11 Top-Rated Day Trips from Madrid
Excursions outside of Madrid offer a welcome break for tourists who want a change of scenery from the art museums and crowds. In under an hour, travelers can escape to peaceful mountains, charming historic towns, and monumental royal palaces of the Castile region. Nearby are three UNESCO-listed sites: El Escorial, the 16th-century monastery-palace; the elegant historic town of Aranjuez; and the university town of Alcalá de Henares. Slightly further away is the designated historic-artistic site of Sigüenza with an impressive medieval castle that is now a luxury hotel. For typical Castilian architecture and traditions, visit Manzanares el Real, famous for its castle, and Colmenar Viejo, known for bullfighting. Several destinations are in the beautiful Sierra de Guadarrama, including the village of Miraflores de la Sierra and the Puerto de Navacerrada ski resort.
1 El Escorial Monastery and Palace: An Idyllic Royal Retreat
Tourists are pleasantly surprised by this idyllic retreat on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, just 50 kilometer outside of the Madrid metropolitan area. Nestled in the little town of San Lorenzo del Escorial (El Escorial) is the UNESCO-listed Royal Monastery and Palace of El Escorial, built in the 16th century for Philip II. The mystic king dedicated the monument to Saint Lawrence after the Spanish troops defeated the French in the Battle of Saint-Quentin on August 10, 1557. El Escorial was once a center of political power during the Spanish Empire. The immense monastery and palace complex, with its inestimable treasures of art, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Spain.
From the outside, El Escorial appears more like a fortress than a monastery. The grayish granite complex was designed by Juan de Herrera; the architectural style, known as Herrerian, combines 16th-century Italian classicism with Spanish Baroque details. Altogether, the grandiose complex has 15 courtyards, more than 2,000 windows, more than 1,000 doors, 86 staircases, 88 fountains, and 1,600 paintings. At its center is the twin towered church with an awe-inspiring 90-meter-high dome. Within the palace, the opulent Bourbon Suite includes the state apartments of Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. These rooms display valuable 18th-century furniture, exquisite porcelain, and an enormous collection of more than 300 exquisite Spanish and Flemish tapestries. The Escorial also has a renowned Picture Gallery with paintings by masters such as Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Veronese, José de Ribera, and Albrecht Dürer. Be sure to see Titian's Last Supper and Saint Jerome in Prayer, Hieronymus Bosch's The Crowning with Thorns, Marinus van Reymerswaele's The Money-Changers, and Diego Velázquez' Joseph's Robe. One of the important works is The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice by El Greco.
Address: Calle Juan de Borbón y Battenberg, 28200 San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
2 The Elegant Historic Town and Royal Palace of Aranjuez
The elegant historic town of Aranjuez is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its exceptional cultural heritage. Aranjuez was a royal summer residence in the 16th century, created during the reign of Ferdinand VI. The town's Baroque and Rococo palaces, geometrically laid-out avenues, central squares, and gardens along the Tagus River embody the orderly ideas of the Enlightenment.
The Royal Palace was built for Philip II in 1560 but was rebuilt in the 1660s. The impressive facade is mainly Renaissance in design with Baroque influences. The richly decorated interior displays valuable tapestries, fine porcelain, exceptional paintings, and exquisite objets d'art. Particularly notable are the magnificent staircase, the Chapel Royal by Sabatini, and the velvet-clad Throne Room. Be sure to see the Porcelain Room decorated with plaques of Buen Retiro porcelain depicting Chinese scenes and the Sala de Papeles Chinos adorned with delicate paintings on rice paper. The Moorish Room was modeled on the Sala de Dos Hermanas of the Alhambra in Granada. Complimenting the beautiful architecture are lovely gardens. The grounds are filled with ancient plane trees, exotic plants, formal French-style landscaping, and statues of ancient Roman Emperors and gods.
About 47 kilometers south of Madrid, Aranjuez is easily accessible by train or car. The most charming way to arrive is by taking the Strawberry Train (Tren de la Fresa). This old-fashioned 19th-century train has restored wooden coaches and refined style. Complete with stewardesses dressed in period costume, the train ride is a journey back in time. The scenic route travels past densely wooded forests and fertile farmlands. The Strawberry Train departs from the Railway Museum in Madrid and runs on Saturday and Sundays in May, June, September, and October when strawberries are in season. A bus takes tourists to the main sites of the town.
3 Sigüenza: A Designated Historic-Artistic Site
An ancient city in the province of Guadalajara (131 kilometers from Madrid), Sigüenza has an outstanding cultural heritage. Dominating the town is the stunning Castillo, an amazing fortified 12th-century castle built on the site of a Moorish Alcazaba. The well-preserved medieval castle has been converted to the Parador de Sigüenza, an upscale hotel restored in keeping with its historical character. Original architectural features include the cobblestone courtyard and the 13th-century Romanesque chapel. The hotel has a restaurant that serves cuisine of the Castellano and Manchego regions and even hosts cultural events such as Opera Nights and Zarzuela performances. Another luxury hotel is the Molino de Alcuneza, converted from a 500-year flour mill, in a peaceful natural setting.
