The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain is one of those places you just have to visit if you have the chance. The massive, sprawling complex is the historic home of centuries of Spanish kings and the official royal seat of the Spanish Monarchy. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the site still serves as a functioning monastery. With up to a half million visitors a year, it’s one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Here you can find everything you need to know about El Escorial, as it’s more commonly known, so you can easily plan your own trip. Make sure not to miss the bonus attraction we share at the end of the post. Most visitors to El Escorial never even know it’s there!
El Escorial is the 29th largest palace in the World! This complex contains 16 inner courtyards, 4,000 rooms, 1,200 doors, 2,675 windows, 24 kilometers (15 miles) of passageways, 86 staircases, 73 sculptures and 88 fountains.
Before you get too excited about adding this pretty incredible attraction to your Spain travel itinerary, you need to know where it is.
El Escorial monastery and royal palace is about 45 km northwest of Madrid in the Guadarrama mountains. It’s located in a town with the same name – San Lorenzo de El Escorial – which can make things confusing. The monastery is a couple of kilometers south of town along the outskirts.
It helps to know that the full name of the UNESCO attraction is the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. In Spanish, it’s the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. You’ll also see it as the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, or simply monasterio El Escorial. Knowing this makes it easier distinguishing between the town and the attraction on a map.
Travel Tip: When you’re navigating to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, make sure you’ve selected the royal monastery and not the town for the right directions to the UNESCO site.
How do you get to El Escorial?
Depending on your budget and travel style, you can get to El Escorial by car, train, rideshare, or as part of a tour group. Since most people will likely visit as a day trip from Madrid, we’ll just share travel tips for how to get to El Escorial from Madrid.
The easiest and cheapest way for most people to get to El Escorial is by car. From Madrid, the most direct route is via the A-6/AP-6 autopista, or freeway. You can also take the alternate route on the M-503/M-600.
Since some of Spain’s autopistas are toll roads which cost money, you might want to know the cost of your route before traveling. For that we recommend two websites.
The first is Tolls.eu, which tells you the cost of road tolls in Spain.
You can also check Autopistas (site is in Spanish). It not only tells you the cost of the road tolls for your route, but you can put in your type of fuel/vehicle and it’ll estimate your fuel expense as well as your carbon footprint for driving that specific route. It’s pretty cool!
Since we were road tripping from Switzerland in our own car, we drove from Madrid to El Escorial in Spain. The total cost of gas for three adults was about €4 euros, and we didn’t pay road tolls.
Travel Tip: El Escorial is near another UNESCO site: the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia. It’s possible to visit El Escorial and Segovia in one day, but you’ll be really rushed if you do. If you can, we recommend staying at least one night near El Escorial so you can spend a day exploring each place.
Lucky for us, we were traveling with Alicia, a friend from Madrid. She and her parents generously offered to let us stay at their summer home in Collado Mediano for a couple of nights. The small town is only 17 km/10 miles from the monastery.
From Madrid, we drove to Collado Mediano to drop off our things, then enjoyed the scenic 20-minute drive through lush green fields and pockets of shrub trees to El Escorial.
You can find pay parking on the north and west sides of El Escorial along the Av. de Juan de Borbon y Battenberg. On a busy day, it might be full. Make sure you have euros for the machines!
By Train: 75-90 minutes, €8-€10
From Madrid, you can take the train from the Atocha, Chamartin, Nuevos Ministerios, or Recoletos stations. The ride takes about an hour. When you get off the train, you’ll still have a 10-15 minute walk to El Escorial from the train station.
A one-way ticket costs about €8.
By Rideshare: 60 minutes, €4-€6
BlaBlaCar is a great option for anyone wanting to catch a ride from Madrid to El Escorial, Spain.
If you haven’t heard of it, BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing website that allows you to either offer rides or catch a ride with someone traveling the same route as you. The driver decides the time of travel and the price for each passenger, and passengers pay securely through the website. It’s all very easy and convenient.
Even if you’re not able to find the exact route you need, drivers are often flexible and can possibly drive a bit out of their way to drop you where you need to go. You can also set up a ride alert to be notified when a ride for your specific date/time is posted.
We haven’t used BlaBlaCar as passengers, but we’ve driven multiple passengers on various routes in Germany and France and really love it! Ride sharing is often faster and more convenient than public transportation, yet it’s more environmentally friendly than driving your own car.
With a Tour Group: Prices & Times Vary
For those who don’t have a car or just want the convenience of booking a guided trip, there are lots of options. Too many, actually. It can be hard to decide which one to choose.
We’re not really big on guided tours since we prefer independent travel, but one site we know and trust is Get Your Guide.
