I've done my fair share of day trips after living in Madrid for three years. It's an easy and cheap way to keep yourself sane whilst taking residence in the city. I love Madrid, but it can be exhausting. Sometimes it's so rejuvenating to simply step out of the city center and explore someplace small and close by.
There's plenty more pueblos to visit besides the few I'll talk about in this article. If you're spending a shorter amount of time in Madrid, I would probably start with one of these six day trips. If you're living in Madrid, you'll have time to explore far and beyond my suggestions. There's an infinite amount of hiking trails just outside of Madrid, as well as itty bitty towns and natural pools.
That being said...let's get into it!
This culturally significant little city is definitely the first place to go. Toledo is SO OLD and it looks it. Anyone who's enticed by architecture or history will devour this pueblo. Toledo used to be the capital of Spain. It was a cultural epicenter where muslims, jews, and christians all lived simultaneously. You can see this history right in front of you as you meander through the streets. There are preserved ancient buildings like La Sinagoga del Tránsito and Santa Maria la Blanca, a synagogue that was converted into a church.
There's very apparent islamic influence in Toledo, as well. There are ruins of Arab baths, the Baños de Tenerías. You can see beautiful arches all over the city in the Mudejár style (a combination of christian and muslim architectural aspects). La Puerta de Bisagra and La Puerta de Alcántara are two large doorways through the old walls of the town.
The famous greek painter known as El Greco, lived in Toledo during the Spanish Renaissance. There's a museum in the city, Museo el Greco, with many of his famous works. Whether you're looking for art, architecture, history or culture, you'll find something interesting in Toledo.
Gastronomy is huge in small Spanish towns. Usually, pueblo's are famous for specific cuisines. In Toledo you'll be able try mazapán, a delicious little pastry. Seriously, get to a confectionary immediately and buy a box full of them.
Another food to try is Manchego cheese. Toledo is huge for their cheese. You can try it as a tapa or a ración in a restaurant or you can purchase an entire wheel of savory Manchego cheese. There are plenty of traditional Toledo dishes too. Don't be afraid to try something new!
How to get there: Bus or Train
Another highlight of Spain! I think Segovia has a similar vibe to Toledo, except the Roman influence is hyped up. You'll come across it immediately, with the huge Roman aqueduct that towers above everything in the town. Quite a sight to see, although the viewpoint is not accessible to those with physical disabilities (at least in 2017).
The city center is a pleasant area to stroll and shop. There are plenty of sights to see like the Catedral de Segovia, which was one of the last Gothic style cathedrals to be built in Europe.
There's also an incredible castle-fortress-palace, the Alcázar de Segovia. Originally a Roman fortress, this thing has changed shape and hands multiple times. During the Berber Almoravid dynasty, the fortress was developed into a Moorish palace. Now a museum and military archive, this ship-like castle has been everything from a royal palace, a royal college, a military academy, and a prison.
Segovia is another great place to eat. It even has a gastronomy museum. Here you can try all kinds of comida segoviana. A popular pastry, known as ponche segoviano, is a little layered custard cake. Don't leave the city without getting a bite. A dish that I particularly enjoyed was Judiones de la Granja. These huge white beans are a key ingredient in many different kinds of stews.
How to get there: Bus or Train
This is one of my favorite cities in Spain. Salamanca has so much to offer. It's larger than the other pueblos on this list, so ideally you'd want to spend more than one day here. However, you can make a short trip work by taking the train.
Salamanca is a really special city. Like the others, it has great cultural and historical significance. The famous Spanish writer, Cervantes, actually studied at the Universidad de Salamanca. You're able to tour parts of the college, but this is a functioning school. Students come from all over the world to study here. When you walk through the courtyards and climb up the towers, you'll see why.
You have to visit the cathedral. Technically, there are two. The Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral are connected. You can enjoy the Gothic and Baroque styles as you pass through the corridors. If you came to Spain and didn't tour 100,000 churches, did you even visit Spain?
