Quite apart from all the amazing things to do, restaurants to try and attractions to visit within city limits, Madrid is also an excellent base for exploring Spain further afield thanks in no small part to its location at the heart of the country. Excellent high-speed train connections take you to all the historical, cultural and gastronomic hotspots included here, while coach services and car rental are also available for cheaper or more flexible travel alternatives. To the north are Segovia and Burgos, each with incredible buildings from the past and mouthwatering local specialities. In the east is Cuenca, renowned for its Hanging Houses and blessed with an unforgettable natural beauty. And heading south are Toledo and Córdoba, both outstanding examples of cities successfully preserving their multicultural pasts. With marvels ranging from Roman remains to marzipan treats, centuries-old religious buildings to natural stone sculptures, you’ll want to stay in Madrid longer just to make the most of the surrounding sights!
Day trips from Madrid
Head almost due north out of Madrid on the high-speed train and in around 2.5 hours you reach the gorgeous city of Burgos, best known for its centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Although remains have been found there from Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements, among others, it was in the Middle Ages that Burgos really gained in prominence. In 2014, UNESCO declared its historical centre a World Heritage site; wander through streets and squares unchanged for generations and discover the Real Monasterio de las Huelgas, walk under the Arch of Santa Maria (which also contains a Pharmacy Museum) and marvel at the Plaza Mayor. When you get peckish, there are numerous local specialities to sample: morcilla blood sausage, lechazo (suckling lamb), Castilian soup, and the dish with possibly the most offputting name ever, olla podrida or, literally, 'putrid pot' – it’s actually a delicious, hearty stew with beans, morcilla, chorizo and bacon but the name is an unfortunate derivation of olla poderida, 'pot of the powerful'!
EAT: For fresh, seasonal, local dishes head to the elegant La Fabrica restaurant, which creates modern recipes built on the foundations of traditional flavours. Burgos-born chef Ricardo Temiño is in charge of the kitchen.
DRINK: Huge bowls of olives on sticks stand proudly on the bar; the city’s anthem is printed on the napkins ready for locals to break out in song at 10pm each day; and an LED sign keeps track of how many vermouths have been served to date… Drop into Vermuteria Victoria for a cocktail, signature vermouth or a glass of Ribera del Duero wine, produced in the southern part of Burgos province.
DO: Just 15km from the centre of town, the Sierra de Atapuerca archaeological site is one of the most significant of its kind in Spain; it’s where the oldest human remains in the Iberian Peninsula have been discovered – some are 1.2 million years old. If you don’t have time to make it out there, check out the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos itself, which includes finds from Atapuerca among its exhibits.
STAY: Although the NH Collection Palacio de Burgos is part of a hotel chain, its location in a UNESCO-protected 16th- and 17th-century Gothic building with cloister close to the River Arlanzón and the city centre lets you experience local history first hand and in four-star luxury. Other features include a late Sunday check-out option plus free WiFi, gym and sauna.
If you do just one thing... Dating from the 13th century and inspired by the great temples of Paris and Reims, the expansive Burgos cathedral is undoubtedly its leading attraction nowadays. The incredible Gothic spires dominate the local skyline while the art and architecture throughout are elaborate, fascinating and worthy of a good chunk of your time in the city: highlights include a golden staircase, the tomb of legendary medieval leader El Cid, and the Papamoscas clock featuring a cheery man who opens his mouth to mark each hour.
Experience a fascinating part of Spain with a trip to this southerly city in the flamboyant region of Andalucía. Take the high-speed train from Puerta de Atocha and in under two hours you’ll be in another world. As an important site for diverse cultures down the ages (it was a capital city in Roman times, a key Muslim stronghold in the Middle Ages, and been home to a Jewish community; in the 10th century, it's believed to have had around a million inhabitants), Córdoba has much to offer visitors with historical neighbourhoods and architecture, photogenic courtyards that are filled with flowers for an annual festival but worth seeing year-round, numerous opportunities to enjoy flamenco singers and dancers in action, and places to appreciate the beauty and strength of the world-famous Andalusian horse breed. What’s more you can relax at one of the city’s Arab Baths and take your chance to shop local crafts including jewellery, pottery, leather, gold and silverwork.
EAT: OK, so it’s at the higher end of the restaurant selection in Córdoba, but Noor Restaurant has enough going for it to warrant treating yourself. From the ultra-original crockery to the cutting-edge recipes, this Michelin-starred eatery with Córdoba-born chef Paco Morales at the reins is a place you won’t forget in a hurry. Book ahead!