They offer multiple day trips from Madrid to El Escorial. If we wanted to visit as part of a guided tour group, we’d likely choose one of their options. *This is not an affiliate link, nor do we get anything if you book with them.
El Escorial is far more than just a monastery. Historically, this was the home of Spanish kings and their royal family members.
Commissioned by Spain’s King Philip II, construction began in 1563. Juan Bautista de Toledo was the original Spanish architect charged with the plans. When he died, the project was completed by Juan de Herrera in 1584.
It’s pretty incredible that one of the largest religious complexes in the world was completed in just twenty years, especially during the 16th century!
Architectural plans for El Escorial included not only an impressive basilica and monastery to combat the rising threat of Protestantism, but also a school, library, pantheon (crypt), and royal palace.
The royal residence became the place where the most important political decisions were made.
How much do El Escorial tickets cost?
As of September 2021, the price of a single adult ticket costs €12. Audio guides at El Escorial are not available, but visitors can pay an additional €4 for a personal guide (Spanish only).
You can buy tickets in advance online or just buy them at the door, which is what we did.
Budget Travel Tip: El Escorial offers free entry on Wednesdays and Sundays from 3-7 pm in summer and 3-6 pm in winter. This applies to EU residents and Latin American citizens. Make sure you bring valid ID as proof! For current discounts, visit the official website for El Escorial.
When is the best time to visit El Escorial?
If you want to avoid the crowds, the shoulder season – May and September – are the best months to visit El Escorial. We visited in April, which is still the off-season, and the entire complex was almost completely deserted.
If you do visit during the summer, try to visit as soon as it opens or later in the evening to avoid the crowds from tour buses.
Insider Tip: El Escorial is notorious for being one of the coldest palaces in Spain. Bring warm clothes and layer, even in summer. If you hate being cold, you might prefer braving the crowds in mid-summer rather than facing a chilly visit in the spring or fall.
Start your visit in the museum at El Escorial.
After entering the imposing main gate and passing through the Courtyard of the Kings, you’ll see the entrance for the El Escorial interior.
Once you enter and buy tickets, the museum will be one of the first things you see. It’s definitely worth at least browsing through.
Even though we’re not really “museum people,” we were impressed with how artfully this one is laid out.
Room after room displays 3D models of the royal complex, incredibly detailed blueprints, and walls of tools used during its construction. Even the original cornerstone is on display.
The cornerstone of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was laid in 1563.
One entire room houses the reconstructed remains of a section of wooden ceiling from the monastery that was destroyed by termites in 1963.
The giant wooden beams imported from the coast of Cuba were reduced to Swiss cheese, riddled with holes.
Our 4 Absolute Favorite Highlights of El Escorial
Anxious to see the monastery itself and the grounds, we didn’t stay long in the museum. Instead, we continued into the cool marble interior of the palace’s interior living quarters.
Undoubtedly everyone visiting will have different things about the complex that they really like and find most memorable. For us, it wasn’t the grounds, the church, the priceless paintings by artists such as El Greco, or even the sheer size and opulence of the entire place that gave us pause. Instead, it was these four highlights of El Escorial.
1. The Hall of Battles – La Sala de Batallas
The hall is a long room with a high, arched ceiling. Nearly every surface is covered with a continuous fresco, or painting, showing different Spanish battles in minute detail.
2. The Library – La Biblioteca
At one time, the library at El Escorial was second only to that of the Vatican.
With over 40,000 volumes dating as far back as the 5th century, marble floors, hand-carved shelves, and philosophical frescoes on the ceiling painted by Italian artist Pellegrino Tibaldi, it’s simply stunning.
3. Wooden Doors of the Royal Chambers
If you appreciate woodworking or artistic talent in general, the doors to the royal chambers at El Escorial will blow your mind!
Each door leading to the royal chambers is a massive, intricately carved slab of wood with arches extending far above the door frame. They’re decorated with detailed scenes created by using contrasting colors and pieces of wood.
They’re absolutely incredible, even with thick sheets of Plexiglas covering the doors to protect them.
Travel Tip: Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed in much of the El Escorial interior, so we don’t have photos to share of the doors or many of the rooms. You can get an idea what they’re like from a photo of the chamber doors at El Escorial on Pinterest.
4. The Pantheon of Kings – El Panteón de Reyes
One of El Escorial’s intended purposes when it was commissioned by Philip II was that it would provide a final burial place for current and future members of Spain’s Monarchy. The Pantheon is the royal crypt, or mausoleum, where the Spanish Royal Family is buried.
Descending the stairs to this underground crypt, I was completely dumbfounded when the rough stone walls gave way to ornate, solid marble.
