Photograph by Michele Falzone, Corbis
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The iron-and-glass San Miguel market buzzes all day long with patrons enjoying local fare from more than 30 vendors.

Photograph by Michele Falzone, Corbis

48 Hours in Madrid

From the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

It’s not for nothing that Madrid is located in the exact geographic center of Spain. The capital has always been the place where the rest of the country’s regions are represented—which means it’s home to flamenco as stirring as in Seville and fish as fresh as in Vigo. But in the past decade or so, immigration and other factors have made the capital a more sophisticated place, with a diverse population, a burgeoning contemporary art scene, a greater number of green spaces for walking, some of the finest ethnic restaurants in the country, and an unparalleled nightlife. And yet, in its corners, you can still find small-town flavor and local traditions. “We’re very cosmopolitan and open-minded now,” says Rosa Rivas, a reporter for El País newspaper and a fourth-generation madrileña. “But we still like to keep our ties to our little neighborhoods.”

Day One

Morning: Wander Among Masterpieces

Begin your day in the Golden Triangle of Art in the heart of the city. Each of Madrid’s three major art museums (all within walking distance of each other) is a jewel, from the Prado with its major Velázquez and Goya canvases; to the Reina Sofía, with its modernist prize of Picasso’s “Guernica”; to the Thyssen-Bornemisza, with its idiosyncratic collection, including Fra Angelico and Marc Chagall. But the museum collections are so immense that you could spend all day doing nothing but masterpiece gazing and still not make a dent. Better to focus on one museum—perhaps the Prado’s room 67 with Goya’s disturbing “black paintings.”

Afternoon: One-of-a-Kind Tastemakers

Changing tastes and Spain’s economic hardships have led many of the country’s top chefs to pursue alternatives to fine dining. Estado Puro, run by Paco Roncero (who trained under Ferran Adrià) is one of the better efforts, both for its sleek decor (flamenco haircombs, called peinetas, line the walls and ceiling) and for its delicious tapas. A mix of traditional plates, like crisp cod fritters, and more modern ones, like crave-worthy sliders with caramelized onions, makes for a perfect lunch. The well-manicured streets of the Barrio de Salamanca offer no shortage of Prada, Manolo Blahnik, and their ilk. But on the other side of the Paseo de la Castellana, the funkier Barrio de las Salesas plays SoHo to Salamanca’s Fifth Avenue. At Theorema, designer Mimma Anelli creates one-of-a-kind evening frocks that range from whimsical to drop-dead elegant. My Room Zapatos sells tri-toned suede oxfords and fur-trimmed handbags in a room that looks like the attic of a well-loved bohemian aunt. Any shopping-induced drops in blood sugar can be assuaged with a dulce de leche tart or raspberry macaron at Mamá Framboise.

Evening: A Nightcap With a View

When you’re ready for a break from tapas, the most exciting trend in Madrid dining right now is the explosion of high-end ethnic restaurants. One of the best—and possibly the top Mexican restaurant in all of Europe—is the newly opened Punto MX. In addition to tortillas made fresh to order and guacamole prepared tableside, chef Roberto Ruiz turns out flavorful, authentic specialties like roasted shredded pork atop black-bean stuffed tortillas called panuchos and duck enchiladas in green pumpkin-seed sauce. If it’s an early night (closing time is midnight), the terrace on top of the wedding-cake Cibeles Palace offers spectacular views of the city with glasses of cava. Open later, Ramses draws Madrid’s beautiful people to sip gin and tonics (Spain’s cocktail of the moment) either outdoors on a veranda that overlooks the illuminated Alcalá Arch on Independence Square or in the baroque black-and-silver spaces designed by Philippe Starck.

Day Two

Morning: Royal Digs

Start the day in the Barrio de los Austrias, the part of the city built by the Habsburg monarchs when they made Madrid the capital of Spain. Café del Oriente, good for pastries and café con leche, is one of the city’s grand cafés, complete with gilded bar, velvet banquettes, and elderly gentlemen working their way through newspapers. On the other side of the flower-filled Plaza de Oriente, the Royal Palace (open to visitors) is an exercise in old-world lavishness, with priceless paintings by Velázquez and Caravaggio, ornate furniture, and a pharmacy filled with ceramic jars storing medicinal plants. A more intimate experience awaits at the Goya Pantheon in the San Antonio de Florida Chapel, where the great painter created marvelous frescoes on the chapel’s ceiling, and where he is now entombed. For lunch, the San Miguel market is a snacking paradise that offers a variety of delicious bites. Stalls sell everything from ruby slices of jamón ibérico to paper cones filled with crisp-fried baby squid; locals and visitors alike crowd convivially around the tables in the center.

Afternoon: Park Pleasures

In 2011, the city inaugurated Madrid Río, a six-mile-long, lush park designed for strolling that was developed from an old ring road along the Manzanares River. There are places to rent bikes and kayaks, and a café. At the eastern end of the park, Matadero Madrid is perhaps the city’s most intriguing cultural space, offering art exhibitions and concerts in its complex of striking Moorish-industrial buildings that were once Madrid’s livestock market and slaughterhouse. Jordi Colomer’s video installation, “Prohibido Cantar” (“No Singing”), about how cities spring up, fills the space that was once a walk-in refrigerator.

Evening: Into the Night

“When people think about Spanish food today they think it’s all about these crazy techniques and combinations,” says chef Juanjo López. “But there’s another side that is about getting the best ingredients and respecting them.” At López’s restaurant, the tiny La Tasquita de Enfrente, he does just that, barely poaching teardrop-size peas to bring out their sweetness, and lightly crusting a piece of skate before slaking it in a piquant sauce of brown butter and capers. Madrid is a city famous for its nightlife, and the adjoining neighborhoods of Chueca and Malasaña are the epicenter of it. Indie music at the hipster Zombie Bar is provided by the locally famous Zombie Kids; the kitsch TupperWare bar (with 1950s and ’60s memorabilia) has been an old-school favorite for decades. El Junco, a laid-back, intimate jazz club, draws aficionados for its live performances most nights, and the stalwart Pacha still brings in the late-night club kids eager to dance. End the night the way madrileños do, with sugary churros and hot chocolate at the 24-hour Chocolatería San Ginés, preferably just as the sun is coming up.