Take to the streets of the capital for a day and track down tasty tapas, shoeless nuns and David Beckham, says Simon Calder

8am Start your meandering at sunrise in Madrid, which in November occurs around eight. The place to begin is the Puerta del Sol at the heart of the capital. A plaque on the ground outside the former post office is marked "kilometre zero" - the point from which all distances in Spain are calculated.

The busy, scruffy junction is the unlikely centre of the nation, where its six main highways begin. Carreteras nacionales radiate from here to Cadiz, to Santiago, to Barcelona. But on a chilly morning, you should wander south through the magnificence of the Plaza Mayor - at this hour, strangely quiet - and continue south to the up-and-coming area of La Latina for a breakfast of chocolate y churros.

The hot chocolate that fuels many Madrileños has the consistency of emulsion paint, presenting the palate with a sweet, warm richness. Churros are deep-fried swirls of batter, doused in icing sugar. Try the seductive combination at one of the corner cafés outside La Latina Metro station - the frenetic El Diamante or the sophisticated Café de San Millán.

10am Suitably replenished, it is time to begin a stroll through monumental Madrid. Wander through the squares of the Conde (count) of Barajas and Miranda and zig-zag east - across Calle Mayor - to Madrid's surprising cathedral. Like many of Spain's great churches, it occupies the site of a mosque. Yet even though the first Christian place of worship at this location was built nearly five centuries ago, the cathedral was only officially opened in 1992. Construction had been ongoing for a century or so. While no match for, say, Seville's cathedral, the dimensions impressive.

To be further impressed, walk across the plaza to the Palacio Real - a desirable royal residence with just the 2,800 rooms, built to trump other nations' efforts. Besides the works of art, visitors will see the elaborate royal pharmacy and armoury.

Madrid's beefiest square is the Plaza Españna, where a vast hotel (now the Crowne Plaza) and other fine structures have echoes of the Americas' big cities. And, conveniently, you can hop on Metro line 10, direction Fuencarral, to the next location.

NOON

12pm Santiago Bernabeu is the name of the Metro stop, but all football fans know this as one of the leading shrines of the beautiful game: the Bernabeu Stadium. The home ground of Real Madrid, where David Beckham is currently in residence, has something of the spaceship about it. Every day hundreds of fans turn up to pay their respects and to take a tour of the venue (10.30am-6.30pm daily), and its impressive museum. The €9 (£6.50) tour takes an hour, which will give you time afterwards to wander south-west to the Plaza Picasso - a 21st-century city park, dominated by the Torre Picasso (not quite the work of art you might be expecting).

2pm Back in the city centre, the Plaza de Santa Ana is one of those magnetic places that attracts lots of tourists, who can find it tricky to leave. The current building work on the west side of the square detracts a little from the plaza's jumble of architecture and eating opportunities, but not so you would notice after a glass or two at the Cerverceria Santa Ana, the grand beer hall on the south face.

4pm You have to get your timing right for the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales - a working convent, in the middle of Madrid. The name of its occupants translates as "royal barefooted Franciscans'', and shoeless nuns still tend vegetable gardens. Such is the wealth of art that guided tours are compulsory, taking you around a bizarre collection of religious artefacts - a cross-sectional model of Christ, for example (open 10.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday; 11am-1.30pm Sunday; closed Mondays, and Friday afternoons).

NIGHT

6pm The Retiro park is one of Europe's great urban open spaces, with everything from triumphant sculptures to a boating lake. The most recent addition is a sombre but beautiful memorial to the victims of Madrid's train bombings in 2004, the Bosque de los Ausentes (or forest of the absent). This has an austere geometric plan, delicately illuminated by young plants that will one day suffuse this corner of the park with green. It gives you plenty to reflect upon as you wander west back into the old town.

8pm Some British weekenders in Madrid complain that they do not have enough time in a few days to adjust to the hours kept by the Madrileños, whereby dinner is rarely taken before 10pm. The solution is available in any bar: tapas, the ultimate finger foods. Staples include boquerones (fresh anchovies), patatas bravas (spicy spuds) and jamon serrano - dried ham.

The current hot venue for warm and cold tapas is Calle de Cava Baja, south of the Plaza Mayor. Begin at the rustically stylish Orixe Terra Gastronomica which is new but has already established a strong reputation for its empanadas (pastries) and pimientos. Then cross the street to Casa Lucas, where you can order more substantial dishes which will do a pretty good impression of supper; try the salmorejo, a thick gazpacho with grated ham, followed by the bonito - barely seared, delicate tuna.

10pm The Café Central is the ideal place to round off an evening with some jazz; it's located in the north of the Huertas district at Plaza Angel 10, just east of Plaza Santa Ana. The cover charge is €8 or €9, the drinks are reasonably priced and the music is energising.

