Monday, 19 January 2015

Madrid Monday: Visiting the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales

The Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen are nothing new. You've been to the Royal Palace. You even ventured north to the Sorolla Museum once. You've seen Madrid's top sights. Or have you?

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales: Nothing that special, right?

Behind an unprepossessing facade in an unremarkable square between Sol and Opera lies the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, commonly translated as the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. You may have walked by without even noticing it. But don't judge a convent by its cover: inside is a very different story.

Originally the site of a medieval palace, the building was turned into a convent by Juana de Austria in 1559. The architect responsible for El Escorial also took on this renovation project, although the exterior result is a little less striking. Following the death of her husband, Juan Manuel of Portugal, young Juana was widowed at 19, and basically wanted somewhere nice to chill out for the rest of her days. The convent became home not only to her, but also to a stream of titled ladies in a similar situation, who turned up with all their worldly goods in tow. And what worldly goods: the art collection and treasury are jaw-dropping.

The upper cloister

These days, visits are by hourly guided tour (English or Spanish options available). Stepping into the quiet cloister, you can imagine nuns swishing along the corridors in their robes. It's pretty enough, but it's not a patch on the staircase. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but let's just say I don't often gasp in awe: given the plain facade, the decoration is utterly unexpected. Unfortunately you can't take photos on the tour, but if you want a spoiler just click through to the convent's website.

And the surprises continue upstairs, where the upper cloister is edged by chapels dedicated to different saints and events from the life of Christ. Even if you aren't at all religious, it's worth a visit to hear the history behind each one; the architects and sculptors behind the statues and richly-adorned alcoves. As well as factual information on paintings and sculptures, our guide helped us to get an idea of life in the convent. There are still a few cloistered nuns living there, but new recruits won't be admitted, meaning that within a few decades, the convent will no longer be in active use.

The visit takes almost an hour, with a tour of the tapestry rooms, portrait gallery and treasury in addition to the many chapels. The Flemish tapestries would rival any in a major museum: there are early seventeenth-century numbers based on paintings by Rubens. The art collection is hugely impressive too, with many paintings of royals (unsurprising, given Juana's connections) and others by Spanish, Italian and Flemish artists, including Titian and Breughel the elder.

For €6, a visit to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales an hour well-spent. Crowd-free and made even more interesting by an engaging guide, it's a completely different side to Madrid. You'll come away marvelling at the fact that so much treasure can hide behind a door so plain.

The details
El Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is on Plaza de las Descalzas.
Metro: Sol or Opera.
Open Tues-Sat 10am-2pm & 4.30-6.30pm, Sun & holidays 10am-3pm. If visiting at the weekend, go in advance to buy tickets for later in the day. Ticket office closes an hour before the convent.
Price: €6. Free to EU citizens on Wednesday & Thursday afternoons.

Photos by Fotomadrid and


  1. Sounds like a great day out. Sometimes the lesser known churches/historical buildings are a lot more surprising than those that appear in all of the guide books.

    1. I agree! It was well worth it, and a nice surprise.

  2. Wow! I've passed this building a hundred times and never even knew what it was! What a find! Definitely going to have to go for a visit... I always love uncovering Madrid's little secrets! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Lauren, glad you found it helpful! It's definitely worth a visit. Although it features in guide books it does get a bit lost among all the bigger sights.


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