VILLA REAL 10 Plaza de las Cortes; 34-91/420-3767, fax 34-91/420-3767; doubles from $228. A few yards behind the Palace, the 115-room Villa Real is no poor relation, just a different breed of hotel. (It belongs to a Catalan boutique chain that owns the Philippe Starck—designed Claris in Barcelona.) Regulars return for the chic, intimate air, the city's most cheerful and obliging staff, and a collection of Roman mosaics and statues worthy of a provincial museum. Regrettably, the split-level doubles and duplex suites are a touch claustrophobic. But you won't spend much time in your room—not with the Prado, Thyssen, and Plaza Santa Ana at your doorstep.
. . . getting intimate with the Velázquezes and Goyas at the Prado.
. . . renting a rowboat in Retiro Park.
. . . sipping mojitos at Chicote (12 Gran Vía; 34-91/532-6737), where Ava Gardner quaffed iced gins and Buñuel ordered his dry martinis.
. . . making Sunday rounds of El Rastro flea market, devoting quality time to the antiques in Galerías Piquer (29 Calle Ribera de Curtidores).
. . . gawking at the Gran Vía, with its dizzying lineup of early-20th-century architectural styles.
. . . catching a contemporary art exhibition at the Círculo de Bellas Artes (42 Calle Alcalá; 34-91/531-7700).
. . . dedicating a day to the blue-chip art collections of the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía museums.
. . . attending an opera at the newly restored Teatro Real (Plaza Isabel II; 34-91/516-06600).