Puerta del Sol, Alcalá & Huertas

Start: Puerta del Sol.

Finish: Plaza Canalejas.

Time: 2 hours (excluding a visit to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales).

Best Times: Any day.

Worst Times: Avoid rush-hours on weekdays, 7:30 to 9:30am and 5 to 7:30pm, because of heavy traffic.

This circular tour extends east from the Puerta de Sol to a fan-shaped area bordered by Calle Alcalá in the north and Calle Huertas in the south, taking in a wide range of historical, cultural, and fun sights along a compact route.

1. Puerta del Sol

This half-moon-shaped square is not only the acknowledged central point of the capital but also kilometer zero for the entire country (all distances in Spain are measured from outside the Casa de Correos on the south side of the square). Prior to assuming its present central position in the 19th century, this "Gateway of the Sun" marked the eastern entry point to the city. Traditionally symbolic of Madrid -- and a favorite rendezvous point -- is the bronze statue of the Oso y el Madroño (Bear and the Strawberry Tree), which was moved in 2009 from its long familiar position on the northern edge of the square at the entrance to the pedestrian Calle del Carmen over to the plaza's eastern edge, where the 8km-long (5-mile) Calle Alcalá ends. That same year saw the resurfacing of the entire square and final (if long delayed) completion of an expanded metro and suburban rail junction. This is now reached by an eye-catching, futuristic arched entrance of glass and steel.

From here, head west up Calle Arenal, and then take the second right turn into Calle San Martín to arrive at the:

2. Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales

Founded by Carlos V's daughter Juana of Austria in 1557, this haven of tranquillity, with its chapels, baroque art masterpieces, grandiose stairway, and (hidden) inner gardens, is still home to an enclosed order of nuns. Visitors are allowed in 20 at a time, which can make for large queues at times, so be prepared for a possible wait.

Return to the Puerta del Sol, and then head east along Calle Alcalá past the impressive Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda building to the adjoining:

3. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Started in 1744 by Felipe V and bought by Carlos III 30 years later, this art museum -- located at Calle Alcalá 13 -- is the oldest in Madrid. It boasts a very rich collection of works by El Greco, Zurbarán, and Velázquez, as well as masterpieces by Van Dyck and Rubens. An entire room is devoted to Goya.

Cross the road and continue down the southern side of Alcalá, past the Sevilla metro station, until you reach Calle Marqués de Casa Riera. Turn right for the entrance to the:

4. Círculo de Bellas Artes

This multipurpose 1920s-style cultural center was refurbished in the 1990s and has four exhibition rooms. It boasts a superb cafe with high ceilings, where you can enjoy a drink and watch the city life outside swirl by. There is a top-floor library and adjoining bookshop, a theater, and a good value cinema showing international movies in their original language.

5. Take a Break --  Casa Manolo 

After the Círculo de Bellas Artes, turn right and then immediately left into Calle Jovellanos. There, opposite the Zarzuela (Comic Opera Theater), you'll find Casa Manolo at no. 7 (tel. 91-521-45-16), a marvelous old bar frequented by parliament office workers from just around the corner in Plaza de las Cortes. Unchanged over the decades, with a predominantly dark-wood decor and cozy alcoves, it serves great coffee and churros, plus inexpensive wines and what they claim are the best croquetas (croquettes of fish or chicken) in Madrid.

From here, turn left and immediately right down the small narrow Calle Floridablanca, which will bring you into Carrera de San Jerónimo. On your immediate right, you'll see the:

6. Congreso de los Diputados

This mid-19th-century building, also known as the Palacio de las Cortes, houses the lower house of Spanish parliament. Its classical portico and twin bronze lions facing the Plaza del Cortes create an impressive front entrance. Visitors can enjoy guided tours of the interior on Saturday mornings.

Cross the plaza, head south down Calle San Agustín and turn right (south) at Calle Cervantes to the:

7. Casa Museo de Lope de Vega

The prolific Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega Carpio wrote some of his 2,000-plus works in this small 16th-century house at no. 18, uniquely preserved and opened as a museum in 1935. Due to its size, only 10 people can visit it at one time. Farther along is the Convento de las Trinitarias, where rival wordsmith Miguel de Cervantes's ashes were kept in an urn, which subsequently got mislaid. (The author of Don Quixote, incidentally, lived not on this street but on adjoining Calle León, though his abode was pulled down centuries ago. Only a commemorative plaque remains.)

Continue along Calle Cervantes to Calle León. Here turn right to Calle del Prado where almost opposite -- at no. 21 -- you'll see the:

8. Ateneo de Madrid

Founded in 1820, this is one of the capital's great literary institutions and home of Spain's second-largest library. You have to pay a yearly subscription to be a member, but visitors are allowed to climb up the marble stairs; wander around; eye the array of portraits of key Spanish essayists, novelists, and poets; and soak up the untrammeled, slightly run-down 19th-century atmosphere. It also has a small unpretentious cafe, if you feel like a refreshing taste of something.

Turn left along Calle del Prado to arrive at:

9. Plaza Santa Ana

A legacy of the brief French rule under Joseph Bonaparte, this sunny square is one of the most popular in Madrid, filled with cafes that have open-air terraces in the center in summer and boasting a small statue to García Lorca. On its eastern side, in Calle Príncipe, is the stylish and very well preserved Teatro Español, which dates from the 18th century. A theater has existed on this spot since 1583, when the Corral del Príncipe would put on shows to a raucously demanding audience.

10. Take a Break -- Cervecería Alemana 

Try one of Hemingway's all-time favorites, the 80-year-old Cervecería Alemana, at Plaza Santa Ana 6 (tel. 91-429-70-33), for coffee or delicious cold beer. Sit at a table in the traditional wood-paneled interior in winter or outside in the square in summer.

Leave Plaza Santa Ana via Calle Príncipe to the north, and turn right into the tiny Manuel González y Fernández alley, passing -- or pausing in -- the Trucha tapas bar and tile-and-wood-decorated Viva Madrid cafe to arrive in:

11. Calle Echegaray

This long, narrow street, so quiet and unassuming by day, comes to life at night, when its multinational array of watering holes and eating spots makes progressing from one end to the other a very slow ramble. Among its highlights is La Venencia, a staunchly traditional and atmospheric cellar bar dating from the 1920s, which sells nothing but sherry by the glass (covering the full gamut from dry manzanillas to heavy olorosos) and small but delicious tapas of olives, cheese, and jamón serrano (mountain ham).

At the northern end of Calle Echegaray, turn left into Carrera de San Jerónimo and continue to the:

12. Plaza de Canalejas

Placed at the closely knit junction of four roads, this attractive but busy little square was once aptly named the Plaza de los Cuatro Calles. It owes its present name to the 19th-century politician José Canalejas, who was assassinated while peering in the window of a bookshop in the Puerta del Sol (just a couple of hundred meters away). Nearby, look out for the inimitable Lhardy's French restaurant, with its downstairs deluxe snack bar.

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.