The city of Madrid is part of the autonomous region of Madrid. The Madrid region, like the city, also has a number of interesting sights. North of the city of Madrid lies the Sierra de Guadarrama. In this mountain range you can ski in winter and escape the heat of the city in summer. On the western side of the mountains lies one of the most famous monuments in Spain, the El Escorial Palace. In the town of Aranjuez, south of the city of Madrid, there is a beautiful summer palace. In the region there are historic towns such as Alcalá de Henares, with a university building in Renaissance style. The town of Chinchón has a picturesque square.
The autonomous region of Madrid
- Top locations
- Food and drink
- Fiestas in Extremadura
The Autonomous Region of Madrid / Source: Mutxamel, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0)
Madrid is one of the seventeen autonomous regions of Spain, located in the center of the Iberian Peninsula. The region covers an area of 8,028 km² and has almost 6.5 million inhabitants (2016). The capital is Madrid with almost 3.2 million inhabitants (2016). Madrid is also the capital of Spain. The Madrid region is both an autonomous region and a province and is therefore not divided into different provinces. The Madrid region borders the Castile-León region to the northwest. The rest of the region borders the Castile-La Mancha region.
The Madrid region has a rich cultural and natural heritage. There are three places on the UNESCO World Heritage List: El Escorial Palace, the old town of Alcalá de Henares and the palace and its gardens of Aranjuez. The Sierra de Guadarrama is not on the World Heritage List, but still has a lot to offer. This national park has a rich flora and fauna, and you can enjoy skiing in winter and hiking in summer. The city of Madrid is known for, among other things, the Plaza Mayor. The town of Chinchón also has a picturesque square, surrounded by houses with overhanging balconies.
The earliest period
About 300,000 years ago, tribes of Homo erectus lived in and around the city of Madrid. About 40,000 years ago they were driven out by Homo sapiens. From about 1200 B.C. the region was populated by the Celts. Subsequently, tribes of mixed Iberian-Celtic origin emerged, also referred to as Celtiberians. In the 2nd century B.C. the city of Madrid and its surroundings was conquered by the Romans. Alcalá de Henares became a fairly important Roman city. In contrast, Madrid remained an insignificant hamlet. After the departure of the Romans in the 5th century AD, the Visigoths took control of the region. The Visigoths were equally uninterested in the region and made Toledo their capital.
Moorish and Christian Madrid
In the early 8th century the Visigoths were defeated by the Moors. The Moors wanted to protect themselves against the advance of Christian kingdoms from the north. They therefore built a defense system of forts and watchtowers. The ‘Majerit’ fortress was built in the 9th century, from which the name Madrid is derived. In the 11th century, the Christians began the reconquest of the city of Madrid and its surroundings from the Moors. In 1083, the city of Madrid was conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile. In the early 12th century the Moors were expelled from the entire region. Alcalá de Henares was the last to be incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile in 1118.
The Christian repopulation (11th to 15th centuries)
After the recapture of the city of Madrid and its surroundings from the Moors, the region had to be completely repopulated. The new inhabitants were mainly farmers from Castile. They received their land from successful knights to whom land was donated on a large scale in gratitude for the services rendered. Due to the repopulation, the region was doing better economically, but especially politically. In the 13th century the region had extensive autonomy within the kingdom of Castile. Various places, such as Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, largely made their own laws and could invoke their ancient rights. The so-called Tierra de Madrid was founded in the 15th century. This created more unity in the region and would form the basis for the later province of Madrid.
The new capital
From the 14th century onwards, the kings of Castile became increasingly interested in the city of Madrid and its surroundings. The region also grew culturally. In 1508, the University of Alcalá de Henares was opened. In 1561, Philip II moved the court from Valladolid to Madrid. Madrid was now officially the capital of the kingdom. Construction began on El Escorial Palace, which partly served as a country residence. Later, more palaces were built, such as the summer palace in Aranjuez.
From province to autonomous region
In 1833, Madrid and its surroundings became a province. The province of Madrid was assigned to Castilla la Nueva. The current region of Castile-La Mancha was formerly known as Castilla la Nueva, New Castile. In 1981, the province of Madrid seceded from Castilla la Nueva. Due to Madrid’s position of power, it became a province with a special status. This status was an autonomy in the making. In 1982, Castile-La Mancha, formerly Castilla la Nueva, became an autonomous region. In 1983, Madrid also became an autonomous region. Madrid was chosen as the capital of the region.