Two tourist attractions that I thoroughly enjoyed were Casa Lis and the Museum of Automotive History. Casa Lis is a mansion that was converted into a decorative art museum. You'll find some very peculiar dolls and trinkets here. The Automotive History Museum was a cool little place to spend an hour seeing the gradual progression of cars and their technology.
The nightlife in Salamanca is infamous. Since it's a university town, there are heaps of young people trying to rage. You've got your bars, your dance clubs, your terraces. Just wander around the city center and you'll stumble upon some kind of party.
How to get there: Train or Bus
Now we are moving into more obscure territory. I knew a lot of people who lived in Madrid and never visited Ávila. They missed out, but you don't have to!
Ávila is smaller than the previously mentioned towns, but you'll still be bouncing around attempting to experience every last bit. The highlight of Ávila is the enormous fortress wall that surrounds the pueblo. You can stride the circumference of the city, all while learning important historical facts about Ávila through comfy headphones.
You'll find mostly Romanesque and Gothic architecture as you wander through the streets. There are impressive churches, monasteries, convents, basilicas. I wonder how the town felt about Christianity? Oh, they were obsessed. Cool.
There's a rather depressing and domineering Gothic cathedral. The Gothic style isn't necessarily my favorite, but I do think of Ken Follet's, The Pillars of the Earth, every time I tour one. It's harrowing to think that people spent their entire lives building a cathedral only to die before it was ever completed.
Like everywhere else in Spain, Ávila has its own gastronomy. For a good meal, try going off the beaten path. Look for restaurants that are outside of the main plaza. You'll be sure to have a unique experience. Definitely grab yourself some yemas, a delectable little pastry treat. You won't regret it.
Fun fact: Orson Welles once said that Ávila was his dream home describing the town so eloquently as a "strange, tragic place". Classic writer, amirite...
How to get there: Bus or Train
This is a great day trip from Madrid. You're able to get a feel of the area in a short amount of time. El Escorial should be part hiking trip, part classic tourism. You have to visit the monumental Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo. It's the main attraction of this pueblo and for good reason.
The monastery has been everything from a basilica, a palace, a library, a university, a museum, and a hospital. The Spaniards sure do know how to recycle a historic monument. Inside you'll find lush courtyards, decorated hallways, embellished ceilings, an eerie crypt, and a magnificent library. As you explore this impressive World Heritage Site, you'll understand why the Spanish royalty summered here for centuries.
Now for the outdoor adventure. During your trip to El Escorial, you must hike to the Silla de Felipe II. Once you reach the top and sit your ass down in the stone seat where the king *allegedly* sat his ass down, you'll feel like the royalty you truly are (not).
There's an interesting and controversial Spanish Civil War Monument close by that you can visit, as well as La Casita del Infante. I suggest going to El Escorial when the weather is sunny and warm, so that you can lounge on a terrace and bask in the sun as you sip your tinto de verano.
How to get there: Bus or Train
Real Sitio de San Ildefanso
You made it to the final day trip! "Good on ya, mate" in my best Bruce from Finding Nemo impression. Seriously, this has been a trek and a half, but I swear to you it's worth knowing all this info. Real Sitio de San Ildefanso is the smallest pueblo on the list. You don't even need to spend a full day here. We started in San Ildefanso and then visited a handful of tiny towns on our way back to Madrid. So that's also an option.
The important thing to do here is to visit the palace and gardens. This is my favorite palace I've ever visited. It's so gaudy you'll think you're inside of the Rose Family's mansion from Schitt's Creek. That's the point of a palace; to be over-the-top. If you appreciate murals, decor, and indoor fountains, this is the place for you.
The gargantuan garden outside the palace comes with its own map and audio tour. During your expedition you'll come across gorgeous fountains, a massive lake and boat house, gazebo-like structures camouflaged by vines, and charming patios that gaze out over colorful flowerbeds.
A typical dish you MUST try is cochinillo. This little baby piglet (sorry vegetarians/vegans) is roasted and served to you bones, ears, toes, and all. It sounds a bit intimidating, but dear lord was that pig good. You can find cochinillo in several pueblos in the area, as well as certain restaurants in Madrid.