At first glance, Madrid may strike you as a refined, traditional city, with grand boulevards, opulent landmarks like the Royal Palace, and prestigious cultural institutions like the Prado Museum, home to priceless masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Titian. But scratch between this elegant exterior and you'll discover an exuberant modern metropolis that really knows how to party.

    The dining scene runs the gamut from friendly hole-in-the-wall tapas joints to exclusive Michelin-starred restaurants, while Madrid's nightlife is thrillingly hedonistic, with more raucous bars, chic cocktail lounges and pulsing dance clubs than you could ever hope to explore.

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    Bustling tapas bars, world-class art galleries and historic squares are just some of the attractions of a Madrid city break. Book a Madrid hotel to soak up the vibe of the lively Spanish capital and get to know the madrileños, the city’s fiesta-loving residents.

    Get your bearings

    Compact and pedestrian-friendly, the city’s hub is Sol, the area around the Puerta del Sol square. To the east lies leafy El Retiro park and Madrid’s world-class art museums, with the exclusive Salamanca neighbourhood to the north. Westwards to the river, Calle de Alcalá and Calle Mayor wind past the arcaded square, Plaza Mayor, towards Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. Cutting across the city is the busy Gran Via with trendy quarters Malasaña and Chueca to the north. South of Sol is fashionable La Latina, home to Sunday’s El Rastro market, and the cosmopolitan Lavapiés district.

    Culture circuit

    Forming a ‘golden triangle’ near El Retiro park is Madrid’s trio of art museums. Inside the vast Museo del Prado are works by Bosch, Goya, El Greco and Titian. Stop by Velázquez’s Las Meninas for a lesson in perspective. On the other side of the road is Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, displaying everything from Old Masters to contemporary American art. For many, a Madrid city break is a chance to admire Guernica, Picasso’s shocking response to the Spanish Civil War in Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. See impromptu flamenco performances in Plaza de Oriente or ask your Madrid hotel about tickets for Teatro Real, Madrid’s Opera House.

    Historic haunts

    Visitors flock to Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s most impressive square in all its arcaded glory and a favourite spot for coffee. The surrounding area of Habsburg Madrid is characterised by Flemish-inspired designs from the Bourbon-era Palacio Real and elegant Plaza de Oriente to the opulent convent Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales near the Opera House. East of Sol is Plaza de Santa Ana – the Fine Arts Institute and Teatro Español highlighting the area’s 19th-century literary heritage.

    Madrid after-dark

    A 3 am traffic jam is not unheard of in Madrid, renowned for its late-night antics. Between Sol and Opera is Palacio de Gaviria nightclub, an old castle ballroom playing everything from karaoke to cabaret. For alternative nightlife, head to Chueca and Malasaña, north of Gran Via, and La Latina, south of Sol. Flamboyant flamenco performances take place at Corral de la Morería near the Royal Palace. The outdoor terraces of Paseo de Recoletos boulevard are packed in the summertime. On cooler nights, explore the ‘cave’ taverns around Plaza Mayor.

    Gourmet capital

    It’s 250 miles inland, but Madrid has the world’s second-largest fish market – marisquerías (seafood bars) are great for sampling fresh catch. La Latina’s eateries range from trendy tapas bar La Musa to traditional Spanish cuisine in Botín, said to be the world’s oldest restaurant. North of Gran Via, gay-friendly Chueca has several stylish eateries and Plaza Dos de Mayo is a favourite spot for cañas and tapas (draught beer and snacks). Look out for good-value menú del día (set menus).