DRINK: Any trip to Córdoba has to include time to tapear; it’s practically the law. Tapear means going to a bar (or bars!) for a drink and tapas; the beer tends to be cheap and many places still offer a free nibble with your drink in line with local tradition. There are numerous places to indulge in this extremely civilised custom, such as the area around Plaza de las Tendillas and the Jewish quarter. What to eat? Start with salmorejo, boquerones and rabo de toro; ie, a thick cold tomato soup, anchovies marinated in vinegar, oxtail stew.
DO: The Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos is a 14th-century fortress and palace created by kings Alfonso X and XI of Castilla, and acts as a kind of snapshot of Córdoba’s past: Roman, Visigoth and Arabic remains can be found on the site, with different local leaders choosing it as the place to build their headquarters. After you’ve explored the building and its treasures, there are extensive gardens and courtyards to wander through.
STAY: If you decide to extend your visit to Córdoba, why not lay your head at the Soho Boutique Capuchinos hotel? It features a striking design that incorporates original features of the building, offers a spa including hot tub, Turkish bath and sauna, and has a bar-terrace with views over the city.
If you do just one thing... The brightest star in the Córdorba firmament is its Mosque-Cathedral, a hybrid of Arab and Christian cultures that is a UNESCO World Heritage site (along with the town's historic centre). Construction began on the mosque in 785, using materials from a small church that already stood there. The mosque was gradually expanded and was the second largest of its kind in the world for centuries. In the 13th century, following the re-conquest of the city by Christians, the temple was consecrated as a cathedral, and in the 16th century, a nave was built within the confines of the site.
Combine a half-hour train ride, three religions living together in peace for many years and a hilltop city, and you have Toledo, the former capital of the Kingdom of Spain. Spend your day strolling through the narrow streets of the historic centre (also known as the City of Three Cultures) and appreciate why UNESCO named it a World Heritage site back in 1986; see Muslim, Jewish and Christian monuments and other architectural features like the San Martín and Alcántara bridges and the Bisagra Gate in the city walls. Don’t miss Plaza de Zocodover, which takes its name from the Arabic for 'market of beasts of burden' and has long been the heart of Toledo life. Just a short walk away is the imposing Alcazár citadel, whose four towers dominate the city skyline. If art history’s your thing, don’t miss the El Greco Museum, while the sweet of tooth should take advantage of Toledo’s claim to be the birthplace of marzipan.
EAT: It’s somewhat unfortunate that the Escuela de Hostelería Toledo has such limited opening times (lunch only 2pm-4pm, weekdays Oct-Jun) but if you do get the chance to eat at this culinary arts school, take it. The set menus are not only well-priced but creative and an opportunity to discover what the pro chefs of tomorrow are cooking up. Seating is limited, so advanced booking is recommended.
DRINK: Libro Taberna El Internacional is many things at once. Not just a place full of books (libro means 'book' in Spanish) but also a great spot for a drink as well as a venue for concerts, exhibitions, poetry readings, talks and more. Regulars love its ambience, and if you fancy a vegetarian bite to eat to accompany your drink, El Internacional is ideal.
DO: If you’re looking for an alternative to visiting the historical buildings that have made Toledo's reputation, then the Manchego Cheese Museum is a top choice. To be honest, the 'museum' aspect is quite limited – it’s more a glorified wine and cheese tasting centre with a small area dedicated to the history of what is arguably Spain’s most famous cheese and originates locally. But, hey, who doesn’t appreciate the chance (for a very reasonable price) to sample a selection of pairings of regional vino y queso?
STAY: Created in a 16th-century building, Antídoto Rooms combines design and history along with a first-rate location in one of the highest points of Toledo. It’s a boutique hotel with just 10 rooms on offer and a lot of effort has been put into both the details and a style that incorporates original features some of which date from Roman times. Each room has free WiFi, a Nespresso machine and bathroom with shower.
If you do just one thing... Appreciate the full beauty of Toledo from the Mirador del Valle (Valley Viewing point). It’s the place where some of the most famous images of the city have been captured and provides an incredible panorama not only of the emblematic buildings but also the tree-lined River Tajo that winds around the city. Go in the evening to appreciate the sunset and watch the lights come on.
Set in a stunning location among gorges formed by the Júcar and Huécar rivers, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Cuenca is undeniably Instagram-friendly. As well as its natural beauty, its photogenic appeal is enhanced by its 'Hanging Houses' (Casas Colgadas), buildings constructed on the very edge of a ravine overlooking the Huécar. Believed to date from at least th 1400s, their origins are unclear and today only a section remains, home to the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art and a restaurant. Other highlights include the town walls, the so-called medieval 'skyscrapers', a cathedral and churches, plus a variety of museums (covering science, palaeontology and cathedral treasures). You can get to Cuenca by high-speed train in just under an hour, but if you go by car or decide to hire one while there, just outside the city are a Natural Park (Serrania de Cuenca) and a Roman site (in the village of Valeria), both worthy of a visit.
