In the 1600s, Madrid—centered in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula—was the capital of the Spanish Empire; the largest the world had ever known. Today, although Spanish power has long since ebbed and Madrid's size and clout ranks it (arguably) in the second tier of European capitals, her noble face is still very alluring to visitors.
Go to the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, a massively imposing building which looks out over the gardens of Las Vistillas and El Camp del Moro as well as the Sabatini Gardens and the Casa de Campo. The Spanish royal family, headed by King Juan Carlos I, officially resides at the more modest and informal Zarzuela Palace. But the Palacio Real, completed in 1764 and now principally a museum, is a worthy attraction for those with a taste for history and an appreciation for eye-popping gold leaf and intricately carved furnishings.
Unless you can spare two or three days solely to savor Madrid's museums—there are dozens to choose from—it's probably best to avoid the Prado. It houses an unparalleled collection of Spanish paintings, but an hour or two won't suffice. Instead, head over to the smaller Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando where you can also see works by Velázquez, Murillo, Alonso Cano, and Morales. For more contemporary art, try the Reina Sofia Art Center National Museum (www.museoreinasofia.es) which is named after Spain's current queen.
Madrid is stellar terrain for people watching and the best place for it is the Plaza Mayor (www.plazamayor.es), the huge square that used to be the commercial hub of the Mediaeval city. On any given evening, Madrileños by the thousands come to the square to drink, dine and gossip across the cafe tables scattered around its perimeter. The Plaza Mayor area has plenty of tabernas or taverns that specialize in serving tapas, surely up there among Spain's many gifts to the world. You can sample small servings of ham and mushrooms, fried squid or pieces of stewed sausage, and wash them down with a glass of white wine from Galicia.
For shopping, the Salamanca district (accessible, depending on where you are located, by taxi, bus or Metro; remember to get off at the Retiro station) has a lovely 19th-century air about it. And Salamanca contains many of Madrid's principal luxury stores (think Spanish leather goods) and private galleries. At the other end of the scale, the capital's main flea market, known as el Rastro (the big day is Sunday), has dozens of stalls selling clothing, silver, pottery-in fact, just about everything short of the kitchen sink. A word to the wise though; there, as well as in other parts of Madrid, be vigilant and watch your belongings.