The atmospheric old streets of Sigüenza are lined with exceptional historic buildings. A must-see sight is the Plaza Mayor, a Renaissance-era market square lined with Casas de los Canónigos (lovely houses featuring decorative balconies). Another important monument is the cathedral built from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Originally Romanesque in style, the cathedral blends Gothic elements and Renaissance ornamentation. The interior holds the tomb of Martín Vázquez de Arce, the young knight ("El Doncel") of Sigüenza, as well as an impressive sacristy. The cathedral is also renowned for its art collection with masterpieces such as the Annunciation painting by El Greco. To delve deeper into the town's cultural heritage, visit the Diocesan Museum, which displays an exceptional collection of religious art housed in a Neoclassical palace. The collection spans the 12th to 20th centuries with an outstanding assortment of paintings, sculpture, altarpieces, textiles, manuscripts, and archaeological finds. Highlights include paintings by Spanish masters such as the Inmaculada by Zurbarán.
For a truly unique and memorable experience, tourists can take the Medieval Train from Madrid's (Chamartín station) and Sigüenza. The train ride includes medieval entertainment of troubadours, stilt walkers, and jugglers. Passengers enjoy the scenery while sampling authentic sweets and pastries. The train runs on Saturdays in April, May, June, September, October, and November.
4 Alcalá de Henares: The Birthplace of Cervantes
The UNESCO-listed town of Alcalá de Henares has a prestigious pedigree as the birthplace of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and the Emperor Ferdinand I. About 35 kilometers from the Madrid city center, the town boasts a famous university, the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, founded by Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros in 1498. The most impressive university building, the Colegio de San Ildefonso (Plaza de San Diego) epitomizes Spanish Renaissance architecture with its Plateresque facade created in 1543. The town's 16th-century Magisterial-Cathedral is one of two Magisterial churches in the world (the other is Saint Peter's in Louvain, Belgium). This Flamboyant Gothic monument was built on the site where child saints Justo and Pastor were martyred. For general tourist information, head to the Visitor Center (Plaza de Cervantes) housed in the former parish church of Santa María la Mayor.
The main artery of the town and center of social life is the Calle Mayor. This bustling pedestrian street has arcades filled with many restaurants, cafés, pastry shops, and little boutiques. The Cervantes Museum, at 48 Calle Mayor, is a 20th-century reproduction of the 16th-century house where Cervantes was born. The house is furnished in the style of the period and contains mementos of the author. In the historical center of the town, a short walk from the Cervantes Museum, is the Parador de Alcalá. This luxurious hotel occupies the 17th-century Hostería del Estudiante collegiate church and convent. In its sleek dining room, the restaurant serves authentic local cuisine such as migas alcalaínas (paprika-spiced sausage fritters), chickpea stew, croquettes, suckling pig, and piononos (sponge cake rolls topped with cream).
5 The Medieval Fortress of Manzanares el Real
The lovely historic village of Manzanares el Real lies about 50 kilometers from Madrid in a picturesque valley of the Sierra de Guadarrama, part of the Cuenca Alta del Manzanares regional park. Dominating the village is the magnificent Mendoza Castle, one of the best preserved medieval fortresses in Spain. With its crenelated defenses and imposing cylindrical towers, the castle exemplifies 15th-century Castilian military architecture. Massive ramparts surrounding the castle provided defense from invaders. On the lower outside wall, loopholes depicting the cross of the Holy Grail of Jerusalem are sculptured in bas-relief. The Mendoza Castle is not open to the public, except as an event venue for temporary exhibitions, concerts, and conferences.
Other noteworthy sights in Manzanares el Real are the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, a 15th-16th century church that blends Romanesque and Gothic styles, and the Ethnological and Archaeological Museum with a rich collection of artifacts found in the region and remains of an older castle (Castillo Viejo) that predates the Mendoza Castle. The village is also known for its cuisine and festivals such as the Medieval Weekend, a Tapas Fair, and annual religious festivities. One kilometer outside the village, the Nuestra Señora Peña Sacra Hermitage on the Peña Sacra (Sacred Stone) hilltop, is open to the public the first Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of Pentecost for the Fiesta Festivities of the Virgen de Peña Sacra. Nature lovers will want to explore the beautiful surroundings, by taking one of the walking paths from Mendoza Castle to the village, from the village to Lake Santillana, or from the village to Peña Sacra Hermitage.
6 Regional Traditions in Colmenar Viejo
Colmenar Viejo is the land of bulls and bullfighting, a town surrounded by cattle ranches in the rural area of the Sierra de Guadarrama about 35 kilometers away from Madrid. Colmenar Viejo has a Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) that dates to the 19th century, and the town is proud of its traditions. Every year, Colmenar Viejo holds a celebrated Bullfighting Festival. Other annual events include Carnival, the Festival of May 2nd, and La Vaquilla (a regional folk festival where cows adorned with ribbons and jewels are paraded through town). Colmenar Viejo has two interesting cultural attractions: The Museo de la Villa has a collection of tauromachy, with exhibits related to the art of bullfighting, as well as an archaeology collection. The Centro Cultural Pablo Ruiz Picasso hosts interesting temporary exhibitions of modern art.
The town's religious and artistic heritage is best seen in the 15th-century to 16th-century Basílica de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora. Visitors are first impressed by the facade with its richly decorated doorways featuring intricate sculptural details. The Late Gothic style tower, soaring to 50 meters, is also elaborately embellished with a carved stonework spire in the Castilian style. Inside, tourists will find a Plateresque high altar dating from 1579, sculptures by Francisco Giralte, and the Annunciation painting by Sánchez Coello. The basilica also houses a museum of sacred art. To round out a tour of the town's religious monuments, visit the lovely 17th-century Hermandad de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, a lovely and serene hermitage built on the site of an ancient shrine of the seventh century.
7 Cultural Events in Chinchón
Just 20 kilometers northeast of Aranjuez is the little Castilian town of Chinchón. The central focus of the town is the Plaza Mayor, which is enclosed by handsome historic houses with shaded balconies. The Plaza Mayor also has many small cafés, restaurants, and shops. Chinchón is known for its summer program of cultural events including plays and concerts. The town has also hosted bullfights since the 16th century and still continues the tradition. For the best view of the entire town, head to the Iglesia de la Asunción. This splendid church displays the Assumption of the Virgin Mary painting, a masterpiece by Goya.
8 Palacio Real del Pardo: An Exquisite 18th-Century Palace
An easy day trip destination, the Palacio Real del Pardo is only 15 kilometers from the Madrid city center. The Palacio del Pardo was formerly the residence of General Franco. Originally built in the 15th century, the palace was later destroyed and rebuilt. The Palacio Real del Pardo is now open to the public. The lavish interior is decorated with exquisite tapestries, delicate frescoes, and noteworthy paintings. Set in delightful grounds, the palace is a pleasant place to visit and relax. Neoclassical gardens are laid out on two terraces with ornamental pools and gushing fountains. Formal French-style landscaping, statues, and decorative urns add to the beauty. Many fruit trees, especially cherry trees, bloom during springtime.
Address: Calle de Manuel Alonso, 28048, Madrid
9 Puerto de Navacerrada Ski Resort
Puerto de Navacerrada is the closest ski resort to Madrid, 60 kilometers away (and 72 kilometers from Segovia) in the Sierra de Guadarrama. The Puerto de Navacerrada resort has 16 ski runs of varying ability levels. The vast terrain of more than 10,000 kilometers is divided into two areas: The lower area has beginner to intermediate slopes, and the upper area has intermediate to advanced slopes. They are well-sheltered pistes, running between pine woods. The resort offers four ski schools, ski equipment rentals, many restaurants, and plenty of hotel options. The picturesque village of Navacerrada is also worth exploring. The resort is easily accessible by car or train.
10 Miraflores de la Sierra: A Charming Village in the Mountains
A short drive from Madrid, tourists will find a wonderful escape in the mountains. Nestled at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama, Miraflores de la Sierra enchants visitors with its quaint historic center and idyllic pastoral scenery. Miraflores de la Sierra is a popular weekend getaway among the residents of Madrid, during summer as well as winter. The village's annual Fiesta on August 15th is held at the Iglesia de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora, a lovely parish church with a beautifully decorated interior.
11 The Aristocratic Heritage of Guadalajara
Standing proudly along the Henares River, the town of Guadalajara has a long illustrious history tied to the Dukes of El Infantado. A fascinating aristocratic legacy is seen in the town's superb monuments. Be sure to see the Palacio del Infantado, the most emblematic building in Guadalajara. The palace was built in the 15th century in Gothic style with Mudejar details. The 5th Duke renovated the palace in Renaissance fashion with balconies on the facade and commissioned splendid frescoes in several rooms. The Infantado Palace is open to the public for visits daily. Also a must-see sight, the Catedral de Santa María la Mayor (also known as the Catedral de la Fuente) was built in the 13th century on the site of an old Moorish mosque. The cathedral's facade features Renaissance renovations, and the interior was enhanced with a glorious 17th-century cupola. Another important religious building is the Capilla de Luis Lucena. This unusual little chapel blends Romanesque and Mudejar architectural elements.