Whether you want to take in all the art, go shopping or simply soak up the spring sunshine, you can now do so in style – because Spain's capital is going seriously upmarket, says Imogen Haddon
WHY GO NOW?
Over the next few weeks, Madrid will begin to bloom under warm blue skies. Aside from the sunshine, right now Madrid is enjoying a second Movida – a civic renaissance that first happened in the late Seventies, after Franco's death. Consequently, there has been an influx of boutique hotels, trendy bars and gourmet restaurants.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com ) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow, jointly with Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com ); Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com ) flies from Birmingham and Manchester; easyJet (0905 560 7777; www.easyjet.com ) flies from Luton, Gatwick and Liverpool. Note that BA/Iberia services use Madrid airport Terminal 4, which, although a fine piece of architecture, is inconveniently located.
All the airport's terminals have access to Metro stations. The journey into the centre of Madrid is slightly complicated, but good value. You can buy a one-way ticket at €2 (£1.50) or a carnet of 10 Metro tickets for €6.70 (£5.15), for use later in your stay, plus the €1 (£0.75) surcharge that applies to all journeys to and from the airport. A taxi to the centre costs between €20 and €25 (£15.40-£19).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Madrid is divided into barrios, each with their own character. Several of these districts converge on the semi-circular Puerta del Sol (1), which is officially the geographical centre of the city – and of Spain, as kilometre zero, a worn paving stone, testifies. The grand Habsburg area, Los Austrias – reminiscent of a sunny Vienna – extends south-west from here. It includes the Plaza Mayor (2) – cobbled, arcaded and typical of Spanish town squares. This is where you will find the city's main tourist office at number 27 (00 34 91 588 1636; www.turismomadrid.es ).
Beyond Los Austrias, to the south, are the up-and-coming barrios of La Latina and Lavapiés. To the west, along Calle Arenal, is the Palacio Real (3), perched over the huge Campo del Moro. To the north, across the Calle Gran Via, is the trendy and predominantly gay district of Chueca – the Soho or Marais of Madrid. To the east, along Calle San Jerónimo, are the museums of the Prado, the Retiro park and the swanky Salamanca shopping district.
The concept of the boutique hotel has finally reached Madrid. One of the newest is the elegant five-star Hospes (4) on Plaza de la Independencia 3 (00 34 91 432 29 11; www.hospes.com ), part of a boutique chain that extends across Spain. The location is slightly removed from the frenetic tourist centre, overlooking the Puerta de Alcalá and Retiro park. Standard doubles start at €245 (£188) and the buffet breakfast costs an extra €28 (£22) per person.
Another hotel that forms part of the "New Madrid" is the Hotel Urban (5) on Carrera de San Jerónimo 34 (00 34 91 787 77 70; www.derbyhotels.com), which has stylish doubles from €215 (£164), room only. The ME Madrid Reina Victoria (6) has a wonderful location at Plaza Santa Ana 14 (00 34 91 701 60 00; www.mebymelia.com ). A double room costs €199 (£153), room only.
For a cheaper option, try the compact yet neat Petit Palace Arenal (7) at Calle Arenal 16 (00 34 91 564 43 55; www.hthoteles.com ), close to the centre of things just above the Plaza Mayor. Rates vary, but start from €90 (£69) for a standard double during the week in low season, room only.
TAKE A HIKE
Start at the grand Plaza de Cibeles (8), with its statue of Cybele, the Roman goddess of fertility and of abundance, and admire the grand junction's immaculately kept flower beds. From here, head up the Calle de Alcalá towards the Puerta del Sol (1) and then along the Calle Mayor to the imposing Plaza Mayor (2).
Through the square, head south along the Calle Toledo to hit the barrios of La Latina, where you will notice a younger, grungier crowd. Turn right at La Latina Metro station (9) and aim due west for the Plaza de San Andrés (10). Wander north and enjoy the café culture in the various plazas dotted around the area – a favourite being the sloping, cobbled sun-trap of the Plaza de la Paja (11).
Continue north towards the Plaza de la Cruz Verde (12) and climb up to the Calle Mayor, with the grand Catedral de la Almudena (13) and the Palacio Real (3) on your left. Perched on top of a rocky crag, you can understand why this made a good spot for a watchtower in Moorish times. Looking out across to the distant Sierra de Guadarrama, you realise just how isolated Madrid is. Wander around the elegant Plaza de Oriente (14) before winding your way back along the Calle Arenal to the Puerta del Sol (1).
