Tourist’s guide to Escorial in Spain: a palace for God, a shack for the king

The architectural complex Escorial (Spain) is often called the most mysterious attraction of Madrid. But even the numerous legends that fanned the history of this place did not stop him from entering the UNESCO World Heritage List and becoming one of the most visited corners of the country.

Escorial in Spain

General information

The Escorial Palace in Spain is a grandiose medieval building and one of the most significant sights of the country, built in memory of the victory of the Spaniards over the enemy Napoleonic army. The powerful building, located an hour’s drive from Madrid, performs several functions at once – the royal residence, the monastery and the main tomb of the Spanish rulers.

One of the characteristic features of El Escorial, which I compare with the eighth wonder of the world, is called a real architectural nightmare.

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is the complete absence of ostentatious splendor inherent in most royal castles. Even its appearance is more like a fortress than a magnificent palace! But even with all its rigor and conciseness, there is something to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

The entrance to the monastery is guarded by giant gates made of pure bronze. Following them, the Courtyard of the Kings, decorated with statues of biblical kings of the righteous, opens to the gaze of visitors. In the center of this courtyard is an artificial pond, to which adjoin four pools decorated with multi-colored marble.

Marble Pool in Escorial

If you look at the photo of Escorial in Spain from a bird’s eye view, you can see that it is divided into a number of small patios, decorated with lush greenery and interconnected by beautiful galleries. The interior of El Escorial pleases with a lot of variety. Marble finish done in calm gray tones, walls complemented by exquisite artistic painting, majestic sculptures created by outstanding Milanese craftsmen – all this goes well with the grim grandeur of the tomb and the simplicity of the royal chambers.

The main pride of the Escorial monastery is the church altar, decorated with a scattering of precious stones and multi-colored grotto. There are also regular concerts of chamber music and performances of the famous choir of boys, whose singing is compared with the voices of angels.

Historical reference

The history of San Lorenzo de El Escorial began in 1557 with the battle of Saint-Quentin, during which the army of King Philip II not only defeated the French enemy, but also almost completely destroyed the monastery of St. Lawrence. Being a deeply religious man and wanting to perpetuate his victory over the enemy army, the king decided to erect a unique monastery.

And then everything was like in a famous folk tale. Gathering 2 architects, 2 masons and 2 scientists, Philip II ordered them to find a place that would not be too hot or too cold, and would be located not far from the capital. It became the foundation of Mount Sierra de Guadarrama, protected by high slopes from the hot summer sun and from the chilling winter wind.

Hill near Escorial

The first stone in the foundation of the new building was laid in 1563, and the further it moved, the more grandiose the plans of the Spanish ruler became. The fact is that Philip II, distinguished by poor health and a penchant for melancholy, dreamed not of a magnificent palace, but of a quiet monastery in which one could relax from royal cares and ingratiating courtiers. That is why Escorial in Madrid was bound to become not only the residence of the ruling king, but also a functioning monastery inhabited by several dozen novices. And most importantly, it was here that Philip II planned to implement the commandment of Charles V and equip a dynastic tomb in which all members of his family would be buried.

The construction of this grandiose architectural ensemble lasted as long as 20 years. During this time, several famous architects managed to lead him, including the student of Michelangelo Juan Bautista Toledo. The finished complex was a large-scale building, which Philip II himself called “a palace for God and a shack for the king.”

In the center of El Escorial, a huge Catholic Cathedral towered, symbolizing the monarch’s belief that every politician who cares about the future of his country should not forget about his own religious beliefs. In the southern part there is a monastery, and in the northern part there is a royal residence, the appearance of which perfectly emphasizes the severe character of its owner.

Catholic Cathedral of Escorial

What is interesting, and the tomb, and the cathedral, and many other objects of the complex are made in the style of desornamentado, which in Spanish means “unadorned.” The royal chambers of Escorial, which is a traditional combination of smooth whitewashed walls and a simple brick floor, were no exception. All this once again emphasizes the desire of Philip II for simplicity and functionality.

At the end of all the work, the king began to collect canvases of European painters, to collect a collection of valuable manuscripts and books, and also to conduct various social events. The most famous of them is the 1575 chess tournament held between the players of Spain and Italy. It was he who was captured in his painting by the Venetian painter Luigi Mussini.

Complex structure

The Escorial Palace in Madrid consists of several independent parts, each of which deserves the closest attention of visitors.

Royal Tomb or Pantheon of Kings
Royal Tomb or Pantheon of Kings

The tomb of the kings in Escorial (Spain) is considered the most mysterious and, perhaps, the saddest part of the complex. The magnificent tomb, decorated with marble, jasper and bronze, is divided into 2 parts. In the first, called the Pantheon of Kings, the relics of almost all Spanish rulers are stored except for Fernando VI, Philip V and Amadeo of Savoy.

But the second part of the tomb, known as the Pantheon of the Infants, “belongs” to the little princes and princesses, next to whom their queen mothers lie. Interestingly, not a single empty tomb remained in the tomb, so the question of where the acting king and queen will be buried remains open.