12am Still hungry? The nearby Museo del Jamon, on the corner of Calle Victoria and Carrera de San Jeronimo, is a treatment centre for late-night munchies. Ranks of whole hams hang around like downcast members of a long bus queue - in contrast to the lively clientele.

NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH: THE PICK OF THE BARRIOS

Gran Vía is Madrid's version of Oxford Street, only with grander buildings. Most tourists in Madrid end up on it but not all are aware of the action taking place nearby. Central Madrid may initially look like a single entity, but when you delve deeper you find it is full of individual and idiosyncratic neighbourhoods - barrios.

Just north of Gran Vía is the barrio of Malasaña and suddenly you're in a different world. Once the centre of "La Movida Madrileña" (the city's happening night-scene, which exploded in the post-Franco years of the late Seventies) its narrow streets host an eclectic mix of bars, clubs and restaurants. In the daytime old folks wander unperturbed through gangs of kids playing games of street football. At night bohemian types emerge.

East across Calle de Fuencarral is Chueca. This formerly dowdy barrio was colonised by Madrid's gay community in the early Nineties: the camp hotchpotch of boutiques, bars and restaurants galvanised the area, and now property is being bought up by everyone: the result is a tolerant gay/straight fusion. It has become the happening place in Madrid - not for the city's "pijos' (rich kids) however, who live and hang out across Calle de Recoletos in Salamanca, a grid system of splendid palaces, swanky shops and expensive restaurants and bars.

To the south-west is Huertas, "el barrio de las letras', where Cervantes and Lope de Vega used to live, seems like a quiet residential area in the daytime but comes alive at night: suddenly every other doorway houses a bar. Huertas is bordered by the Paseo del Prado, and is a good place to escape for lunch after an art-heavy morning.

To the south is the immigrant-filled barrio of Lavapíes, home to the Rastro flea market (see page 5) on a Sunday morning, and destined to be Madrid's next big thing.

West of Lavapíes is La Latina, a working class district in the process of being gentrified. This is home to Calle Cava Baja, the city's best tapas drag (see above). This hard-working, hard-playing barrio merges westwards into Los Austrias. The Moorish maze of streets is peppered with monumental classical buildings, the most impressive of which is the Palacio Real.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to Madrid from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk); the two airlines "code-share" on all their routes, so you could book a BA trip and find yourself on an Iberia plane or vice-versa. And Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) flies from Manchester to Madrid.

The main no-frills operator to the city is easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), which flies from Gatwick, Luton and Liverpool. Fares are often cheapest on Aerolineas Argentinas: (0800 096 9747; www.aerolineasargentinas.com), which flies three times a week from Gatwick for a typical return fare of £81 if you book two weeks ahead.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The centre of the city is Puerta del Sol. Just to the south of here is the biggest public square, the Plaza Mayor, and beyond that the up-and-coming neighbourhoods of La Latina and Lavapíes. West and east, the centre is book-ended by parkland: the Campo del Moro to the west, the much larger Parque del Retiro to the east.

North of Sol, the city takes on a more modern character, with civil service offices and shopping centres, culminating in the Plaza Picasso in the north of the city. This is dominated by the Torre Picasso skyscraper, whose shadow falls on Real Madrid's ground.

GETTING AROUND

Despite its size, Madrid is easy to negotiate. It has an extensive and excellent-value system of Metro (underground) trains and buses - which is also a breeze to use. A single trip of any length costs a flat €1 (£0.70). You pay the bus driver, or buy a ticket from the machines or booking office at Metro stations - including the one at the city's airport.

If, like many visitors, you plan to walk a lot and just use the Metro or bus occasionally to cover longer stretches, buy a carnet of 10 tickets. This costs €5.80 (£4.15). On buses, validate the ticket in the machine next to the driver.

Madrid also has some worthwhile unlimited-travel passes. The basic A-type Abono Turistico costs €3.50 (£2.50) and allows you to use buses and Metro within the city limits. The two- and three-day versions cost €6.30 (£4.50) and €8.40 (£6). Five- and seven-day passes are also available.

If you plan to get out of the city (see page 11) then buy a T-type pass, which costs exactly twice as much as an A-type. It allows you to travel also on the Cercanias suburban trains to Alcalá de Henares, Guadalajara and Aranjuez. The Cercanias network equates to the RER in Paris, and offers high-speed travel within the major stations of Madrid, such as Atocha terminus to Nuevo Ministerios (for the Metro to the airport).

One form of public transport is not covered by these cards: the wonderful cable car (teleferico) that runs from Paseo de Rosales to Casa de Campo for a fare of €2.80 (£2).

Taxis are easy to find and good value. A 5km journey should cost around €7 (£5).

For more information, contact the Spanish Tourist Board on 020-7486 8077, or visit www.spain.info

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