El Escorial: An Epic Day Trip from Madrid
San Lorenzo de El Escorial, or El Escorial for short: It makes for a great day trip from Madrid. But what is it? Is it a library, a palace, or a city? From what I had read of other blog posts, I couldn’t quite tell what it was or what to expect before we went. All I knew was that it had the most amazing library I had ever heard of and I had to see it for myself.
So what exactly is El Escorial? It’s kind of all of those things. Once headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition, San Lorenzo de El Escorial (the city) grew around the largest building constructed during the renaissance era. The Monastery of El Escorial (the building) housed a university, a monastery, a basilica, a palace, a library, a hospital, and a tomb.
“El Escorial” translates as ”the scholar.” From the outside, the monastery appears to be a giant, unimaginative block set upon a great expanse of concrete, an absolute fortress. All its beauty and art lies within its walls.
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A Brief History of El Escorial
I like to have some context when I visit a new place, so I understand a little better what it is I’m looking at. So I’ll share what I’ve learned with you through out this post, the beautiful along with the ugly.
A UNESCO world heritage site today, it took 21 years to build, between 1563 to 1584. El Escorial served as the residence, seat of rule, and burial place to Phillip II of the Habsburg family.
Phillip II ruled from 1556 to 1598, during the Spanish Golden Age. Major events of note during Spain’s Golden Age included the conquest of the Incan Empire, the start of the Anglo-Spanish war, and the Spanish Inquisition. Phillip II felt it was his duty to defend Catholicism from Protestants and the Ottoman Empire.
Patio of the Kings
The Patio of the Kings, or “Patio de los Reyes,” was our first look behind the walls of El Escorial. The six kings of Judah are featured in the façade here: Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, David, Solomon, Josiah, and Manasseh.
From the Patio of the Kings, you’ll move on through the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Art, and then the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The Museum of Architecture describes the construction of El Escorial. And the Museum of Art displays Italian, Spanish, and Flemish works from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Basilica of San Lorenzo
The patron saint of the basilica is San Lorenzo, or St. Lawrence. He was martyred by the Roman Empire on August 10, 258 AD.
When St. Lawrence refused to hand over the church’s wealth to Rome, he was placed upon a gridiron and burned alive. As the story goes, after he had been lying there, burning for some time, he declared, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”
Today, St. Lawrence is the patron saint of archivists, librarians, scholars, cooks, chefs, and comedians. You’ll find a painting of him upon the gridiron above the altar in the basilica at El Escorial (see the photo above). In fact, El Escorial’s footprint resembles a grill.
Continuing on to the palace and living quarters, you’ll find original furniture on display. The palace features stark white walls, and unadorned furniture. The simplicity in architecture and design was unique at the time.
The Royal Pantheon
Deep below this fortress is the pantheon, or burial place, of four centuries of Spanish royalty, including Phillip II.
The Habsburg family had significant inbreeding, due to marriage arrangements intended to keep political power in the family. If you’ve heard of a “Habsburg jaw,” this was a visible result of that inbreeding.
Why am I bringing up incest right now? There’s an entire room filled with small coffins, the “pateón de los infantes”, dedicated to royal children who had passed too soon. Only four of Phillip II’s twelve children survived past the age of seven.
According to scientists, incest may have brought about the fall of the Habsburg dynasty. This inbreeding may have been the cause of so many Habsburg children’s deaths, as well as the cause of infertility. The two-century-long Spanish Habsburg dynasty ended in 1700 with Charles II’s death, age 38 and infertile.
The tour ends in the library. This is easily the most posh library I have ever seen. And if you love a good library, you cannot pass this up.
With frescos painted on the ceiling and gold rimmed globes, it feels more like a cathedral dedicated to the worship of literature than a library. It holds over 40,000 books and 4,700 manuscripts.
As you exit the library, a sign above the door threatens excommunication to anyone who steals a book. At that steep a price, I wonder what their late fees are like!
To my great disappointment, photography is not allowed inside the building of El Escorial. The only place you are allowed to take photos is outside and in the courtyard, ”Patio of the Kings.”
However, you can purchase postcards, prints, and puzzles in the gift shop, along with other souvenirs. Or you can purchase digital photos online.
Planning Your Visit
El Escorial makes for a good half day trip from Madrid. You’ll want to plan for an hour to get there, 3 to 4 hours to do the audio guide tour, and another hour back to Madrid.
We had lunch in El Escorial at a small restaurant at the train station, and arrived back in Madrid around 3pm with plenty of time for more sight seeing that afternoon and night.
The best time of year to visit is typically fall. You’ll likely enjoy nice weather, but you’ll avoid the summer tourist crowds.
*Note: El Escorial is closed on Mondays.
How to Get to the Monastery of El Escorial
Nestled in the foothills of the Guadarrama mountains, El Escorial lies about an hour northwest of Madrid. You can book transportation there via train or bus.
Taking the train was very easy and convenient, as trains leave about hourly from Madrid to El Escorial. Take the C3 line from Atocha or Chamartín stations in Madrid to El Escorial.
From the train station, it’s about a half an hour walk to the monastery, so we chose to take a taxi.
The bus will drop you off closer to El Escorial than the train will. You’ll want to take route 664 from Intercambiador Moncloa bus station in Madrid. Then get off at Estación de Autobuses de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the final stop on the route. From there, it’s only a 10 to 15 minute walk the rest of the way.
Click on the markers on the map below to highlight the walking routes from the train station and bus station to El Escorial.