Escorial Library

The size and historical significance of the Escorial Palace’s book depository is inferior only to the famous Vatican Apostolic Library. In addition to handwritten texts written by Mother Teresa, Alfonso the Wise and St. Augustine, the largest collection of ancient Oriental manuscripts, works on history and cartography, monastery codes, as well as illustrated almanacs created during the Middle Ages are stored here.

The total number of museum pieces is about 40 thousand. Most of this property is placed in huge cabinets made of precious wood and complemented by transparent glass doors. However, even under this condition, you are unlikely to be able to consider the name of a publication. The fact is that the El Escorial library is the only one in the world where books are exhibited with roots inward. It is believed that in the absence of direct sunlight, the roots, decorated with intricate old patterns, will be better preserved.

The library building also looks to match its “inhabitants”, the main decoration of which is a marble floor and a unique painted ceiling, the images of which represent 7 free disciplines – geometry, rhetoric, mathematics, etc. But the two main sciences, philosophy and theology, are allotted 2 walls.

Museum of Escorial

There are two interesting museums on the territory of Madrid’s Escorial Palace. One of them contains drawings, three-dimensional models, construction tools and other exhibits related to the history of the famous tomb. In the other, more than 1.5 thousand paintings by Titian, El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and other famous artists (both Spanish and foreign) are exhibited.

Scientists claim that the selection of most paintings was led by Philip II himself, who had an extraordinary artistic taste. After his death, other heirs to the Spanish throne also replenished the invaluable collection. By the way, in one of the 9 halls of this museum you can see a lot of geographical maps compiled in those days. If there is time, compare them with modern counterparts – a very interesting occupation.

Parks and gardens
Escorial Park

No less interesting attraction of Escorial in Spain are the palace gardens located in the southern and eastern parts of the monastery. They are made in the form of unusual shapes and planted with hundreds of exotic flowers and plants. The park has a huge pond, through which a flock of white swans swims every now and then, and several beautiful fountains that fit perfectly into the surrounding space.

Cathedral of Real

Looking at the photo of Escorial, it is impossible not to notice the grandiose Catholic Cathedral, whose splendor makes a truly stunning impression on visitors. One of the main decorations of El Real is the ancient frescoes, covering not only the entire ceiling, but also the space over four dozen altars. They say that not only Spanish, but also Venetian masters were engaged in their creation.

Cathedral of Real

Of no less interest is the central retablo, an altar image designed by the chief palace architect. The paintings located in this part of the cathedral are decorated with pure gold, and the sculptures of the royal family, kneeling in prayer, are made of snow-white marble.

And one more interesting fact! According to the original design, the dome of the Cathedral of El Real was supposed to be as high as possible. However, by order of the Vatican, he was left at the level of 90 m – otherwise he would have been much higher than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Practical information

Escorial Palace, located at Av Juan de Borbón y Battemberg, 28200, is open all year round, and the hours for visits depend only on the season:

  • October – March: from 10:00 to 18:00;
  • April – September: from 10:00 to 20:00.
Escorial Territory

Note! On Mondays, the monastery, castle and tomb are closed!

The price of a regular ticket is 10 €, with a discount of 5 €. The cash desk closes an hour before the end of the complex. The last entrance to its territory is for the same period of time. For more information, see the official El Escorial website –

Prices on the page are for November 2019.

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Useful Tips

If you are going to visit a monastery, palace or tomb of the kings in Escorial (Spain), listen to the following recommendations:

  1. The staff of the complex does not speak English well, so all the questions you have will have to ask in Spanish.
  2. Backpacks, bags and other overall things should be left in special lockers, lockers, working on the principle of self-service. They cost 1 €.
  3. You can’t take pictures
  4. Taking pictures indoors is not allowed – numerous guards are closely watching this.
  5. Visitors who come to the monastery on their own or rented vehicles can leave it in a paid parking lot located at the entrance.
  6. And a few words about the audio guide: the front desk employee chooses a 120-minute tour by default. However, no one clarifies that there is an extended option that lasts an hour longer.
  7. But that is not all! For renting an audio guide made in the form of a tablet with 1 earphone, the tomb workers require a passport or credit card as collateral, things that are extremely undesirable to give into the wrong hands. In general, it’s better not to mess around.
  8. For walking, choose very comfortable shoes – you will have to walk here a lot, besides, up and down.
  9. There are audio guides, but they are so uninformative and monotonous that it is better to do without them. If you want to not only look at one of the main attractions of Madrid, but also find out many interesting facts about the life of local kings, join an organized tourist excursion. This decision is supported by the fact that most of the exhibits are described in Spanish.
  10. Pantheon of Kings
  11. On the territory of the complex Escorial (Spain) there are several souvenir shops in which you can buy quite interesting gizmos.
  12. If you want a snack, go down to the restaurant located in the monastery. They say they serve delicious dinners. There are 3 options for the first and second courses to choose from, and water and wine are already included in the order price. As a last resort, take a picnic in a huge park, spread out outside the tomb.

Interesting historical facts about Escorial in Spain:

Posted by: Olga Sheyko

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