Madrid has become one of Europe's most dynamic cities, combining exceptional art galleries with its gently hedonistic passion for the good life. Madrid is one of the few places on the planet that routinely experiences traffic jams at 2 a.m.; after all, it's said to boast more bars than any city in the world. That much is known by anyone who has spent any time here. What is less known is that the Spanish capital is arguably the most hospitable city in Europe.

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Seduction zone ahead

This is a city that can creep up on you slowly. Then, before realizing it, you've fallen in love. Ernest Hemingway, one of many to fall under its spell, wrote that he could not bear the idea that he would one day have to leave and never see Madrid again.

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The best fish ever

Near El Rastro and Plaza Mayor are bars and cafes humming with noise and goodwill. One favorite is Casa Revuelta, a Madrid institution known for its bite-sized tapas (about $2 per person) of bacalao (cod). This is the sort of place where you'll be squeezed in tight but won't care because fish never tasted this good. The people of Madrid — madrileños — will cross the city just to sample a single plate and to chat with its diminutive owner, who has been running this place for decades and still painstakingly extracts every fishbone in the morning and serves as a waiter in the afternoon (3 Calle Latoneros; 011-34-91-366-33-32).

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Pool with a view

Hotel Emperador has sumptuous rooms in the heart of Madrid; its rooftop swimming pool offers exceptional views. (Doubles from $150; 011-34-91-547-28-00, fax 011-34-91-547-28-17, vwww.emperadorhotel.com.) Also centrally located, Hotel Europa offers good, quiet rooms and a plant-filled courtyard. (Doubles from $98; 011-34-91-521-29-00, fax 011-34-91-521-46-96, http://www.hoteleuropa.net .) Hostal Cruz Sol is known for its friendly staff and great location — just a stone's throw from the Plaza Mayor. (Doubles $62; telephone/fax 011-34-91-532-7197, http://www.hostalcruzsol.com .)

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Plaza sweet

As El Rastro quiets down and madrileños fan out across the city, many head for the outdoor tables of the Plaza Mayor — one of the finest manifestations of European cafe culture on the continent. There are few more rewarding travel experiences than sitting in the plaza surrounded by the street performers who adorn this city, the energetic and friendly locals who define it and the languages of the world that provide its soundtrack. And if you look closely, you can decipher the story of this supremely elegant square — including bullfights and royal celebrations and the dark trials of the Spanish Inquisition — carved in relief on the circular bronze benches around it.

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A cafe to remember

Range a little farther and stop in at the Café del Real, not far from the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). With its super-smooth lounge music and its beamed ceilings and views over Plaza de la Ópera, this is one of Madrid's hippest cafes. The coffee (around $2.60) is exceptional (2 Plaza de Isabel II; 011-34-91-547-21-24).

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Smart talk

Café Comercial (coffee from $2.60) is another gem; its pillared salon and heavy leather chairs ooze old-world sophistication and come alive with animated tertulias, or discussions, among Madrid's leading writers and intellectuals (7 Glorieta de Bilbao; 011-34-91-521-56-55).

Want to learn more?

For basic information on such things as itineraries and weather, see vwww.aboutmadrid.com.

Nightlife and local festivities are well covered at vwww.red2000.com/spain/madrid. The Wellington

Society of Madrid leads tours of Hemingway's old haunts, including his favorite watering holes (vwww.wellsoc.org/Tours/HemingwayTour.htm).

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Getting there

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is available on Air France, American, British, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $540.

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— Anthony Ham Lonely Planet