Zara, Mango and other chain stores can be found on Madrid's Oxford Street, the Gran Vía. For something more individual, however, Calle Fuencarral in the Chueca district is the place to find trendy labels. Here, among a few Diesels and other chain stores, you'll find some quirky boutiques. If you're after high-end fashion, including the Spanish label Loewe, head towards Salamanca – inparticular, the Calle Serrano where you can spend it like Beckham. On Sundays, brave the crowds at the flea market, open from early until around 2pm at the Rastro – it extends along the Calle Ribera de Curtidores from the Plaza de Cascorro (15).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
"A quick bite to eat" is not the Madrileños' style. Apart from a few Starbucks creeping in, Madrid has hardly anything resembling a sandwich bar. Instead, opt for tapas: there are plenty of options around Plaza Santa Ana (6). This appealing square is lined with bars and is home to the lopsided neo-classical Teatro Español.
Madrid possesses an astonishing amount of fine art – and, unlike many other cities, the leading museums are concentrated in an agreeably small area. A Paseo del Arte ticket will get you in to the first three for €7.66 (£5); individually, they cost €6 (£4.60). The Prado (16), on Paseo del Prado (00 34 91 330 28 00; www.museoprado.es ), houses Madrid's best collection of Old Masters and post-Renaissance art. Highlights include Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in 1501. Wildly hallucinatory, this triptych makes Dali's offerings look tame. Goya is well represented with his Clothed Maja and Nude Maja, and his "Black Paintings" – dark in every sense of the word – painted in his last years, including the macabre Dos Viejos Comiendo Sopa. Goya's Third of May is currently being cleaned, but will return in mid-April. Another must is Velázquez's Las Meninas, with its play on perspective. The Prado opens 9am-8pm daily except Monday.
The Reina Sofía (17) on Calle Santa Isabel 52 (00 34 91 467 5062; www.museoreinasofia.mcu.es ) is a different experience again. This former hospital specialises in 20th-century Spanish works, including masterpieces by Picasso – whose harrowing Guernica is the museum's main attraction – Dali and Miro. It opens 10am-9pm daily except Tuesday, but only to 2.30pm on Sundays.
The third of the city's artistic big-hitters is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (18) at Paseo del Prado 8 (00 34 91 420 3944; www.museothyssen.org ). This lavishly assembled private collection comprises a potted history of European art from the Middle Ages to the present; most of the great masters are represented. It opens 10am-7pm daily except Monday.
The Caixa Forum arts centre (19), Paseo del Prado 36 ( www.obrasocial.lacaixa.es ) has recently opened. Previously an old electricity station, it has added another art venue on Madrid's "golden triangle". It opens 10am to 8pm daily.
Viva Madrid (20) at Calle Manuel Fernández y González 7 (00 34 91 29 36 40) boasts a fabulous carved-wood ceiling complete with gargoyles, an original zinc bar and hand-painted tiles, plus Brassaï-inspired paintings of the 1930s. For something completely different, hang out with the well-turned out Madrileños in Philippe Starck's newly opened bar/restaurant Ramses (00 34 91 43 51 666; www.ramseslife.com ) on the Plaza de la Independencia (4).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
A winning duo belonging to the same empire are Taberna Los Huevos de Lucio (21) on Calle Cava Baja 30 (00 34 91 366 29 84), which offers great tapas and, opposite, the more expensive and formal Casa Lucio at Calle Cave Baja 35, where everyone from Beckham to Blair has dined (00 34 91 36 58 217).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Madrid acquired a proper cathedral only in 1993, but the Gothic design of La Almudena (13) perfectly matches the architecture of the Palacio Real (3) next door. Before you go into the church (open daily 9am-9pm), head across the road to the Parque Emir (22), a small green space which contains part of an old wall, and is all that remains of Madrid's Moorish epoque.
OUT TO BRUNCH
The classic Spanish snack for elevenses is chocolate y churros. The chocolate has the consistency of emulsion paint, while the doughnut-like churros are crisp and sugary. Those served at Muniz (23), at Calatrava 3, are among the best. For a chocolate-and-batter fix later in the day, Alternatively, the Chocolatería San Ginés (24) at Pasadizo de San Ginés 5 is a Madrid institution geared to the late-night crowd; it opens 6pm-7am.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Watch the Madrileños running, rowing, skating and cycling in the Parque del Retiro. Covering almost 122 hectares, it is one of Spain's most elegant parks. Philip IV summoned garden designers from across Europe to create the lake and ensure that the park would have shade and flowers throughout the baking Madrid summer, starting with the blossom and irises which are out now.
The latest addition to the park is a poignant memorial to the victims of the 2004 train bombings – the Bosque de los Ausentes (25), or "Forest of the Absent".
ICING ON THE CAKE
Watch a film in the beautiful Art Deco Cine Doré (26) on Calle Santa Isabel 3 (00 34 91 549 00 11; film programmes at www.mcu.es ). This is now the Filmoteca Española and is firmly entrenched in Madrid's cinematic history, having been featured in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her.