Day Trips from Madrid

Toledo – One of Spain’s Most Atmospheric Cities

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

Toledo is one of my favorite places in Spain, I think partially due to the setting. Toledo sits on a steep hill above the River Tagus (Tajo), which encircles about two thirds of the old city. The streets are narrow and the city’s walls, gates and bridges give it a real medieval feel.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

Toledo is only about 72 km (45 miles) from Madrid, making it possible to visit as a day trip from Madrid. However, I would suggest staying at least overnight to enjoy the ambience of this town. A walk at sunset around the perimeter of the city is very romantic and peaceful.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

There is plenty to see, including the 13th century Cathedral which has both Gothic and Baroque elements, the 15th century Franciscan Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (one of the great monasteries of Europe), the rebuilt Alcazar (castle) and many other churches. We also enjoyed just wandering the hilly narrow streets and around the old town’s walls. For additional good views, consider the tram ride that goes around the far bank of the Tagus River.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it's hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it’s hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It's now an interesting museum.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It’s now an interesting museum.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

Due to its history as home to Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures over the centuries, Toledo has a unique atmosphere – feeling a bit like Jerusalem as well as medieval Europe. Originally, the Romans settled here, followed by the Visigoths in the 6th century and then the Moors in the 8th century. Toledo was also home to the famous artist El Greco (“The Greek”) in the 16th century. We stayed in the heart of the old town at the Hotel Santa Isabel which has a great view from its rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

Driving is a nightmare in the old city, so take advantage of the large parking lot outside the northern perimeter near the bus station, and just hike up into the old town.

The Monastery of El Escorial – A Great Day Trip from Madrid

El Escorial is huge–a view from the western side.

El Escorial (the official name is The Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial) is in a beautiful setting, on a hill looking towards Madrid, Spain with green tree-covered mountains as a backdrop. It is massive. Getting a good picture of the exterior is a challenge given the size of the building. It is very stern looking—some describe it as looking more like a prison than a monastery and palace. I would agree.

Looking out from the royal apartments onto the well-mainicured gardens.

While on business recently in Madrid, I had an afternoon free up and decided to visit this sight which is located about 48 km northwest of Madrid. I had missed the monastery during a previous holiday in Spain, so it was really a pleasure to have the opportunity to visit during this trip.

El Escorial is just 48 km northwest of Madrid, Spain.

History

The monastery was built between 1563 and 1584 at the suggestion of King Philip II of Spain, who also closely supervised its construction.  Its uses were very clearly specified in a charter in 1565:  A convent for monks of the Order of St. Jerome, a church, a public and private palace, the royal and princes pantheons, a seminary, a school, a library, a hospital and rooms for scientific research. Many rooms are still in use today. The building is constructed from huge blocks of granite, and I cannot imagine all the blood, sweat and tears that went into cutting, hauling and placing these massive blocks, most of which are larger and taller than a person.

The northern (main) entrance to El Escorial (although used as an exit for tourists, the tourist entrance is on the eastern side).

Other Visit Information

Photographs are not allowed in most parts of the monastery, and it is heavily secured—there are security guards posted in just about every room along with cameras; however I was able to capture a few images, with permission. Tours are self-guided, either with an audio guide or just with the signage posted in Spanish and English.

The ceiling paintings in a main stairway.

Although I’m sure I saw just a small portion of the entire complex, I was able to see exhibits of the construction techniques, rooms where the royal family lived, the pantheon where the kings and queens are buried, a long hall with rooms of tombs of royal children who did not live into adulthood, and another long hall with amazing wall paintings of successful battles by the Spanish Kings, an incredible library—due to both the ceiling artwork and the priceless volumes it contains, and the basilica which is so huge it reminded me of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, and various other rooms.

The artwork on the ceiling of the magnificent library.

The entrance to the huge basilica from the inner courtyard at El Escorial.

El Escorial’s pantheon–resting place of many kings and queens of Spain.

The tombs of royal children–many did not make it to adulthood.

There is a €10 entry fee and I would suggest allowing two hours for your visit. The town of San Lorenzo also is pleasant with many restaurants near the monastery.

Travel Logistics

Trains depart from Madrid hourly (I caught the Renfe train at the Nuevos Ministerios station, which is a metro and train station) and the trip takes just about one hour to reach the town of El Escorial. A round trip ticket was €7.60.

The train statiion at El Escorial. The trains are very clean and efficient.

Please note that the monastery is actually located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial and upon arrival at the train station there is a bus (timed to meet the incoming train) immediately outside the station that will take you to San Lorenzo (which is just a couple km further uphill) for €1.30 each way.  After your visit, you can catch this same bus back to the train station, which again is timed to allow you to arrive back at the train station a few minutes before the next train to Madrid—very nice system!  There is also bus service to San Lorenzo from Madrid.

The pleasant town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

The monastery is open until 8 pm during the summer, allowing a late visit if desired. Since this is a popular tourist attraction, I was surprised to see ample available auto parking available directly on the north side of the monastery, even in mid-June; however most people probably arrive by tour bus or train as I did.