20 great things to do in Madrid

1. Stay up late to feel the cantaor’s passion
To the unitiated, flamenco is perceived as a joyful, colourful form of song and dance. In truth, it is really about the suffering endured by the Andlucían gypsies, expressed in performance style. You’re most likely to see authentic flamenco at a tablao (restaurant with a stage) of which there are many in Madrid. Be prepared to stay after midnight, however, when the star dancers and singers unleash the passion, power and grace.

Flamenco purists are snobbish about the scene in Madrid, but even they are thrilled by the performances at Casa Patas (C/Cañizares 10, Lavapiés (91 369 04 96). Star performers can also be seen at the Corral de la Pacheca (C/Juan Ramón, Jiménez 26, 91 353 01 00). Cardamomo, a small flamenco club (Calle Echegaray, 15, 34-91-369-0757) attracts a younger crowd. At cool, bohemian El Juglar, Sunday nights are given over to flamenco, performed by students from the nearby Amor de Dios school.

To stamp and clap along to flamenco in party mode visit the city at festival time. The Festival de Flamenco Caja Madrid takes place in Teatro del Canal and other venues around the city in February, and in May the San Isidro fiesta is the mother of all knees-ups.

2. Turn on the vermouth tap
Madrileños famously have a Sunday drinking habit, it’s all part of the attractive, leisurely tapas culture. A lesser know tradition, however is haciendo el vermut (doing vermouth). They drink the sweet red concoction, made from sweet white wine blended with herbs, flowers, fruit peel, seeds and plants, with ice and a slice as an aperitif for the big Sunday lunch, or alongside tapas.

You can drink vermouth, from the tap, with tapas, at Bodegas Ricla, which has a great line in cured venison and garlicky boquerones (pickled fresh anchovies). La Taberna de Corps also does draught vermouth and a super surtido (mixed tapas plate). Bar El 2 De is a mellow place to sup vermouth in the afternoons, but it’s rowdy by night. If you’re after traditional, Casa Antonio (C/Latoneros 10, 91366 57 83) is one of the oldest vermut bars in Madrid.

3. Celebrate creativity in the slaughterhouse 10
A century-old neo-Mudéjar building that was once the heart of the city’s meat trade is now showing its sensitive side. Matadero Madrid, created from the old municipal slaughterhouse by Madrid’s City Council is a vast space consisting of ten different buildings. Only a few of them are being used for art exhibitions, theatre productions, lectures and creative happenings at present; this project is a work in progress until 2011, but it’s a fascinating new venue in the south of the city and the busy bar area is great for people watching.
Matadero Madrid Paseo de la Chopera, 14 (34-91-517-7309).

4. Indulge your shoe addiction
Madrid is a major producer of footwear, with the Valencia and Alicante areas dominated by shoe factories. For shoe shoppers, the street to tramp down is Augusto Figueroa, in the heart of Chueca, where you’ll find numerous outlets for factory samples. Otherwise, it’s to Salamanca for top-dollar leather goods from the elite Loewe brand, or Mallorcan gorgeousness from Farrutx and Camper. If it’s espadrilles your weary feet crave, Antigua Casa Crespo has them in bucketloads in this perfectly preserved, old-fashioned store.

5. Develop a montecado habit
Montecados are melt-in-the-mouth, pale cookies made with aniseed and almond and lots of fat. They’re one of the heaven-sent specialities of the baking nuns of the Convento de las Carboneras, whose sweet confections are handed out to customers through a grille, as this is a closed order.

6. Have a green thought in a green shade
Madrid’s luscious botanical gardens – Jardín Botanico – are right by the Prado museum, but once you’re inside, among more than 30,000 plants from around the world, you feel as if city life has been put on hold. The same is true of the less well-known but larger Parque del Buen Retiro (Plaza de Murillo, 2; 34-91-420-3017), which does not demand that you treat it like a museum (Botanico does) and where you can cool off in the shade of a 200-year-old tree.

7. Imbibe an Intellectual vibe
It’s easy to go on a Hemingway bar crawl in this city, as there seem to be few places where the writer did not drink. He and other international press hacks, along with decorative drinkers Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner, all downed cocktails at the Museo Chicote, along with just about every Spanish writer, actor or artist of the last 60 years. Hemingway reserved Cervecería Alemana for his daily beer (his table is the one in the near right-hand corner). More recently Café del Real, with its red leather chairs and old opera posters, was the place for intellectuals and artists and actors in the 1980s. Today, café society has its quintessential point of reference in the elegant Café del Círculo de Bellas Artes, where the intelligentsia frown over coffee and El País. There may be no detecable intellectual vibe at the rowdy, oirish themed James Joyce pub, but there are ghosts: the pub sits on the site of the historic Café Lion, a haunt of post-Civil War literati.

8. Dine in an old-timer
Anywhere billed as the world’s oldest restaurant is going to have the tourists beating a path to its crumbly portals, but El Sobrino de Botín is as famous for its roasts as for its longevity (300 years old and counting). That old Spanish favourite, cochinillo – suckling pig – is the dinner of choice for many, but others swear by the cordero (lamb). Celebrated past diners include King Alfonso XII’s sister in the 19th century, and more recently, Hemingway, of course.

Other venerable old timers, without the cramped nooks and crannies of El Sobrino, but with a pleasantly antique atmosphere, include La Bola Taberna, still run by the same family that founded it in the 19th century and considered by many to be the home of cocido, a huge and hearty stew beloved of Madrileños. Casa Ciriaco was the meeting place for the intelligentsia in pre-Civil War days and is still going strong; cochinillo and partridge and butter beans are served up by old-school waiters. Casa Marta has been the preferred watering hole of opera goers since the turn of the 20th century. You can enjoy a splendid plate of duelos y quebrantes, which was apparently Don Quixote’s favourite meal – scrambled eggs, ham, bacon, chorizo and brains – although the chefs here hold the brains.

9. Eat cake in a sweet old period piece
Witht the same décor and counter as when it opened in 1830, the lovely old pastelería known as Antigua Pastilería del Pozo (91 522 38 94) is a beauty, and its cakes are little pieces of perfection.

10. Witness a bloody miracle
If you believe in miracles, Madrid can prove an auspicious city break. Many of the churches are wreathed in legend, and have statues’ feet to kiss and fonts to pray to if you need celestial help with your lovelife. The weirdest augury of great things, however, has to be the phial of blood, which purportedly belongs to the doctor saint Pantaleón, contained in the Convento de la Encarnación. This 17th century convent attracts lengthy queues of the faithful on the saint’s feast day, July 27, when the contents of the phial miraculously liquefy, bringing great things for all those who witness it.

11. Get high
See Madrid from a new angle in the hugely enjoyable Teléferico Madrid cable car, which takes you on a 2.5km trip over the Casa de Campo, or take the stomach-lurching glass lift up the communications tower known as the Faro de Madrid, which, at 92m gives the best views over the whole of the city. if you fancy hitting the heights and plumbing the depths simultaneously, check the rooftop swimming pool and bar at the lofty Hotel Emperador, open to non-residents for a fee.

12. Sup it and see
Madrid is an oenophile’s playground, so tour companies arrange trips around the fruit of the vine. For the casual taster, however, the city’s respected bodegas (wine shops) provide a valuable viticultural education. The gourmet shop at Bodegas Santa Cecilia hosts frequent tasting sessions, as does the Reserva y Cata, alongside wine-tasting courses. For sheer numbers of bottles and expert advice, try the modern Lavinia, which claims to be Europe’s largest wine shop, and, in stark contrast, the classically handsome 19th-century bodega Mariano Madrueño, whose selection of all types of booze is quite boggling.

