Well-heeled is the phrase that springs to mind: this city offers fine art, modern cuisine, chic hotels - and fabulous shoes. Kate Simon steps out

DOWN PAYMENT

Down payment

Competition between the airlines is intense. Prices tend to escalate the nearer you get to departure, so the further ahead you can plan the better. The cheapest option may be easyJet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com), which flies to Madrid from Luton and Liverpool. At the time of going to press, there were still flights available for this weekend (departing Friday 12 April, returning Sunday 14 April) for £170 return from Luton or £90 from Liverpool. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) flies to Madrid from Heathrow. At press time, there were still seats available for this weekend for £151.40 return. Barajas airport is 10 miles from the city. Private buses run from the airport to the Plaza de Colon every quarter of an hour: tickets cost €2.40 (£1.40). Or take a taxi to the centre for about €16 (£9.60).

Instant briefing

The Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1U 3PX (020-7486 8077; www.spaintour.co.uk) is open Monday-Friday 9.15am-4.15pm. In Madrid, the main tourist office is at Plaza Mayor, 3 (00 34 91 588 1636, open Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-3pm).

Rest assured

Madrid's hotels are smartening up, especially with the recent addition of one of the ultra-chic Design Hotels, the Hotel Bauza (00 34 91 435 7545; www.designhotels.com). But if you are looking for something stylish in the mid-range price bracket your choice is limited. At the top end, Hotel AC Santo Mauro, Calle Zurbano, 36 (00 34 91 319 6900) is set in an old palace in the well-heeled Chamberi district, with a small private garden and, a rare feature here, an indoor pool. The rooms in the main house are best and cost from €319 (£152) per night. Hotel Orfila, Calle Orfila, 6 (00 34 91 702 7770) is an exquisite small mansion built for an artistic family in the late 19th century. It's a short walk from the Prado and rooms cost from €176 (£104) per night. Best of the mid-range may be the Residencia de El Viso, Calle Nervion, 8 (00 34 91 564 0370), a tasteful 1930s property in a pretty area of the same name. Rooms cost from €132.68 (£79.60). If you're on a budget, try the Hotel Paris, Calle Alcala, 28014 (00 34 91 521 6491), right on the Puerta del Sol. Once one of the city's smartest hotels, it is now more appropriately termed "characterful". Rooms from €83 (£49.80), including breakfast. For more good suggestions visit www.secretplaces.com, through which you can also book rooms.

Must see

As with any short break, you'll get the best out of a city if you take the view that you are going to see only some of it. A metrobus ticket gives you 10 journeys on the metro and bus for just €5 (£3). But the centre of Madrid is very compact, making it excellent for getting about on foot. Start on the Paseo del Prado, a proud, wide boulevard typical of the Spanish capital, which runs from Plaza de la Cibeles to the 19th-century Atocha station, with the fabulous Retiro park on its eastern side.

This road is the gateway to the city's three finest art galleries: the Museo del Prado (00 34 91 330 2900; open Tues-Sat 9am-7.30pm, Sun 9am-2pm, closed Mon), the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (00 34 91 420 3944; open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm, closed Mon) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (00 34 91 467 5062; open Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm, closed Tues; free on Sundays, and on Tuesdays after 2.30pm).

You could easily spend more than a weekend in any one of these, so unless art is your obsession it's best to go for the highlights: my vote goes to Goya's Black paintings in the Prado and Picasso's Guernica in the Reina Sofia. A Paseo del Arte voucher costs €7.66 (£4.59) and allows you one entrance to all three museums – and lasts for a year.

If all that grandeur proves a bit too much, head from the Reina Sofia along Calle Argumosa into Lavapies, a poor but cosmopolitan barrio. It can be dodgy here after dark, but during the day there's a wealth of hippy-type shops in which to browse.

Or just ramble around Los Austrias, the old city, which is bounded by Puerta del Sol, the Palacio Real and San Francisco el Grande. At its centre is the 16th-century Plaza Mayor, a vast, collonaded square lined with imposing red-brick buildings. Take the steps down from the south-west corner, by the tourist office, into Calle Cuchilleros and continue across the Puerta Cerrada into Calle Cava Baja. This narrow street traces the line of the 12th-century city wall but is now best known for its mesone, restaurants serving traditional Spanish fare.

Don't miss

On Sunday mornings go to the Rastro flea market on Ribera de Curtidores, then head for La Latina to hang out with the locals at El Bonanno bar on Plaza San Andres, or the New York-style Delic on Plaza de la Paja.

Must buy

Fashionable Camper shoes. You can buy them in Spain for two-thirds of what you'd pay for them in the UK. The most central branch in the city is at Calle Preciados, 23, in the main shopping district, which fans out from Puerta del Sol. For the hippest boutiques head north-east to wealthy Salamanca, where you'll get similar discounts on clothing from top Spanish designers such as Antonio Miro and Amaya Arzuaga.

Must eat

Madrilenos don't lunch until 2pm and don't dine until well past 9pm, so adjust your internal clock. And remember, children are welcome just about everywhere at any time. Here are some places to try.

Taberna La Salamandra, Calle Alfonso VI, 6, (00 34 91 366 0515). Excellent food in the relaxed surroundings of a typical Madrid taberna, this restaurant offers far better value than many swankier options. Excellent value at £10-£12 per head.

Bluefish, Calle San Andres, 26 (00 34 91 448 6765) is a new and modern bar-restaurant with dishes to share, Mad-rileno-style, in funky surroundings. Try the menu del dia for around £10 per head.

Ribeira do Mino, Calle Santa Brigida, 1 (00 34 91 521 9854) is a great Galician dining experience. Ask for a mariscada for two (about £14) – a huge platter of prawns, crab and more, with bread and mayo on the side. Casa Mingo, Paseo de Florida, 34 (00 34 91 547 7918) is an Asturian cider restaurant serving good hearty rustic fare in a noisy but fun atmosphere. The bill should come in at £8-£10 each.

Into the night

Madrilenos are the night owls of Spain. After dinner, it's customary to bar hop well into the small hours and end up in a nightclub. Huertas is popular with tourists: try La Boca del Lobo, Calle Echegaray, 11, open till around 4am. Chueca is the gay area, and Lavapies is where a more bohemian crowd hangs out.

Additional research by Jo Wheeler and Mark Hughes

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