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A visit to El Escorial near Madrid

The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo offers one of the best 1-day tours from Madrid.

Where is El Escorial?

It is located near Madrid, on the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, and in the northwest Province of Madrid.

El Escorial was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on November 2, 1984.  In this post we will review the history of this large building as it is essential to understanding the importance of this monument. We recommend you our 1 day tour to El Escorial from Madrid, which combines the visit to the Monastery with a winery visit and a tapas meal. 

Why was El Escorial built?

Before he died, the European Emperor Carlos I commissioned his son, Felipe, to build a monastery in which his remains and those of his wife late Isabel could rest eternally.

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Who was responsible for the construction of El Escorial?

Felipe II, the King of Spain, hired the services of one of the best architects of the time, Juan Bautista de Toledo, who immediately began to work on the plans for the building.  The order of the King made it clear that it should be a grand, yet serious building, such that it would combine all the functions of a monastery, the Royal Pantheon, Royal Palace, and a basilica.

However, a location was needed for the exquisite building and, most importantly – a name!  Regarding the first, a quarry would be needed nearby from which would come the raw material requiring this gigantic construction: granite.  After analyzing various options, it was decided that the location would be in the Sierra de Guadarrama.  And, where did the name for El Escorial come from?  One year before the death of the Emperor Charles, the victory of King Philip’s troops during the battle of St Quentin took place August 10, 1557 – St. Lawrence’s Day (el Día de San Lorenzo).  Thus, the decisions were made.

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There are two theories regarding the design of the building.  The first holds that the architect followed the descriptions made of Solomon's Temple by the Judeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus in the 1st century A.D.  Another theory says that he tried to represent a gigantic inverted grill upon which St. Lawrence suffered his torment.  Juan Bautista de Toledo died shortly after beginning the construction, but architect Juan de Herrera continued and completed the building in 1584.

What is very clear is that this architectural conception was a significant milestone as it established itself as the dominant style in Europe at the time, the heavily decorated Plateresque Style.  After its construction, El Escorial was considered as the eighth wonder of the world.

How big is El Escorial?

By visiting the monastery, you can get an idea of its magnitude by noting that its base measures 207 m x 162 m.  This represents a surface area of five football pitches.  It has nine towers, 2,673 windows, 1,200 doors, 86 staircases, 16 patios, 15 cloisters and 88 fountains.

The monastery occupies the entire southern part of the building and was given to the Hieronymite monks, although since 1885, it has been occupied by Augustinians.  As for the palace, it is divided into two parts: the Habsburg and the Bourbon.  Today it is possible to visit both and enjoy their magnificent rooms.  Without a doubt, the places you cannot miss are the main staircase, the frescoes above it, the magnificent Royal Library constructed of wood and marble, the basilica, and the spectacular Royal Pantheon where most of the Kings of Spain lie in rest.

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Another feature enjoyed from the monastery, due to its over 1000 m high location, is the magnificent view which dominates the plains of Madrid towards the south. While to the north, the mountains provide protection and overlook the nearby cities of Avila and Segovia.  Also, you can enjoy a breathtaking view and the natural setting from the Chair of Felipe II, where the King used to watch the project’s development which was built in record time, only 21 years.

Today the monastery is cared for and managed as a National Heritage Site.  It is second in the greatest number of visitors, about half a million, behind the Royal Palace of Madrid which exceeds one million.

Are you planning a visit to El Escorial? Bear in mind the following:

  • Best time to visit El Escorial. temperatures are cooler than in Madrid. Best months to visit el Escorial are during spring and Autumn
  • Getting to El Escorial from Madrid. There is a train from Madrid to El Escorial. The train station is 15 minutes walk from the main gate of the Monastery. By car: A6 motorway. The best exist to also profit from the Valley of the Fallen is in Guadarrama
  • Interesting sights: royal seat in El Escorial. You will need a car to get to this spot from where the King admired the evolution of the construction works

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