Sparsely populated central Spain is mainly an agricultural area with a relatively low income. However, this does not apply to the Madrid region. The densely populated region is the locomotive that pulls the Spanish economy. The average income per inhabitant is almost 30 percent higher than the Spanish average. The region’s economic activity is mainly focused on light industry and services, including tourism.
Sierra de Guadarrama
The Sierra de Guadarrama National Park is located more than 60 km north of the city of Madrid. The slopes of the mountains are covered with pine, birch and yew trees. Several holiday villages have been built in the park, with interesting sights nearby. In winter you can ski in the park. In summer you can go for a walk or escape the heat of the city.
The Sierra de Guadarrama / Source: Miguel303xm, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.5)An interesting sight is located in the village of El Paular . Here is the oldest Carthusian monastery in Castile, founded in 1390. The current complex consists of a monastery, a church and a guest house. The church is the most interesting. Here is a valuable alabaster altarpiece from the 15th century. The castle is located near the village of Manzanares el Real . The 15th-century castle is one of the last great castles in Spain. It has a square building plan with a beautiful castle square and imposing fortress walls and towers. Near the castle is the Santa Cruz de Valle de los Caídos . General Franco built the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen as a memorial to those who fell in the Civil War. The cross is 150 m high and stands high above a basilica, carved out of the rock by forced laborers over almost twenty years. Inside are the tombs of Franco and Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange Española.
At the park’s visitor center, in La Pedriza , you can get information about the hiking trails that run through the park. A network of hiking trails starts in the nearby holiday village of Cercedilla . From here you can walk in the Sierra de la Pedriza , where streams flow through the green landscape. A walk to the holiday resort of Miraflores de la Sierra offers beautiful views over the Sierra de la Pedriza. In the forest of Puerto de la Morcuera you walk through forests and deserted heathlands.
There is a busy winter sports resort at Puerto de Navacerrada . This place is divided into two areas. The highest part is 2178 m above sea level. This section has slopes for advanced skiers. The lower part is 1763 m high and is suitable for beginners. There are a total of 9 ski lifts and 19 slopes that extend over approximately 5 km per slope.
Monastery of El Escorial
The palace and monastery of El Escorial is located at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama. It was built between 1563 and 1584 by Philip II and is dedicated to Saint Laurentius. The strict, sober construction led to the new architectural style Herreriano, by Juan de Herrera. The palace is worth a visit for its beautiful architecture, the royal tombs and the works of art by famous painters. The town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial grew up around the palace.
The Palace/Monastery of El Escorial / Source: Turismo Madrid Consorcio Turístico, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)The main living areas of the Palacios (Royal Apartments) are located upstairs. The private quarters of Philip II are located on the 2nd floor. The royal apartments of the Bourbons are on the 3rd floor. The Museum of Painting is located below the living area . The collection mainly consists of works by Titian, Rogier van der Weyden, Rubens and El Greco. The inside of the Basílica resembles St. Peter’s in Rome. The dome is the showpiece of the architect Herrera, who also designed the 30 m high altarpiece. Next to the basilica is the Panteones (Royal Pantheon). All Spanish kings since Charles V are buried here, except Philip V, Ferdinand VI and Amadeus of Savoy. The Biblioteca has an impressive collection of 40,000 books. More than 10,000 books come from the private collection of Philip II. The library also has a collection of rare manuscripts from the 5th to the 18th century. The ceilings of the Salas Capitulares (Chapter Houses) are decorated with frescoes by Italian artists. In the first room there are works by El Greco, Ribera, Titian and Velázquez. The second room is dedicated to Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Next to the chapter houses is the Patio de los Evangelistas (Court of the Evangelists). Here is a temple of Herrera. You can enjoy walking in the beautiful gardens of the patio. In the adjacent Sacristía the sacred host that Philip II received as a gift from the German emperor is kept. Opposite the patio is the Convento (Monastery), founded in 1567. It has been inhabited by Augustinians since 1885. In the Colegio , near the main entrance, is the Alfonso XII College. This boarding school was founded by monks in 1875. At the exit is the Patio de los Reyes (Court of the Kings). One of the three classical portals in the main facade opens onto this courtyard.
Alcalá de Henares
Alcalá de Henares was known in Roman times as Complutum. It was a fairly important place and later the Visigothic church had an episcopal see here. Like the history of Salamanca, that of Alcalá is mainly linked to that of its university. Moreover, the city is the birthplace of the writer of Don Quixote.
The facade of the Colegio de San Ildefonso / Source: Michael.chlistalla, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0) In the center of the city is one of the most famous universities in Spain. The university, also called the Colegio de San Ildefonso , was founded in 1508. The founder of the university was the Archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros. The beautiful facade in Plateresque style was built in 1543. Inside you can admire a number of interesting parts of the complex. The Paranínfo (1520) is an auditorium with a beautiful artesonado ceiling (carved ceiling). The Renaissance Patio Trilinqüe (1557) was part of the Colegio de San Jerónimo. The three dead languages (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) were taught here. The Capilla de San Ildefonso (16th century) served as a university church. The ceiling is special, also decorated with wood carvings. The walls are decorated with stucco reliefs in late Gothic and Plateresque styles.
Near the university is the El Corral de Comedias . This medieval theater is the oldest theater in Europe (1601). It was a rectangular space, in the open air and surrounded by houses. The students came here to give performances. The audience stood or sat on the stones. A stage was later built for the students. A roof was added in 1700. In the 19th century, the theater took its current form and balconies were built for the public. Near the theater is the Casa Natal de Cervantes . This is the birthplace of Cervantes (1547-1616), known from the famous novel Don Quixote. There is much to see in the house that commemorates the writer, such as writing desks, a four-poster bed, fire pits, chests and toiletries.
The only attraction of Aranjuez is the Palacio Real . This summer palace already existed in the 14th century, but was later expanded by Charles V. The current palace is thanks to Philip II, who commissioned the architects of the El Escorial Palace to build it. Two successive fires in the 18th century destroyed the palace, which was rebuilt by the Bourbons. After the last restoration in 1752, Charles III added two wings to the palace. On the north side, between city and river, French and English gardens were laid out. These were already constructed by Philip II, but completed by Charles IV.
Gardens surround the royal palace in Aranjuez / Source: WikimediaImages, PixabayThe interior of the countless rooms is largely baroque and rococo. The most interesting part of the palace is the Porcelain Salon . The salon is entirely manufactured in the royal porcelain factory Buen Retiro in the city of Madrid and consists of white porcelain slabs. The plates depict all kinds of scenes, including from Chinese life. Also special is the Smoking Room , for which the Alhambra in Granada served as an example. The Throne Room , with red velvet wallpaper, has rococo furniture and a painted ceiling. The palace also houses the Museo de la Vida en Palacio (Museum of Castle Life). The focus here is on the various monarchs who succeeded each other. Their lives are shown through clothing, furniture and utensils.
Aranjuez is worth a visit alone for the beautiful royal gardens surrounding the palace. The backyard of the palace is the Jardín del Parterre . This French garden was designed in 1746. The Jardín de la Isla was built in the 16th century on an artificial island in the Tagus. There are numerous fountains among the trees, hedges and boxwoods. To the east of the island is the 18th-century Jardín del Príncipe . This garden was laid out in the English landscape style. In the garden is the Casa de Marinos (Seaman’s House). Here you can see the boats used by the royal family. At the back of the garden is the Casa del Labrador (Workman’s House). This royal pavilion was built in 1803 by Charles IV.
About 25 km northeast of Aranjuez is the town of Chinchón . It is perhaps the most picturesque town in the Madrid region. The 16th-century Plaza Mayor is built in typical Castilian style and is surrounded by houses with arches and wooden balconies. The square comes to life when the people from the town perform the passion plays at Easter. Bull runs also take place here in the summer. The square is dominated by the Iglesia de la Ascunción . This 17th-century church has a painting by Goya, the Assumption of Mary . Next to the square is the 18th-century Augustinian monastery , which has been converted into a parador.
The stew cocido Madrileño / Source: Tnarik, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.0)
Food and drink
As it should be in a capital, the restaurants in Madrid serve dishes from all over the world. Outside the capital it is different. Regional cuisine applies here and the meals are tasty, simple and nutritious. In the region, the cuisine is characterized by numerous stews. The most commonly used ingredients are meat, beans and legumes.
Most residents of the region start the day with chocolate con churros . This characteristic breakfast is eaten throughout Spain, but is especially popular in the Madrid region. Breakfast consists of thick hot chocolate with churros (dough sticks) that can be dipped in the chocolate milk. In the Madrid region, soup is a popular starter, especially crema de Aranjuez (cream of asparagus soup). A classic main course is cocido Madrileño (stew with chickpeas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and pork). The local wines are simple and delicious, and pair well with the simple flavors of Madrid’s cuisine. The region has one wine region, the Vinos de Madrid. Red wine, white wine and rosé are produced here, with an excellent price-quality ratio.
