The central Spanish metropolis may be oozing history from every pore, but Madrid's hip new bars and creative art spaces show it's a city of progress too.
There's much to see in the sprawling Spanish capital, so start by fuelling up at La Fábrica (Calle de la Alameda 9, 91 298 5523). Part art gallery, part restaurant, you can eat pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with tomato and topped with olive oil) along with jamón Ibérico and café con leche, before taking in some compelling modern art. Found within the 'golden triangle' of Madrid's most famous museums, La Fábrica serves as a base to visit the nearby Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia. The former two are homes for more classical collections of art, while the latter opened in the 1980s to display contemporary works; it's a symbol of the post-Franco era, and even hosts Picasso's Guernica, whose subject is a town destroyed by aerial bombardment during the Spanish Civil War.
La Fábrica is right next to Parque de El Retiro, an essential stop for any visit to Madrid. Having once belonged to the royal family, this city park is hardly a hidden gem, and is packed with tourists on the weekend who wander around its beautiful lake and monument-strewn gardens. If you fancy getting off the tourist trail, hop on the metro and make your way to Legazpi and the incredible Madrid Rio Park. This extraordinary green space has rejuvenated a neglected area along the Manzanares River, which used to be dominated by a highway that separated several neighbourhoods from the city centre. The highlight of this revived zone is Mataderos Madrid (Plaza de Legazpi 8, 91 517 7309), a former slaughterhouse that’s been converted into a contemporary art centre. Inside there’s a recording studio and concert hall, a micro-cinema showing non-fiction films, a design centre and a performing arts space. If there's time, check out Museo de Cerralbo (Calle Ventura Rodríguez 17, 91 547 3646), an 18th-century palace that once housed the Marquis of Cerralbo, who died in 1922. Beautiful paintings from across the centuries adorn the shrewd collector’s rooms, along with ancient artefacts and countless curiosities.
THeading eastwards back into the heart of the city, take a stroll past the grand Palacio Real (Calle de Bailén, 91 454 8700), built in the 18th century. Nearby is the sombre Almudena Cathedral (Calle de Bailén 10, 91 542 2200), whose construction began back in the 16th century, but was only finished in 1993 – in time for the marriage of the now-King Felipe with Princess Letizia in 2004. Around the corner is Madrid’s main square, Plaza Mayor, known for its 237 balconies, talented buskers and touristy restaurants. Walk south out of the square and you’ll enter the famous, bohemian district of La Latina, where terrace bars and cafés bustle in narrow, stepped streets beneath historic arches. If it happens to be a Sunday, visit the Rastro flea market. /p>
Traditionally the Spanish go for a vermut (pre-lunch drink), especially on the weekends. Even if they don't actually drink vermouth, their tipple is usually accompanied by a bowl of olives or another snack. A classic choice close to Plaza Mayor is Bodegas Ricla (Calle Cuchilleros 6, 91 365 2069), which is rather poky but full of local charm. Order a small plate of boquerones (fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar) and wash them down with the house wine or jerez (sherry). If you want to do things by the book, there's also the bar's famous vermouth-on-tap. By now you'll probably be glowing, but lunch is only a few steps away at Casa Revuelta (Calle Latoneros 3, 91 366 3332). Try the renowned tapas such as torreznos (bite-size pieces of pork belly) and bacalao empanado (breaded cod).
After lunch, take a leisurely stroll over to Puerta del Sol, Madrid's most famous square. It's fringed on all sides by historic buildings and hosts the official symbol of the city, El Oso y El Madroño, a statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree. The best thing about Puerta del Sol, though, is the buzzing atmosphere and there are many lively streets leading off the square. Taking one of these east will lead you into the Barrio de Las Letras, whose streets are named after the Golden Age writers that inhabited them. A plaque on Calle Cervantes marks the place where Spain’s most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes, penned the second part of Don Quixote, before dying impoverished in 1616. On the same street, Casa Museo Lope de Vega (Cervantes 11, 91 429 9216) was once the home of the illustrious playwright; today it contains a mix of his belongings and furniture, giving an insight into life during this era. The spirits of writers José Zorilla and Francisco de Quevedo live on too – look down and you’ll see extracts of their novels inscribed on the street.
For shopping, take Calle Preciados out of Puerta del Sol – it's a pedestrianised street with many department stores including El Corte Inglés, as well as famous Spanish brands like Zara. If high-end shopping is more your thing, walk northeast to Barrio de Salamanca, known for being the city’s most exclusive neighbourhood. Browse the boutiques on Calle Claudio Coello, stopping at the Philippe Starck-designed Ramses (Plaza de la Independencia 4, 91 435 1666) to warm up for dinner with cocktails and views across Puerta de Alcalá and El Retiro Park.
Traverse Fuencarral, which divides Madrid’s most bohemian neighbourhoods, Chueca and Malasaña. These two barrios are famous for their lively watering holes and live music. For a less raucous spot, try hidden gem La Paca (Calle Valverde 36, 66 211 9067), a cafe-bar that prides itself on all things vintage, with antique chairs, historic tables and eclectic retro pieces; a creative crowd gather here daily, in part for the regular art expositions and mini-gigs.
The night might go two ways. You could install yourself at the bar area of modern fusion restaurant Ten con Ten (Calle Ayala 6, 91 575 9254) for an aperitif, before dining on strawberry gazpacho and roasted black bacalao with truffles. Or, you could follow the hipsters to Madrid’s mecca of cool, Lavapiés. Home to many different immigrant communities and boasting its own ‘curry mile’, the trendsetting district is full of edgy dive bars. For dinner, Gau&Café (Edificio Escuelas Pias, 91 528 2594) is a bold, modern restaurant with a rooftop terrace offering terrific views of the city. After, head to a feet-stomping flamenco show at the authentic Casa Patas (Calle de los Cañizares 10, 91 369 0496).