No longer occupied by royalty, but still used for state occasions, Madrid's Royal Palace stands on a ridge above the Manzanares River and Campo del Moro park. It was begun in 1738 on the site of the Madrid Alcázar, which burned to the ground in 1734. Some of its 2,000 rooms -- which that "enlightened despot" Charles III called home -- are open to the public; others are still used for state business. The palace was last used as a royal residence in 1931, before King Alfonso XIII and his wife, Victoria Eugénie, fled Spain.
Highlights of a visit include the Reception Room, the State Apartments, the Armory, and the Royal Pharmacy. To get an English-speaking guide, say "inglés" to the person who takes your ticket.
The Reception Room and State Apartments should get priority here if you're rushed. They include a rococo room with a diamond clock; a porcelain salon; the Royal Chapel; the Banquet Room, where receptions for heads of state are still held; and the Throne Room. The empty thrones of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía are among the highlights of the tour.
The rooms are literally stuffed with art treasures and antiques -- salon after salon of monumental grandeur, with no apologies for the damask, mosaics, stucco, Tiepolo ceilings, gilt and bronze, chandeliers, and paintings.
If your visit falls on the first Wednesday of the month, look for the changing of the guard ceremony, which occurs at noon and is free to the public.
In the Armory, you'll see the finest collection of weaponry in Spain. Many of the items -- powder flasks, shields, lances, helmets, and saddles -- are from the collection of Carlos V (Charles of Spain). From here, the comprehensive tour takes you into the Pharmacy.
Right in front of the Palacio Real is the Plaza de Oriente, a semicircular area of gardens and regal statues centered on an imposing re-creation of Felipe IV on horseback. Brainchild of Joseph Bonaparte and finished in the reign of Isabel II, it has an elegant European aura.