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Fern Siegel

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Madrid: Colorful and Cosmopolitan

Posted: 12/25/11 06:59 PM ET

2011-12-25-CerveceriaHuffPo.jpg The euro may be playing havoc with Spain's economy, but someone forgot to tell Madrid. A vibrant, beautiful city, it is one of the most exciting destinations in Europe. Pedro Almodóvar's films defined Madrid for American moviegoers -- and his portrait of an electric metropolis is best experienced in close-up.

It's not unusual for Madrid's under-30 set to arrive at a bar at midnight, then go clubbing till 6 a.m. Popular Kapital, Calle de Atocha, 125, offers eight floors of music, while another longtime favorite, Joy, is at Arenal 11. Many Madrileños head for Calle de las Huertas, a street that doubles as party central.

Like all great cosmopolitan centers, Madrid is a collection of neighborhoods -- from the vast El Retiro Park to hip Chueca. Elegant Salamanca offers both exclusive and esoteric shops, such as Liberia Garcia Prieto, which sells maps and first editions. Bohemian La Latina, which houses the famed El Rastro flea market, is Almodóvar terrain. Romantic spots like Plaza de la Paja are often used in his movies. Tapas bars abound, but if you want free tapas, order drinks at the lively El Tigre, Calle de las Infantas, 30 and plates of food will arrive with it. Try the mojitos.

Each district has a distinct charm; tradition and modernity peacefully co-exist. Begin at Plaza Puerta del Sol, a lively central square. Just north is the Gran Via, the geographic heart of the city for shopping and business. 2011-12-25-MetroHuffPo.jpg

For architectural lovers, the area houses several impressive buildings constructed in the first two decades of the 20th century: Metropolis, Telefonica and Palacio de la Prensa. By contrast, Plaza Mayor is the epicenter of Hapsburg Madrid. Two of the city's most iconic buildings -- The Royal Palace and the Teatro Real Opera House -- are minutes away.

Of course, much of the city's renown rests with its extraordinary art collections. The Art Triangle has three in close proximity: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which emphasizes the avant-garde, the Reina Sofia and the Prado.

The Prado, one of the great museums of the world, houses works from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, but specializes in Spanish painting, nearly 5,000 masterworks by famed artists such as El Greco, Zurbaran, Velázquez and Goya. His statue stands about 50 yards from the Prado's entrance, which borders the Royal Botanic Garden. Through March 25, "The Hermitage in the Prado" exhibit displays 170 pieces from the Russian museum's art treasures. 2011-12-25-Goya2HuffPo.jpg

Reina Sofia Museum, often billed as a temple to modern art, houses some 17,000 works, including cubism and surrealism, as well as Dali, Miro and Picasso. Picasso's powerful "Guernica," painted in 1937 as a reaction against Franco's brutality during the Spanish Civil War, commands a room all its own. It's worth a visit just to see it. Added bonus: RSM is open Mondays.

While thousands visit the big three each year, explore the smaller museums -- especially the intimate Sorolla Museum, an artistic treat. The Art Nouveau home of the esteemed Luminist painter doubles as a gallery, complimented by exquisite gardens.

A metro ride away is the studio of Alfredo Ramón, a critically acclaimed Spanish painter included in the Reina Sofia and Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando collections. His Hopperesque works depict the shops and taverns of Madrid, as well as the beauty of the countryside. He is known for capturing the spirit and grace of his subjects. Visits to his studio are by appointment.

And don't leave Madrid without seeing flamenco. Casa Patas, Calle Canizares, 10, is said to showcase the finest dancers in the city. Each year, 300 performances take place, Monday-Saturday. Flamenco dancing, exhilarating to watch, is done in a special room behind the restaurant, which has a Mediterranean kitchen known for regional specialties. This is the real deal.

For sleek decors with upscale fare, consider Acquafredda, Iroco or Ramses. Traditional fare is found at Los Galayos, which has been open since 1894. Or enjoy a casual neighborhood bistro at Chocolat, Calle Santa Maria 30, in the Art Triangle neighborhood. The menu of the day is always a bargain. Make sure to order the specialty coffee or hot chocolate with fresh churros. 2011-12-25-ChocolatHuffPo.jpg

If you're in the city Jan. 24-26, check out Madrid Fusion, which brings global gastronomic delights to the streets, with food stands, gourmet taste demonstrations and cooking contests.

Getting around is easy -- the metro system is clean and efficient. A 1, 3, 5 or 7-day pass is available. But one of the nicest ways to see Madrid is to walk it. It's the best way to discover hidden gems in its narrow, cobblestone streets.

If You Go
Radisson Blu Madrid Prado offers Old World charm with New World amenities. The operative word is boutique: The chic hotel has 54 guest rooms and prides itself on service. The location is fantastic. Across from the Prado museum, it's a short stroll to the Caixa Forum cultural center, Reina Sofia and the luxury shopping at nearby Gran Via. All rooms have free high-speed Internet access. After sightseeing, check out the hotel's spa and indoor pool. The bath amenities by French designer Anne Semonin are sublime; the decor is minimalist, but intimate. Blu's specialty grill, The Cask, provides Spanish cuisine and a tapas menu. Consider a nightcap at the Whiskey Bar, offering more than 20 single malts and one of only two Madrid hotels to carry the rare Blue Label Johnny Walker -- at 95€ a shot.
Calle Moratin 52 - Plaza de Platerias Martinez - 28014 Madrid, Spain
Tel: +34 (91) 524 2626; www.radissonblu.com/pradohotel-madrid

Iberia Airlines
The flagship carrier of Spain, Iberia has nightly flights to Madrid-Baraja Airport from JFK. My flights -- in both directions -- arrived early. The service is courteous, the food and comfort factor in economy are quite good. www.iberia.com/

Madrid Tourism Center
The tourist board is brilliantly organized and a treasure trove of information -- maps, books, metro cards. It offers guided tours and savvy suggestions for the perfect trip, whatever your interest -- art, cuisine, sports, entertainment. Make sure to buy a Madrid Card, available for 24, 48, 72 or 120 hours. It secures entry to 50+ museums, including the Prado, plus discounts at an array of shops and restaurants. There are up-to-date guidebooks in many languages. MTC's Web site is superb: user-friendly and helpful.
Plaza Mayor, 27
www.esmadrid.com/
Open: 9:30 a.m. - 8:30 p.m. daily, year-round