 (00 34 91 365 6546) that has been selling gloopy hot chocolate with churros (long, thin doughnuts) since 1894 (€4). Go elbow-to-elbow with fellow churro-dippers amid the long mirrors and green velvet seats, and marvel at the fact that, though the Chocolatería is open 24 hours a day, the queue never seems to diminish.