This is going to be a very busy day if you want to do the city's key sights full justice, so conserve all your energy and have an early night beforehand. Start with the not-to-be-missed Prado — for many, the highlight of a Madrid visit.
Note: Seasonal opening hours of some attractions may require modification of the itinerary below: for example, from November to February.
Start: Metro: Atocha or Banco de España. Bus: 9, 10, 34.
1. Prado Museum
As your minutes are precious here, pick out a few choice masterpieces (such as Velázquez's Las Meninas) and concentrate on your favorites. It will be difficult not to be sidetracked with such a wealth of beauty around you, but try to confine your time to a mere hour instead of the half-day you really need to do this museum justice. If you're making this visit on a Sunday morning it's free, so don't be put off by the longer-than-usual lines of eagerly waiting tourists. The bright and spacious new wing, opened in 2008, houses a hundred additional works by 19th-century artists, from Sorolla and Fortuny to the indispensable Goya. Temporary exhibitions here may include works by more modern artists such as Francis Bacon.
2. Botanical Gardens
Adjoining the museum, this compact backwater of calm and greenery was founded by Charles III. It had over 650 species when it opened in 1755; now you can count the wide variety of flowers, shrubs, and ancient trees into the thousands. As you wander its sylvan pathways, it's hard to believe you're in the heart of a big city.
3. Paseo del Prado
Also the work of Charles III, this tree-lined gem, where you can walk shaded by a huge, mellow archway of green, is the most beautiful paseo in the capital, if not all of Spain. Flanked by the Ritz Hotel, Thyssen Museum, and the Prado, it conjures up a picture of an elegant Bourbon Madrid of the 19th century (if we can forget the traffic for a moment).
4. Congreso de Diputados
Reach here after turning left at the Neptuno fountain and at the Plaza del Congreso. Admire the neoclassical facade, granite pillars, and bronze lion statues outside the mid-19th-century parliamentary building, designed by Pascual y Colomer. A botched coup was attempted in 1981 (bullet holes in the ceiling of the Sessions Chamber date from that inauspicious occasion). Bring your passport if you want to pay a Saturday morning visit. You can also do a "virtual visit" via the website.
5. Ateneo de Madrid
This 19th-century bastion of culture exudes a time warp atmosphere. Wander in, ask politely to see the well-worn lounges with their wooden walls and high chandeliers, and imagine yourself back in the time of Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, and other literary giants of the "Generation of '98." (That's 1898.) Though the impressive upstairs library (members only, but you can peer through the glass door) now has Internet facilities, the mellow historic surroundings remain incongruously the same.
6. Casa Museo de Lope de Vega
Probably the smallest museum in town, this well-preserved medieval house was the home of Spain's most famed and prolific 16th-century playwright and has a secret hidden gem of a garden at the rear. It's ironically located in a street named after his great novelist rival Cervantes. Best to book beforehand as it has severe limitations on the size of visiting groups.
7. Take a Break — La Mallorquina Pastelería
Rest your weary legs in the rather secretive upstairs cafe of La Mallorquina Pastelería, Puerta del Sol 8 (tel. 91-521-12-01), where the laid-back atmosphere contrasts pleasantly with the frenzy of the congested bar-cum-shop below. Great coffee plus a variety of cholesterol-filled pastries, including the Balearic Islands' favorite ensaimada, may tempt you into spoiling your lunch.
8. Puerta del Sol
Named after the sun-emblazoned gate of a medieval fort that stood here, this compact and ever-crowded urban hub — Madrid's answer to Times Square or Piccadilly Circus — is the only plaza in the city still to bear the name puerta (gate). Highlights are its 18th-century clock, whose chimes have marked the jubilant beginning of many a New Year, and an emblematic little statue of El Oso y el Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree), which in 2009 was moved back to its original spot on the eastern side of the plaza at the city center end of Calle Alcalá. Sol is said to be the geographical center of the country, though the nearby town of Parla also claims this privilege. The whole square was refurbished in a neat but rather stark concrete-dominated style, complete with futuristic arched glass and steel entrances to the expanded metro station, also in 2009.
9. Plaza Mayor
Spain's most famous square has seen various, and sometimes violent, changes since its first appearance in the 15th century, but in these more peaceful days enjoys concerts, exhibitions, and one-off freebie treats such as the annual December serving of traditional cocido to the public by soldiers — one of many unofficial Christmastime traditions. Have your tongue-in-cheek portrait painted in 5 minutes by one of the various artists who set up their stalls beside the colonnades, and look out for the controversially bright and breezy murals portraying goddess Cibeles and offspring Proserpine on the Casa de la Panadería side (considered by some to resemble a comic strip). If you come on a Sunday, browse around the weekly stamp and coin market.
10. Take a Break — Casa Lucio
Lunch in Casa Lucio, a favorite of King Juan Carlos and visiting stars, dignitaries, and heads of state, including George W. The prize dish is the outwardly simple huevos estrellados (a fry-up of eggs and wafer-thin potatoes), here raised to a fine art. On a grander scale, the oven-baked beefsteaks are out of this world. Try to get a first-floor table for the best atmosphere.
11. Austrias District
The narrow streets of Cuchilleros and Cavas Baja and Alta, and charming plazas de la Cebada and de la Paja, are at the heart of 16th-century Madrid, dating from the period when the Habsburgs ruled Spain. Here you'll find the city's oldest, and smallest, churches, San Nicolas de las Servitas and San Pedro el Viejo, twin reminders of a time when Madrid was a modest town of some 10,000 inhabitants. The tiny Morería section on its western fringe was once the Jewish quarter.
12. Plaza Oriente
Built over the remains of the old wooden Habsburg palace that burnt down in the 17th century, this attractive French-style semicircular plaza has lines of statues of the kings of Spain clustered round a central equestrian statue of Philip IV. A favorite with photographers, it's one of my favorite spots for relaxing over a drink.
13. Take a Break — Café Oriente
The great attraction of the Café Oriente, Plaza de Oriente 2 (tel. 91-541-39-74; www.cafedeoriente.es), is not so much its plush mock baroque interior as its outside terrace area, which overlooks the square and magnificent facade of the Palacio Real (which you'll visit on your second day). Here you can sip your campari and soda in an atmosphere of historic splendor.