At the bottom, the stairs open directly into The Pantheon of Kings, a circular room with a domed ceiling that clearly was designed for royalty. The walls gleam with gold and bronze, the polished marble glistens in the dim light, and the somber columns of black coffins line the round room as if the dead are united in death more than they were in life.
With the women laid to rest on one side and the men on the other, nearly every Spanish king and queen since Charles I is interred in the Pantheon.
Twenty-six coffins now inhabit the crypt, leaving room for only two more members before it’s effectively at full capacity. These two occupants are currently in the pudridero, or Rotting Room, a special chamber just off the crypt where newly deceased members are held for several decades until their bodies are fully decomposed, at which time they’re moved to their permanent burial place in the crypt.
This means that there are no sepulchers remaining for the now-abdicated Juan Carlos I, Queen Sofía, or their son Felipe VI, the current king of Spain. A decision has yet to be made about where they – and future kings – will be laid to rest.
4 Other Notable Features at El Escorial
1. The Pantheon of Princes – El Panteón de Infantes
Not far from The Pantheon of Kings is another series of tombs for other members of royalty. The Pantheon of Princes is the burial place for royal children who died before they could assume the throne or those who weren’t in direct line to the throne.
It’s made up of nine interconnected chambers lined with marble and a single main altar. It’s really beautiful.
2. Garden of the Friars – Jardín de Los Frailes
Bordering the southern and eastern perimeter of El Escorial is the Garden of the Friars.
From inside, the manicured decorative hedges are mostly visible only from barred windows through smudged glass. They’re still quite pretty, at least those that have been maintained.
During our visit, a long row of hedges on the adjacent side of the complex had been newly planted and were just seedlings. Others appeared rather neglected with more weed than shrub.
Make sure to leave time to wander through the gardens outside before you leave. Though it’s difficult to see the stunning, intricate patterns in the shrubs and pathways from ground level, the gardens are pretty.
3. El Escorial Reflecting Pool
The reflecting pool is located in the southwest corner of El Escorial next to the gardens. It’s a picturesque place for photos, with the broad expanse of the monastery and its many windows reflected in the greenish pool.
After the somber silence of rows of tiny coffins in the Pantheon of the Princes, it was a relief to leave the mausoleum for the crisp, cool air of evening. Elegant swans drifted on the tranquil rectangular reflecting pool.
4. Royal Basilica of San Lorenzo – La Basílica de San Lorenzo el Real
The basilica, or church, is the very heart of El Escorial. The entire complex was built around it, providing the foundation for religious education and devotion for the Royal Family.
Some of the best exterior views of the entire monastery, especially the basilica, are from the gardens on the eastern side of the huge square complex.
The domed tower of the basilica rises in the center.
What are the El Escorial opening times?
El Escorial visiting hours vary depending on different parts of the complex.
The main site is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am-7 pm. The main gardens are open a bit longer, until 8 pm, but the Garden of the Friars closes at 7 pm.
Make sure that you keep an eye on the time during your visit. Depending on where you are in the complex, you could have a long way to go to reach the nearest exit.
We happened to be out in the gardens when we suddenly realized the site was about to close and had to run all the way back around to the front. This might not seem like a big deal, but considering the size of this place, I felt like I’d run a mini marathon.
Travel Tip: El Escorial is closed on Mondays.
Is El Escorial worth visiting?
If you find yourself in Spain’s capital and you’re looking for a change of pace from city life, this is definitely one of the best day trips from Madrid.
And finally, our secret bonus attraction – the Chair of Philip II!
This insider tip comes directly from our friend Alicia, who’s from Madrid. Without her, we wouldn’t have known about it.
The Chair of Philip II (Silla de Felipe II) is a historic viewpoint overlooking San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The site is only about 5 kilometers from town, and it’s a fun little addition to tack on to your visit to the area.
During the 20+ years that it took to build El Escorial, legend says that King Philip II wanted to be able to monitor its progress. On his orders, several seats were carved out of a giant mound of granite overlooking the construction site far off in the valley.
From the Chair of Philip II, the King is said to have watched as construction progressed on the royal complex of El Escorial in the valley.
Bonus Travel Tip: Visiting The Chair of Philip II is free. Parking on site is also free and plentiful.
Arriving in a small wooded parking area, we passed a simple hand-painted wooden sign indicating we had, in fact, arrived at King Philip’s royal chair.
Climbing two short series of granite stairs, we reached the seats, three of them, side by side cut into a single rock. It was a perfect fit for the three of us!
Somehow I found it more interesting to sit in the plain old rock chair King Philip used to watch his palace rise from the ground than to see the priceless antique bed at El Escorial where he died.
With rain threatening and the sun long gone, we drove back to Collado Mediano and enjoyed dinner in front of a lovely wood fire. We couldn’t imagine how the following day in Segovia could possibly top our visit to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.