Those Bourbons certainly knew how to build a palace! When the old royal palace—a dank, dark, and rather plain alcázar captured from the Moors in 1086—burned down in 1734, Felipe V ordered a new palace designed to rival his French cousins’ home at Versailles. Having wrested the throne from the Habsburg line in the War of Spanish Succession, it was important for this first king of the Bourbon line to eclipse the previous royal dynasty. He was literally minting money with the gold and silver flowing from the New World colonies, so price was no object and the finished product is one of the grandest, most heavily decorated palaces in Europe. Construction began in 1738, and Felipe’s younger son, Carlos III, finally moved into the 2,000-plus-room complex in 1764. Most rooms are reserved for state business, but a significant portion of the palace is open for tours. Although it remains the official residence of the royal family, no monarch has lived here since Alfonso XIII and his wife, Victoria Eugénie, fled Spain in 1931.
Unless you are a VIP, you’ll enter on the south side of the palace complex. When you walk into the blinding sunlight of the Plaza de la Armería, everyone else in your line will make a mad dash for the palace. Ignore them and cross the plaza to start at the Armory. You can truly take the measure of the Spanish nobility since the plate and chain armor were individually tailored. Felipe I, the Austrian who married Juana la Loca (daughter of Fernando and Isabel) in 1496, was a medium-slender man nearly 6 feet tall—a giant in his day. Many other royals were almost a foot shorter; generally speaking, the shorter the noble, the larger his metal codpiece by way of compensation.
Once you enter the palace, you’re not allowed to backtrack on the rigidly delineated tour. Move quickly through the first few ceremonial rooms until you enter the Throne Room (or Hall of Ambassadors), which marks the start of the Carlos III era. Tiepolo took political flattery to new heights in the vault fresco, The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the next sequence of rooms, where decor morphs from baroque into rococo, but you also get a sense how the royals lived in such splendor. You see the drawing room where Carlos III had lunch, the over-the-top Gasparini Room where he dressed, and the bedroom where he died. The Yellow Room, which had been Carlos III’s study, is rich with avian and floral tapestries woven at the Real Fabrica de Tapices Finally, you’ll reach the grand dining hall, first used by Alfonso XII in November 1879 to celebrate his marriage.
Some of the smaller, more intimate rooms on the tour are not always open, but they show Alfonso XIII as a more domestic king, screening movies with the family on Sunday afternoons. What remains of royal silver and china is also on display (Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte sold the best pieces to finance French military adventures). Unless you have a lot of time, skip the Farmacia Real’s numbing collection of apothecary jars in favor of a walk in the Jardines de Sabatini ★. Construction of the gardens began in the 1930s on the site of the former royal stables. The formal gardens, dotted with statues of Spanish kings, were opened to the public by King Juan Carlos I in 1978 shortly after he assumed the throne.
The changing-of-the-guard ceremony at noon on the first Wednesday of the month is free to the public.