The best mornings start with churros and chocolate. That's just science.
If you don't know these fried-dough delights, picture a mix of flour, water and salt squeezed like playdough into giant pans of oil, bubbling to a crisp brown before being snipped with a scissors and served with cups of dunking chocolate.
Chocolatería San Ginés has been serving churros and porras (larger churros) since 1894. Arrive early to beat the queues, choose your poison (chocolate 'con leche' is a milkier mix; 'negro' a dark and slightly bitter alternative) and kick back for a dip-fest in a room strewn with photos of celeb customers like Maradona, Julio Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar. Buen provecho!
Pasadizo de San Ginés 5; choclateriasangines.com
First things first. It's pronounced 'bern-ah-bay-ew'; not 'ber-na-bow'.
Real Madrid's home ground isn't a cultural and sporting pilgrimage on the same scale as Barcelona's Camp Nou, but that means fewer crowds. Tours start with a hike up to a bird's-eye view of the pitch and surprisingly steep stands, giving a sense of the cauldron-like atmosphere come kick-off.
From there, you'll pass through the museum, with old leather boots and balls threading the story from Di Stéfano and Puskás through to modern heroes like Ronaldo, Zidane and Sergio Ramos. Trophies glisten, TV screens blare and you soon emerge on to the pitch itself... for more goosebumps.
The home dressing room was a highlight for my soccer-mad son and me, taking selfies at lockers used by Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, before exiting through a gift shop where jerseys were priced from €118 a pop.
We passed on those.
realmadrid.com; tickets €25/€18.
Laid out in the 17th century by Felipe IV, El Retiro opened to the public in 1868 and has been a magnet for madrileños ever since, especially on weekends. An artificial lake is the anchor, surrounded by gorgeous gardens, monuments and al fresco cafés. Bring a book or a picnic, rent a rowing boat, sit in the shade of one of thousands of trees, or take a stroll to find the metal-and-glass Palacio de Cristal. If you've got kids along, it's a good playground stop, too... you may find yourself going back to this green lung. esmadrid.com
One of the best tips I have for art galleries, especially with children, is to pick a few key works to see before you go. Don't even try to 'do' the whole thing.
In the Reina Sofia, we made a beeline for Picasso's Guernica (above), a stunning response to the bombing of a Basque town by German forces working with General Franco's fascists in 1937. We've seen a gazillion reproductions, but the real thing rocked us all over again - as much for its sheer scale (the painting is almost eight metres long), as the sense of art and imagination punching back against evil.
Elsewhere, featured artists include Dalí and Miró. museoreinasofia.es; €14.50 for adults; children under 18 go free.
Grand architecture and gastronomy combine at Madrid's fanciest food market, but be sure to visit off-peak to avoid a frustrating experience... and nab a choice counter seat. It can feel a bit posh compared to the cut-and-thrust of older city markets (the Beaux-Arts reboot has been described as "a traditional market for the 21st century"), but the grazing is good - from artfully-stacked bocadillos to Rodrigo De La Calle's paellas, or pricey Galician shellfish and pintxos to gluten-free tacos at Roberto Ruiz's Tacos, Margaritas Y Punto. Plaza de San Miguel; mercadosanmiguel.es
Jet lag isn't an issue for Irish visitors to Spain, but food lag certainly is. Madrileños like to eat late, sitting down to dinner from 9pm or later, leaving unsuspecting visitors with a severe dose of 'hanger' in the early evening. Solution? Embrace la merienda, a late afternoon snack that will plug the gap. It's the perfect excuse to take a few tapas, circle back to an appealing café or bang in a quick bocadillo, and it means you won't be eating in eerily empty restaurants at Irish teatime.
Speaking of meriendas, eggs are another classic Spanish snack. Start your search by skipping the hot and over-priced eateries of Plaza Mayor, heading instead for one of the 'cave bars' beneath it on Cava de San Miguel. Here, Mesón de la Tortilla (No.15, above) sees an open-kitchen serve up gooey-yet-firm marriages of potatoes and eggs you'll swear you can reproduce at home but of course never will. A side of pimientos peppers and a cool caña of beer seal the deal. The huevos rotas ("broken eggs") at La Taberna los Huevos de Lucio are another brilliantly eggy adventure on Calle de la Cava Baja.
The hardest of Madrid's museums to pronounce, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is also its easiest to navigate and absorb over a short visit. Named for its German-Hungarian founder, it's one of the broadest and most vibrant private collections I've ever seen, ranging from Caravaggio to Chagall, Van Gogh to Georgia O'Keefe and Rembrandt to Roy Liechtenstein... in many cases, with several priceless pieces in a single room. We paused for longest at Hotel Room by Edward Hopper, a detached yet soulful portrait of a woman sitting alone with a letter on her knee. The gift shop is surprisingly sticky, too - temptations range from Paul Klee-inspired pullovers to its own brand kitchen wear. museothyssen.org; €13 for adults; children under 18 go free.
Getting your bearings in any city is tricky on a short break, so why not pay an expert local to do it for you?
Devour Madrid offers tapas and culture tours in English (from around €79pp for three hours, tastings included), while City Unscripted specialises in pairing visitors with locals for off-grid tours based on your own tastes and experiences (from €32.50pp). madridfoodtours.com; cityunscripted.com
We tried an Airbnb near Plaza del Callao on this visit, spending just over €500 for three nights in a two-bedroom apartment that felt like an Ikea showroom. It was great for siestas and snacks, and lovely to emerge into the heart of old Madrid, but the constant movement of wheelie cases in the lobby reminded us that Barcelona isn't the only city with tensions between local and tourist experiences.
On previous visits, I've rated the Only You hotel (above, onlyyouhotels.com; from €170), a slick boutique offering in a restored palace near the Chueca neighbourhood (I loved the suitcases forming a backdrop at reception), and The Hat is a funky 'luxury' hostel with rooftop bar and hip, ground-floor cafe in a 19th-century building near Plaza Mayor. It's also got family rooms (thehatmadrid; dorm beds from €18).
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Iberia (iberia.com) all fly direct from Dublin to Madrid.
The city's official visitor website is esmadrid.com.
Valencia is Spain's third-largest city, home to cracking food, the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, and far fewer touristy crowds. visitvalencia.com