As I waited for the plane on which I had bought a pounds 90 special to the Spanish capital to lumber into life, I jotted down a list of the great European cities. London and Paris, of course. Barcelona and Berlin. Vienna and Venice. Florence and Rome. Madrid? Nowhere. And that is precisely why you should go there. Madrid perches a chilly 3,000 feet up in the middle of the Spanish massif. Its importance derives solely from its centrality. All roads lead to Madrid, but that is only because Felipe II decreed that they should when he created the capital in 1561.

By now the Aerolineas Argentinas jumbo was leading to Madrid, too. Of all the city break destinations that are two hours by air from Britain, the Spanish capital has had the most exciting price war this year. Iberia opened with an April Fools' Day salvo of pounds 55 (you had to book on 1 April itself), and since then the Spanish carrier has been matching prices with British Airways around the pounds 100 mark. So for the Argentinian airline to fill up the first leg of its London to Buenos Aires flight, it has to charge even less.

If your flight is no more delayed than mine, you will get in just before midnight. In many European cities, this would be a dismal time to arrive. But you have the good fortune to be in the capital of the one country where a midnight feast is quite normal, and a stroll in the small hours is a safe and sound idea.

Spain's hub is Madrid, and Madrid's hub is the Plaza Mayor. "Main square" seems hardly adequate to describe an exquisite 17th-century ensemble. The four sides of this neat rectangle comprise handsome four-storey buildings, undistracted by modern life.

At second light next morning (no one in Madrid rises early), I retraced my steps. The square was yawning into life, with some snuffly old machinery cleaning up after a long night while Madrilenos quaffed coffee or cognac - the choice presumably depending on the sort of day they were expecting. I got stuck in with the chocolate y churros, a combination of thick, sweet hot chocolate with twirls of batter, deep-fried with as much delicacy as this particular cooking technique can muster.

Madrid possesses three of the world's great art museums, conveniently strung out along a mile rather like South Kensington in London. If you move at a jaunty, churro-fuelled pace, you can see the best of all three in a comfortable day. Start with the Prado, the oldest and, unfairly, most celebrated. Goya and Velasquez are given due prominence, though the devilish designs of Hieronymous Bosch may be the images that linger.

Dali picks up the enigma in the Reina Sofia modern art museum, housed in the former General Hospital. Twentieth-century sickness is most vividly illustrated by Picasso's overwhelming Guernica, depicting an attack by Franco's fascists on a Basque village. The heavy security presence around the picture reminds you that the Generalissimo began his overthrow of the republican government only 60 years ago, and that bitterness still resides in many a Spanish soul.

The newest and most rewarding collection in the city is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Baron T-B gave both his name and the collection to the city, after some gentle persuasion from his wife - a former Miss Spain. For anyone of the "I know what I like, and I don't much like art galleries" school, this new gallery is ideal. It takes you on a canter through the entire history of Western art, from early Italian to late 20th-century, with the most exceptional examples of each genre.

Your cultural dues paid, you can now immerse yourself in the true spirit of the city. And, mostly, that involves elaborate rituals for eating and drinking. A tapas crawl around the old city is the most pleasant way of eating a meal without really trying. Huge, ancient hams that look as if they arrived simultaneously with Felipe II hang from bars tended by equally ancient figures. Strange bits of fish are slammed down with small, icy glasses of beer.

And if that 747 to take you home proves elusive, try this: look from the departures area at the airport across the car park. You will see a spire peeking through above the warehouses. Follow this through hectares of desolation. You stumble upon the village of Barajas, and the best restaurant in Spain - where a jumbo-sized set meal costs a fiver, including a flagon of good wine to wash it down. The restaurant is called the Jumbo and it is the ideal place to wait for your Boeing.

Simon Calder paid pounds 90 (including tax) for a Heathrow-Madrid return on Aerolineas Argentinas through Air Tickets Direct (01279 713737)