Madrid is a world within a city, offering a thriving cultural atmosphere, great shopping and sightseeing, and unforgettable food. It also boasts a convenient location right in the heart of Spain itself, which makes the city a perfect home base when it comes to exploring the rest of the country. Throw in Spain's excellent network of intercity transportation (particularly the AVE high-speed train), and there's really no excuse not to take one of these day trips from Madrid. Here's where to go if you want to see a different side of this fascinating country and be back in Madrid in time for an evening tapas crawl.
As Spain's former capital, it probably comes as no surprise that Toledo offers a long and storied history of its own. What makes the city particularly unique is its influence by each of the three major world religions. The winding streets of the old Jewish Quarter, awe-inspiring cathedral, and Spain's most impressive mosque outside of Cordoba help make this fascinating city one of a kind.
Getting There: AVANT trains operated by Renfe leave Madrid frequently and get you to Toledo in about half an hour.
Travel Tip: Toledo is quite hilly, and its cobblestoned streets can complicate things even further. Wear comfortable shoes if you plan on doing a lot of walking.
As Spain's second-largest city and a thriving hub of culture and history in its own right, Barcelona has made a name for itself as one of Europe's most exciting destinations. From the unfinished masterpiece that is the Sagrada Familia church and the quaint Catalan charm of picturesque Gracia, to a diverse drinks and dining scene and dozens of fabulous beaches, you're guaranteed to never be bored in the Catalan capital.
Getting There: Take the high-speed AVE train from Madrid (operated by Renfe, Spain's national rail service) to get there in two and a half hours.
Travel Tip: With endless options of things to see and do, Barcelona deserves more than just a day. Consider spending more time in the city in order to fully appreciate all it has to offer.
Andalusia, Spain's southernmost region, is often what people imagine Spain to be: sultry and passionate, with a near-constant soundtrack of flamenco beats. Perhaps no place encapsulates that image more than the regional capital, Seville, a colorful and vibrant destination that looks like a postcard come to life. Take some time to explore the breathtaking cathedral and Alcazar, then head to Maria Luisa Park to row a boat along the lazy river in Plaza de España when you need a breather.
Getting There: Take the Renfe-operated AVE from Madrid, which lasts roughly two and a half hours.
Travel Tip: Due to its appearance on a recent season of Game of Thrones, Seville's Alcazar has become more popular than ever. Book your tickets online in advance to avoid long queues.
While the towering Roman aqueduct may be Segovia's biggest claim to fame, don't just come for the sake of checking it off your list. The storied medieval town is also home to an incredible cathedral and a castle (the Alcázar) said to have inspired that of Disney's Sleeping Beauty.
Travel Tip: Segovia is famous for its cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig). Don't leave without trying this delectable delicacy at a traditional spot like Restaurante José María.
It's hard to sum up El Escorial in just a few words. Is it a palace, a monastery, a church or a library? The answer is all of the above, as well as the most important monument from the Spanish Renaissance. Constructed in the 16th century under the orders of King Philip II, the sprawling complex is one of Spain's most fascinating destinations.
Getting There: Madrid's commuter train, the Cercanías, will get you to El Escorial in about an hour. Take the C3 line from Atocha or Nuevos Ministerios. Bus 664 or 661 from Moncloa also get you there in about the same amount of time.
Travel Tip: While the eponymous royal complex is obviously the big draw for most visitors to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, try and take some time to explore the rest of the charming town if you can.
Valle de los Caídos: A Controversial Monument
Perhaps the most controversial inclusion on this list of day trips from Madrid, Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) is a remnant from Spain's fascist years under dictator Francisco Franco. The monument itself—an impressive stone cross and basilica—was built by prisoners of the Spanish Civil War, and today serves as Franco's final resting place.
Getting There: There is no direct public transport from Madrid to the valley—you have to make a stop in San Lorenzo de El Escorial (see above for information on reaching the town from Madrid). From El Escorial, take bus 660 to Valle de los Caídos o Cruce Cuelgamuros. The trip lasts 20-30 minutes.
Travel Tip: Due to the required stop in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, many travelers choose to combine the two into a single day trip from Madrid.
Often overlooked in favor of nearby Segovia and Salamanca, the beautifully preserved historic town of Ávila gives the more popular destinations a run for their money. Its biggest is the impressive medieval city wall, but another main draw is the Convent of Santa Teresa, a magnificent religious structure built on the home where St. Teresa of Ávila was born.
Getting there: Media Distancia trains from Madrid take about an hour and a half.
Travel Tip: Kill two birds with one stone: stop in Ávila for a few hours on your way to Salamanca to experience two of the region's most breathtaking cities in one day.
Anyone who read Don Quijote in their high school Spanish class may remember how the titular character famously confused the giant windmills of Consuegra for monsters with flailing arms. While the massive white structures are certainly the town's biggest draw, the Moorish castle should not be overlooked, either.
Getting There: Buses operated by Samar take 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach Consuegra from Madrid.
Travel Tip: Stock up on saffron while in Consuegra. It may be the world's most expensive spice, but it's one of the region's specialties.
Hop on a train in Madrid and you can be standing beneath the arches of Cordoba's Moorish-area Mezquita in two hours. The historic city is also home to a medieval Alcázar offering beautiful gardens and impressive views from its towers. If you have time, a trip out to the shimmering Muslim palace-city of Medina Azahara is well worth the effort as well.
Getting There: Take the AVE from Madrid to get to Cordoba in under two hours.
Travel Tip: If you get into town early enough and want to save 10 euros, entrance to the Mezquita is free from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
As Spain's third-largest city, Valencia offers a wealth of things to see and do within easy reach from Madrid. You could easily spend a whole day exploring the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, and Valencia's charming old town—with remnants from the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors—provides a pleasant contrast.
Getting there: The AVE train from Madrid takes about an hour and 40 minutes.
Travel Tip: Foodies won't want to miss Valencia's massive Mercado Central, Europe's largest fresh food market and a verifiable gastronomic heaven.
Salamanca boasts a rich academic heritage—its university is one of the oldest in Europe. However, don't leave without snapping at least one photo in its breathtaking Plaza Mayor, or marveling at both of the city's two cathedrals.
Getting There: You can get to Salamanca from Madrid via bus. Vehicles are operated by Avanza and the trip lasts two and a half hours. Additionally, trains are available, but travel times differ depending on the type.
Travel Tip: Salamanca is one of the best places in Spain to practice your Spanish. The local variety of castellano is incredibly pure and easy to understand.
Cuenca is perhaps best known for its gravity-defying hanging houses, which sit perilously on the edge of a steep cliff. Once you've been left sufficiently breathless, get a taste of culture at the Museum of Abstract Art, or learn more about Spain's robust Holy Week celebrations at the Semana Santa Museum.
Getting There: Trains from Madrid get you to Cuenca in about an hour.
Travel Tip: Keep in mind when booking your train ticket that Cuenca has two stations: Estación de Cuenca-Fernando Zóbel, served by high speed trains, and Estación de Cuenca for everything else.