Seen from the air, two of Madrid's main features immediately stand out. One is the immensely long Paseo de la Castellana, a north-south arterial avenue that slices Madrid in two and links the old city with its newer northern business districts. Either side of the Castellana the street layout is a rational, gridiron pattern.
The second feature is the cramped old city with its narrow streets centred on the Puerta del Sol. This is literally the centre of the city, in that all street numbers in Madrid count outwards from Sol, and it contains kilómetro cero (marked by a pavement plaque) from which distances to the rest of Spain are measured. Much of old Madrid converges on this square.
Although small, central Madrid does have well-defined barrios whose borders are often easy-to-spot main arteries. There is a problem of nomenclature since, within any given barrio, locals may consider a cluster of streets to have a special feel and so give it a name of its own, so different people may refer to the same area by different names. Exactly what constitutes a barrio's particular character can be elusive, involving myriad details that only locals fully appreciate. Residents often use the name of the nearest metro station for convenience. The area division we use throughout this guide simplifies Madrid's intricate geography, for convenience and comprehensibility.
The museum district
Home to the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofía, the Paseo del Arte (museum district) is set to get bigger.
The Old City
Where medieval alleys meet Habsburg and Bourbon splendour.
The oldest part of the city, site of the Muslim town and of most of medieval Madrid, falls between Plaza de la Cebada, Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real. Like several other parts of the Old City, this area has been smartened up recently, and is now home to a slew of wine bars and expensive restaurants.
La Latina, the area below Plaza de la Cebada, is named for a Latin teacher Beatriz Galindo. At the end of the 15th century she paid for a hospital to be built on the square that bears her name, the site is now occupied by the Teatro La Latina, a stronghold of traditional Spanish entertainment. The district is relatively quiet except during its grand fiestas, around the time of La Paloma in August.
The Puerta del Sol represents the very heart of Madrid, both because it contains kilómetro cero (the mark from which distances from the city are measured) and for its time-honoured role as chief meeting place. Famously, through the centuries people have come to Sol to find out what's going on. While seedy, this area is not generally dangerous, and is heavily policed. Care should be taken walking around late at night, however, especially if you're on your own.
The Plaza de España, at the western end of the Gran Vía, is dominated by Franco's bombastic architecture. The square around them is big, noisy and not a particularly relaxing place to sit. The Gran Vía itself was created in 1910 by slicing through the Old City so that traffic could easily reach Cibeles from C/Princesa. Intended to be a broad modern boulevard, it got grander still when World War I made neutral Madrid a clearing house for international money.
Huertas & Santa Ana
Spain has more bars and restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world, and you can get the impression that most of Madrid's are crowded into the wedge-shaped swathe of streets between Alcalá and C/Atocha. It is also the city's most distinctive theatre district and where the Golden Age literary set used to hang out.
Plaza Santa Ana is lined by some of the city's most popular bars and pavement terraces, and has long been one of Madrid's favourite places for hanging out for an entire afternoon or three.
South of Sol and the Plaza Mayor is the area traditionally considered the home of Madrid's castizos. Castizos are something like London's East End cockneys: rough-diamond chirpy types straight out of a Spanish My Fair Lady. Many of them materialise round here in best bib and tucker – cloth caps for the men; long, frilly dresses for the ladies – for the city's summer festivals. Since the end of the '90s, however, Lavapiés has taken on a new characteristic: as a big recipient of non-Spanish immigration - from China, Pakistan, North and West Africa – it is becoming the city's most multicultural neighbourhood.
Home of the Rastro market this web of sloping, winding streets remains one of the most characterful parts of Old Madrid.
Previously a shabby corner of the city, Chuecea has undergone a spectacular revival of late, due above all to becoming the gay centre of Madrid. The epicentre of the scene is Plaza de Chueca; its terraces are packed with buzzing crowds on hot summer nights. On the back of the gay scene, many more restaurants, trendy shops, cafés and clubs have opened up, and Fuencarral, the borderline between Chueca and Malasaña, is now the heart of Madrid's club-fashion scene.
Malasaña & Conde Duque
By day the neighbourhood of Malasaña, between C/Fuencarral and San Bernardo, still has a quiet neighbourhood feel, with grannies watering their geraniums on wrought-iron balconies and idiosyncratic corner shops. By night, though, this has long been an epicentre of Madrid's bar culture. It's nothing like as trendy or as adventurous as Chueca, though; rather, Malasaña is still associated with laid-back cafés, rock bars and cheap, grungy, studenty socialising, at least until the tentacles of Old City gentrification really take hold.
Salamanca & Retiro
Salamanca is an area best known for its designer shopping and the futuristic architecture along its Paseo de la Castellana, but the area is also home to some of the city's most fascinating small museums. South of here the Retiro is a verdant oasis of entirely old-fashioned delights: a boating lake, puppet shows and old men playing dominoes under the plane trees. Linking the two areas are wide boulevards, adorned with handsome statues, inspiring fountains and three of the greatest museums in the world including Museo del Prado.
Madrid's suburbs offer a wealth of attractions from quirky museums, relaxing gardens including the Casa de Campo and amusement parks... to an authentic Egyptian temple. City walls and building restrictions over the centuries have meant that even Madrid's furthest-flung attractions are in a concentrated area, within easy reach of the city centre.