Five one-day excursions from Madrid
Aranjuez: Best for regal gardens
With two large, flower-filled gardens and excellently-preserved royal architecture, the town of Aranjuez is the perfect spot for a day of nature and relaxation -- conveniently located just 50km south of Madrid. Spend the morning wandering through the expansive Jardín del Príncipe, a free garden completed in 1808 under the rule of Carlos IV. The bubbling brooks and many statues act as perfect photo backdrops, and wedding parties can often be seen snapping flower-side shots while strolling through the lawns.
Dine in style at El Castillo de 1806, an upscale restaurant with a cavernous brick interior, located between the Jardín del Príncipe and Jardín de la Isla. A starter of grilled octopus, an entrée of oxtail stew, and a creamy chocolate soufflé for dessert is recommended.
After a peaceful morning, seek out an afternoon of excitement. Plaza de Toros is no longer a regularly functioning bullring, but the tour guides paint a vivid picture of the Spanish sport’s brutal glory days when regulars such as Ernest Hemingway would come to watch the fights. The ring's hospital for injured bullfighters is still intact, and the deep scratch marks from the bulls’ horns are still visible along the ring’s wooden perimeter.
Trains leave from Atocha every two hours and the ride takes approximately 45 minutes.
Toledo: Best for mountainous landscapes
This medium-sized town, 90km southwest of Madrid, is a unique mix of many Spanish traditions. Souvenir stores sell swords, a popular weapon in Toledo during the Middle Ages and the centuries-long battle in the Iberian Peninsula; bakeries are chocked with marzipan, a sugary treat originally made in the Jesus and Mary Monastery of Toledo many years ago; and Gothic-style religious buildings line each block. A substantial portion of Toledo is on a steep incline so be sure to wear a good pair of walking shoes.
Start your day exploring the 15th-century Santa Iglesia Cathedral Primada de Toledo, a quintessentially Gothic church. The intricacies of the stained glass windows along with the Chapel of Treasure’s bejewelled Monstrance de Arfe -- a massive, towering structure of gold, silver, and gems that is used in Toledo’s annual Corpus Christi festival -- are well worth the entrance fee. Not far from the cathedral is the Museo El Greco, where many of the famous 16th- and 17th-century Spanish painter’s works are now on display, including the Apostolate series and the San Bernadino altarpiece. The artist also lived in the house for a cumulative 27 years over the course of his career.
In Toledo, though, the best part of the city is not found in the manufactured and man-made areas. Instead, walk down a gruelling stone-step path to the river for one of the best views in the province of Castile-La Mancha. The Tagus River weaves through steep and rocky cliffs covered in greenery and Toledo seems to tower above the river valley. Once back in the city centre, visit Bar Ludeña (10 Plaza de la Magdalena; 925-223-384), where a steady stream of tapas is available for those who order drinks.
Trains leave from Atocha approximately every hour and will get you to Toledo in 33 minutes.
Chinchón: Best for old town glory
The trip to Chinchón is an experience all on its own. The bus winds 45km through the hilly Spanish countryside, providing panoramic views of the landscape as Madrid’s skyline gives way to arid countryside.