36 Hours: Madrid
POOR Madrid. Stuck in the middle of Spain, the city has long been perceived as the provincial, sleepy sister to Barcelona. Even today, you can see little girls dressed exactly as their mothers were, in 1940s-style dresses and matching topcoats. But that is precisely Madrid's charm. As the city fast-forwards into the 21st century — with designer hotels that rival any international city's, a sleek new airport terminal designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers and non-tapas bars that flirt with minimalist décor — Madrid is still the country's political and cultural capital. It remains, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “the most Spanish of all cities.”
1) STRAIGHT OUT OF ALMODÓVAR
Grab a caña, or small beer, at the Plaza de Chueca, one of the city's best squares for people watching. It's quite a show: tiny old ladies in knee-length wool coats, young Madrileños in skin-tight jeans and mullets, and cross-dressing men who look like Amazonian extras in a Pedro Almodóvar film — all rushing between the 19th-century town houses, skipping nimbly between piles of dog waste and clutching tiny packages. Sierra (Calle Grávina, 11; 34-91-531-0126) is a friendly bar to take in the scene.
2) SAVE THE PRADO
There is more to Madrid's booming art scene than the Prado. For temporary exhibitions of big-name artists like Roy Lichtenstein without the crowds, check out the smaller museums like the Fundación Juan March (Calle Castelló, 77; 34-91-435-4240; www.march.es), the Fundación Caja Madrid (Plaza San Martín, 1; 34-91-379-2349; www.fundacioncajamadrid.es) and the larger but often overlooked Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Paseo del Prado, 8; 34-91-369-0151; www.museothyssen.org).
3) DINNER CRAWL
Tapas are a Madrid institution and are served in nearly every bar for just a few euros apiece, so you can spread your dinner across the city. The most traditional and popular tapas restaurants line Calle Cava Baja, a curving street just south of Plaza Mayor. Start at Casa Lucas (Calle Cava Baja, 30; 34-91-365-0804), a homey spot for a slice of tortilla española (potato omelet), then move up the street for seafood pintxos, the intricate Basque version of tapas, at Txakoli (Calle Cava Baja, 26; 34-91-366-4877). Be warned: these places get more crowded as the night wears on. If balancing plates and shouting doesn't sound like fun, head to Txirimiri, a quieter spot in Salamanca (Calle General Díaz Porlier, 91; 34-91-401-4345) for pintxos supplemented by a full Basque menu. For a global twist on tapas, there is a newcomer called Olsen near Plaza Santa Ana (Calle del Prado, 15; 34-91-429-3659) that swaps the Spanish roster for a Scandinavian smorgasbord. Five sandwiches and five shots of vodka to share, for example, are 22 euros, or $28 at $1.29 to the euro. The stark white Belvedere Vodka Lounge downstairs has a D.J. and stays open until 2:30 a.m.
4) NIGHT RIDER
Madrileños believe that night is the most important time of day. To party like a local, head to the multistory tavern El Viajero, or the Traveler (Plaza Cebada, 11; 34-91-366-9064), which draws everyone from women in their 20s in “Flashdance” off-the-shoulder sweatshirts to men in business suits. The roof deck offers unobstructed views of the magnificently illuminated Basílica de San Francisco el Grande.
5) LA VIDA LOCA
It's still early in Madrid, so jump over to La Via Lactea, or the Milky Way (Calle Velarde, 18; 34-91-446-7581), an old-school rock 'n' roll bar that is decorated with three decades of concert posters. The bar opened in 1979 at the height of the Movida, the orgiastic explosion of sex and drugs that followed Franco's death. The clientele may have changed since those days, but the vibe is the same.
6) COFFEE AND BOOTS
Have a cortado — a shot of espresso topped with milk — at trendy Café Diurno (Calle San Marcos, 37; 34-91-522-0009; www.diurno.com), an airy loftlike coffee shop with Wi-Fi, fresh muffins and croissants in the heart of the gay-friendly Chueca neighborhood. Once you're awake, take a shopping break among the area's small boutiques. Check out Caligae (Calle Augusto Figueroa, 18; 34-91-532-0240) for boots and shoes from Spanish designers like Chie Mihara, or Óptica Toscana (Calle Hortaleza, 70; 34-91-360-5007; www.opticatoscana.com), a perfectly preserved 19th-century shop, for quirky eyeglasses.
7) OLD BUILDINGS, NEW ART
Downtown Madrid is dotted with historic buildings that allow visitors a peek into the past. The Centro Conde Duque was built in the 18th century as military barracks; today it is a cultural center (Calle Conde Duque, 11, 34-91-588-5834; www.munimadrid.es) with a small but excellent collection of modern art. Classical concerts are held Saturday evenings in the large internal courtyard; in the summer, string quartets are replaced by jazz, folk and world music singers like Erykah Badu and Cesaria Evora.