Travel: My Rough Guide to Madrid: Where even the pickpockets have a smile on their faces

Most underrated museum

In a city blessed with the good fortune of being home to three of the greatest art collections in the world - the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofa - the Museo Sorolla gets little attention. However, for me, this tribute to a single artist's life and work is just as rewarding as the more heavyweight attractions. Situated in the former house of the artist Joaqun Sorolla, it's a delight to stumble upon this little oasis of peace and tranquillity in the midst of the traffic-choked streets of downtown Madrid.

Best discovery

While exploring the quiet side-streets around the stylish Atocha Station, I decided to investigate what was behind the rather uninviting exterior of the Royal Tapestry Workshop. Stepping back into centuries past you can see the 42 highly skilled workers coolly looping handfuls of bobbins around a myriad of strings hanging from the original 18th-century vertical looms, sewing up worn-out masterpieces with exactly matching silk and weaving together hundreds of threads to produce the subtle shades for a new tapestry. Progress, unsurprisingly, is painfully slow with a square metre of tapestry taking two months. One giant 16th-century Flemish tapestry on show took nearly two generations to complete.

Most characterful hotel

In this age of insipid, characterless hotels, the eccentric Hotel Mnaco stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Formerly a casa de citas where lovers, in rather less liberal times, could arrange to meet, it was converted into a hotel in 1959 and still retains much of its original decor. Each of its wonderful Art Deco rooms is completely different, embellished with a variety of mirrors, canopies, oil paintings and stuccoed ceilings. It's a little frayed at the edges, but for character and stylish eccentricity it can't be beaten.

Best tapas

A close second to the Prado as the city's main tourist attraction has to be its tapas, and to tapear (moving from one bar to the next sampling its speciality) has evolved into a culinary ritual all of its own. The best tapas bars are clustered together in the narrow streets around the city centre, and wandering from one bar to the next, eating and drinking as you go, has to be one of the most pleasant ways to get to know the city.

Most thieving flea market

Situated in the midst of one of the old working-class quarters of Madrid, the Rastro street market is a ramshackle affair that heaves with people every Sunday morning. On offer are dodgy designer clothes, antiques of dubious origin, assorted pets, dismantled electrical equipment, military regalia, dog-eared football programmes, broken pottery - in fact, everything you never knew you needed. A light-hearted and friendly atmosphere prevails, even the ubiquitous pickpockets have smiles on their faces.

Most atmospheric bar

There are so many great bars to choose from in Madrid, but for sheer atmosphere it's difficult to beat the sherry bar, La Venencia, near Plaza Santa Ana. Give the cool dry fino a try. Served from dusty wooden barrels and accompanied by delicious olives or mojama (dry, salted tuna), you might, if you're lucky, even be able to settle into one of the handful of seats at the back and share a bottle while the resident cats drape themselves over the sideboards. The mildly grumpy barman will chalk up your bill on the bar.

fact file

What to see

The Museo Sorolla is located at Paseo del General Martnez Campos 37 (Metro Iglesia/Ruben Daro) and is open Tues-Sat 10am-3pm and Sun 10am- 2pm. Entry 400ptas (free on Sun).

The Royal Tapestry Workshop is located at C/Fuentarrabia 2 (Metro Atocha) and is open Mon-Fri 9.30am-12.30pm. Entry 250ptas.

Where to go

The address of the Hotel Mnaco is C/Barbieri 5 (tel:

522 46 30, Metro Chueca) and the price for a double room is about 10,000ptas.

The bars in the streets around Plaza de Santa Ana and Puerta del Sol are some of the best for tapas.

The Rastro runs from 10am-3pm every Sunday along C/Ribera de Curtidores and the surrounding streets just south of Plaza Mayor (Metro La Latina).

La Venencia is close to Plaza Santa Ana at C/de Echegaray 7 (Metro Sol/Sevilla).

Simon Baskett lives and works in Madrid and wrote 'The Mini-Rough Guide to Madrid'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.