The Comunidad de Madrid is a vast region covering 8,000 sq km (3,000 sq miles), with a population now exceeding six-and-a-half million. To the north of the capital is the Sierra de Guadarrama, a majestic mountain range, stretching more than 100 km (60 miles) east–west. Visitors to El Escorial, Valle de los Caídos, or Manzanares el Real will enjoy the superb views as well as the fresh mountain air. An excursion to the university town of Alcalá de Henares can easily be combined with Chinchón. Alternatively you could couple the latter with the fascinating walled city of Toledo, or with Aranjuez, an oasis of gardens and orchards in an otherwise parched landscape.
Apart from the famous monastery and the views of the Sierra, the attractions of El Escorial include the magnificent Coliseo, dating from 1771, and the two royal lodges.
Train from Estación del Arte • University: open for tours 10am–2pm daily, 4–8pm Mon–Fri & 10am–3pm, 4–8pm Sat, Sun & public hols • Adm
This town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its wealth of splendid Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It was also the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and also of the ill-fated Queen of England, Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. The town’s importance dates from the late 15th century when the head of the Spanish church, Cardinal Cisneros, founded a university here. A tour of the buildings, including the main hall with its mudéjar ceiling, is a must. Also worth seeing is Teatro Cervantes, the oldest public theatre in Europe, founded in the 17th century and restored in the 1990s.
Train from Estación del Arte or themed Tren de la Fresa • Palacio Real: Open Apr–Sep: 10am– 8pm Tue–Sun; Oct–Mar: 10am–6pm Tue–Sun (gardens open 8am–sunset) • Closed 24 Dec, 25 Dec, 31 Dec • Adm (free for EU citizens and Ibero-Americans Apr–Sep: 5–8pm Wed & Thu; Oct–Mar: 3–6pm Wed & Thu)
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, should not be missed. The Palacio Real, summer residence of Spain’s Bourbon rulers, is sumptuously decorated in the French style. No expense was spared either on the extravagant folly known as the Casa del Labrador, in the grounds near the River Tagus. The town has preserved some corralas – balconied wooden dwellings, built around a courtyard. The Mercado de Abastos is good for picnic provisions, and local strawberries, sold at roadside stalls, make the perfect dessert.
Bus no. 724 from Plaza de Castilla • Castle: 10am– 5:30pm Tue–Fri, 10am– 6pm Sat & Sun; Garden: 10am–7pm Tue–Sun (Jun–Sep: until midnight Fri & Sat) • Dramatised visit; call to check: 91 853 00 08 • Closed 1 Jan, 1 May, 25, 25 & 31 Dec • Adm
This Sierra town is dominated by its well-preserved 15th-century castle. Almost as ancient is the church of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snow) with its 30-m (100-ft) high belltower. Hikers will enjoy the La Pedriza regional park with its massive granite boulders.
Bus La Veloz no. 337 from Plaza Conde Casal
Life in this attractive little town revolves around the Plaza Mayor, the galleried main square, dating from the 16th century. Originally a cattle market, the square is the focus of a Holy Week procession on Good Friday, a passion play on Easter Saturday and bullfights in July and August. While you’re here, it’s worth trying the local speciality, anís, a liquorice-flavoured liqueur (ask for “Chinchón”). Also worth seeing is the Iglesia de la Asunción, with a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin by Goya, whose brother was the local priest.
Bus 691 from Moncloa
At 1,860 m (6,100 ft), Navacerrada is the gateway to the Sierra de Guadarrama. Ski enthusiasts head straight for the Navacerrada Pass (Puerto de Navacerrada), but the town itself should not be overlooked. As well as the parish church, which has an impressive 15th-century tower, and the 16th-century Church of the Nativity, the craft shops are worth a browse. Cafés abound on Plaza Mayor and there are hiking trails in the surrounding forests.
Road: M-219 and R-3
This settlement south of Alcalá de Henares was the brainchild of an 18th-century nobleman from Navarre, Juan de Goyeneche. Goyeneche built the estate so that he could supervise his various industrial enterprises, which were among the most advanced of the day. The Baroque palace, the domed church of St Francis Xavier and the workers’ houses, which were designed by José de Churriguera himself, are the main attractions.
