Image by Fotoeventis Shutterstock
Spain's lavish Palacio Real is a jewel box of a palace, although it's used only occasionally for royal ceremonies; the royal family moved to the modest Palacio de la Zarzuela years ago.
When the alcázar (Muslim fortress) burned down on Christmas Day 1734, Felipe V, the first of the Bourbon kings, decided to build a palace that would dwarf all its European counterparts. Felipe died before the palace was finished, which is perhaps why the Italianate baroque colossus has a mere 2800 rooms, just one-quarter of the original plan.
The official tour (self-guided tours are also possible and follow the same route) leads through 50 of the palace rooms, which hold a good selection of Goyas, 215 absurdly ornate clocks, and five Stradivarius violins still used for concerts and balls. The main stairway is a grand statement of imperial power, leading to the Halberdiers' rooms and to the sumptuous Salón del Trono (Throne Room), with its crimson-velvet wall coverings and Tiepolo ceiling. Shortly after, you reach the Salón de Gasparini, with its exquisite stucco ceiling and walls resplendent with embroidered silks.
Outside the main palace, visit the Farmacia Real at the southern end of the patio known as the Plaza de la Armería (Plaza de Armas). Westwards across the plaza is the Armería Real, a shiny collection of weapons and armour, mostly dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.