If you ever find yourself wanting to escape the busy city center of Madrid in search of some fresh air, you are in luck since there are many charming pueblos (small towns) just outside of Spain’s capital.
Cuenca can be reached from Madrid by bus or train. The journey time is about two and a half hours by bus and under an hour by train. The most famous sight to see is the casas colgadas (hanging houses). These houses hang on the edge of the gorge peering over the river. Between the mountains, there’s a pedestrian bridge that offers spectacular views of the casas colgadas and the mountain scenery. After hiking the mountains for the excellent views, head into the old town to view the vibrant colored buildings.
San Lorenzo del Escorial, also known as El Escorial, is a short and easy day trip into the countryside surrounding Madrid. The main attraction is The Royal Monastery, El Real Monasterio del Escorial. This historical building has served as a royal palace, museum, school, monastery, and is now a World Heritage Site. El Escorial can be reached by train or bus, but I would recommend the bus which drops you off near the monastery.
Only about 30 minutes by train, Segovia is an easy day trip that can be done in a few hours. You can also take the bus, but I opted for the train for the shorter travel time. Once you land in Segovia, the train doesn't take you into the city center, so you have to take a bus or a taxi. One way, the bus is about €3 and the taxi is about €10, but the taxi ends up being cheaper if you split it among friends. Segovia is known for the Roman aqueduct, the fairytale-like castle, and the cochinillo (roasted suckling pig). Some people say that the castle was an inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The cochinillo is the must have dish if you visit Segovia, and many of the restaurants offer this delicacy.
Visiting Ávila from Madrid is taking a step back into medieval times. Get to know Ávila by walking along its city walls. These walls are lit up at night making an enchanting effect. To get to Ávila from Madrid, take the C-8 line from one of Madrid’s train stations. Many people combine this day trip with Segovia as both can be done in a few hours.
Just about two hours away from Madrid, you will find the only city in Spain with two cathedrals known as the old and new cathedral. Salamanca is also home the oldest and most prestigious university of Spain, the University of Salamanca. If you visit the university, you will notice people standing in front of the façade searching for something. This is because of the old legend saying that if you spot the frog, you will pass your exams. Another must-see is the Casa de Conchas (House of Shells), a historical building decorated with seashells on the outside walls. Today this building serves as a public library, but you will find many people taking pictures of the beautiful walls. End your day eating tapas in the famous square, Plaza Mayor.
After visiting many palaces in Spain, I was most impressed with the Royal Palace of Aranjuez for its contrasting rooms and beautiful gardens. I remember entering one room that was filled with colorful Moroccan patterns and then entering the next room that was decorated with Chinese porcelain figures. The royal gardens were gorgeous and enormous that even walking through all of it would take hours. The Royal Palace used to be the spring and summer home to Spanish royalty. The easiest way to get to Aranjuez from Madrid is to take the C-3 train line.