13. Pick up the thread
Many people visit the Real Palacio de El Pardo to get an eyeful of Generalísimo Franco’s private rooms – decorated to his own specifications 1970s style – but spare some time to admire the stunning tapestries hanging in its otherwise gaudy interior. Many of them were woven in the Real Fábrica de Tapices, the royal tapestry factory, where you can enjoy guided tours in Spanish (call in advance to arrange for an English-speaking guide). The hand-working skills and techniques used to create the pieces (Goya designs have always been a mainstay of the work) are fascinating to see and the intricate patterns are stunning.

14. Invest in the Paseo de Arte
Culture vulture? Buy yourself an art passport. For a paltry €15 or so this hot ticket is your key to what has been called, slightly facetiously, Madrid’s Golden Triangle – made up of the city’s three art palaces – the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofía. The combined treasures of these three are priceless, which is just as well, as the final cost of ambitious expansion plans, still in progress, will be more millions of euros than anyone dare guess.

15. Pork out at the ham museum
Dotted around town the various branches of the Museo del Jamón are a sight to behold, with dozens of hams dangling from the ceiling. You can sample their wares at the bar or in their restaurants. While you’re on the look out for charcuterie, tour the noisy colourful markets – Mercado de la Paz in Salamanca is one of the more upmarket one; El Rastro is the city’s most famous, dating back nearly five centuries. Gourmands on the hunt for a classy picnic to enjoy in the park or foody gifts to take home should not miss Patrimonio Comunal Olivarero (olives, olive oil), La Moderna Apicultura (honey) and La Boulette (cheese).

16. Strum along to a Spanish beat
If you’ve been inspired by flamenco guitar and fancy mastering the rasgueado, beat a path to Guitarrería F Manzanero, a master guitar-maker’s shop, which also has a display of old and rare string instruments. Garrido Bailén, another fine musical instrument shop, can also sell you a traditional Spanish guitar.

17. Let Goya be your guide
Subversive artist Francisco Goya was possibly the least respectful court painter ever. Evidence of his mastery and mischief can be seen at the Prado, where several rooms superbly represent every stage of his turbulent career. His painting The Family of Charles IV was described by Hemingway as ‘a masterpiece of loathing’ as it clearly demonstrates his disdain for the bewildered monarch and his nymphomaniac womenfolk. The genius of Goya is evident all over the city.

At the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, the artist's frescoes create an explosion of colour and light. The Basélica de San Francisco el Grande, most famous for its spectacular dome (bigger than St Paul’s), is also notable for its rare early Goya, the Sermon of San Bernardino of Siena (1781). There are 13 works by Goya in the Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, one of Madrid’s most important artist institutions. Don’t miss Goya’s interpretation of the bizarre Ash Wednesday ritual of the Burial of the Sardine, a festival still upheld today.

Lastly, to see the bare bones of the artist’s talent, tear over to the Museo del Biblioteca Nacional, hailed as the Prado of paper because of its wealth of printed matter – more than three million volumes of everything that’s ever been printed since 1716 – as well as a series of Goya drawings.

18. Feast your eyes at sundown…
Sunsets in Madrid are stunning, magenta affairs – the pretty purple haze on the horizon is created by the pollution, unfortunately. Still, you have to get your kicks where you can these days, so admire the hues and views from one of the terrazas on the Paseo del Pinto Rosales – we can recommend the Bruin, a wonderfully old-fashioned ice-cream parlour with a terrace, where some of the flavours are decidedly Heston Blumenthal…olive oil, tomato and cheese, anyone?

19 …and at sun up
As breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you should take it in lovely surroundings. A surprisingly peaceful spot, considering its proximity to the Prado, is El Botánico, where you can dip your churro in your chocolate while taking in the views of the botanical gardens. At la Mallorquina, tables at huge windows looking over the Puerta del Sol are highly prized by those looking for an inspirational place to savour flaky ensaïmada pastries and strong coffee.

20. See that everything in the garden’s rosy
Do not leave Madrid without basking in the Parque del Oeste in Argüelles, one of the city’s most attractive spaces. In May and June the rose garden is heady with perfume and the spirit of healthy competition – an international rose contest takes place here at this time. The park has grand views of the Palacio Real and the incongruous Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple that’s miles away from home.

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