Bus No. 601 from Moncloa • Palacio del Pardo: Open daily Apr–Sep: 10am–8pm; Oct–Mar: 10am–6pm • Adm (free for EU citizens and Ibero-Americans Apr–Sep: 5–8pm Wed & Thu; Oct–Mar: 3–6pm Wed & Thu)
El Pardo is now a suburb of Madrid but was in open countryside when Enrico III built a hunting lodge here in the early 15th century. The Palacio Real de El Pardo was built by the Bourbons and substantially enlarged during the reign of Carlos III. More recently it was the official residence of General Franco, and it is now where visiting heads of state stay. The tapestries, from sketches by Goya, are the outstanding feature.
Road A42 (72km); RENFE train from Estación del Arte Station • https://toledoturismo.es/
Just 30 minutes by express train from Madrid, Toledo is a beautiful walled city crowning a hilltop, and overlooks the Tagus River. It is known as the “city of three cultures”, as Christians, Muslims and Jews co-existed peacefully here for centuries. Toledo’s most famous resident was El Greco, who never tired of painting the skyline. Some of his works are on display in the Casa-Museo El Greco but his most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1588), is in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé. The Sinagoga del Tránsito, which holds the Museo Sefardí, was built in the 13th century, and is a jewel of Mudéjar architecture.
Road A-6 north, exit (salida) at M-600 • Apr–Sep: 10am– 7pm daily; Oct–Mar: 10am–6pm daily; Basílica open 10am–7pm • Adm (free for EU citizens & Ibero-Americans Apr–Sep: 5–8pm Wed & Thu; Oct–Mar: 3–6pm Wed & Thu)
The “Valley of the Fallen” was General Franco’s memorial to his war dead from the Spanish Civil War (1936–9). The crypt and basílica, cut into the mountainside, were built by prison labourers. The valley’s most striking feature is a cross, 152-m (500-ft) high and 56-m (180-ft) wide. Franco is buried in the crypt.
The Cervantes train is an enjoyable way to see the sights of Alcalá de Henares. During the pleasant 25-minute journey, hostesses in period costume hand out cakes and snacks, and help visitors. On arrival there is a welcome by musicians, followed by a tour of the old quarter, including the university. Some local restaurants offer discounts to train travellers.
To reach Manzanares, take bus No. 721 from Plaza de Castilla, alighting at Avenida de Madrid. There’s a supermarket near the bus stop if you want to stock up for a picnic. Take Calle del Castillo as far as Calle de Cañada and the restored 15th-century castle, from where there are good views of the storks fishing in the reservoir. Return along Calle de Cañada to the old town square, Plaza del Generalísimo, where you’ll find several good cafés and bars if you are ready for a coffee and a rest.
Cross the tree-sheltered Plaza del Raso, passing a small cemetery, and you’ll reach the 16th-century Church of Our Lady of the Snow with its elegant Renaissance portico. Walk around the church for more views of the lake. Return to Plaza del Raso and take Calle Real, crossing the River Manzanares to the ruins of the old castle (Castillo Viejo). Then follow the river to the Chapel of the Holy Rock (Ermita de la Peña Sacra), built on a huge granite slab. Every Whitsun a procession in honour of the Virgin makes its way here from the cemetery.
Head to the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón and then stroll up to Calle Panaderos for a hearty lunch at Restaurante Parra.
Spend a leisurely afternoon enjoying the invigorating, fresh mountain air and splendid vistas of La Pedriza regional park.
Calle de Floridablanca 24, San Lorenzo de El Escorial • 918 90 59 75 • €€
At one of the best restaurants in town, with beams dating from the 16th century, chef Manuel Miguez makes his renowned cocido Madrileño (a classic, meaty Madrid stew) on Wednesdays.
Plaza S Lorenzo 2, San Lorenzo de El Escorial • 918 90 16 36 • Closed Mon • €
In an 18th-century building with theatre memorabilia, this restaurant has Castilian dishes, such as rabo de toro (oxtail). Two set-price menus and à la carte are also available.
