The sensory pleasures of small-town Spain are well documented, from the smell of coffee and the taste of a traditional pastry, as you watch the main square wake up to the evening breeze on your face as you stroll the calles. With so much history and culture to discover in the towns and cities ringing Madrid, it’s well worth escaping the capital for an experience of everyday Spanish life. Regular trains and buses allow you to practice your Spanish phrasebook and day trip to the surrounding hills and plains.
Dominated by a spired castle, this richly historical city spills towards the cliffs of the Río Tajo gorge. This dramatic setting dates to the Romans and Visigoths, where you can visit the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship, which give Toledo its nickname, City of Three Cultures. Keep a look out for work by 17th-century resident El Greco, who painted a famous landscape of this city above the plains roamed by Cervantes’ fictional Don Quixote.
Getting there: Hourly trains make for a convenient 75km journey south to Toledo from Madrid Atocha station, which takes about 35 minutes.
Wandering the sturdy walls of Ávila’s medieval battlements, between towering gates and some 85 turreted watchtowers, will make romantic travelers feel like a Spanish Romeo or Juliet. Come at sunset for views across the hills of southern Castile and León of the illuminated 2.5km-long fortifications. A bastion of bygone Spain, the city remains a pilgrimage destination as the birthplace of 16th-century Carmelite mystic Saint Teresa of Jesus, with religious sites recalling her life and the Camino Teresiano leading west to her tomb in Alba de Tormes.
Getting there: Trains regularly leave Madrid’s central Príncipe Pío station for the 90-minute journey to Ávila.
When escaping Madrid’s hustle and bustle, few places are prettier than this city hugging the soaring buttresses of the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain. Look out for glimpses of the surrounding hills and perhaps the snowy Sierra de Guadarrama as you explore the lanes of the Jewish Quarter or seek out a terrace restaurant off Plaza Mayor. The Segovia cathedral is far from the only impressive building in town, with the 167 arches of the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct and the Disneyesque Alcázar castle greeting arrivals.
Getting there: T Trains leave half-hourly and take roughly the same time between Madrid’s northern Chamartín-Clara Campoamor station and Segovia Guiomar, south of town.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
On sticky summer days, follow generations of Spanish royals and day-tripping Madridians to the cool air of the Guadarrama foothills, where King Philip II commissioned this palatial 16th-century royal monastery. Enter beneath the statue of eponymous martyr Saint Lawrence to explore the sprawling complex and its artworks by the likes of El Greco. Highlights include Benvenuto Cellini’s marble statue of a crucified Christ in the basilica, the formal gardens, and Carlos IV’s neoclassical Casita del Príncipe.
Getting there: Local trains frequently depart from Madrid’s main stations for the one-hour journey northwest to San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
Royal Palace of Aranjuez
Another royal escape from the capital, this magnificent palace was the Spanish rulers’ own Palace of Versailles, modeled from the 300-room retreat. You’ll tour ornate spaces, including the king’s dressing room, festooned with mirrors and bas-reliefs, and a chamber clad in colorful 18th-century enameled porcelain panels. The fertile garden near the confluence of the Tagus and Jarama rivers, with its walkways, gazebos, and fountains, is equally enjoyable – as is the lively town beyond the gates.
Getting there: Trains frequently run 45 minutes south from Madrid Atocha to Aranjuez station, 2km from the palace.
Few town squares can compete with Chinchón’s Plaza Mayor, overlooked by wooden balconies worthy of a cowboy film, the circular window of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church, and a jumble of whitewashed houses. We recommend riding south from Madrid to watch small-town life go by while enjoying a cerveza and traditional Castilian cuisine. The square hosts events throughout the year, including a February carnival and medieval market, followed by a Passion of Jesus re-enactment on Easter Sunday.
Getting there: You can reach Chinchón in about an hour by bus, leaving from Madrid’s Avenida del Mediterráneo, near Plaza del Conde de Casal.
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