El Escorial, or rather the monastery and royal palace of the same name, is located in the Sierra de Guadarrama about 50km to the Northwest of Madrid. It is a magical place to wander around, and should be on everyone’s Madrid itinerary no matter what time of year you are there. In the winter, the landscapes are dramatic and you may well have the gardens more or less to yourself. In the summer you may well have to contend with crowds of tourists though.
Walking around the outside of the palace is the free and easy way to visit. You have access to the gardens too, but you can’t walk all the way round as the final gate to complete the circuit remains firmly closed so you have to go back the way you came. The views are incredible and you can see all the way back to capital. The gardens are lovely too and you can explore every nook and cranny in a couple of hours.
Entering the palace is not free. For €10 you can go inside and, on reflection, I regret not doing so. A quick look at a selection of photos and it becomes obvious that I missed out. Some of the scenes, especially the library, look like something straight out of a Harry Potter film! The tombs of most kings and queens from Spain’s regal history are there too. In addition, there’s a substantial art collection and some wonderful ceilings. The palace has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, testament to its historical significance.
The large park and gardens between the palace and the train station are worth exploring too. There are wonderful tree-lined boulevards and countless tracks to amble along. It’s not difficult to see why so many people head out this way to escape the summer heat in the city.
Getting there is easy. From Atocha or Sol you can jump on a C3 Cercanías train which takes about an hour to get there. From Moncloa bus station you can get the 661 or 664 bus which is just a little bit quicker, and has the added advantage of taking you all the way to the old town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, much closer to the palace than the train station.