When the old royal palace—a dank, dark 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 Bourbon to eclipse the previous royal dynasty. (He was literally minting coins with the gold and silver flowing from the New World colonies, so money was no object.) The finished product is one of the largest and most lavishly decorated palaces in Europe. Construction began in 1738, and in 1764 Felipe’s younger son, Carlos III, finally moved into the 3,000-plus room complex (it was originally intended to be four times larger). Most rooms are reserved for state business, but a significant portion of the palace is open for tours. It remains the official residence of the royal family, although no monarch has lived here since Alfonso XIII fled Spain in 1931. The current king, Felipe VI, lives in the relatively modest Palacio de la Zarzuela outside Madrid.

There are often queues to enter the palace on the Plaza de la Armería in front of the cathedral. Skip them by buying your tickets in advance online; you can show your ticket on your phone. The best times to visit are early in the day or at Spanish lunchtime around 2pm, when the lines are shortest. Once inside the ticket office, you have choices. In addition to the main palace visit, which costs 10€, you can visit the Royal Armory (Real Armería), which is included in the cost of the ticket, and take a guided tour of the Royal Kitchen (Real Cocina), with a set start time, for an additional 5€. If you have time, it is worth doing all three. An audio guide costs another 3€.

When you walk into the sunlight of the vast white Plaza de la Armería, most of the people in your line will make a dash for the palace. Ignore them and cross the plaza to start at the Armory. You can truly get the measure of Spanish royalty here, as the suits of armor were individually tailored. Felipe I, the handsome Austrian who married Juana la Loca (daughter of Fernando and Isabel) in 1496, stood nearly 6 feet tall—a giant in his day. The armor worn by Carlos V in the equestrian painting by Titian that hangs in the Prado is here, but it is striking how tiny he was in reality. You can also see his parade helmet, with golden hair and beard, and a suit of armor made for his hunting dog. Other points of interest are the 10-foot muskets used in siege warfare, and a sword said to have belonged to El Cid.
Once you enter the palace proper, you’re not allowed to backtrack on the rigidly delineated tour through dozens of heavily decorated rooms. An imperial staircase, made from a single piece of marble, leads to the Hall of the Halbardiers where you’ll see the first of two wonderful ceiling frescos by the Venetian artist Gianbattista Tiepolo, the great Rococo painter of the 18th century. Invited to Spain by Charles III in 1761, he started work on them when he was already well into his 60s (he never returned to Venice). On the ceiling of the magnificent, mirrored Throne Room is his master work, The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy, an extraordinary piece of political flattery of the king who was paying the bills. It depicts Spain in allegorical form surveying the globe from the clouds, assisted by a panoply of Roman gods. The opulence of the rooms that follow is almost unnerving. You’ll see the drawing room where Carlos III had lunch, the over-the-top Gasparini Room where he dressed, and the bedroom where he died. Many of the rooms are lined with tapestries made at the Real Fabrica de Tapices, but most of the paintings—including pictures by Goya, Velazquez, and Caravaggio—are copies of originals which hang in the Prado. Other highlights include the Stradivarius room, with the world’s only string quintet by the great violin maker, and what remains of the royal silver and china collection. (Joseph Bonaparte sold off the best pieces to finance French military adventures.) Finally, you’ll reach the vast, chandeliered State Dining Hall, first used by Alfonso XII in November 1879 to celebrate his marriage.
Reopened in 2017 after restoration, the Royal Kitchen is a treat. These heavy stone cellars, rebuilt in the 1860s and 1870s on the instructions of Isabel II and Alfonso XII, show the downstairs end of the banqueting process. There are hundreds of copper pots and pans, baking trays, fish kettles, and terrine molds—enough to cater state dinners for 140 people. There are roasting spits, warming ovens, and an early telephone, no doubt for conveying culinary commands. The wine cellars have labelled barrels displaying the royal taste from Chateau d’Yquem to Tio Pepe, and menus detailing the wines served on various state occasions. A Real Cocina oven glove from the palace shop at the end of the tour makes a fitting souvenir.
Afterwards, clear your head with a wander in the Jardines de Sabatini. Construction of the gardens began in the 1930s on the site of the former royal stables. Formally laid out with a box hedge maze, ponds, and marble sculptures, they were opened to the public by King Juan Carlos I in 1978.
A changing-of-the-guard ceremony takes place every Wednesday and Saturday between 11am and 2pm (in summer 10am–noon) at Puerta del Príncipe. A more elaborate ceremony is held at noon on the first Wednesday of each month (except in summer) in the Plaza de la Armería and is free to the public.