MADRID (Reuters) - Despite its world-class museums, good climate and arguably Europe's best nightlife, Spain's capital, located right in the center of the country, is often overlooked in favor of its beachside sister, Barcelona.
But the fact Madrid is a better-kept secret from the EasyJet crowds is something to celebrate as the city has steered clear of tourist tat and the British pubs of the sun-soaked coasts to hold onto its unique charms that once delighted Ernest Hemingway and friends.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a weekend trip to the city.
Transfers from the airport are easy in Madrid by taxi or metro. It's a good idea to stay around the Prado for access to all the sites and you'll find a range of hotels from the `1most expensive (the Ritz, the Palace) to budget hotels like the NH.
7 p.m. - Start with a drink in Plaza de Santa Ana, close to Sol (kilometer 0, the dead center of Spain) and a stone's throw from the Prado museum. If you want to be with the beautiful people, grab a spot on the terrace of the Melia hotel for a sunset drink. Alternatively, any of the many bars dotted around the square offer good people-watching opportunities.
9 p.m. - Dinner is at nine at the earliest in Spain and you can choose from one of the many good tapas bars in the square (Tartufo, Cerveceria Alemana or 100 Montaditos for budget snacks, which cost just one euro each on a Wednesday). For a more authentic slice of Madrid, walk down Calle Huertas, making sure to read the quotes from famous Spanish authors engraved on the street. Maceiras (Calle Huertas, 66) offers good food from the northern region of Galicia and the octopus and croquettes are highly recommended.
11 p.m. - If you're feeling tired, take a walk back to the hotel soaking up the party atmosphere around Huertas. If you want to explore Madrid by night, when the city really comes to life, bar hop down Huertas before heading to the multi-storey Kapital (Calle Atocha, 125) for a variety of music and people (the covered terrace on the top floor is a good place to chat).
9.30 a.m. - Start the day with a hearty Spanish breakfast of churros y chocolate. The fried pastry and thick chocolate for dunking is best done at Chocolateria San Gines (Pasadizo San Gines, 11). From there you can easily walk to Plaza Mayor, the opera house and the Royal Palace, which is best admired from outside.
11.30 a.m. - Time to visit the Prado, Madrid's most famous museum. The Prado has thousands of works from Spain's best artists, including Goya and Velazquez. If you don't want to be overwhelmed, it's best to pick up a guide when you go in and check off the paintings you want to see to work out a route. If you have longer in Madrid, remember the museum is free from 5 p.m. on Sundays, but gets very crowded so be prepared to queue.
2 p.m. - Work up an appetite with a 20-minute walk to the trendy Chueca neighborhood. This area is bustling with boutiques and bars but the best spot to eat is Mercado San Anton (Calle Augusto Figueroa, 24) where you can pick and choose from Italian, Japanese, Greek and Spanish cuisine. Be sure to have a beer on the roof terrace where you can look over the area's rooftops.
4 p.m. - Walk from Chueca down Gran Via to admire the art deco architecture and the Telefonica building (one of Europe's first skyscrapers). You'll find plenty of high street shops dotted down Gran Via, including home-grown Zara and Mango. From there, make your way down to Sol, maybe dropping into department store El Corte Ingles where tourists enjoy a tax discount. Then rest up at the hotel for the night ahead.
7.30 p.m. - Start with a traditional sherry, or fino, in one of Hemingway's old haunts, La Venencia (Calle Echegaray, 7). The often dusty inside of the bar looks like it hasn't been redecorated since the 1930s and the sherries come cheap in this little corner of old Spain.
9 p.m. - Jump in a cab to La Buganvilla (Calle Almagro, 12) for the best paella in the Madrid. A huge rice dish with rabbit, seafood or chicken will cost up to 25 euros per person. The Almagro area is one of Madrid's well-heeled neighborhoods and close to the business quarter, but off the tourist trail.
11:30 p.m. - From here it's not far to explore the Malasana area (hop in a cab or take the metro to Tribunal from Alonso Martinez). This was the heart of Madrid's movida movement in the 1980s. Visit classic haunt La Via Lactea (Calle de Velarde, 18) or Tupperware (Corredera Alta de San Pablo, 26) for drinking and dancing. If you want something more traditional, take a cab to Casa Patas for a midnight flamenco show that is both authentic and tourist-friendly (book in advance).
10 a.m. - Modern art museum La Reina Sofia is free on Sunday mornings and offers a crash course in modern Spanish art and 20th century history. The first floor has lots to offer, including Picasso's masterpiece Guernica.
12 p.m. - Take a stroll in the Retiro park, just across the road from the museum. There's an artificial lake for rowing and cafes to stop in but the real joy of Retiro is finding hidden spots to sunbathe or relax in.
2 p.m. - Walk through Retiro to the high-end Salamanca area, where you can enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch at two of Madrid's best restaurants, Alkalde or El Paraguas (both on Calle Jorge Juan). Just after Alkalde turn right into Cinco Jotas, a chain that offers a more affordable meal for a bit of luxury on a budget.
4 p.m. - If you have the time, take a cab over to Madrid's cable car (Teleferico Madrid) in Arguelles, for unbeatable views of the city. You can enjoy an ice cream in Haagen Dazs (Paseo Pintor Rosales) after your return trip.
(Reporting by Clare Kane)