Whenever I travel to a new city, I like to take day trips if possible. After all, it allows me to see a bit more of a place! Whether awesome side adventures from my recent trip in Kyoto or my drive around the Michigan thumb from Detroit, I’ve tried to add these extra elements to my travels. Sometimes I will book a guided tour, like in Mexico City to Teotihuacan, but often I will do these on my own. My trip to Madrid was no exception, and my day trips were among the highlights of the vacation.
In order for day trips to be possible, transportation needs to be available, and efficient enough to allow for a “there and back” journey. The train system in Madrid is pretty good. Most high-speed trains will leave from Atocha station, just across the street from the Reina Sofia Museum in the Retiro district. In addition, the local Madrid train system will take travelers well outside the city limits, and these can be caught from all over (and are much cheaper).
Atocha Station in Madrid.
The downside of the train system is the ticket machines. While there is an English option, it didn’t seem to translate everything, and so I was left making educated guesses at points. Just give yourself some extra time for ticket purchase.
While there are numerous options for day trips from Madrid, three stand out: El Escorial, Toledo, and Segovia. I chose the first two.
El Escorial is technically inside the Madrid municipal zone, though it feels worlds away, and the train journey will take you through nearly an hour of nothingness to reach the village. However, because it is, it is reachable via the municipal train system, and is significantly cheaper than the high speed rail.
The town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is cute, but the only reason to visit is the royal monastery.
The building is absolutely stunning! It was completed in 1584 under the rule of King Philip II to commemorate the 1557 victory over France at the Battle of St. Quentin.
Walking from the train station is a bit of a shlep: a nearly two mile walk uphill. But once the facade of the building comes into view, it is worth it!
And how is the inside of this amazing building? I’d love to tell you, but despite the English website offering no clues, it is closed on Mondays, as is everything else in town. Yes, even travel bloggers have failures when we travel! (Side note: this inspired me to work on a collaborative post with some of my blogger friends on our biggest travel fails. It will be released later this month, and some of the stories are hilarious!)
On the other hand, my trip to Toledo went off nearly without a hitch! The high-speed train from Atocha runs every 30-120 minutes depending on time of day, so check the schedule ahead of time, and the ride takes about a half hour.
Arriving at the Toledo station, you know you’re in for something special, as even the station itself is beautiful.
Exit the station to the right, and veer left at the fork to reach the Alcantara Bridge over the Tagus river, and the city will be in full view.
Toledo was around in Roman times, but achieved notoriety as a Visigoth capital. Under Moorish control, the city lost importance as they governed the region from Cordoba, but after the Spanish reconquest, it served as the Castilian capital, and then the seat of the imperial court until 1561, when Philip II moved the court to Madrid.
The highlights in the town are from the Visigothic and Moorish periods, but even just wandering the hilly cobblestone streets will transport you back in time and eons away from the bustle of Madrid.
A note here about the terrain: while there is a system of escalators along the southeastern side of the city that will take visitors to the top of the hill, this is not a handicap accessible city by any stretch. Streets are not level, either as walkways (they are uneven cobblestone) or as byways (they all rise and fall significantly with the terrain, and some require steps). Taxis are hard to come by, and buses can’t navigate the tiny streets.
For all visitors to Toledo, the Santa Iglesias Cathedral is a must-see. Admission includes a really wonderful audio guide (note that you’ll need to leave behind a valid ID as assurance you’ll return the system) that will guide you through a roughly 1-2 hour visit.
The Cathedral was originally built under the Visigoths (consecrated in 587), though additions were made until as recently as 1493 under Spanish Catholic rule. Nearly all parts are accessible and part of the tour, even though it is still the seat of the Toledo Archdiocese today.
The craftsmanship on the building is truly incredible, and the cathedral in Madrid pales in comparison. For instance, check out the choir box. Each seat is hand carved, either in stone or wood.
One of the more interesting additions to the architecture of the building is an opening cut into the central dome, allowing light in through the oculus, illuminating the faces of saints and angels looking down on visitors.
Toledo wasn’t just home to Catholics. Even after the reconquest from the Islamic Moors, the city was home to a thriving Jewish population until Spain expelled all Jews (or forced their conversion) in 1492. The Synagogue of El Transito is the best remaining shrine to this heritage.
Completed in the year 1356, it is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Spain and is used from time to time today by the small Jewish community of Madrid for special occasions. Fairly plain from the outside, the Moorish influence on the architecture can plainly be seen inside in the use of geometric patterns.
There is a small museum attached dedicated to the sad history of Spanish Jews, which we will explore in depth in a future post here on The Royal Tour.
When you finish in the synagogue, be sure to look out over the battlements front the Jewish Quarter at the cliffs and birds below.
If Segovia interests you, there is also about a 30 minute train that will take you there.
No matter what you choose to see while in Madrid, a day trip or two will give you a better feel for life outside the crowded capital!
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