Calle Santa Rosa 2, El Escorial • 696 63 82 24 • Closed Sun, Mon & Wed D, Tue • €
Set in an old train station cafeteria from the 1860s, this place is elegantly decorated with exposed bricks.
Calle Colegios 8, Alcalá de Henares • 918 88 03 30 • Closed Sun D, Mon, Tue • €€
Part of the Parador Hotel, a speciality here is the arroz meloso con sepia y nécora (creamy arroz with cuttlefish and crab).
Calle Santiago 18, Alcalá de Henares • 918 80 73 91 • Closed Sun D • €€
Set in a Baroque church dating from the 17th century, La Cúpula serves Castilian fare. Several set menus offer excellent value.
Plaza Mayor 12, Chinchón • 918 94 13 03 • Closed Wed • €€
Classic Castilian food is served in this
15th century building, which overlooks Chinchón’s main square.
Plaza Mayor 28, Chinchón • 918 94 00 15 • Closed Mon • €€
This atmospheric restaurant serves Castilian dishes. Ask for a window or balcony table on an upper floor.
Calle de Benito Hortelano 13, Chinchón • 918 94 02 06 • Closed Sun D • €
This 18th century olive-oil mill and wine cellar offers an authentic taste of Spain with traditional sierra cooking.
Calle de la Reina 1, Aranjuez • 918 91 13 25 • €
Charming century-old restaurant perched on the banks of the Tagus River. Traditional cuisine is served with innovative touches. As the name “The Green Frog” implies, frog legs is one of the restaurant’s specialities.
Calle Ciudad 5, Toledo • 925 28 09 67 • Closed Mon & Tue • €
Housed in a building that is centuries old, the cuisine here has an international influence that lends sensational flavours to old favourites, such as the Thai paella or oxtail lasagna. There are three tasting menus to choose from.
Plaza Constitución 2, El Escorial • 918 90 09 86 • €€
This restaurant serves very good, seasonal food. There is a small, summer terrace where you can enjoy a drink before your meal.
Camino Horizontal, San Lorenzo de El Escorial • 918 90 38 11 • Closed Mon–Wed D in winter • €€
This classy restaurant has wonderful vistas of the sierra – book a terrace table in summer. It serves first-class international cuisine.
Avenida Madrid 20, Navacerrada • 918 42 88 30 • €
Stylish restaurant with industrial-style decor, the menu here is creative. Highlights include the scallop ceviche with mango and baby radishes, or the grilled angus steak with roasted pumpkin. Excellent value menu of the day.
Calle Mayo 2, Navacerrada • 918 53 10 41 • Closed Tue, Sun–Thu D (winter) • €€
This restaurant in a stone farmhouse is worth seeking out. Chef Felipe del Olmo is known for his stylish cooking – try the cod with a black garlic alioli sauce. During the summer ask for a table on the large terrace.
C/Hombre de Palo 7, Toledo • 925 22 73 21 • Closed Sun D, Mon • €€
Enjoy updated versions of traditional local recipes in an attractive dining room with beams and deep-red walls.
Calle Paloma 2, Manzanares El Real • 918 53 91 11 • Closed Tue–Thu L, Mon D • €€
Delectable fish and shellfish dishes, plus views of the Santillana marsh and La Pedriza mountain range.
Calle Abastos 32, Aranjuez • 918 91 14 88 • Closed Mon, Sun D, Aug • €€€
The cuisine at this Michelin-starred restaurant is based on home-grown produce. Try the tasting menu.
Calle Almíbar 42, Aranjuez • 918 91 14 51 • Closed second week Jan, 1–15 Aug • €€
This cosy restaurant has the feel of an old tavern. Meat and fresh fish are the specialities.
C/Honda 9, Toledo • 925 25 47 85 • Closed Sun, Mon–Wed D • €€
This small, romantic restaurant, tucked away on the edge of Toledo’s historic quarter, specializes in imaginative seafood.
Calle Panaderos 15, Manzanares El Real • 918 53 95 77 • Closed Mon, Tue–Thu D, 21 Aug–12 Sep • €€
Traditional restaurant serving hearty country fare, like Fabada con almejas (stew made with beans and clams).