There is plenty to do in Madrid. Whether it’s spending days lost in some of the best art in the world in its incredible museums or bar hopping in Malasaña, you won’t get bored in the Spanish capital. But sometimes, you want to see more of the country or even get out of the city and go exploring. Whether you’re in Madrid for a few days or longer, take a day away to see more of Spain from Roman aqueducts to Moorish relics.
With a high-speed train running on an hourly basis from Madrid Atocha to Toledo, getting you there in 33 minutes, it’s easy to see why this historic city in Castilla la Mancha is one of the top destinations for a day’s sojourn out of the capital. Toledo is woven with a tapestry of history, earning its nickname the “City of Three Cultures” from its historical coexistence between the Christians, Muslims and the Jews. Echoes of Toledo’s multiculturalism lie around each corner, from its historic synagogues and grand cathedrals to Moorish accents left behind on the city gates. Asides from its religious history, Toledo is also famous for its blades, and you’ll find swords and knives among its tourist shops set along side the El Greco fridge magnets.
Located north of Madrid in the province of Castilla y León, like Toledo, Segovia is connected by a high-speed railway that gets from Madrid Charmartín to Segovia in 27 minutes. Slightly less popular than Toledo as a day trip but in my opinion more beautiful than Toledo, with its preserved Roman aqueduct and fairytale-like castle.
The city is UNESCO World Heritage listed and comes with its own bouquet of legends, with some saying it was founded by the son of Noah or even by Hercules. Layers of history are apparent on its winding streets, most notably for the aqueduct as a throwback to Segovia’s Roman past. But as you wander through its hues of sandstone and terracotta to the castle, the Alcazar, it’s easy to think you’ve arrived in Disneyland, especially as another local legend says Walt Disney used the castle to inspire the one in Sleeping Beauty.
A historic university town in Castilla y León, Salamanca is a Renaissance city famous for its grand buildings of learning, Plaza Mayor and, to a lesser extent but still one of my favourite spots, the Museum of Art Nouveau and Deco. I studied in Salamanca for a couple of weeks on my PhD program back when I lived in Madrid, allowing me to glimpse another side of life – its tapas and night life.
If you decide to stay beyond a day trip, explore the backstreets around the Plaza Mayor for student-budget friendly tapas bars. Other sites in this old city include the Casa de Conchas, named for its shells carved into the stone of the house. Not to mention the historic cathedral, where a part of it was built in the 12th century.
Salamanca is a city to wander and explore, but there are plenty of interesting museums as well. You can go back in time in the university museum, including a sneak peek into the old library, see the preserved frescoed ceiling next door representing the zodiac or get lost among art nouveau artefacts and creepy dolls at the Museum of Art Nouveau and Deco. Salamanca is a city where this is more than enough to keep you busy for a day trip, and I’d highly recommend staying over night if you can – if only to see the Plaza Mayor illuminated by night.
Ávila is famous for two things mostly – its walls and St. Theresa, but this medieval city, only a couple of hours from Madrid, is worth the trip. The old city lies enclosed in a perfectly preserved wall, with entrances marked by eight gates, over 80 watch towers and more than 2500 turrets. You’ll find a number of ecclesiastic sites, with numerous churches and convents dotting the landscape, including the Monasterio de la Encarnación where St. Theresa lived out her life as a nun for 27 years.
Situated around two gorges in Castilla la Mancha, Cuenca is a town that’s not only spectacular due to its setting but also for its hanging houses. Built up over the gorge, you’ll find a number of houses with hanging balconies, called Casas Coladas (hanging houses) over the drop below the rock face.
What’s also interesting is despite the town’s old history and its appearance in the UNESCO listings, Cuenca is a surprising hub for modern art, where you’ll find modern galleries inside the iconic hanging houses themselves.
It’s easy to spend a day trip here from Madrid, simply take the bus or the train here, have a walk round the old down, go down to the bridge and even hike up to the top of the gorge for views over the town.
I highly recommend checking out the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, not just because you get to go inside one of the hanging houses, but the collection is excellent, featuring work from the museum’s founder, Fernando Zóbel, whose abstract paintings have since become some of my favourites, and also some curious pieces from Antoni Tàpies, a Catalan painter.
Other Ideas Around the Madrid Province
There is also plenty to see around the province of Madrid itself, like El Escorial, a spectacular monastery worth visiting for the setting and its library alone, and the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial conceived by General Franco after the civil war, up in the Sierra de Guadarrama. In the foothills of the Sierra, Manzanares en Real is also worth visiting for its historic castle, and other destinations include Alcala de Henares, a historic university town once home to Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote, Aranjuez a Renaissance palace and Chinchón, a charming town just outside of Madrid.