Whilst Madrid has absolutely captivated me, the Spanish capital can get a bit claustrophobic at times. It may have a lot to offer but it is still a relatively small city, especially when you’re used to the colossus that is London. And when on your year abroad, it’s easy to get too comfortable in one place. That’s why it’s so important when you’re on your Erasmus year to travel around. Madrid is surrounded by the beautiful Sierra and a whole array of medieval cities, meaning getting out of the hustle and bustle has never been more appealing.
Once the capital of Madrid, this medieval city is now a tourist hot-spot, often the top of every visitor’s list for a day trip. With its enormous Cathedral, old squares and winding streets, this city has everything you would want from a historical location. In its centre, you can find some obscure but no less entertaining museums, namely the Museo de Brujería (Witchcraft Museum), where there’s an array of pretty loose connections between history and magic (inaccuracy making this little museum no less entertaining). There’s also a Mueso de los Catapultas (Catapult Museum), but the ancient building it’s housed in is far more interesting than anything the catapults can throw at you… But one attraction you might not expect from Toledo is its surprisingly lively night-life. It’s home to several universities, meaning lots of students looking to let off some steam on a Saturday evening. From Plaza Eliptica, the bus to Toledo will take you less than an hour, and you can even use your Abono carné (youth travel card) to get there for free.
For those who want to avoid the commercialisation of Toledo, Pedraza is the smaller, more authentic alternative. Dating back to the fifteenth century, you’ll feel entirely transported back in time wandering around the cobbled streets of this walled city. Famous for its lechazo y cochinillo a hornos de leña (lamb and pork slow-cooked in a Wood-fired oven), which might not be one for the veggies, but still quite an impressive and authentic dish to get a plate full of Spanish culture. This place is a little harder to get to, but the best destinations usually are. Also located to the north of Madrid, a visit here could be done with Toledo if you’re looking to pack as much in as possible. Lots of travel agents also do day trips to Pedraza, where you pay a bundle price for the bus, tour and sometimes they throw in lunch too. If you’d rather some more autonomy over your trip, there are several buses, but the easiest way would definitely be hiring a car. Plus, if there’s enough of you going, this can end up costing you less than public transport.
San Lorenzo del Escorial
A personal favourite, San Lorenzo de Escorial is a World Heritage Site; home to a 16th century monastery, which is open to the public for free. You can also wonder around the perfectly-kept gardens that surround it and enjoy the peace and quiet of Madrid’s outskirts. Perched precariously on the side of one of the many hills of the Sierra, this city is another place where you can get some great views. On a clear day, you can even see as far as the city of Madrid. But this place is definitely one to visit in the Autumn/Winter to get that seriously medieval atmosphere. A bus from Moncloa station goes directly to San Lorenzo del Escorial, and will take you less than an hour (another one you can put on your Abono).
If you’re partial to a hike and some stunning views, Cercedilla is definitely one to put on your list. Part of the world-famous Camino de Santiago, you’ll find pilgrims coming all the way from France heading to Galicia on this route. But don’t worry, this trek is relatively forgiving and can be done at a range of levels. Either way, you’ll probably find yourself at a stunning viewpoint after an hour or so of gentle hiking. The little village of Cercedilla is precious, with lots of little cafes offering menu del día: a set menu offering you several courses and a drink for a very reasonable price. Cercedilla is the destination that’s farthest away from Madrid on this list: taking over an hour to get there by train. But if you want to explore the beauty of Madrid’s Sierra, Cercedilla is by far the best place to get back to nature.