The centre of Madrid has been going through a dramatic transformation over the past few years, with delicatessens, galleries and boutiques popping up in previously dilapidated downtown areas. Look up, however, and you’ll invariably still see someone in their dressing gown, quietly taking in the scene while watering the flowers on their wrought-iron balcony.
You could spend weeks just visiting the museums, such as the Prado, Thyssen- Bornemisza and Reina Sofía, but to get into the city’s groove nothing beats just sitting back and watching whatever is going on around you. Spring in Madrid brings the welcome reappearance of the terrazas, with waiters all over the city frantically unstacking chairs and tables at the first sign of warmth, so that the locals can indulge in their favourite activity (or rather inactivity) of meeting up for a chat over coffee or a beer or two. This is not a place where people like to fill their diaries weeks in advance, preferring the spontaneity of whatever the day brings. Be warned: the best-laid plans are likely to go astray soon after that first cold beer at a pavement café.
While juice bars and health food places are proliferating in cool areas such as Chueca and Malasaña, as well in smart Salamanca, many locals still start the day by dipping sugar-coated, deep-fried churros into their coffee in their favourite bar. You’ll need energy if you’re planning a morning in the Prado, so there’s no need to feel guilty. Soon it is time for more coffee and a slab of tortilla to see you through until aperitivo time and a glass of vermouth, before you start thinking about the serious business of lunch.