The Royal Palace started as one of Felipe II’s modest summer palaces but took on a life of its own as a succession of royals, inspired by the palace at Versailles in France, lavished money upon it. By the 18th century its 300-plus rooms had turned the palace into a sprawling, gracefully symmetrical complex filled with a cornucopia of ornamentation. Of all the rulers who spent time here, Carlos III and Isabel II left the greatest mark.
The obligatory guided tour (in Spanish) provides insight into the palace’s art and history. A stroll in the lush gardens takes you through a mix of local and exotic species, the product of seeds brought back by Spanish botanists and explorers from Spanish colonies all over the world. Within their shady perimeter, which stretches a few kilometres from the palace, you’ll find the Casa de Marinos, which contains the Museo de Falúas, a museum of royal pleasure boats. The 18th-century neoclassical Casa del Labrador is also worth a visit. Further away, towards Chinchón, is the Jardín del Príncipe, an extension of the massive gardens.