Art and culture Iberia Plus

Madrid is Heritage

In addition to the Landscape of Light, which includes the entire axis of Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado in the capital’s centre, and with outstanding sites such as the Royal Astronomical Observatory, the Prado Museum and the Royal Botanical Garden, the Community has four other places included on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Alcalá de Henares –  the only UNESCO World Heritage City in the region –  the Monastery and Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the Cultural Landscape of Aranjuez and the Beech Grove of Montejo. And, best of all, all of them are less than an hour from the capital.

The Landscape of Light, also known as Paseo del Prado and el Buen Retiro or Landscape of Arts and Sciences, is a 200-hectare area located in the centre of Madrid, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 25 July 2021. Inside it, locals and visitors enjoy some of the most famous cultural, scientific and political institutions in all of Spain: from the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum and the Thyssen Museum, to the Congress of Deputies, the Madrid City Council and the Bank of Spain, and including the Royal Botanical Garden, the Casa de América and the Royal Spanish Academy. The list includes more than 90 sites of interest, whether for their architectural, historical or popular value, with monuments such as the Neptune or Cibeles fountains, the Parish of San Jerónimo and, obviously, the green lung of Madrid, the Retiro Park. The heritage gathered in this area is unparalleled worldwide and reflects the history of Madrid and Spain from the 16th century to the present through the buildings, works and testimonials gathered in these streets. UNESCO, in addition to valuing the incredible cultural treasure of the Landscape of Light, also recognised the importance of the area’s natural spaces, also reminding us that the Paseo del Prado was the first tree-lined promenade in Europe and the first in the world to be accessible to all social classes, including the city’s lowest.

In the east of the Community of Madrid is Alcalá de Henares, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Alcalá de Henares came to be thanks to the 1499 founding of the Complutense University (“Complutum” was the name given to this town by the Romans) by Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, becoming the first planned university city in the world to be run according to the precepts of what became known as Civitas Dei or City of God. UNESCO recognised not only the architectural heritage of this city, but also the enormous contribution that it has made to the culture of humanity. Alcalá de Henares was the birthplace of one of the most famous writers in the universal history of arts and humanities, Miguel de Cervantes, who was born on Calle Mayor in the city on 29 September 1547, and greats such as Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo or Calderón de la Barca have emerged from the classrooms of his university.

The Cultural Landscape of Aranjuez, a town located at the southern end of the Autonomous Region of Madrid, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. From the time King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella converted a summer estate into a palace in 1489, it was used as a spring residence by the Spanish monarchs up to the late 19th century, endowing the town with a special wealth until the surroundings of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez were recognised by UNESCO. The Palace, surrounded by a total of 111.23 hectares of gardens, was built by Felipe II, who commissioned Juan Bautista de Toledo to design an Italian-inspired spring rest complex. Subsequent monarchs such as Felipe V and Fernando VI continued to develop both the gardens and the Palace, which boasts unusual spaces as the Chinese Room, decorated with 200 paintings gifted by the Emperor of China to Queen Isabella II in 1846.

Also recognised by UNESCO, in this case since 1984, the Monastery and Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is located to the northwest of the community. Witness to important events in Spain’s history, this complex includes the palace, an active monastery, library, basilica, gardens, and Courtyard and Pantheon of the Kings, where the remains of Spain’s monarchs – both Bourbons and Habsburgs – rest. Again a work by Juan Bautista de Toledo commissioned by Felipe II, El Escorial has an area of 33,327 m2 and is located on the southern slope of Mount Abantos. It was designed in an impressive gridiron shape in memory of the torture inflicted on the martyr Saint Lawrence with this instrument. The construction of El Escorial reflects both the influences of Classical and Renaissance ideals and the enormous sobriety that characterised the reign of the first monarch in history who dominated territories on every continent.

The last of the places recognised as World Heritage in Madrid – this time in 2017 – for its incredible natural value is the unique Hayedo de Montejo beech tree forest in the Sierra del Rincon Biosphere Reserve. In addition to beeches – some of which are centuries old and more than 20 metres high – this 250-hectare forest located in the north of the Community of Madrid is home to 833 species of flora such as oaks, wild cherry trees, birch trees, holly trees and hazelnut trees, along with 194 species of vertebrates such as wild boars, badgers, otters and eagles. Access to the Hayedo of Montejo is limited: visitors can only enter accompanied by a guide and after obtaining an accreditation, all of which can be booked free of charge. Experts recommend visiting it in autumn, when the different shades of the trees make it a magical setting.

In any season, in addition to these great monumental jewels for lovers of architecture, history, art and its numerous natural attractions, Madrid offers options for all types of travellers. Its vibrant gastronomic scene has made it a premier destination for lovers of fine food and tradition. Ideal, too, for shopping, it has luxury boutiques in sophisticated enclaves such as the Milla de Oro or Canalejas Gallery, independent and local design, centuries-old shops and the best outlets.