Madrid is one of my favorite cities: it’s bustling, but not too crowded; modern, but filled with history. Although Madrid as a city is unmatched, what lies outside Madrid increases its appeal even more.
In the greater Madrid area, there are many small towns and cities filled with their own subcultures and rich histories. Here are 7 charming cities to visit just outside Madrid and why each is so unique.
Alcalá de Henares
Alcalá de Henares is a small, historic town well-known for its once-resident, Miguel de Cervantes (see Don Quixote). Alcalá de Henares is just about 20 miles NE of Madrid, and like many Spanish cities, its buildings embody the town’s diverse cultural history. It is also home to a beautiful and prestigious university, the University of Alcalá.
Musicians will recognize this city from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a classical guitar piece written in the ’30s. Aranjuez sits about 25 miles south of Madrid and is famous for the King’s “spring palace” and gardens. Oh, to be 18th century royalty...
Aside from its grandiose palace, Aranjuez is a quaint town with a largely residential community, making it a quieter visit than the nearby Toledo.
Ávila was built in a time when leaders thought walls could keep out their neighbors (sounds familiar even in 2016…). This city is stunning, with palaces, convents, and churches galore. However, the most famous attraction in Ávila is the 1000-year-old wall surrounding the town. Although it’s still completely intact, I’m not sure how well it keeps people out (seeing as they let me in). Ávila is 70 miles from Madrid and the farthest in this list, but its 11th century wall is definitely worth a visit.
Manzanares El Real
This small town is situated in the middle of Spain’s regional park “Parque Regional de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares.” Say that 5x fast. It has everything to offer: a lake, mountains, a castle, gardens, and more. About 40 miles outside Madrid, Manzanares El Real gives you a break from the busy, tourist-filled streets of the city.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
If you love seeing and photographing magnificent European edifaces (who doesn’t?), then you will absolutely want to stop by San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The most famous attraction in El Escorial is the monastery, located right in the middle of the city. Check out the Royal Library inside the monastery – it is one of the most beautiful in the world!
*Valle de los Caídos – Just outside El Escorial, you will see a gigantic cross on a hillside. Inside this park is Valle de los Caídos, a memorial for all those who passed in the Spanish Civil War. General Franco is also buried here, making it a controversial place for Spaniards.
The Roman Empire infiltrated this city hundreds of years ago, and its remains have made Segovia famous. Segovia sits 60 miles north of Madrid, and is popular among travelers. From the cathedral to the Roman aqueduct, Segovia is a popular destination for both domestic and international travelers.
Foodies – be sure to try some suckling pig. It’s their specialty!
Toledo is the ancient capital of Spain and, with its extensive history, definitely requires a visit. It would be similar to visiting Philadelphia in the U.S., but Toledo is 10x older and has cool castles… and probably more bells. Although it is not part of the Autonomous Community of Madrid (a.k.a. “province”) Toledo lies only 45 miles SSW of the city. Toledo is historically famous for sword and knife making, so make sure to buy one and bring it back.
*Honorable Mention: Chinchón
Chinchón is about 30 miles SE of Madrid and a popular travel destination among locals. It features small cafés and a round, central plaza that transforms into a bullring every year. A popular item from Chinchón is “anis,” or anisette in English, a rare drink only found in select places around the world.
The Wayfaring Woman