One of the most spectacular historical sites in Spain is El Escorial. The palace/monastery/basilica contains hundreds of years of history from Spain’s royal past.
When Spain defeated France in the mid-16th century Battle of San (Saint) Quentin, King Philip II commemorated the victory by building the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Designed to be a monastery, school, mausoleum, and palace, this sprawling complex of ornate buildings is the largest Renaissance building in the world. Its design is based on a grill-like pattern that replicates Solomon’s temple and also the way its patron saint, Saint Lawrence, was martyred (over a grill!).
King Phillip picked a remote site on the side of a mountain about 50 kilometers from Madrid, and he often sat on a rock formation nearby to watch the building of his masterpiece. It took 21 years to complete, and it became Philip’s royal residence as the Spanish Hapsburg monarch. He died here in 1598 and is buried in the mausoleum he built for Spain’s royalty. Almost every monarch since Philip is buried here even though Philip was the only one to live here.
El Escorial is one of the most spectacular sites in Spain. It looms over the valley below and is one of the best places to learn about Spain’s complex history. Note that El Escorial is high in the mountains (3500’ elevation) so be sure to bring a jacket or sweater even in the summer.
It’s a short 45-minute drive or 1 hour train ride from Madrid, making it an easy day trip option. We did a guided tour that included El Escorial, Valley of Cuelgamuros, and Segovia through Letango Tours, and I highly recommend having a guide lead you around this vast and confusing building. The historical site offers its own guided tours and also a mobile guide for self-guided tours.
We began our tour in the Courtyard of the Kings. This is the heart of the complex and was built to impress visitors with Spanish wealth and power.
The tour route will be determined by your guide. I’ll highlight the different spaces below as each tour is different. Note that photos are not allowed in the buildings, so please click on the links provided to see the amazing interior spaces. You can also watch this video by Rick Steves for a great overview of the interior spaces.
The library at El Escorial is one of the most beautiful in the world! A long, narrow room lined with bookshelves and filled with portraits and frescos, it’s a must-see sight. The books on the shelves glow from the gold-edged pages since they are filed spine first! A globe from the 1580s shows how the world still thought the universe revolves around the earth.
The cathedral is grandiose and reminiscent of St. Peter’s at the Vatican (which was being built at the same time!). The high altar with its tiers of marble columns and dramatic paintings (including Saint Lawrence being grilled!) is jaw-dropping.
The cloister with its richly frescoed staircase is a great place to start the tour of the palace side of the complex. And the galleries running alongside it are full of important art from masters such as El Greco, including his famous “Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion.” Commissioned for the basilica, King Philip didn’t like it as much as the one in the cathedral, but this one is now deemed to have the most artistic value.
Pantheon – be sure to click on this link to see pictures!
These rooms where the kings and queens (and royal children) are buried are worth the trip to El Escorial. You’ll start off in the cold marble rooms filled with the remains of non-ruling members of the royal family. The most poignant of these is the room with the white tiered marble structure that houses the remains of the “infantes,” the royal children. It is quite sad.
As you go descend down dark stairs, you’ll pass by the “rotting room” – an actual room (thankfully not open!) where the most recent royal bodies are laid to decompose. They don’t move into the actual royal pantheon until 25 years have passed since their death.
The royal pantheon room itself is grandiose yet small, containing a hierarchy of monarchs. In the place of honor is Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Philip II’s father, then Philip and his wife, and it continues on down the line to the most recent burial, Victoria Eugenia in 1985 (Her story is fascinating as she was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter who married the king of Spain and survived an assassination attempt on her wedding day only to be deposed by the Spanish Civil War. She died in exile in Switzerland and is the great-grandmother of the current monarch.). Since some kings may have more than one queen, a woman also has to be the mother of a monarch to be buried here.
The pantheon rooms continue past the royals to contain more burial spots. Our guide had fascinating stories about many of these people (mostly named Philip!) including the unfortunate square, jutting chins of the Hapsburg line men (due to severe inbreeding!).
The pantheon rooms are some of the most atmospheric (and creepy!) tombs I’ve ever seen. No photos are allowed, and during our visit, we were the only ones in the rooms beside the guards. I can’t imagine sitting there, day after day, staring at the marble caskets.
As you ascend from the cold marble depths of the pantheon, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief to be in Philip’s austere yet serene palace rooms. As a highly religious king, Philip didn’t want any gilded rooms for himself; he reserved the grandiose rooms for the basilica. His bedroom is stark and the walls are plain whitewash with Spanish tile accents. Note that he could see the high altar of the basilica from his bed, the same one he died in on September 13, 1598 (425 years ago today!).
The rest of the palace rooms contain paintings of the Hapsburg monarchs (note the chins!) and other royals such as Philip’s daughters.
This massively long and narrow hallway depicts Spain’s victories in battles such as the Battle of San Quentin (the reason El Escorial was built). My kids liked looking at the details of the paintings.
The gilded rooms in this part of the palace are quite different from the simplistic Hapsburg rooms. The Bourbon dynasty in Spain began when the Hapsburg were defeated by France in 1700, and French King Louis XIV’s grandson became the country’s monarch. The rooms have a French-like style, full of gilt-laden furniture and heavy tapestries on the walls, including some by Goya. Our guide wasn’t able to talk to us at all in this section due to regulations from the facility, but it was a feast for the eyes anyway!
This marks the end of the inside tour of El Escorial but don’t miss walking around the plaza (just outside of the Courtyard of the Kings) to the amazing views of the gardens and valley below.
Philip’s Seat: If you have access to a car, drive to the nearby Philip’s Seat, the rock formation where King Philip II observed the building of El Escorial. You can sit in the indented rock and pretend to be surveying your land! Note that the rock is high above a valley with a steep drop off so hold onto little ones!
Valley of Cuelgamuros: On the drive to El Escorial, you will notice a huge cross towering on a mountainside. This is part of the Valley of Cuelgamuros, formerly known as the Valley of the Fallen, which was built by the fascist Spanish dictator Franco in 1940. This very controversial monument built into the hillside is quite eerie and disturbing. Franco used forced labor by the republican prisoners to build this basilica to house the bodies of over 40,000 war dead. While both sides are buried here, it is seen as a monument that only memorializes one side, the nationalists who defeated the Spanish Republic in 1939. It had served as the burial place of Franco and another fascist leader until very recently when they were removed from the basilica. The government is undertaking efforts to remove any additional fascist iconography, but I don’t think they can remove the chilly, creepy feeling that seeps into your very bones as you enter this deeply emotional and controversial place. Visiting it is a good way to discuss the Spanish Civil War with your kids, and we really learned from our guide about how the Spanish view this monument. It was quite eye-opening.
Segovia: We spent the afternoon of our day trip in the hill town of Segovia with its Roman aqueduct, a short 45- minute drive from El Escorial. I’ll be reviewing it soon on The History Mom!
El Escorial is a must-see historical site for anyone interested in Spain’s royal past. Since it’s an easy day trip from Madrid, be sure to make it a part of your trip!
- Cost: €6-12/self-guided tour; costs vary on guided tours
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 2-3 hours
- Transportation: El Escorial is a 45-minute drive from Madrid (I recommend hiring a drive/guide to conduct the tour as well as provide transportation. We used Letango Tours.). You can also take a direct train and bus from Madrid.
- Dining options: There are no cafes or restaurants in El Escorial, but you can walk just one street from the complex into the little town to find a restaurant. We ate at a restaurant in Segovia instead of El Escorial.
- Nearby hotels: I recommend making a visit to El Escorial as a day trip from Madrid (check out my Spain Travel Guide for hotel recommendations).
Books to Read: