Why go to Madrid? Because you never know what's going to happen next.

A few hours in this exhilarating, upbeat city will remind you how much fun you can have when you kick back and just go with the flow. This is a place where the best laid plans are likely to go astray - no matter how carefully you research and map out your trip.

Could your life do with a burst of spontaneous vitality? Come to Madrid.

The neighbourhoods

Downtown neighbourhoods are shifting from shabby to chic, with laid-back cafés and vintage boutiques popping up all over the place. Check out Malasaña, Chueca and La Latina, each with its own character, but all happily mixing the old with the new.

See some of the best art in the world

There's not just the Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and Reina Sofia Museum to visit, there are artworks by world-class artists in lots of other museums too.

Get into the swing of Madrid

Of course, you probably want to go to the Prado and a few other museums, but make time for wandering around, getting into the Madrid swing. There are few cities where it is so easy to slip into the way of life, to feel like a local, even if it is only for a few days.

The Gran Vía, the main avenue through the centre, is brash, noisy and flanked with huge, ostentatious buildings. But turn down a side street anywhere along it, and you are in a different world (Chris Stokel-Walker discovered this; read his guide - A meal in Madrid for less than €5).

Join the throng strolling down Calle Fuencarral to get an instant idea of what the city’s cool crowd are wearing this season.

And see - Market forces: a gourmet tour of Madrid - for advice on the hora del aperitivo - a Madrid tradition.

Find the real Madrid

Have a look at the Plaza Mayor, the magnificent 17th-century square, but don’t bother with the expensive pavement cafés. Instead, explore the back streets and find a little place full of locals. Twice the fun and half the price. That’s what Madrid is all about.

Antonia Windsor discovers some of the traditions of Madrid in her guide - The Madrid of matadors.

Go towards the light

Ask the locals what they love most about their city and they are likely to tell you it's the people - and the light.

Madrid is the highest capital in Europe, at 650 metres above sea level, and that means sharp light and dazzling blue skies for much of the year - even in the middle of winter.

Take your time

Spend the mornings soaking up the culture, but don’t try to cram too much in. You could spend days in the Prado, Reina Sofia or Thyssen-Bornemisza - but if you just have a few hours, don’t try to see everything, just look at the stuff you like best. There’s no test at the end!

Enjoy the sunshine

Even in winter there are a lot of sunny days, and it is often warm enough to sit outside for a coffee or a beer.

And remember…

Don’t, whatever you do, ask where the movida is to be found. Locals will laugh - and groan - in your face. It was all over a good 20 years ago. Nowadays movida just means nightlife really - although only tourists ever utter the word - and you won’t need much help finding nightlife in Madrid.

Think of these recommendations as the first rung on the ladder, just getting you in the right area to make your own discoveries. This city is all about surprises, not sticking to a plan.

Come to Madrid and feel your senses ping back to life.