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Madrid’s Top 10 : El Escorial (part 1)

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Enjoying a suitably majestic setting in the southern foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was commissioned by Felipe II as a mausoleum for the tomb of his father, Carlos I. The name commemorates the victory over the French at St Quentin on the Feast of St Laurence, in 1557. Building began in 1563 and, from the outset, the king took a keen interest in the smallest details of the project, even down to the choice of site. The complex was finally completed in 1595 and comprised a basilica, a royal palace, a monastery, a seminary and a library. This stupendous granite monument to the king’s personal aspirations and to the ideals of the Catholic Counter Reformation still inspires awe, if not always affection.

  • San Lorenzo del Escorial

  • Train from Atocha or Chamartín, then bus from the station

  • 91 890 5904

  • www.patrimonionacional.es

  • Open Apr–Sep: 10am–6pm Tue–Sun; Oct–Mar: 10am–5pm Tue–Sun; Closed Mon, 1 Jan, 6 Jan, 1 May, 10 Aug, 9 Sep, 24 Dec, 25 Dec, 31 Dec

  • Adm €8 (except Wed for EU citizens), €10 (for a guided tour)


Felipe II’s Vision

Before architect Juán Bautista de Toledo was allowed to embark on El Escorial, Felipe gave him precise instructions. He should aim for “simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.” When Toledo died in 1577, his successor, Juan de Herrera, followed Felipe’s precepts. The design was intended to resemble the iron grid on which St Laurence was roasted alive.


Plan of El Escorial

View of El Escorial

San Lorenzo del Escorial has a good selection of bars and restaurants.


To escape the worst of the queues, arrive before midday and avoid Wednesdays, when admission to the palace is free.




Top 10 Features
  1. Basílica

    The basílica takes the form of a Greek cross, with vaults decorated with frescoes by Luca Giordano.

  2. King’s Apartments

    Felipe II’s personal quarters appear surprisingly modest – just three simply furnished rooms with whitewashed walls and terracotta tiling. Look out for the hand chair used to carry the gout-ridden king on his last journey here in 1598.

  3. Pantheon of the Kings

    Work on the domed burial chamber directly under the high altar of the basílica, was completed in 1654. The walls were surfaced with marble, bronze and jasper by Giovanni Battista Crescenzi.

  4. Chapter Houses

    The vaulted ceilings were decorated in the 17th century by Italian artists Fabrizio Castello and Nicola Granelo. Hanging from the walls are priceless canvases by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velázquez and El Greco.

  5. Library

    The magnificent barrel vaulted hall has stunning ceiling frescoes by Italian artists. The shelves contain 4,000 precious manuscripts and 40,000 folio volumes arranged facing outwards to allow air to permeate the pages.

  6. Gallery of Battles

    Recently restored, this gallery is decorated with superb frescoes by 16th-century Italian artists. The paintings were intended to validate Felipe II’s military campaigns.

  7. Main Staircase

    Look up from this magnificent staircase to admire the “Glory of the Spanish monarchy” frescoes by Luca Giordano.

  8. Strolling Gallery

    Felipe II enjoyed indoor walks in this airy gallery. The meridians on the floor were added in the 18th century.

  9. Courtyard of the Kings

    This courtyard offers the best view of the basílica façade, its twin belltowers and aweinspiring dome. The larger than life statues of Old Testament kings over the portal give the courtyard its name.

  10. Architecture Museum

    This small exhibition of plans, scale models and workmen’s tools explains how El Escorial was constructed. Note the wooden cranes and hoists used to haul the blocks of granite into place.

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