Spaniards will tell you that while the rest of the world lives to work, they work to live. Nowhere is that more evident than in the capital, where the free-spirited Madrileños (Madrid’s denizens) provide the main attraction for visitors. The unrivaled number of bars, cafés, discos, restaurants, and live music venues, combined with the locals' enthusiasm for enjoying themselves, make this the place to come for fun. Although Madrid may not have as many historical sites as Paris, Rome, or even Barcelona, you'll still find plenty of intellectual stimulation at some of the best museums in Europe like the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemizsa.
The heart of it all! You should start your tour of the city at the lively Puerta del Sol. Expect to find wonderful 19th-century buildings, shops, cafés, bars, restaurants, and crowds at this busy central intersection. From here, head up Calle Mayor to Plaza de la Villa and the old historic district. Or you can take Calle Arenal and visit the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and the Teatro Real (Royal Opera House). If you go up the Carrera de San Jerónimo, you'll come to the Prado Museum.
This long, tree-lined boulevard is the backbone of Madrid. It's so long that it even has three official names. Come here to relax, take a coffee break, or sightsee. Starting from Atocha train station, wander up shady Paseo del Prado and take in two of Madrid's most famous art museums: the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. The area also features the Real Jardín Botánico (Royal Botanical Gardens), home of many exotic plants. Continue on until you reach Plaza de Cibeles and the grand Palacio de Telecomunicaciones (post office).
Suddenly, the boulevard turns into the Paseo de Recoletos, a great place to take a stroll. Or, better still, stop at Café Gijón, where Spain's intellectuals hang out, for a café con leche (coffee with milk). Check the local listings for times and dates of the book and craft fairs that take place along this part of the Castellana. Continuing on, you'll pass the massive square and monument to Columbus, and the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library). At this point, the street officially becomes Paseo de la Castellana, a busy commercial area. Here you'll find Real Madrid's football stadium, Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, and more banks.
Traffic surges through this long, noisy avenue, along with swarms of locals and tourists. Look up and admire the eccentric 20th-century architecture built during the Franco era. You'll find every style represented, from neo-baroque to art-deco. As you follow the Gran Vía all the way from Calle Alcalá to Plaza de España, take note of the grand old-fashioned movie houses, some of the last of their kind, which continue hiring artists to paint original movie posters. Another building to watch out for is the elegantly-domed Edificio Metrópolis at the Alcalá intersection.
Madrid de los Austrias
Walk around this historic district, named after the Austrian Hapsburgs, and lose yourself amongst the cobbled, winding alleys, iron balconies and old, leaning buildings. It's easy to imagine you're back in the 18th Century, especially at night when the street lamps give the place a romantic feel. Visit the Royal Palace, the Opera House and the Plaza Mayor. Enjoy dinner or a drink at one of the great Basque restaurants and elegant cafés.
La Latina (The Rastro)
Right next to Madrid de los Austrias, this old district is known for its huge array of bars, cafés, and restaurants, and Spain's largest flea market, the Rastro. Every Sunday morning, you'll find stalls selling everything from valuable antiques to old junk.
Escape the city in huge, lush, green Parque del Buen Retiro (Good Retreat Park). Do what the Madrileños do: buy a bag of sunflower seeds or kikos (fried corn kernels), dress up in your Sunday best and stroll down the long paseo (promenade) in front of the pond overlooked by a statue of Alfonso XII. On sunny days, you can rent a rowboat (watch out for the pesky splashers!), or enjoy the numerous magicians, folk musicians, and poets (who will usually reject any donations under EUR1!) performing on the promenade. The best way to enter the park is from Calle Alcalá, passing the 19th-century Puerta de Alcalá. Beware of pickpockets in this area, especially at night. Right outside the park boundaries is the elegant district of Salamanca, which features several upscale boutiques and art galleries.
Moncloa and Argüelles
Nightlife, nightlife and more nightlife! This area is dominated by great tapas bars that don't even open until 9p or later.
Huertas and Plaza Santa Ana
This is yet another lively spot for cafés, bars, and nightlife action. It is centered around Plaza de Santa Ana. Located close to Madrid de los Austrias, this is also the place to go to see live music. The crowds here consist of mainly 20- to 30-somethings. Typical bars here include Viva Madrid and Los Gabrieles, decorated with beautiful tiles and serving great cocktails and sangría.
Malasaña and Chueca
This is a fairly quiet area during the day, with winding streets and 19th-century architecture. At night, it's transformed into a busy nightlife spot as young and old mix in the many bars, discos, and cafés. Malasaña is dominated by Plaza Dos de Mayo, while Chueca is the epicenter for the city's gay population. During the day head to the Plaza de Chueca and experience the hip gay crowd of Madrid. At night, discos like Black & White are great places to go for dance or even a drag show!