EAT: Open since 2012, Olea Comedor has won numerous fans with its original, contemporary dishes that bring together a combination of flavours and inspirations from around the world albeit with a special focus on Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s a small venue, offering an intimate dining experience and one that you would be wise to reserve in advance.
DRINK: It has to be said that Cuenca isn't bursting at the seams with destination drinkeries, but if you time your visit right, then you can enjoy a tipple in a cave! Open from Fridays to Sundays, noon until late, the Grotte del Huécar sits beside the river from which it takes its name and covers three floors built into the rock. In good weather, sit out on one of the terraces to enjoy stunning views of Cuenca while having a drink in this unique setting.
DO: Pay a visit to the Antonio Pérez Foundation, a modern art centre that features works both by and collected by the eponymous Spanish poet and artist. For just €2 you can explore some 35 rooms of art; there’s no particular order to the displays – instead Pérez himself decides what will go where.
STAY: Make the most of Cuenca’s beautiful natural setting with a stay at the Green River Hostel. It has a charming rubber duck as its motif (that pops up throughout the hostel, which is the town’s only one) and offers low-cost accommodation next to the River Júcar. A variety of rooms are available and services include free breakfast and WiFi, towel hire, lockers and laundry facilities. Relax after your day of sightseeing at the bar, on the terrace or in the chillout area.
If you do just one thing... The Casas Colgadas (also known as the Casas del Rey) are the most famous feature in Cuenca and the essential part of any visit to the town. Head inside to see the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art as well the unique building; the museum holds over a hundred paintings and sculptures from Spanish artists from the Abstract Generation of the 1950s and 1960s. Afterwards, try to take the most impressive photo you can of the precarious architecture from the San Pablo bridge below.
This is the closest destination on our list of Madrid day trips, located just under 100km from the capital; the high-speed train gets you there in 27 minutes. Appreciated by many for its extensive Roman aqueduct, which runs through the heart of the city and is one of Spain’s most important monuments from that period, Segovia has much else to entice visitors. UNESCO declared both the aqueduct and Segovia’s historic walled city a World Heritage site in 1985; the latter is eminently explorable and includes the remains of a Jewish quarter that used to house one of the country’s largest Jewish communities, the Alcazár medieval castle, a 16th-century Gothic cathedral and many other religious buildings, including synagogues, convents and monasteries. For a different kind of cultural visit, head to the Casa-Museo Antonio Machado, which celebrates the Spanish poet, his work and his close links to Segovia, where he lived from 1919 until 1932.
EAT: If there’s one thing you must eat while in Segovia it’s the local speciality of slow-roasted suckling pig or cochinillo. You’ll find numerous eateries that offer it; if you fancy giving it a try, head to Asador Maribel, a restaurant that combines traditional elements such as a wood-burning oven with contemporary touches and dishes. It’s also good value with half portions of many starters available along with well-priced set menus.
DRINK: As a university town, it’s not altogether surprising to find that there’s a street that’s been nicknamed ‘Calle de los Bares’ where you’ll find numerous bars serving up a glass of small beer (caña) from just €1. Among the establishments on the street known IRL as Calle Infanta Isabel are both more classic drinking-holes such as Bar Santana, El Sitio and San Miguel as well as newer places like Motto & Co and Los Tarines.
DO: Just a few kilometres outside Segovia is the monumental Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso and it’s well worth heading out there for a tour of its splendid opulence and remarkable French-style gardens. Constructed at the start of the 18th century on the orders of King Felipe V, the palace was built on a site already popular with the Spanish royal family for hunting and during an extended period La Granja was the summer residence for generations of kings, queens and their entourages.
STAY: Make more of your trip to Segovia with a night at the Infanta Isabel Hotel, found right at the heart of things in Plaza Mayor, just a few doors down from the Cathedral and minutes from the aqueduct and the main street of Calle Real. Rooms combine traditional and modern features with a comfy, rustic design. Free water, a welcome box of chocolates, kettle in the room and late check-out are some of the other perks of staying there.
If you do just one thing... Check out the aqueduct. Stretching to 818 metres and running across the centre of town, you’ll be hard-pushed not to, frankly. However, get to know more about this marvel of Roman engineering beyond just appreciating its imposing structure with a visit to the Information Centre (located in the former Spanish Royal Mint) and take advantage of a guided tour.