Top Madrid Day Trips: El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila, Cordoba
One of the pleasures of Spain’s grand capital city, Madrid, is its central location. From there you can visit many outstanding sites within a couple of hours. Expats David Appell and Jose Balido, travel consultants and editors of Tripitini, talked to me about a few of their favorites a short distance from their Spanish home.
(This interview is adapted from Episode 65 of my travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Listen here for more about Madrid, or follow wherever you get podcasts.)
There are so many places to visit outside of Madrid. In an hour or so you can get to mountains, and historical towns and royal palaces of the Castile region. One is El Escorial.
Escorial is north of Madrid, about 40-50 minutes by car, train or bus. The town is home to a monastery/palace that was built in the late 16th century for King Phillip the Second, and he was very monastic in his outlook. So the complex is extremely austere.
It’s immense, I know that. And filled with art.
It takes a minimum of two hours to walk through. So you have to really pace yourself and bring good walking shoes.
But it’s one of those places that’s so atmospheric: so gloomy and dark and Castilian. You really feel like you’re transported to another century when you’re walking through.
Another not-to-miss UNESCO site is not far south of Madrid, the medieval hilltop city of Toledo.
Toledo is perched on a hill above the Targus River, which loops around it. The very famous view of Toledo is by the painter El Greco, who lived and worked there. The ancient city dates back to almost the beginning of the first millennium; it was the first to be conquered by the Moors in 711, and they were there for 375 years. It was a place of harmony and tolerance between Muslims, Christians and Jews. And it became known for learning, for religious tolerance. And that’s where the term Holy Toledo comes from, because of the ability for the faiths to coexist together..
You see mosques, synagogues, convents and narrow stone paved streets. I really recommend if you only have a couple of days.
What about Segovia?
Well, Segovia’s a pretty easy train ride from Madrid — just over an hour, and you can walk it in the better part of the day. It’s famous for three amazing landmarks. There’s a Roman aqueduct of arches, with stones placed without any mortar. It’s been standing there without collapsing for 2000 years. It blows my mind that it was actually in use to bring water to the city until the mid 20th century, I believe. So it’s just an incredible work of ancient engineering.
There’s also the massive Alcazar palace which dates back to the 11th or 12th century; it was used by King Ferdinand and Isabella. Walt Disney used it as one of the models for Cinderella’s castle, full of spires and turrets and battlements. It’s very Castilian, very historic, and definitely worth spending the time to walk through.
And the third place not to miss is the 16th century Cathedral, which was one of the last in Europe to be built in the Gothic style; very atmospheric, as you would expect.
And apart from all that, I would add the city itself: small, but so lively and happy that you walk around the streets and downtown where the shops and restaurants are, and you can’t help feeling good. It’s one of those cities that just lifts your spirits.
I would like to talk about Avila because it’s also very close to Madrid, about an hour and a half west. The old town is entirely encircled by medieval Romanesque walls begun in the 11th century. It looks like something out of a fairy tale or a medieval fantasy, with lots of churches and convents. One of its most famous associations is with a nun from the 16th century named Saint Teresa of Avila who was known for ecstatic visions and ecstasies, including one where she supposedly visited hell. So she became quite famous for that.
There’s a little museum to her, which also includes what is said to be her mummified finger.
Okay, can’t miss that!
One thing to keep in mind about Europe and Spain, is that they have high-speed trains, like nothing that we have in the States. So that places that you might not think are day trips can be day trips. One not to miss if you have enough days would be Cordoba, which is an hour and a half by high-speed train, And Cordova has possibly one of the world’s greatest mosques, which is now a cathedral, of course; the architecture is sublimely beautiful.
Yes, several layers of architecture from again, these different cultures and different religions.
JB: Part of it is from the Visigoths from the third and fourth century AD.
The interior blows you away because it’s a sea of columns, red striped columns and arches. And then right in the middle of all that they carved out a little typical, bombastic Catholic Cathedral space.
That’s one of the best parts of Madrid — you have a wonderful city and you have these other exceptional places to visit.