Madrid offers a heady mixture of partying and high culture. But be warned, fitting in with the locals is not for the fainthearted!

Madrid is far from being an ancient city – it only became Spain’s capital in the 16th century, and for much of its existence was a grotty rural backwater. But today Madrid has shaken off its dubious beginnings and is now one of Europe’s great capitals – after all, it’s good enough for Posh and Becks to call home. Whether you want to spend your days examining the Old Masters in the Museo del Prado or drink the night away in Madrid’s abundance of bars, you will never be short of things to do in this city.

Regal magnificence
Palacio Real is the epitome of what a palace should be. The imposing Italinate baroque building sits on a terrace overlooking the palace gardens and is flanked on one side by the vast square, the Plaza de la Armería. Inside is just as impressive – think sumptuous crimson velvet, rich carpets, gold gilding and elaborate frescos. The 2800 lavishly decorated rooms (of which the public can visit around 50) make up what is the largest palace in Europe.

The palace was the brainchild of the first of the Bourbon kings, Felipe V. An earlier palace on the same site, the Alcazar, burned down in 1734 and Felipe decided to leave his mark on Madrid by commissioning the palace. The current king, Juan Carlos, and his family don’t actually live in the palace – they reside in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid – but it is still used for state occasions.

Classic or modern?
Actually, it doesn’t matter whether you like your art classic or contemporary, Madrid offers treasures from across the spectrum. Since Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes moved to Madrid and found fame and fortune in the 18th century, artists have been following his lead to find more of the same. And many, including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, found it here.

The heavyweight of the city’s museums and galleries is undoubtedly the Museo del Prado. This is where the classics from Spain’s Old Masters are housed and where art lovers can spend many contented hours. For those whose preferences run more towards the modern, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is a must. The highlight of the gallery is the Picasso’s Guernica. The emotive painting was inspired by the German bombing of the basque town Gernika in 1937. The painting is surprisingly large, taking up an entire room of the gallery. Surrealists such as Dali and Max Ernst also feature heavily.

While there is loads to do in Madrid to fill the daylight hours, this is a city which really comes alive at night. Madrid, the locals proudly claim, has the best nightlife in Europe. While this claim is a hard one to substantiate, many visitors make it their mission to do intensive research into the social behaviour of Los Gatos (the nickname for Madrilenos, meaning cats because of their tendency to prowl in the evenings). And it usually doesn’t disappoint.
But be warned, fitting in with the locals is not for the fainthearted or for those who like a early night. Most Madrilenos don’t eat before 10pm and it’s not unusual for them to stay out all night, then head to work for a normal day at the office.

Worth a look
Mmmm, lots of chocolate
For chocoholics, Chocolateria de San Gines is a place to savour. The café is the best known of Madrid’s churros y chocolate vendors. Follow the lead of the locals and buy the cafe’s speciality – a cup of runny chocolate into which you dip strips of deep fried batter, which are a cross between bread and doughnuts. Yes, it’s extremely fattening – merely looking at this ‘snack’ will cause you to put on weight – but it is delicious, and hey, you’re on holiday. The café is particularly popular in the early hours of the morning with clubbers in need of some sustenance.

• Ainsley Thomson travelled to Madrid with Opodo (0871-277 0090), who have return flights with Iberia plus two nights’ accommodation at the Vinci Centrum Hotel from £126.