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Felipe II ordered the construction of this stone behemoth in 1563, 2 years after he moved his capital to Madrid. This monument to the Habsburg line was completed in only 21 years. After the death of the original architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo, the structure was completed by Juan de Herrera, often considered the greatest architect of Renaissance Spain. It is an important landmark of Spanish Renaissance style, but the complex does have a rather institutional look, and its sheer size makes it intimidating. The buildings, which include a basilica, a monastery, the royal palace, and a library are arranged in a quadrangle. Consider the optional guided tour to get an overview and then explore on your own and admire the impressive royal art collection. Felipe II loved Titian and the artist’s “Last Supper” is a highlight. Spain is well-represented with El Greco’s “Martyrdom of St. Maurice” and Velázquez’s “La Tunica de José.”

Guides always linger in the basilica, which has 43 ornate altars beneath a dome that emulates St. Peter’s in Rome. Habsburg and Bourbon monarchs, including Carlos V, the father of Felipe II, lie in royal vaults beneath the basilica. Much of the mural work in the complex is impressive—from the frescoes of Habsburg battle victories in the royal palace to the vaulted ceiling in the library painted with allegorical scenes depicting the Liberal Arts and the Sciences. Amid this splendor, the monarch’s private quarters are modest, but a window provides a view of the main altar of the basilica.