At first glance, Madrid seems like a sprawling maze of neighborhoods, monuments, and museums -- but as locals will quickly point out, most of the sites you're setting out to see are smack dab in the center. The best way to explore the Spanish capital? By foot. Here are four routes you can take to see it all.
Walk Through History: Start your tour at the Plaza de España, a stunning square set on the end of the shopping street, Gran Vía, surrounded by Madrid's two tallest buildings. The square is just a 15-minute walk from the Campo del Moro palace gardens, Sabatini Gardens, and the Palacio Real -- the royal palace dating back to the 17th century. Get lost strolling through the pedestrian-friendly area as you make your way to the Plaza Mayor. Once the site of executions during the Spanish inquisition, the square and its archways are now home to café terraces surrounded by the stunning 16th and 17th century architecture. Nearby, the traditional Mercado San Miguel is an indoor market dating back to 1916 with 33 stalls filled with meats, cheese, and tapas.
Go Café Hopping: Madrid is divided into neighborhoods, each with its own charm. If you head to the Malasaña neighborhood, you'll find hipster-style cafes, bars, and restaurants as you walk up Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo or down the side street Calle Pez. For a lively scene, stop in Bodega de la Ardosa for vermouth or a glass of wine and tapas. Cross over Calle Fuencarral -- the fashion street dividing Malasaña and Chueca, the gay district -- where you'll find cafes and shops lining Calle Fernando VI, like the French patisserie Mamá Framboise and concept shop Do Design. Walk up nearby Calle Argensola and window shop, stopping in at Dray Martina for a craft cocktail, and don't leave Chueca without visiting the modern, multi-story Mercado San Antón.
Stroll through the Park: It wouldn't be hard to spend an entire day exploring Buen Retiro Park, Madrid's version of Central Park in the city center. It's surrounded by the top three museums in town: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Museo del Prado, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Start the morning at one of the museums before heading into the park for a picnic or visit to the Crystal Palace glass structure, which sometimes hosts exhibits from the Reina Sofia museum. If you do spend a full day here, take a rowboat out on the pond or wander through La Rosaleda, the rose gardens. Near the park there's also a charming tea salon called Vailima, the perfect place to relax after all of that walking.
Take a Tapas Tour: On Sundays, everyone flocks to the tapas restaurants and bars in the La Latina neighborhood. Start by braving the El Rastro open air flea market in the morning, which spans several streets just south of La Latina. Then do like the locals and walk the neighborhood's winding streets sampling tapas at places like the narrow La Perejila; the larger (and slightly more expensive) Juana la Loca, known for its potato, eggs, and confit onion Spanish tortilla; and the low-key seafood spot Marisquería La Paloma on Calle Toledo. Plan on starting your tapas crawl around 4 p.m. and expect to finish with wine later in the evening at one of the neighborhood's many bars.