Madrid is the gateway for most visitors from Canada, and it would be a shame not to spend at least a few days in this big, bustling capital (population 3.3 million). It sits, appropriately, in the country’s geographic heart. It’s the pulse of the nation’s business, the seat of its government, and home to King Juan Carlos and his family. And there’s plenty to see and do.

When you unpack, leave your Canadian lifestyle in the luggage. Think siesta in the afternoon, because almost everything closes, and you’re going to need the time to recover from lunch, the main meal of the day, and to build energy for the night. Madrilenos work hard between 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and again from 4 p.m. to 6 or 7 p.m., but by 11, when we tend to think of our beds, they’re ready to go out to eat and party. Not just on weekends, either – this happens every night.

Plaza MayorVinicius Tupinamba/Shutterstock.comTapas bars are the places to start. From about 10:30 onwards the selection of small dishes – squid, sausage, veal, vegetables, etc. – is best sampled by bar hopping in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor with its lovely 17th-century buildings. But it’s crowded, so be prepared to eat your tapas while standing.

For lunch, you can’t do better than visit one of the many restaurants in Plaza de Espana, a beautifully restored part of the old city. A sign outside El Cuchi (off the plaza at Calle de los Cuchilleros) proclaims “Hemingway never ate here,” defying all the neighbouring cafes who claim the opposite.

Nearby is Puerta del Sol, the most central square from which 10 streets radiate through the city. Here too is the stone slab - Kilometre Zero - from which all distances in Spain are measured.

Kilometre ZeroNito/Shutterstock.comMadrid is renowned for its historical buildings (three in the not-to-be-missed Plaza de la Villa) and magnificent art galleries, the most famous of which is certainly El Prado. Here you can spend hours with the masterpieces of Goya, Velasquez, Bosch, Picasso, et al.

A tour of the austere Royal Palace reveals a collection of clocks cared for by a descendant of Columbus, and some magnificent tapestries. No ruler, I'm told, has ever defiled the imposing, symbolic throne by actually sitting on it. In fact the palace – now used only for state occasions – has not been lived in since 1931.
“Our king and queen prefer a cosier little palace outside Madrid,” says my guide. I don’t blame them.

FlamencoLev Radin/Shutterstock.comA flamenco show is worth attending. When it’s well done the dance is a soul-stirring expression of Spain – but I recommend avoiding “tourist” shows such as the one I saw at Las Chinitas, where the ladies looked bored as they shouted traditional responses, and where the men bordered on the rotund. What happened to those knife-blade physiques? I tried to imagine Jose Greco at Weight Watchers. Best to ask the hotel staff where the Spaniards go.

One of Europe’s busiest conference centres, Madrid’s range of event venues includes lavish palaces and castles and the modern conference centres. Check out local listings because you’re sure to find several events that you’d hate to miss.