One of the best and most surprising things about Madrid is how quickly one can move from narrow alleys and the medieval urban core to green wooded parklands. After spending your first 2 days as outlined previously, use your third day to explore the dichotomies of Madrid: from the ultramodern Reina Sofía, to medieval Lavapiés.
Start: Metro: Atocha. Bus: 9, 10
1. Reina Sofía
Completing Madrid's top trio of art museums is this veritable mecca of modernity. Whether or not you go for the hyperfunctional look of the place outside — an uncompromising blend of concrete, glass, and steel -- there's no doubt the Dalís and Tàpies inside are worth anyone's time. If you only see one thing, though, it has to be Picasso's groundbreaking Guernica, once considered so inflammatory a work it needed half a dozen guards close by to ensure no one tried to vandalize it. Now there's one guard around at the most.
This small square is at the top of Ribera de Curtidores, where the Sunday Rastro, or flea market, is held. (If your visit is actually on a Sunday, you might want to switch the Reina Sofía for a bargain-hunting visit here.) The small but stirring monument at its center is in honor of Eloy Gonzalo, a young soldier who died on a suicide mission to Cuba while defending Spain's last Latin American possession in 1898. Saying hola to Eloy as you enter the square is said to bring you good luck.
Steep narrow lanes — many of them pedestrian only — converge on this dusty triangular plaza, once the heart of a medieval Jewish stronghold. In just the past decade, its traditional Castizo atmosphere has been replaced by a bohemian multiethnic scene, with Senegalese, Chinese, Moroccans, Turks, and Indians bumping into you as you explore the district's eclectic array of shops, cafes, and eating spots. Be sure to check out the Valle-Inclan theater. Borderline seedy, the square positively bustles with life.
4. Take a Break — Café Barbieri
The run-down, high-ceilinged Café Barbieri (tel. 91-527-36-58), just off the square, has an intriguing bohemian ambience that goes with the territory. A cavernous, moodily lit spot where you can enjoy a reflective coffee or something stronger in the stimulating midst of the Lavapiés melting pot, it also offers a nice range of teas.
A short puff uphill from Calle Ave María brings you to Plaza Antón Martín, where you can browse around one of Madrid's most typical old two-story markets. Stalls here sell a colorful selection of food from all over Spain as well as from tropical regions. Throbbing with life and color, it's the antithesis of the bland supermarket. Be sure to check out the good herbs and olive oil section. There's also a friendly little alcove cafe where you can hear youngsters banging out their steps on the floor of the flamenco dance school overhead as you sip your coffee.
Situated next to the market, Madrid's most enchanting cinema has an Art Deco exterior and traditional interior. The place itself looks like it's from a scene in an Almodóvar flick and shows the most eclectic range of films in town. It also has a cafe and small bookshop stacked with esoteric books on the world of movies and, in summer, runs open-air shows on the roof. Up to five different films a day are shown in two separate salons in their original language, and the entrance fee is a bargain.
Built on the site of a former convent and originally known as the Plaza del Progreso, this square at the northern end of Lavapiés was renamed after the great Golden Age playwright in 1941. Formerly an attractive if slightly seedy 19th-century plaza, it's now an extended semipedestrian zone with children's play areas and intermittent flower beds set amid the original trees. Tirso (or Fray [Friar] Gabriel Téllez, to give him his real name) will be pleased to note that the Zola-esque denizens who used to hang around his statue have been largely replaced by young students and pram pushing families.
8. La Corrala
During the 19th century, many of Madrid's working-class population lived in tenements like these. With their characteristic patios and open balconies, they symbolized a basic communal lifestyle that made few concessions to individual privacy. In today's (comparatively) less-sociable world, most of them have disappeared and the few that still remain have subsequently achieved near-museum status. This one in Calle Meson de Paredes is the best preserved, though you can only view it from outside.
Take the metro to Argüelles:
Of all Madrid's fascinating sights, none is more incongruous than the Egyptian Temple of Debod, poised high on the edge of Parque del Oeste on the site of the former Montaña barracks and enjoying great views. The temple and two of its original three gateways were transported from their Nile-side habitat in 1968 in thanks for Spain's help with the Aswan Dam. Inside the temple are depictions of a Theban god with a ram's head symbolizing fertility. This is one of the city's major freebie attractions.
For the best aerial view of the southern side of Madrid, take this 2.5km (1 1/2-mile) cable car ride across the Manzanares River and Parque del Oeste into the Casa de Campo. An upbeat, rather dated, commentary in Spanish extols the beauties of the Palacio Real and Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (or Panteon de Goya) as they float below. The departure point is in the middle of the splendid Paseo de Pintor Rosales, whose fortunate apartment owners not only enjoy the unrivaled vistas but also relax in the best array of terrace cafes you'll find in the city.
11. Casa de Campo
Thanks to this immense area of pines and shrubs (nearly 1,820 hectares/4,500 acres in all), Madrid claims to have more green zones than any other European capital. In olden days, kings hunted wild boar here. Today new predators, in the form of prostitutes, parade on the westerly fringe roads, but the green expanse's central trails and footpaths are quite free from such salacious influences and ideal for family picnics and strolls.
Surprisingly little-known, this circular lake with its high gushing central fountain in the southeast corner of the Casa de Campo is the ideal spot for a relaxing rowboat outing, while around the edge, an enticing choice of alfresco eating spots beckons, looking like tavernas on some Greek island. Here you can enjoy superb views of the city skyline, dominated by the classic outline of the Palacio Real.
Enjoy an evening drink in one of the open-air spots beside the lake, such as the El Urogallo.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.