It was a spell of poor weather in Marbella that got me on a plane to Madrid, and what a good idea it was.

It takes no time to see that this city has fabulous buildings rivalling Paris, and is more user friendly in that the streets are full of taxis that can be hailed like London cabs.

Imposing classical buildings around vibrant squares yield masterpieces by Picasso, Goya and Velázquez, spacious parks allow the city to breath, and everywhere there are tables outdoors where coffee, wine and tapas are served with a smile.

Being an old hand at discovering a big city, I boarded the hop-on hop-off bus and did the Madrid City Tour. A two-hour ride shows off the highlights, there is good audio information, and you can buy your ticket on any bus, of which there are many.

Buses stop at all the leading galleries and museums. The Paseo del Arte pass gives admission to the big three, the Prado (for Spanish art), Thyssen-Bornemisza (Impressionists) and Reina Sofía (Picasso’s Guernica) museums.

I especially enjoyed the Naval Museum’s history starting with the 15th Century Age of Discovery and a striking picture of Columbus’ arrival in the New World.

For a little air, I also ventured a short distance out of the city towards the snow-capped Sierra Madrid mountains to El Pardo, a royal palace founded in the 15th Century as a hunting lodge, and where General Franco lived.

Part of it is an army base and a home to the Royal Guard which looks after a museum of cars, including a 1939 Mercedes G4 given by Adolf Hitler to General Franco as a birthday present. He used the three-axle car for hunting and it is considered the most original of only three remaining out of 57 built. Another was used in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes.

Other cars on display include a 1941 armoured Mercedes limousine that could do 200 km/h and a magnificent Daimler used by Queen Sofía. An audio device in English is available. However some army personnel speak English and all are very friendly. You can get there by the excellent Metro and bus.

Madrid Tourism does a good job on the Internet and with booths, but ideally your day should start with your hotel concierge, and here I was in luck.

My hotel was the Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques, a new hotel on the site of the Santo Domingo convent and the 19th-century palace of the Dukes of Granada de Ega and Villahermosa, and the heritage is celebrated with a Velázquez theme throughout the hotel with majestic mural representations of the great master’s paintings.

Reviews of this hotel are almost unbelievably good, but I would not disagree. It is gorgeous, unstuffy, has wonderful staff, and a fine restaurant, the Dos Cielos, advised by the Torres brothers, who have one Michelin star. The Red, or club, level makes the experience even better, offering exclusive areas for inclusive dining and socialising.

Its location is superb, just a few minutes from the Oriente plaza with its royal palace, cathedral, an avenue with statues of former monarchs, as well as many restaurants (such as La Lonja for seafood) and cafés where you can be like a Madrileño and sit with a coffee, maybe a lover, and enjoy the heat of the sun. Make time though to visit one of the many craft workshops and a local market.

Come evening, eat like a local at La Bola, famous for its tasty Madrid-style stew Cocido Madrileño, served in a cozy restaurant that takes cash only. Other colourful taverns serve similar hearty Castilian food like callos (tripe) and soldaditos de pavia (battered cod with red peppers). A little red wine adds to the experience and might put you in the mood for a flamenco show. Ole!

Getting there is a pleasure on Renfe’s high-speed Ave trains from Málaga to Madrid in about two and a half hours. Take Preferente rather than Turista. Iberia Express often has good fares for the quick flight.

Words David Wishart / Photography Courtesy of and the Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques