Spain’s capital is a stunning city, with hidden gems in every neighbourhood. In the heat of the summer and in a city so big however, life can get a little hectic so if you’re planning a longer stay in the capital a day trip or two could be just what you need to get away from it all.
Madrid’s location in the centre of the country makes it ideal for exploring Spain and the well-connected rail network in Spain means that you can make a return trip to several major cities in a day.
If you’re in Madrid and looking for a break away from the capital, here are five delightful cities that are well worth a visit and can easily be accessed by rail.
Only forty minutes by train from Madrid’s Atocha station is the city of Toledo, a one-time capital of Spain during Medieval times and the present-day capital of the Castilla-La Mancha region. Toledo historically was known “the city of three cultures,” owing to the mix of Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities co-existing in the city and this rich past is evident throughout.
The city is significantly smaller than Madrid so the vibe is more relaxed but there still plenty to do, especially for art lovers. The sixteenth century artist El Greco is heavily associated with Toledo and while some of his works are on display in Madrid’s Prado museum, the Museo del Greco in Toledo is the best place to learn about the artist and his distinctive style.
Visiting the cities of Spain will really give you a sense of how powerful and diverse an Empire Spain once was and nowhere is this more noticeable than in Segovia. The walled medieval city is about a two hour train journey from Madrid and like many such cities in Spain, it had an otherworldly feel.
The city’s most famous attraction is the enormous Roman aqueduct that passes water from the nearby reservoir to the Alcázar in the city. The Moorish influence in Segovia is evident and a visit to the Alcázar fortress along with a walk along the city’s ramparts will give a better sense of this as well as offering great views of the surrounding mountains.
Try the local dish of roast suckling pig cut with a dinner plate rather than a carving knife, and take a tour of the Jewish quarter in the Old Town to learn more about the city.
Less than an hour from Madrid on the high speed AVE rail network, Cuenca is the kind of town you imagine in a Harry Potter novel rather than existing in real life: the town is perched on the edge of a gorge overhanging the Júcar and Huécar rivers and its narrow winding roads and steep hills feel as if they are from another age in comparison to Madrid’s large boulevards.
Cuenca’s tradtional buildings are placed jaw-droppingly close to the edge of the gorge and are known as casas colgadas, or hanging houses. Although few remain in the city today, those that exist are a hive of activity, housing a museum of abstract art as well as restaurant specialising in local cuisine.
Another city with something of a magical feel to it is the university town of Salamanca to the west of Madrid. Take the train for an hour and a half from Madrid’s Chamartín station and arrive in this medieval sandstone city in the hills.
The university in Salamanca is extremely popular with Erasmus students and the city is best experienced during the hubbub of the academic year. If you want to make this an overnight trip, Salamanca is also a great place for a night out and with student prices, you won’t break the bank with the trip.
The Moorish influence in Spain is present in many principal cities, but the jewel in the crown of all of these has to be Cordoba. Located about halfway between Madrid and Malaga, Cordoba was once the capital of the Moorish kingdom El-Andalus, and as such houses what is after the Alhambra, one of the most spectacular examples of Islamic architecture on the peninsula, the Great Mosque or Mezquita.
While the Moors have long since left Spain, the mosque and its surrounding gardens were so beautiful that they remained untouched, save for the addition of a Christian alter on one side of the Mezquita. The narrow alleyways of the old city are a treasure trove of traditional gardens, Andalusian tapas bars and sheltered lane ways for you to explore.
Beware of the heat in high season however, Cordoba, at least for me, was one of the hottest places I have ever been.
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