Habsburg Madrid (The Austrias)

Start: Southeastern corner of the Palacio Real.

Finish: Calle del Arenal.

Time: 3 hours.

Best Times: Sunday, when you can also visit the flea market of El Rastro.

Worst Times: Monday to Saturday from 7:30 to 9:30am and 5 to 7:30pm because of heavy traffic.

This tour encompasses 16th- and 17th-century Madrid, including the grand plazas and traffic arteries that the Habsburg families built to transform a quiet town into a world-class capital.

1. Palacio Real (Royal Palace)

This imposing Bourbon-influenced palace is at the corner of Calle de Bailén and Calle Mayor. The latter street was built by Philip II in the 1560s to provide easy access from the palace to his preferred church, San Jerónimo el Real.

Walk east to:

2. Calle Mayor

Walk on the south side of the street. Within a block, you'll reach a black bronze statue of a kneeling angel, erected in 1906 to commemorate the aborted assassination of King Alfonso XIII (grandfather of the present king, Juan Carlos).

Across the street from the kneeling angel is the:

3. Palacio de Abrantes

Today, this charming small palace, at Calle Mayor 86, is occupied by the Italian Institute of Culture. You can browse through its ground-floor (all-Italian) bookshop and pop into its adjoining cafe.

On the same side of the street as the kneeling angel, to the statue's left, is the:

4. Palacio de Uceda

Almost opposite Palacio de Abrantes is this other small gem of a palace, at Calle Mayor 79, now the headquarters of the Spanish military (their version of the Pentagon). Both of these palaces are among the best examples of 17th-century civil architecture in Madrid.

Walk half a block east, crossing to the north side of Calle Mayor and detouring about 18m (60 ft.) to the left, down narrow Calle de San Nicolás. You'll come to the somber facade of the oldest church in Madrid, the 12th-century:

5. San Nicolás de los Servitas

Only a brick tower atop this tiny church remains from the original building at the Plaza de San Nicolás. It is one of the few examples of the Mudéjar style in the capital. The reredos at the high altar is the work of Juan de Herrera, architect of El Escorial.

Retrace your steps to Calle Mayor. Turn left and continue to walk east. You'll pass Plaza de la Villa on your right, and, 1 block later:

6. Mercado de San Miguel

This formerly traditional iron-canopied meat-and-vegetable market (Mon-Fri 9am-10pm, Sat 9am-2pm) in the Plaza de San Miguel was re-opened in 2009 after a meticulous two-year face-lift. Though all its moderniste 19th-century features have been lovingly retained, the original down-to-earth atmosphere has been replaced by an aura of cool glitzy chic. Today's revamped gourmet food stalls and ultratrendy cava and vermut bars are more popular with tourists than with locals, but the place does exert its own unique kind of nouveau riche allure (economic crisis or not).

Leave Plaza de San Miguel by Ciudad Rodrigo (there might not be a sign), which leads under a soaring granite archway and up a sloping street to the northwestern corner of:

7. Plaza Mayor

The capital's most beautiful and evocative square, a setting for occasional exhibitions and concerts, is a focal point of the city and the heart of vintage Austrias Madrid. At its center is an imposing equestrian statue of Felipe II (see this edition's cover photo).

8. Take a Break -- Café Bar Los Galayos 

Café Bar Los Galayos, Plaza Mayor 1 (tel. 91-366-30-28; www.losgalayos.net), has long been one of the best places for tapas along this square. If you're taking the walking tour during the day, you may want to return to this cafe/bar at night, when it is most lively. In summer, you can select one of the outdoor tables for your drinks and tapas. The cafe is open daily from noon to 1am.

Stroll through Plaza Mayor, crossing it diagonally and exiting at the closer of its two southern exits. A dingy, steep flight of stone stairs leads down to the beginning of the:

9. Calle de Toledo

This busy street, one of the oldest in the city, extends south toward La Latina on the edge of the Austrias district.

A short walk down at number 37, you'll come to the:

10. Iglesia de San Isidro

This quietly imposing church, topped by twin domes of yellow-stucco and granite and also known as the (deep breath) Real Muy Ilustre y Primitiva Congregación de San Isidro de Naturales de Madrid, is the legendary burial place of Madrid's patron saint and his wife, Santa María de la Cabeza. The church lost its status as a cathedral in 1992, when the honor went to the larger Church of La Almudena.

Adjacent to San Isidro is the baroque facade of the:

11. Colegio Imperial

Lope de Vega, Calderón, and many other famous men studied at this institute, which was also run by the Jesuits.

If your tour takes place on a Sunday morning, fork slightly left from here down Calle de los Estudios till you reach Plaza de Cascorro. There you'll find:

12. El Rastro

Madrid's world-famous flea market fills the long, narrow tree-lined Ribera de los Curtidores street that goes all the way down from the Plaza Cascorro, with its small statue honoring a hero of the war with Cuba, to the Ronda de Toledo. It starts every Sunday at 9am and is still buzzing around 3pm, when it officially finishes. Great bargains abound here but do watch your wallet.

If your tour takes place Monday to Saturday, skip the Rastro neighborhood. Instead, turn right onto:

13. Calle de Segovia

This street intersects Calle de Toledo just before it passes in front of the Iglesia de San Isidro.

Walk 1 block and turn right onto the first street:

14. Calle de Cuchilleros

Follow this street north past 16th- and 17th-century stone-fronted houses. Within a block, a flight of granite steps forks to the right. Climb the steps (a sign identifies the new street as Calle Arco de Cuchilleros) and you'll pass one of the most famous mesones (typical Castilian restaurants) of Madrid, the Cueva de Luis Candelas.

Once again you will have entered Plaza Mayor, this time on the southwestern corner. Walk beneath the southernmost arcade, and promenade counterclockwise beneath the arcades, continuing north underneath the square's eastern arcade. Then walk west beneath its northern arcade. At the northwest corner, exit through the archway onto Calle 7 de Julio. Fifteen meters (50 ft.) later, cross Calle Mayor and take the right-hand narrow street before you. This is:

15. Calle Bordadores

During the 17th century, this street housed Madrid's embroidery workshops, staffed exclusively by men. Today a handful of shops, more recently built, still sell charming traditional lace garments.

As you proceed, notice the 17th-century brick walls and towers of the:

16. Church of San Ginés

This church, at Arenal 15, is one of Madrid's oldest parishes and owes its present look to the architects who reconstructed it after a devastating fire in 1872.

At the end of this tour, you'll find yourself on traffic-congested Calle del Arenal, at the doorstep of many interesting old streets.

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.