Fiestas in Extremadura
Many festivities in the Madrid region are based on the Catholic faith. This is especially evident during the week of Easter. Passion plays are often performed during this week, in which the residents sympathize with the suffering of Christ. Other festivals that are celebrated exuberantly are those of a patron saint. These celebrations often take place in the summer and are often accompanied by church services, processions, singing, dancing and music.
The crucifixion of Jesus at the Passion of Chinchón / Source: Asia, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0) La Pasión de Chinchón
The Passion of Chinchón is performed annually on Easter Saturday. The Passion reenacts the suffering of Christ. The event takes place in and around the Plaza Mayor in Chinchón.
The Passion consists of eight parts in total. The first part is the ‘Last Supper’, which takes place on the balcony of the town hall. When it gets dark, the ‘Jesus Christ in the Garden’ prayer is held in the Plaza de San Roque. This is followed by the arrest of Jesus by the Romans.
‘Pontius Pilate’ presents itself on the balcony of a house in Molinos Baja street. After the condemnation of Jesus to death, the climb through the streets of Chinchón begins. In the first part of the climb, Jesus meets the person Simon of Cyrene (a cross-bearing follower). In the second part, at the entrance to the Plaza Mayor, a meeting takes place with Veronica. She offers Jesus a cloth to wipe the sweat and blood from his face. The third meeting takes place at another entrance to the Plaza Mayor, ‘Golgotha’. Here Jesus meets his mother, the Virgin Mary.
On the Calvary, near the Plaza Mayor, Jesus is crucified with two other people. Jesus is then buried. After the funeral follows the most spectacular moment of the Passion, the resurrection and ascension. Jesus ascends along the facade of the Iglesia de la Ascunción. The protagonist is hoisted up on a pulley amid white smoke and pigeons.
Fiesta de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
On August 10, 1557, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Philip II defeated the French in the memorable battle of Saint-Quentin. To commemorate this, he had the palace El Escorial built. Nowadays, every year on August 10, the feast of Saint Laurentius, patron saint of the palace and of the village of San Lorenzo, is celebrated.
The main day is August 10, but the festivities take place from August 9 to 15. The starting signal for the festivities will be given on August 9. On that day, the inaugural proclamation will be read. Then all kinds of cultural events take place, such as parades, music and dancing.
On August 10, the day starts with a mass in honor of San Lorenzo in the parish church. The statue of the saint is then taken in procession through the streets of San Lorenzo. After this it is time for all kinds of cultural events. One of these is the presentation of the ‘Honours and Distinction Awards’, prizes for people who have committed themselves to the village of San Lorenzo.
There will be a wide range of cultural activities from 11 to 14 August. Concerts are given in and around the El Escorial Palace. There are also parades, discos, exhibitions, theater, fairs, tastings, etc.
On August 15, the ‘Escurialenses Crossing of the Cumbres’ takes place. This is a 22 km walking tour around El Escorial Palace. The festivities end with fireworks at the palace.
The steam train from Madrid to Aranjuez / Source: Andrés Gómez – Club Ferroviario 241, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.0)
Madrid Airport is the hub of the international and domestic air network. The city of Madrid is the hub of railway lines, bus lines and highways.
From Madrid there are many local trains to places in the region, such as San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Alcalá de Henares and Aranjuez. The Sierra de Guadarrama can also be reached by local train. From Madrid there is a train via Cercedilla to the winter sports resort of Puerto de Navacerrada. In the summer months there is also a steam train from Madrid to Aranjuez, the Tren de la Fresa (Strawberry Train). This train is a copy of the steam train that first ran here in 1851. A guided tour of Aranjuez Palace is included.
Many places in the region can also be reached by bus. The following places can be reached (as of 2018) by bus from Madrid: The Sierra de Guadarrama (Cercedilla and Puerto de Navacerrada), San Lorenzo, Alcalá de Henares, Aranjuez and Chinchón.
The Madrid region has an extensive road network. A number of places can be reached by highway and there are also good connections with the surrounding regions. Alcalá de Henares and Aranjuez can be reached by highway. The other places in the region can be reached by main roads and secondary roads.
- La Rioja, the smallest region on the Spanish mainland
- Castile-León, the largest region in Spain
- Extremadura, the most remote region of Spain
- Castile-La Mancha, the region of (building) art and architecture
- Murcia, the Spanish region of sun, sea, beach and culture