Travel postcard: 48 hours in Madrid
Images are projected on the facade of city hall during a lighting show to mark the start of Christmas festivities in Madrid (Sergio Perez, Reuters)
But its appeal to travelers is on the rise, with world class museums and dining, expansive, centrally located parks and first-rate shopping increasingly drawing visitors to its bustling thoroughfares.
Struggling economically, Spain continues to lure tourists and budget-minded travelers can stretch their dollars at hundreds of small, centrally located hotels and cafes that cater to both locals and foreigners serving up surprisingly sophisticated cuisine.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help you get the most out of a short stay in this growing tourist destination.
5 p.m. - With a metropolitan area population of more than six million, Madrid is a major city and could seem overwhelming for first-timers. Best to stay in the center of the capital, where affordable hotels such as the Praktik Metropol abound. Airy, modern rooms can be found for $100 a night, sometimes even less, and the location steps off the Gran Via couldn't be better suit to major sites.
5:30 p.m. - Like many Western economies, Spain is struggling. Show your local smarts and save the entry fee at the world famous Prado Museum by lining up for the nightly free admission at 6 p.m. While you'll only have two hours, research which galleries house the artists you most want to see. And as you're in Spain, "local" artists such as El Greco, Goya and Velasquez might be among logical choices.
8:30 p.m. - It's too early for dinner in Spain, where most restaurants don't even open doors until 9. So go with tradition and sample the tapas and libations at Taberna de Antonio SÃ¡nchez (Calle de MesÃ³n des Paredes 13), which specializes in local favorites.
10 p.m. - For dinner, head over to the lively Chueca district, with its trendy, funky shops, cafes and bars, driven by a youthful vibe and burgeoning gay scene.
At Bazaar, you'll find a sprawling, airy and stylish whitewashed room with huge glass windows looking out at the bustling street scene below. Arrive early to score a table on the upper level, and sample a host of moderately priced starters and entrees that navigate the terrain between pan-Asian and Spanish cuisines ranging from risottos to fresh fish.
Midnight: A stroll back to your hotel is entertainment enough, as the streets bustle with couples and groups heading off to tap into Madrid's pulsing nightlife. This area also abounds with bars and intimate cafe if a nightcap is in order.
10 a.m. - One of the most touristy spots you can hit in Madrid -- and one well worth the effort -- is Chocolateria San Gines (Pasadizo de San Gines 11) where the thing to have from the very limited choices is churros, a kind of elongated, ridged donut, and a cup of hot chocolate, which to American palates is more akin to a cup of melted dark chocolate.
Dip the freshly fried churros into the thick sweet elixir and take in the wood-columned salon's warm glow of this institution tucked away on a charming side street near the Plaza del Sol which dates to 1894. This filling, if hardly nutritious, breakfast will set you back less than $10.
11 a.m. - The Royal Palace is among the city's top, and thus most-visited, sites, so best to get there early. Tours of the ornate, 2,000-room palace range in length up to several hours, and EU citizens get in free on Wednesdays, when you can see the changing of the guard. Self-guided tours are also allowed, and audio is available.
Afterwards, check out the adjacent Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena Cathedral and its Roman crypt, or stroll the manicured Sabatini Gardens.
2 p.m. - In good weather, consider a splurge at the Ritz Madrid's Terrace & Gardens cafe (Plaza Lealtad, 5, across the street from the Prado), which serves traditional Spanish cuisine including tapas amid bucolic plantings on shaded terraces.
If the city's hot weather during the summer months proves too much, the recently refurbished Atocha train station is a short walk, where you can dine at any one of several casual lunch terraces in the dazzling main atrium, replete with towering tropical plantings and ponds under a glass roof.
4 p.m. - A lovely, and centrally located place to walk off lunch is the adjacent 20-acre Royal Botanic Garden, which dates to the 18th century and boasts some 30,000 plants and flowers. Next door to the Prado Museum.