Located in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid is perfectly set for day trips in all directions. Our Madrid local, Brian, recommends you jump on a bus or train and leave the big city behind for a day to check out the amazing UNESCO-listed cities of central Spain.
1. Explore the streets of Toledo
Just half an hour by train south of Madrid you’ll find one of the most spectacular cities of central Spain. Here, even the arabesque-style railway station is an attraction in itself, while the climb to the historic part of the city starts your real adventure.
Set on a hill, Toledo stands proud with the majestic Alcázar castle on top like a crown. Historically, the city was influenced by three different religions, with Jews, Christians and Muslims shaping the Toledo of today.
Update yourself on popular Don Quixote stories, visit the impressive cathedral and check out paintings by the famous artist El Greco, who once called Toledo home. You can get lost for hours exploring the city’s narrow winding streets.
Toledo can be enjoyed in one day, but if you decide to stay the night you’ll be rewarded with streets that shine like gold in the dark.
2. Be dazzled by stunning Segovia
Head north and you’ll reach beautiful Segovia in just half an hour by train. It’s an important city on the main Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, and a city with several UNESCO-listed attractions. Most iconic are the impressive Roman aqueduct, the massive Gothic cathedral and the fairy-tale-like Alcázar castle. You can easily spend a day in Segovia and, like Toledo, it’s absolutely stunning by night.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, you can’t leave Segovia without trying the famous Cochinillo. This crispy roasted suckling pig is to die for, and should be enjoyed at one of the city’s traditional restaurants such as the historical Casa Duque.
3. Take in the wonders of El Escorial
Go west if you’re up for impressive architecture in peaceful surrounds. A 50-minute train journey will take you to another UNESCO-listed town, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, with the its main attraction found in its name. El Escorial is a multifunctional masterpiece of a palace containing a church, a monastery, a college and a library. Historically, it was used as a royal summer residence.
Set on the outskirts of the small township and surrounded by nature, El Escorial rises from the ground like another Taj Mahal. No wonder it attracts more than 500,000 visitors each year. When you’re done exploring the beautiful interiors, you can hike in the nearby mountains or simply relax with a drink in the sun on the town’s cosy square.
4. Admire the city wall of Ávila
Further west you’ll find the walled city of Ávila, which is a 90-minute train ride from Madrid. It’s another day trip destination famous for one architectural feature in particular. The UNESCO-listed old town is surrounded by several kilometres of thick city wall, adorned by no less than 88 towers. For just €5 you can get access to walk a large stretch on top of it and enjoy stunning views of the landscapes of Castilla y León.
While there you might want to check out the many beautiful churches that make Ávila one of the cities in Spain with the most churches per capita. Don’t forget to try the local treats, Yemas, and look up to see the many white storks building their big nests on top of the church towers.
5. Discover colourful Cuenca
With the high-speed AVE train, you’ll reach the historic city of Cuenca in less than an hour. Located southeast of Madrid, Cuenca is another UNESCO-listed jewel of central Spain. The steep old streets are elevated between two impressive canyons, traversed by the rivers Júcar and Huécar.
Most famous are the “hanging houses”, with balconies sticking out above the canyon – a highlight best viewed from the Saint Paul Bridge. The bridge offers a shortcut between the Convent of Saint Paul and the old part of town. Here, you can visit the beautiful cathedral at Plaza Mayor and check out the characteristic colourful houses of Cuenca.
Finish your day off tasting tapas at Calle San Francisco back in the modern part of town, where the pâté Morteruelo is a local favourite.
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Brian is a freelance writer from Odense, Denmark. He moved to sunny Madrid in 2014 to find new inspiration and experience his girlfriend’s hometown first-hand. He’s constantly working on new travel writing projects and dreams of one day making a career of it. He recently spent a year living in Cardiff, Wales, which holds a special place in his heart, but he’s now dedicated to the Spanish capital. Brian is a lover of both nature and city life.
All photos by Brian Schæfer Dreyer.