The Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, scores high on statistics. It claims more rooms than any other European palace; a library with one of the biggest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores in the world; and an armoury with an unrivalled assortment of weapons dating back to the fifteenth century. If you’re around on the first Wednesday of the month (except July & Aug) between 11am and 2pm, look out for the changing of the guard outside the palace, a tradition that has recently been revived.
Guided tours in various languages are available, but a more relaxing option is to hire an audio-guide (€4) and make your own way through the luxurious royal apartments, the Royal Armoury Museum and the Royal Pharmacy. This will give you more time to appreciate the extraordinary opulence: acres of Flemish and Spanish tapestries, endless Rococo decoration, bejewelled clocks, and pompous portraits of the monarchs.
The palace also houses an impressive exhibition space, the Galería de Pinturas, which displays work by Velázquez, Caravaggio and Goya, among others, and also hosts temporary exhibitions.
The Habsburgs’ original palace burnt down on Christmas Day, 1734. Its replacement, the current building, was based on drawings made by Bernini for the Louvre. It was constructed in the mid-eighteenth century and was the principal royal residence from then until Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931; both Joseph Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington also lived here briefly. The present royal family inhabits a considerably more modest residence on the western outskirts of the city, using the Palacio Real on state occasions only.
The Salón del Trono (Throne Room) is the highlight for most visitors, containing the thrones installed for Juan Carlos and Sofía, the current monarchs, as well as the splendid ceiling by Tiepolo, a giant fresco representing the glory of Spain – an extraordinary achievement for an artist by then in his seventies. Look out, too, for the marvellous Sala de Porcelana (Porcelain Room) and the incredible oriental-style Salón de Gasparini.
The outbuildings and annexes
The palace outbuildings and annexes include the recently refurbished Armería Real, a huge room full of guns, swords and armour, with such curiosities as the suit of armour worn by Carlos V in his equestrian portrait by Titian in the Prado. Especially fascinating are the complete sets of armour, with all the original spare parts and gadgets for making adjustments. There is also an eighteenth-century Farmacia, a curious mixture of alchemist’s den and laboratory, whose walls are lined with jars labelled for various remedies. The Biblioteca Real (Royal Library) can now only be visited by prior arrangement for research purposes.
Immediately north of the palace, the Jardines de Sabatini provide a shady retreat and venue for summer concerts, while to the rear the larger, and far more beautiful, Campo del Moro (access only from the far west side, off the Paseo de la Virgen del Puerto) is an English-style garden with shady paths, monumental fountains and a splendid view of the western facade of the palace.