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May 29, 2017

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Madrid

Take a stroll through Spain's elegant capital

By turns raunchy and avant-garde or buttoned-up and bureaucratic, Madrid is a hard city to pin down. Spain's political capital has started stealing the thunder of artsier Barcelona with a growing list of world-class museums and trend-setting restaurants and shops. Madrid may have lost the rebellious energy it had in the 1980s after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, but there is still an abundance of creative zeal in this city that by turns embraces or thumbs its nose at tradition.

Despite being Europe's third-largest metropolis, it hasn't lost a strong neighbourhood vibe and the street life that makes it such a great place to get lost and just wander around. Start at the heart of the 17th-century Habsburg city, where the kings and courtiers seen on paintings in the Prado Museum walked the cobblestones and plotted against one another.

The classic Plaza Mayor should be your first stop: the square has been home to everything from the Inquisition's torture sessions, to bull fights, knightly tournaments, and more recently concerts, festivals and the evening cocktail crowd. Wander the narrow, crooked streets that spread south of the square, don't miss the archway from Calle de los Cuchilleros.

To get a better sense of the area's bloody and bawdy history, book a guided walk with Wellington Tours (wellsoc.org). They have circuits themed around the Spanish Civil War, Habsburg history, Ernest Hemingway or ground-breaking 18th-century painter Francisco Goya.

A great opportunity to people-watch is the Sunday flea market, El Rastro (Calle Ribera de Curtidores between Plaza de Cascorro & Ronda de Toledo). The antiques stalls are worth a look, and you can look for treasures among junk of a bygone era, along with local artisans' wares. This five-century-old swap meet is popular with locals, tourists and pickpockets, so keep your eye on your bag.

Tapas, terraces and the two-hour lunch

With a compact walkable core, Madrid also has a vast metro system that spreads from the high-street shops and buskers of Plaza Puerta del Sol in the old town all the way to the suburbs around the airport in Barajas, a 30-minute ride away, where many conference facilities are located. With such a short commute from the conference, you can easily pop back for an afternoon of museum hopping or an evening meal.

While the afternoon siesta is a thing of the past, Spain has held on to some customs that set a very different pace of life. Outside of fast-food chains, most restaurants are only open for lunch from 2PM to 4PM, and for supper from 9PM to 11 PM. And some boutiques (though not department stores) will close for the afternoon lunch break as well.

Peckish between those hours? Head to a café: most open early and close late. The tables on the terrace of the elegant Café de Oriente (2 Plaza de Oriente; cafedeoriente.es) have panoramic views of great Neo-Classical buildings and you may rub shoulders with diplomats.

In the early evenings, grabbing a tapa or two with a drink before dinner is the ritual that keeps big city life convivial and relaxed. A short walk from the Prado, Plaza de Santa Ana and the streets surrounding it are rife with tapas joints old and new. Try the stylish Vinoteca Barbechera (27 Calle Principe) for elegant tapas and great wines. For a look at another era in Spanish restaurant decor, park yourself at the counter of the Museo del Jamón (1 Carrera de San Jerónimo; museodeljamon.es). It's not actually a museum, and they have tapas of all sorts, but cured Serrano ham (Spain's answer to prosciutto) is definitely deemed a work of art within these walls.

It's not uncommon for restaurants to offer affordable prix-fixe lunch menus, which include a main, plus an appetizer or dessert, and occasionally even table wine. Your restaurant bill will include service and tax (about seven to 12 percent), but it's customary to leave another five to 10 percent tip.

For a splurge, Sobrino de Botín (17 Calle de los Cucchilleros; reservations: 011-34-913-664-217; botin.es) draws high-end visitors as much for its impeccably cooked classics like roast suckling pig, as for its atmosphere: the restaurant is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1725.

For a more modern experience, try Ramón Freixa (67 Claudio Coello; reservations: 011-34-917-818-262; ramonfreixamadrid.com). The Art Deco inspired interior is a treat in itself, but it's the two Michelin-starred Catalán cooking that keeps it listed as the best in the city.

Museum mecca

Once a brown trickle bordered by highways and vacant lots, the newly revitalized Manzanares River (esmadrid.com/madridrio) is now lined by an urban promenade linking a series of parks.

This area is getting a lot of attention, not least because it's home to the a new multidisciplinary arts centre, Matadero Madrid (14 Paseo de la Chopera; mataderomadrid.com). This complex of 10 buildings set in old slaughterhouses hosts art exhibitions, plays and concerts by emerging artists.

The classic cultural destination remains the Triangulo del Arte (art triangle), steps from El Retiro, a 140-hectare park that was once a royal retreat and is still popular for afternoon strolls. The grandaddy of the city's museums, the Prado (23 Calle Ruiz de Alarcón; museodelprado.es; €12) opened in 1812 and houses the former Spanish Royal Collection. Focussing on European art before the 19th century, it has an extensive holdings of Rubens, Bosch and Titian in addition to Spanish masters like Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, which shouldn't be missed.

Across the street, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (8 Paseo del Prado; museothyssen.org; €9 plus €10 for temporary exhibits) is a large gallery with a beautifully curated collection stretching from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, that also hosts temporary exhibits of major European painters.

Set in a convent with a cloister, the modern Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (52 Calle de Santa Isabel; museoreinasofia.es; €6, free weekday evenings after 5PM) is the place to check out masterworks by Miró, Dalí, Picasso (including Guernica) and other renowned 20th-century Spanish artists you may not have heard of like Tàpies and Chillida. You might even want to consider a Madrid Art Pass to all three Triangulo museums for €21.60 (available at any of the museums).

Adding a fourth draw to the area is an outpost of CaixaForum (36 Paseo del Prado; obrasocial.lacaixa.es), the first of these highly regarded cultural centres created by the Catalán bank La Caixa which is outside its home region. Exhibitions here can be international in scope and range from contemporary to classical works.

For more, consult the excellent website of the Madrid Visitors and Convention Bureau (esmadrid.com).

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