North of Madrid lies the Sierra de Guadarrama, part of the larger Sistema Central, the chain of mountains snaking down the centre of Spain. With their close proximity to Madrid, the mountains are a popular spot for a day trip, whether you like sports, nature or exploring historic towns and villages.
Less than an hour outside Madrid, you can take to the slopes and go skiing or snowboarding at one of two resorts in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range. Valdesquí and Puerto de Nevacerrada are both reachable by car or by local commuter train (cercanías) and are a good option for family-friendly snow sports. Valdesquí, near the town of Rascafría, has 21km of pistes, while the Puerto de Navacerrada has a range of beginners and intermediate pistes set among picturesque pine forests.
When the weather warms up, swap your skis for hiking boots and explore the wonderful nature and stunning scenery of the mountains. There are hikes to suit all abilities; the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park website is a good resource for planning walks through the mountains, with information on the most popular trails, including maps and required ability.
As well as people, who have lived in the villages dotted around the mountains for centuries, the Sierra de Guadarrama is home to an array of wildlife and is an excellent place to see some of Spain’s most famous animals. The mountains are home to 58 different species of mammal including the Spanish ibex, fallow deer and wild boar, and 133 species of bird, including the Spanish imperial eagle and Eurasian black vulture.
Parque Natural de Peñalara
In the centre of the Sierra, the Peñalara Natural Park takes its name from the mountain range’s highest peak, Peñalara, which soars to 2,428m. The area leading up to the peak is awash with beauty, from glacial lakes to lush meadows.
A great way to cool off during Madrid’s scorching summer months is to head up to the mountains for a relaxing soak in a natural pool. Las Presillas natural swimming pool in Rascafria is a popular spot with day-trippers from Madrid during the summer (there’s plenty of green space around the pool for a picnic), while Cercedilla’s natural pool, Las Berceas, is the closest to Madrid (reachable by commuter train and bus).
Manzanares el Real
One of the joys of exploring the mountains surrounding Madrid is stumbling on new towns and villages. Manzanares el Real is a popular stop; it has a medieval castle, the Castillo de los Mendoza, and is a good jumping off point for various hikes. The quaint town centre is a great place for some tapas and beers once you’re back from exploring the mountains.
Close to Manzanares el Real is La Pedriza, a group of unusual rock formations on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama that are one of the mountain range’s most visited sights. It’s a great place for hiking and rock climbing; there are hundreds of rock climbing routes across the granite outcrops.
Nestled in the Sierra de Guadarrama is El Escorial, the grand palace commissioned by Philip II and completed in 1584. It was the historic residence of the King of Spain, as well as being the burial place for Spanish royalty, and over the years has worn many hats, including that of a monastery, library, university and hospital. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984 and is a popular day trip from Madrid.
Valley of the Fallen
A macabre monument to those who died during the Spanish Civil War, the Valley of the Fallen is a huge underground basilica topped with a gigantic 150m (500ft) granite cross – the tallest memorial cross in the world. While the Valley of the Fallen is unquestionably eery, it is a popular day trip from Madrid, welcoming over 250,000 visitors every year. It remains controversial, with many Spaniards pushing for the removal of Franco’s remains from the basilica.
The mountains are a great place to get your adrenaline pumping, whether by horse riding, canyoning or shooting down a zip line through the forest. A popular sport in the mountains is cycling – you can download routes and maps from on the Sierra de Guadarrama website.