Segovia’s Roman aqueduct looms large over the city, a towering symbol of invention and of the city’s rich and varied history which encompasses medieval walls, the Roman aqueduct, a Gothic Cathedral and a former royal palace. Wander the cobbled streets and head to its tapas bars come evening time, where red wine flows and you are presented with free tapas with every drink – not always the case in Madrid. For those with heartier appetites, try the local delicacy: roast suckling pig. Located to the north west of Madrid, Segovia can be reached in under 30 minutes on the fast train.
From its setting perched on a hill high above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha and the River Tajo below, Toledo is unquestionably one of Spain’s most picturesque cities. This ancient spot was known as the ‘city of three cultures’ in the Middle Ages and was where Arabs, Christians and Jews lived peacefully side by side – today, visitors can explore mosques, the Jewish quarter and one of Spain’s finest Gothic cathedrals in this easily walkable city. It is also known for its artistic legacy as the home of Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco. Trains here from Madrid take less than 30 minutes.
Ávila, north west of Madrid, is known for its medieval city walls that have remained remarkably intact throughout the centuries. The walls, which were begun in 1090, comprise eight monumental gates, 88 watchtowers and more than 2,500 turrets. The city also attracts pilgrims to its many churches to worship Saint Teresa of Ávila (it is claimed that Ávila has the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain). Trains from Madrid take around 30 minutes.
Founded by the Moors, Cuenca is an historical walled destination, with an old town and medieval castle ruins that are well worth exploring. The city is also known for its famous ‘hanging houses’; dwellings that were carved into the rock over the Huecar river gorge in the 15th century. Today, they house restaurants and the Museum of Abstract Arts. Fast trains from Madrid will get you to Cuenca in around 30 minutes.
Sierra de Guadarrama
Located north of Madrid, the Guadarrama mountain range is home to Puerto de Navacerrada, a popular weekend destination for Madrileños and easily doable as a day trip. A journey on the cercanías (local commuter trains) will see you up in the mountains within an hour and a half, while driving takes around 45 minutes. You can rent equipment for skiing and snowboarding, as well as take lessons if you’re a beginner, though if you can, go on a weekday if possible to avoid the weekend crowds. It’s worth a trip up to the snow even if you’re not skiing, as the nearby town of Cercedilla is a great place to stop for lunch, and in summer is the starting point for many hikes into the mountains.
The beautiful city of Salamanca is around two hours away from Madrid by train, and is a great destination for a weekend break or night away from the capital. The main sites are centred around the city’s impressive Plaza Mayor (said to be one of the most beautiful in Spain). The city is famous for its sandstone architecture and its university, which as one of the oldest in Europe has a big student population and a nightlife scene to match. Salamanca has not one but two cathedrals: the Old Cathedral from the 12th century, and the New Cathedral, built in the 16th century. Look out for some unusual additions to the façade of the New Cathedral from when it was restored in 1992, including an astronaut and a faun with an ice-cream.
Alcalá de Henares
Located 35 kilometres (22 miles) north east of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares is known for its 16th century university and for being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a lovely place to wander, while its bars are renowned for offering free tapas – just order a beer or glass of wine and in most places you’ll be asked what tapas you’d like, from tortilla de patatas through to jamón. A great place for an afternoon tapas crawl, Alcalá de Henares can be reached within about 30 minutes on the local commuter trains from Madrid.